Did the Ancient Jews Practice Crucifixion?

Last night during one of our class discussions on the historical Jesus, the question came up over crucifixion; someone had made the claim that only the Romans had practiced it.  But is that really the case?  Were the Romans really the only people in antiquity to use crucifixion as a form of punishment?  Well, actually, no.

First, crucifixion was not necessarily standardized.  The Greek word used in the New Testament, for example, to explain Jesus’ death is σταυρός (and cognates, e.g., Mark 16.6; ἐσταυρωμένον) which literally meant a ‘stake’, with which to impale someone.  This process could be done in a variety of ways and according to written tradition, some Roman rulers did experiment with all sorts of manners of crucifying their enemies.  It is important though that the two basic elements generally remain the same: the plank(s) or beam(s) of wood and something with which to impale the flesh (nails, hooks, etc…).  It was certainly a gruesome event.

Yet despite the overwhelmingly negative attitude that the Jewish people had towards crucifixion, it seems to have been something that was practiced by Jews at various times in the history of Judea.  Most notably were the crucifixions under the King of Judea, Alexander Jannaeus, in the1st Century BCE.  Following his victories against opponents (specifically Demetrius) to his rule, he crucified 800 of his enemies.  This practice is memorialized in Josephus and also in the Dead Sea Scrolls (it has also been argued that the crucifixion under Jannaeus of his enemies was looked at favorably by those who wrote the Pesher Nahum–Specifically Y. Yadin, ‘Pesher Nahum (4Q pNahum) Reconsidered’, Israel Exploration Journal , Vol. 21, No. 1 [1971], pp. 1-12).

There was also a Rabbinic punishment of crucifying bodies of those stoned to death for committing blasphemy (i.e., Sanhedrin 6.4n-q); the law specifies that planks of wood be used to hang up the bodies, apparently like slabs of meat–so presumably the body would be impaled to the plank.

Of course, hanging for punishment was not new.  In the Hebrew Bible, those guilty of a crime could be hung from a ‘tree’ (In the LXX, ‘tree’ is from ξύλον; specifically, ‘plank/beam of wood’–also found in Acts 5.30) and was considered acceptable to god, so long as the body was taken down that same day (this is the basis of the law found in the Talmud).  Normally, though, the process would not involve a living person (until Alexander Jannaeus), but in the Hebrew Bible (cf. 2 Sam 18), Absalom is found hanging by a tree alive, and is then pierced to death by three spears through the heart (which would quite literally be considered a crucifixion–fastened to a tree by his hair and he was impaled by spears) before he is beset upon by soldiers who further inflict more damage.

So it seems clear to me that the Jews of the period were not only familiar with the process of crucifixion before the Romans (the Persians also practiced crucifixion long before the Romans), but even practiced it as a form of punishment from time to time.  See further D.J Halperin, ‘Crucifixion, the Nahum Pesher and the Rabbinic Penalty of Crucifixion,’ The Journal of Jewish Studies 32 (1981), 32-46, esp. 44; and J.A. Fitzmyer, ‘Crucifixion in Ancient Palestine, Qumran Literature, and the New Testament’, Catholic Bible Quarterly 40 (1978), 493-513

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Tackling a Storm God: A Deist’s Impression of Yahweh and the Control over Weather

1. The Crisis

On May 20th, an F5 tornado wrecked havoc in the community of Moore, Oklahoma. Scores of people died, including children; the tornado spared little. Through the devastation, a community mourned together and united, an inspiring story that has brought tales of heroism and perseverance in the face of such a catastrophic event. But like a Classical Greek play, a divine force takes a strong role as the great and powerful rod of Justice and Vengeance. This time, however, the narrative is just too annoying for me to stay out of it.

There are three sides of this story represented in the media, by talking heads and pundits, that make up this little ancient tragedy redivivus: (1) On the main stage is Yahweh, the omnipotent, destroyer of the wicked and/or savior to the fallen, but there are also (2) the fundamentalist, ultra-conservative Christian Army and (3) the disbelieving, anti-Religion, secularists who are both trying to spin this disaster to fit a preconceived notion about how the universe works and which forces govern the weather. It is a story that has played out in nearly every tragedy. I’m not saying who I think is right or wrong, but I do think that there is a serious mental lapse happening in both groups. As a agnostic deist, I have one foot in heaven and one foot in hell, and I’m quite content here; but it does give me, I believe, an interesting perspective on the situation and, frankly, I’m just too annoyed by all the polemics and rhetoric to not get involved.

2. The Blame Game

During the 2nd Century CE, Marcus Aurelius launched an assault on the Quadi, a Germanic tribe that had successfully routed a Roman Legion and laid siege to a town before being driven back by Aurelius’ army. During this assault, the Quadi had gained the upper hand. At one point, his army starving, dehydrated, and near defeat–surrounded on all sides by a vicious enemy intent on killing them, Marcus Aurelius humbly prayed to the gods for help. Within moments, a sudden storm brewed on the horizon and quickly started to drench the tired, thirsty Romans. Thunder crackled above them and giant lightning bolts seemed to be hurtling down into the ranks of the Quadi–some were struck, others scattered; the Romans, taking this as a sign, pressed forward and won the day.

A relief from the Column of Marcus Aurelius is a contemporary witness to the event; Notice a god hovering over the Roman legion, water raining down from his arms and body, with soldiers lifting up their shields so they might be filled with water.

This may sound like a fantasy story. In fact, the event probably did happen. Rainstorms, thunder and lightning, are all common natural phenomena and on hot days these storms can build up and strike without warning. Testaments to the event are highlighted by minted coins immediately following the victory honoring the gods and a relief on the column of Marcus Aurelius. Cassius Dio also tells us of the event, though his version of the tale is lost–possibly because of the weathering of time or because it was purposefully removed by Christians who wanted to have a monopoly on a god who grants miracles.

The reason I would consider that second possibility is because the only version of the story from Dio that we have available to us is one by an 11th century Christian monk named Xiphilinus (who, clearly, had copies of Dio’s tale). He accuses Dio of lying and suggests that, in reality, it was a Christian who prayed to Yahweh who then granted his wish and destroyed the enemy; in these fantasy stories, the kingly figure (in this case Marcus Aurelius) then is said–per Xiphilinus–to have bowed down and thanked Yahweh for his life-giving miracle. [If this sounds familiar, it is because there is a similar story (sans weather, but still miraculous) in Josephus concerning Alexander the Great.]

Do you see what he did there? He took one miracle story for the Roman pagans and made it all about Christianity. You may (aptly) be asking what this has to do with Oklahoma. Everything, unfortunately. As with the rain storm that saved Aurelius’ legion, due to the exceptional nature of the event, everyone feels the urge to look for deeper meaning. Though unlike Jupiter, who flies over the thirsty soldiers giving them a storm of life-giving rain, certain Christian groups have suggested that Yahweh has instead reverted back to his Old Testament ways, destroying towns and killing people because he is angry and vengeful. This is no idle position; for these Christians, they have Biblical support for this claim.

God floods the earth by opening the gates of heaven. Not so different than sending tornadoes towards populated towns.

In Genesis 19.24, God rains fire down from the heavens. And in Exodus 9.23, Moses calls upon Yahweh to send forth a storm upon the land–which Yahweh does, causing it to thunder and lightning, rain and hail. Again in 1 Samuel 12.18, Samuel asks God to send a storm and once more he does this. Why all the storming? Because Yahweh is, after all, a storm god. No more clearly is this a thing than in 1 Kings 8, where Elijah has a ‘God duel’ with the prophets of Baal (another storm god). As it goes, Yahweh wins by ending a drought that has strangled the land by sending a storm. Yahweh controls the weather; the Bible is very clear on this. The sky is his domain, so much so that Moses has to climb a mountain to be with him (something akin to other storm god motifs–like Zeus on Mt. Olympus [also recent evidence suggests people gave offerings to Zeus at Mount Lykaion]). Indeed, Jesus’ command over the storm at the sea of Galilee and his ability to perform water miracles is a testament in the author’s portrayals to their recognition of Yahweh as a god of the storms and weather.

These storms are often associated with devastation–not salvation. So is it any wonder why highly religious people, like Pat Robertson, put the blame of the destruction of the storm on the victims for not praying as often as they should? Is anyone really surprised that Westboro Baptist Church blames a gay man for the wrath of god? They are merely following with the trope of the storm god so eerily laid out in the Bible. After all, something goes against god and god sends a lightning bolt at you (or a storm, or a drought–his call). Let me be clear, as these individuals are resting their understanding of the temperament and morality of god on the Bible, they aren’t wrong in their interpretation.

But atheists and other secularists in their own way have abused this to fit their agendas as well. One atheist group, rather than raising the money to support all the victims, thought it proper to raise several thousand dollars only for a single victim–a poor woman who had the misfortune of being mistaken for a Christian during an embarrassing interview with Wolf Blitzer–because she came out publicly as an atheist.

The interesting bit is that the Christian fundamentalists and the atheists are all asking the same thing: If god is all powerful, then why did this happen? It is a valuable question that deserves some consideration.

3. The Logical Problems of a Omnipotent God and Weather Catastrophes

This is where the whole logic of mainstream Christianity gets a little choppy. Following the tornado, many Christians called for prayer, but also the condemnation of Pat Robertson and others who are so quick to put the power of the storm in god’s hands. On the face of it, I see no problems with prayer and I certainly see no problem criticizing fundamentalists who put the blame for tragedy on innocent people. But let’s consider this for a moment; a lot of people–even Christians–are quick to criticize Pat Robert and Fred Phelps, Jr. because of their interpretations of the events but how many have considered the irony of their own religious ideals in light of the incident?

In one moment there is praying for the families of the victims (which, again, I get and appreciate the implications of it)–presumably to Yahweh, right?–and in the next there is criticism of the people placing the blame on the community for inciting god’s wrath. Do you, humble reader, see the problem?

I do not mind laying it all out: If god can have control over the weather–I’m presuming he can based upon the Biblical account of god–what good is praying to him *after* the events of the storm? Additionally, if he can’t control the weather, then what good is saying a prayer? The damage is already done and the souls of those departed are already due to be judged upon their own merits. But there is a far more twisted issue here; the issue that if god can control the weather–why allow tornadoes in the first place? Why not just create a planet where tornadoes aren’t a thing? Surely he could do that. If I can imagine it, surely the all-mighty can too.

This is where I just can’t fathom this sort of belief; and while I appreciate the tone of articles like this (John Byron), I also find fault with the logic of it. It is a challenge–especially when we’re talking about the death of children. The problem is that this realization–that an all-powerful god that controls the weather allowed this to occur (or had a hand in it) is downright disconcerting for people–it makes them uncomfortable because no god that they’d believe in would be so cruel or apathetic, and so they vehemently disagree to the point where it actually contradicts their own faith-arguments. And that is a good thing; I’m glad that most Christians are morally astute enough to recognize the Bible’s wrongness about weather patterns and natural disasters. But that does raise some problems for the believer, doesn’t it? It did for me.

362k9n

“…and also I hate you.”

Certainly commentators have anticipated this; FOX News posted this article up, for example, claiming that the ‘practicality’ of faith and prayer rests in other peoples’ recognition of that faith, ergo they give generously (which, by the way, is absurd). In the Washington Post, a Christian author wrote a piece where he asks ‘Where was God?’ and his answer, though hollow, goes:

Human beings may not know all the answers of “why” God allows natural disasters or other evils in the universe. Although we personally would prefer that such disasters never occurred in the universe, we recognize intellectually that angry feelings towards tornadoes does not logically disprove God’s existence.

And he is certainly right in one respect–tornadoes do not disprove a god. In fact, for the strong believer tornadoes and destructive weather only further strengthen their faith in a deity like Yahweh the storm god of the Hebrew Bible. But Dave Sterrett, the author of this article, is wrong if he thinks that such catastrophe does not lay the foundations of doubt over an all-loving god. He writes, “The atheist is often assuming that if God is all good, then He would prefer to create a world without evil than to create a world in which evil exists.” But Sterrett doesn’t know his opponent well if this is what he thinks an atheist or secularist might argue.

Instead, the atheist is correct that an all-loving god would not intentionally send a storm to kill people, destroy their lives, ruin their homes, and kill their children. There is no love in such an act–and Sterrett must know this or he would not have resorted to a ‘mystery of god’ position (as in, ‘we can’t know why god does these things,…’) which is as absurd as the claim made by FOX that it is people’s faith–not their morality–that they give aid and comfort to the victims.

4. The Take-Away

In my humble opinion, the question shouldn’t be ‘why didn’t god stop the tornado?’ or ‘why did god allow this tornado to happen?’. The greater question–and one that is so often ignored–is, ‘what does this tragedy tell us about one another?’ What can we learn about how we deal with tragedy that might save us grief and sorrow in the future?

Through the clouds of wrath and flame I see a light–no, not god per se. I have no intentions of anthropomorphizing god. I do not indulge myself–as the artists of Aurelius’ column and the Christian monk Xiphilinus have done–in the process of finding god in the throes of destruction, and nor do I seek out god in the joy of wondrous actions. For me, as a deist, I’m content with naturalistic explanations for the goings-on of the world. No, I do not see god lifting crates of water. I don’t see god directing a tornado towards a school full of children either. Instead I see the light of humanity. I am not tied to certain dogmatic truths about a figure such as god–religiously or atheistically.

While some people are content with blaming god or blaming certain types of people they don’t like (I’d love to blame this on the absolute travesty that is the way education in the arts is being thrown away in this country–but I shall refrain). Storm systems exist on this planet like any other planet. We live in a universe that is not primarily geared towards supporting life; our existence might be nothing more than a byproduct of its main goal (and oddly enough, that may be why the universe is more suited towards the development of black holes).

Black holes snack on planets with masses much larger than Jupiter.

At the end of the day, what we find is that god is not the one keeping the lights on or the roof secure over our heads–at least, not directly. Seldom can Catholics and humanists agree on anything, yet when it comes to giving aid both groups have stepped up and provided help to those whose lives are devastated as a result of the weather. I do not attribute this to god, though perhaps some of you will. Instead I see the value in working together towards a common goal, putting aside pettiness and differences to help those who need it–to help other people for the sake of being good. Is that not a worthy goal? Is that not morally right? Can we stop the divisive language and work on rebuilding because it is the right thing to do?

Related:

See this (Joel Watts).

Hector Avalos: ‘The New Holocaust Denialists: The Need for a Metacriticism of Biblical Scholarship’

How did I miss this?  Hector Avalos’ recent publication over at Bible and Interpretation:

There is a new movement of holocaust denialists, and the prime architects of this movement are biblical scholars. I am speaking not of the Jewish Holocaust under the Nazi regime, but of the Canaanite holocaust reported in biblical texts.

These Canaanite holocaust denialists argue that the Canaanite holocaust did not really happen. And if it did happen, then it was justified and not analogous to the Nazi holocaust.

via The Bible and Interpretation – The New Holocaust Denialists: The Need for a Metacriticism of Biblical Scholarship.

Go give it a read and check the comments (particularly Thomas L. Thompson’s comment).

Review of the Dead Sea Scrolls Exhibit at the Discovery Center

 Where: Discovery Center – New York

 When: January 8, 2012

 Overall Impression of the Exhibit:

Brief Introduction to the Exhibit:

Today I traveled to New York to see the much-acclaimed Dead Sea Scrolls exhibit at the Discovery Center (just off Times Square).  This is one of those exhibits I’ve been looking forward to seeing since I first found out about it when I went to the Discovery Center months ago to see the Pompeii exhibit.  Since they do not allow pictures to be taken of the exhibit, I brought along my Moleskine notepad and jotted down interesting or curious thoughts as I went along.

I arrived in NYC around 10:30 AM and had some time to kill, so I spent a good portion of it just walking around Times Square and taking in the city.  I was pleased to see that the exhibit was well-advertised; one would be blind or oblivious to walk around the area and not see signs for it.  Also, if you get to NYC often (or even if you go once in a while) be sure to stop in and eat at Carmines.  Superb food and service all around.

Banner leading into the exhibit.

Anyway, at around 12:50 PM I made my way to 44th St. and with some luck I managed to get into the exhibit without any problems, which was nice.  Earlier reviewers have complained about the long lines to get into the exhibit, the wait times between showings, and the speed at which one is rushed through the exhibit.  My experience, however, was anything but this; I was able to enter the exhibit quickly and with a small group and, while they did push us through the beginning of the exhibit so the group behind us could have room, I never felt as though I was being shoved along quickly.  In fact I went at my own pace.  One might chalk this up to the day and time I was there; most of the negative reviews seem to be around the holiday season when Times Square is no-doubt packed.

The group of us were corralled into a spacious room with huge projector screens.  The opening of the exhibit is a short burst of fun that plays with your senses.  You’re bombarded (in a good way) by both visual and audio experiences which filled me with excitement.  But even as I was anticipating an excellent exhibit, the hostess who spoke through this opening introduction made some curious, if not questionable, statements about the ancient past.

The First Part of the Exhibit and the Claims of a ‘Biblical Israel’:

When it comes to ancient history, ‘fact’ is a term used fast and loose.  Scholars tend to be very cautious when making claims or asserting anything.  There are reasons for this.  Ever make an absolute claim to someone (e.g., ‘The world is only 6,000 years old!’) only to find out later you were wrong?   Well in order to avoid icky embarrassment (among other more important reasons, like remaining open to the possibility of being wrong when all the facts aren’t in yet), scholars will try to avoid making absolute claims about things, whether it be about the interpretation of a particular passage or verse or a translation, etc….  Thus if the scholar is shown to be wrong (usually through the process of peer review or through further research), the scholar maintains credibility and their hypotheses can be easily changed or adjusted to fit the new data (‘beliefs’ are much harder to change; despite all the evidence people still believe the world is 6,000 years old).

First part of the exhibit. Photo from: http://www.discoverytsx.com/exhibitions/dead-sea-scrolls

Unfortunately, this exhibit does not do a very good job at playing the ‘cautious’ game.  Right away the hostess made the claim that the Bible was written 3,000 years ago (c. 1000 BCE).  But while some scholars do in fact believe this to be the case, the question of when certain texts of the Hebrew Bible were written is still hotly debated.  Those who often argue for a 1000 BCE composition of the Pentateuch (the first five books of the Hebrew Bible), for example, are often arguing from a very conservative (if not politically- and/or a religiously-charged) position.  This isn’t always the case, but often it is.  The issues are not as black and white as ‘the Hebrew Bible was composed around 1000 BCE’; there are matters of nuance that cannot simply be pushed aside to favor a conservative dating.

Initially I just assumed that the hostess was generalizing for the lay audience (and it was likely she was a layperson herself) and I wasn’t about to stand up and challenge her (I’m trying to enjoy the exhibit like everyone else).  When she completed her introduction and the fancy projections were through, the group of us were sent through the doors into the first part of the exhibit.  As I walked along and read the notes next to the artifacts, I couldn’t help but feel a little discouraged.

Once more the wool was draped over the eyes of the layperson when direct claims were made about certain stelae–like the Tel Dan and Merneptah stelae–which favored not only an early conservative dating of the Hebrew Bible but also a united monarchy under David and Solomon.  One plaque read of the Merneptah Stele:

[The Merneptah Stele] refers to “Israel” at this time as a people living somewhere in Canaan. 

This is quite the claim.  While yes, there are scholars out there who might argue the stele talks about a ‘people’, others are not so sure and, once more, this issue is contended.   And then there is the matter of what the stele says about Israel; it doesn’t mention anywhere that they were living in Canaan but that they were desolated there (‘their seed is laid waste’).  And even that translation (and its meaning) is contested.

Then there was the sign that that read ‘Birth of a Nation’ and its contents were mainly about another hotly debated subject: the united monarchy.  I’m not making any specific claims about the stele here or about the existence of a ‘Biblical Israel’, but then again neither should the exhibit.  One has to wonder why a whole section of the exhibit which is dedicated to the Dead Sea Scrolls spends so much time on what many of my colleagues would call ‘Biblical History’ or ‘Biblical Archaeology’.  If anything, ‘nation’ should be the last word used to describe any ancient socio-cultural entity since ‘nation’ is a modern designation for a specific type of state and using it on the ancient ‘Israelites’ is nothing but an anachronistic political move rather than anything proper for an exhibit about the past.

But this part of the exhibit did have some redeeming features.  For one thing they discuss idols and household figurines showing the more diverse cultural dynamic of the Hill Country of Palestine early on in its history.  I am familiar with these votive statues, known as ‘Asherah trees/poles’, and the henotheistic/polytheistic beliefs of the region early on in its history.  But the voice-actor who explained the Asherah votives refrained from calling them what they were, instead refering to them as if they were simple luck charms rather than the cultic objects of worship that they probably were.  That they were there on display at all was good to see.

Actually, despite all the politically-motivated rhetoric, all the pieces on display were fantastic and it is clear they were well taken care of by the IAA.  I have to say that while some perhaps more religious laypeople might enjoy this part of the exhibit, those more critical of the Biblical narratives will find it mind-numbingly annoying.  I was mortified by the rhetoric, but I still enjoyed having a close look at objects I’ve wanted to see in person for some time.

The Main Event: The Dead Sea Scrolls…

Down the stairs from the first half of the exhibit was the main display, the second half I had been waiting for: the Dead Sea Scrolls.  I was looking forward to seeing not just the scrolls (because manuscripts are something I’d like to work with someday as a professional) but loads (oodles and oodles, I believe, is the technical phrasing) of artifacts from the digs at Qumran and surrounding areas.

Down the stairs I went and in the center of the room was a circular display table with the scrolls illuminated around it.  All in all there were ten scrolls on display featuring:

  1. Paleo-Leviticus
  2. Aramaic Levi
  3. Isaiah Commentary
  4. Book of War
  5. Minor Prophets (in Greek)
  6. Apocryphal Lamentations
  7. Psalms
  8. Community Rule
  9. Deuteronomy ‘Song of Moses’
  10. Pseudo-Ezekial

I have to say I found it fascinating.  Being up close to a scroll like that which is also extremely old is really an awesome experience.  I wasn’t just looking at it on a page of a book but I was actively able to review it, see the old etched lines the scribes used to maintain straight writing across the scroll (they ‘hang’ from the lines), follow along with the Greek first hand.  One particular item I found worthy of note is that on the scroll written in Greek (Minor Prophets) every once in a while you come across the paleo-Hebrew word ‘god’.  This suggests, at least to me, that the scribes were likely multilingual.  But while I really enjoyed the scrolls, there were some other issues I found (or thought were missing completely) throughout the second half of the exhibit that I think should be raised.

The round display area featuring the scrolls. Photo: http://www.discoverytsx.com/

First, I was disappointed in the limited amount of artifacts featured from Qumran.  Aside from a few jars (and obviously the scrolls) nothing of any significance that I can remember was on hand for the exhibit.  And I really spent some time looking.  Instead, pieces from Jerusalem, Masada, and other digs were prominent surrounding the Dead Sea Scrolls which was upsetting.  I thought I had bought tickets to see the Dead Sea Scrolls and to find out more about the Qumran area. Instead I felt I had been swindled into paying for and listening to a lecture about ‘ancient Israel’ given by William Dever.   It isn’t even that I wouldn’t want to listen to Dever speak (I would, if only because I’ve read him and hear so much about him from colleagues), but at least tell me that beforehand so I know for what I’m paying.

Frankly I wasn’t there to look at Byzantine crosses and menorahs (though I did find them all very interesting regardless) and I certainly didn’t care for the random section of stone from the Western Wall (its a fun tradition, but how does it even begin to fit in with the theme of the Dead Sea?).  I don’t care if the event was sponsored by Hershel Shanks (I don’t think it was, though some of his books were featured at the gift shop)–and believe me when I say some of it felt as though I had walked into a copy of BAR–I wanted to see what I came there to see.  In the end I saw pieces I could just as easily see at UPenn (and for a whole hellova lot less than I paid for my ticket at the Discovery Center).

I was also dismayed to find that they consider the Dead Sea Scrolls to be a part of a sectarian effort (that is to say, that the scrolls were penned by a single sect).  While they never straight out claimed the Essenes wrote the scrolls (as Geza Vermes does, and while he is estimable and learned I respectfully disagree with this conclusion),  the constant reference to a ‘sectarian group’ was, I felt, misleading.  There are too many troubling issues to contend with when one claims all the scrolls came from a singular source.  We can’t know that.  Many scholars feel this is the likely case (I don’t), but I don’t know of many who are so quick to claim with any certainty that it is a fact.  Yet, once again, this exhibit does portray this hypothesis as a fact.  It is an unfortunate and uncritical problem repeated throughout the exhibit.

A Final Subject of Note: Talpiot Ossuaries at the Dead Sea Scroll Exhibit?

Talpiot Ossuaries. Yep, these guys. They were there.

Hell yes they were there.  And why?  What reason could they possibly have been there?  I can’t say.  What I can say is I was in shock when I saw them.  I probably grumbled a few select words that were not very professional.  But needless to say the ossuaries from the Talpiot tomb, including the ‘James ossuary’ currently on trial with a possible (probable) forged inscription, were there.

The inscription issue is a tedious subject to get into on a review post of an exhibit, so I won’t.  But others have written on it and I can at least direct the reader to them:

Mark Goodacre (Duke University) has a great series of posts on this:

Joe Zias (Formerly of the IAA; currently of the Science and Archaeology Group at the Hebrew University):

On the Mariamne inscription:

Thankfully, the exhibit doesn’t claim anything as extravagant or as specious as Simcha Jacobovici.  From the notes next to the ossuaries in the handout:

These six ossuaries, found in a tomb in Jerusalem, have inscriptions
that included the names “Jesus,” “Mary,” “Joseph.” While it might be
tempting to claim this tomb belonged to Jesus and his family, these
names are in fact extremely common in the Second temple period.
The New Testament reports that Jesus’ body was placed in the tomb
of a prominent follower named Joseph of Arimathea. Since the early
fourth century Christians have venerated the site of Jesus’ burial at
the Church of the Holy Sepulcher in Jerusalem’s old City.

But even this may be more misleading than it needs to; of course this is the Discovery Center and Discovery did produce, with James Cameron, Simcha Jacobovici’s docudrama ‘The Jesus Family Tomb’ from years ago, and to which this ‘discovery’ (i.e. the ossuaries)  is attached.

Conclusions and Rating

I’ve been very critical of this exhibit, but don’t take my criticisms for displeasure on my part.  I had a great time.  It was a fun experience and I’d recommend it to anyone, so long as they take my criticisms to heart (in the sense that they remain skeptical of the assertions made by the exhibit and also fact-check everything they read, including this blog!).  There is nothing quite like exploring the ancient world through archaeology and, aside from going out on a dig yourself, going to these sorts of exhibits make for a fun outing.

Because I enjoyed the people and the pieces, I rated it favorably.  I suspect that others may rate it differently depending on the direction their ideologies sway, but overall I tend to think my review has been more positive (if not more critical) than most.  Some things I found discouraging which is why I took away from points.  Still, if you get the chance, go check out the exhibit and, if you think I’ve erred somewhere or if you think I’m being unfair, I’d love to hear from you.

Edit: Jim West provided this video of Dr. Lawrence Schiffman on the exhibit:

The Transfiguration and the Inclusion of Moses

Ascension was nothing new in antiquity.  Richard Carrier jokingly noted that had there been television in antiquity, stories about people who ascend to heaven (or some variant of this) would have been more popular than crime dramas are today.  And, ironically, the New Testament doesn’t deny this.

After six days Jesus took with him Peter, James and John the brother of James, and led them up a high mountain by themselves.  There he was transfigured before them. His face shone like the sun, and his clothes became as white as the light. Just then there appeared before them Moses and Elijah, talking with Jesus.  Peter said to Jesus, “Lord, it is good for us to be here. If you wish, I will put up three shelters—one for you, one for Moses and one for Elijah.” While he was still speaking, a bright cloud covered them, and a voice from the cloud said, “This is my Son, whom I love; with him I am well pleased. Listen to him!” When the disciples heard this, they fell facedown to the ground, terrified.  But Jesus came and touched them. “Get up,” he said. “Don’t be afraid.”  When they looked up, they saw no one except Jesus.

Matthew 17.1-8, posted above, is interesting for several reasons.  Those familiar with the Hebrew Bible will take note that Elijah had ascended to heaven in a whirlwind previously in 2 Kings 2.  But many probably don’t know about the tradition of the ascension of Moses.  This is probably due to the fact that in the Hebrew Bible, Moses does not ascend, but goes off to die alone (yet somehow there are those who believe he wrote the Torah–including the part about his death).  But there had been a tradition among some Jewish circles in antiquity, including those in the first century, who believed that Moses had ascended to heaven on a cloud.  Josephus recounts this tradition:

Now as soon as they came to the mountain called Abarim, he dismissed the senate; and as he was going to embrace Eleazar and Joshua, and was still discoursing with them, a cloud stood over him suddenly, and he disappeared in a certain valley, although he wrote in the holy books that he diedwhich was done out of fear, lest they should venture to say that, because of his extraordinary virtue, he went to God (Josephus, Antiquities 4.325-26).

And this is also recounted in the Talmud (Yoma 4a) and also in midrashic literature (Pesikta Rabbati 20:4).  And the apocryphal book–of which is given a terminus a quo of the first century CE–‘The Testament of Moses’ might have also contained an ascension narrative which is now lost from the sixth century Latin narrative.  So it is especially interesting that both Elijah (ascended to heaven) and Moses (ascended to heaven) appear in front of Jesus in the Gospel narratives, seemingly from heaven.  And then just as easily as they appear, they also vanish (presumably they ascended again, a foreshadowing event for what is to come at the end of the book): ‘When they looked up, they saw no one except Jesus.’.

The author of Luke certainly knew of the narrative and even seems to have interpreted this in the same way, as he has a cloud come down and envelope Elijah and Moses and then take them away (or, rather, they vanish; Lk 9.34).  The cloud is indicative of the legend of the ascension of Moses (and also of Enoch, as in 1 Enoch 39.3 when he is taken up on a cloud into the heaven; cf. Rev. 11.12) and also is for Jesus in Acts 1.9, when he ascends to heaven on a cloud, indicating that Luke might have used the ascension narrative of Moses (most likely taken from Josephus, since it appears likely that the author of Luke had copies of Josephus’ works) as a basis for his ascension narrative of Jesus.  But this is not the last we see of Moses and Elijah in Luke.  One has to wonder if Moses and Elijah are the two men in dazzling apparel who meet the women at the tomb in Lk 24.4.  It would make sense; after all, they were ascended at Jesus’ transfiguration as a foreshadowing and then return again to show that Jesus has done what they have done.

What makes this all so fascinating to me is that the ascension of Moses is not canonical, that is to say, it is not a part of the Hebrew Bible or the Old Testament.  This ascension narrative is completely apocryphal according to modern religious doctrine.  But this just goes to show that the sectarianism in antiquity had no such doctrine of canonization.  Their understanding of scripture appears to be different than that of ours today and that inspiration is not defined by an ecumenical council but through the theological message of the text.  That this sort of noncanonical tradition can be found in the Gospels is intriguing.  One has to wonder what the implications for this are for the rest of the canon and what that might mean for inerrantists.

Question of the Day: Did the Author(s) of Job Believe in God?

I think this question is important, as the author(s) of Job seem to have a multifaceted approach to theology–one of necessity but also of indifference towards it.   Is it just so easy to lump the author(s) of Job in with the authors of Genesis?  Can we say, wholly, that the authors of the books which make up the Bible had the same strong belief in God?  I don’t think it’s that easy.  So this is my question to my fellow Bibliobloggers: Did the author(s) of Job believe in a God?  If you believe so, in what way do you think they viewed God? What sort of believer would we say the author(s) of Job is (are)?  If not, what drove them to write the narrative?

Defining Mythicism: The Signs Gospel and the Figure of Jesus

James McGrath highlights a post by the blog Synoptic Solutions on the Signs Gospel and the figure of Jesus.  I tend to think the post is a little ridiculous.  Here is the offending snippet:

In the Signs Gospel, Jesus is not being portrayed as a god on earth. Instead, he is portrayed as very human–a miraculous human, but a human nonetheless. Like the rabbis, he is not quite historical, yet he is not mythical, either. Instead, he is legendary. And so I propose that this is the correct model for understanding the historical Jesus. He is a legendary figure–but that does not mean he is an imaginary figure. Indeed, it means just the opposite: it means that he was most certainly historical.

There are several problems with this statement overall (e.g., the so-called Signs Gospel itself, the certainty of the claims being made about the Signs Gospel, portrayal of Jesus, the problems associated with Gos. of John, claims about the historicity of the figure of Jesus, and so on). First, and most importantly, the ‘Signs Gospel’ is hypothetical.  Like the sayings Gospel ‘Q’, the Signs Gospel is little more than a collected group of events (re: miraculous works) compiled by certain scholars (some who fall into line with confessional theology) as to seemingly avoid the problems associated with dependency (that is to say, that the Gospels are not independent traditions based upon eyewitness testimony); and we all know there are several very good (I would say ‘unassailable’) reasons to stop pretending ‘Q’ exists (ahem…).  For those unfamiliar with the Signs Gospel and the proposed value of the Gos. of John in historical Jesus studies, according to D. Moody Smith remarks (Johannine Christianity, p. 63):

“It is now rather widely agreed that the Fourth Evangelist drew upon a miracle tradition or written source(s) substantially independent of the synoptics, whether or not he had any knowledge of one or more of those gospels. Since the epoch-making commentary of Rudolf Bultmann, the hypothesis of a semeia– (or miracle) source has gained rather wide acceptance.”

And:

“Whether such a miracle source can be precisely isolated and identified, as Bultmann and some who follow him think, is a question we need not decide here. The demonstration of the existence of a source (or sources) is not entirely dependent upon the possibility of isolating it with certainty and precision throughout the Gospel.”

The problem with D.M. Smith’s statement is that I am not so sure it is as ‘widely agreed’ that John used the Signs Gospel as he makes it appear (I will also not get into his other apologetic-esque comments here; Crossley does a good job of that in the article mentioned below).   I am not sure what is taking place with the John, Jesus, and History Project (JJH) via the SBL, but just judging from James Crossley’s paper (forthcoming in my volume with Thomas L. Thompson) it seems that suggesting that Jesus was a historical figure based upon this Gospel is a difficult task indeed (if not entirely futile, despite what the JJH project suggests).  One has to make gross presuppositions about the state of the evidence (i.e. you have to start from the conclusion that the Gospels present accurate representations of the historical Jesus first, which is a position that runs rather counter to historical-critical methods).   In addition, the Gos. of John might actually not have been composed until sometime in the early second century (but no later than the p52’s terminus ad quem, c. 150 CE), rather than at the turn of that century as it was once thought.

Though, even if it had been written earlier, like around the turn of the second century CE, it does not follow that one can judge the figure of Jesus, let alone propose a whole new model (!), based solely on a single narrative and hypothetical document.  It seems rather presumptuous, if not downright arrogant, to suggest firmly (and with such certainty!) that Jesus was indeed historical from the most miraculous, ludicrous, and late of the canonical Gospels.  And to top it off, the author begs us to presume the existence of a hypothetical document as secondary evidence for his position!

While it might be that the Gospels are legendary, mythologized narratives about a historical person, it is folly to ignore all existing narratives besides the Gos. of John whilst making the outrageous claim that Jesus was a historical figure, mythologized.  This is nothing more than begging the question: if all of these factors (Signs Gospel did exist as a source for John, John did have source material from an eyewitness, tradition stemmed from a historical core, John is the primary witness to historical tradition, etc…) are true, Jesus was a historical figure, mythologized (essentially amounting to nothing more than the Chewbacca Defense: “Chewbacca is a Wookiee from the planet Kashyyyk. But Chewbacca lives on the planet Endor. Now think about it; that does not make sense!”).  But as the song goes, “well, that’s a far cry from the truth.”  We can only say so much from the evidence.  And when one is proposing a hypothetical document, even one that is largely accepted, the proposal can only be hypothetical (as a conclusion can only be as strong as the evidence).  To a large extent, this does prove, quite directly, that there are instances of bias in historical Jesus scholarship and with the question over historical value of the canonical Gospels.

Although there is hardly much need for additional evidence; it is clear that historical Jesus scholarship has its own share of failings.  Crossley notes, for example (and do read the whole article):

[T]he study of the historical Jesus is overwhelmingly concerned with fact finding, description and descriptive interpretation in its various forms, with little concern for questions such as why the Jesus movement emerged when and where it did and why this movement subsequently led to a new religion. By Eric Hobsbawm’s standards (see epigraph) most of these historical Jesus writers would come perilously close to being guilty of ‘antiquarian empiricism’ and more than one historical Jesus scholar might be guilty of writing what Hobsbawm dismissed as the ‘Victorian tome’ so typical of biography.

Aside from these challenges, there are numerous other problematic oversights in the post.  The author blogs the similarities of the miraculous signs from Greco-Jewish traditions but ignores those similar motifs found in the Hebrew Bible.  Where is the discussion or even mention of the same trope found in Ps. 107:23-30?

Some went down to the sea in ships,
doing business on the great waters;
they saw the deeds of the LORD,
his wondrous works in the deep.
For he commanded and raised the stormy wind,
which lifted up the waves of the sea.
They mounted up to heaven; they went down to the depths;
their courage melted away in their evil plight;
they reeled and staggered like drunken men
and were at their wits’ end.
Then they cried to the LORD in their trouble,
and he delivered them from their distress.
He made the storm be still,
and the waves of the sea were hushed.
Then they were glad that the waters were quiet,
and he brought them to their desired haven.

I would note as well that Ps. 107 contains other miraculous forms of redemption, through healing of the sick, and the feeding of the multitude (part of the ‘Signs’ which some believe came from this hypothetical source):

Some wandered in desert wastelands,
finding no way to a city where they could settle.
They were hungry and thirsty,
and their lives ebbed away.
Then they cried out to the LORD in their trouble,
and he delivered them from their distress.
He led them by a straight way
to a city where they could settle.
Let them give thanks to the LORD for his unfailing love
and his wonderful deeds for mankind,
for he satisfies the thirsty
and fills the hungry with good things.

And of course, one cannot forget the play of the Elisha/Elijah narratives at work in the miracle scenes.  The calming of the storm also has roots in Elijah’s challenge to the Baal worshipers, where Yahweh is portrayed as a God who has control over the storms, in direct conflict with Baal, another storm God.  The feeding of the multitude motif can also be found in the Elisha/Elijah narratives (2 Kings 4:38-41 with Elisha’s magic flour, and with Elijah 1 Kings 17:8-16), as is the healing of the sick/resurrection of the dead miracle stories (i.e., 1 Kings 17:17-24 where Elijah raised the widow’s son and Elisha and the Shunamite woman’s son in 2 Kings 4:18-37).  These miracle stories need not come from another hypothetical source (as fictional as it might indeed be), but from long-held tropes and motifs found in ancient Jewish literature.  John’s ability to take Mark’s Gospel and build upon it is not unknown.

On the subject of absorbing Mark wholly, the author also uses a bit of hyperbole when he states “since we know the Markan author used SG as a source.”  In fact, since these miracles are found in the Hebrew Bible, Mark’s source is probably also the scriptures.  There is no need to fabricate an entirely hypothetical Gospel just to account for the motifs.  And John need only have a copy of Mark, Matthew, and Luke to build upon the scenes (which many believe he did).  The best example for this is the scene at the tomb of Jesus.  Richard Carrier explains it (go to the link for a footnoted version):

So we start with Mark. It is little known among the laity, but in fact the ending of Mark, everything after verse 16:8, does not actually exist in the earliest versions of that Gospel that survive. It was added some time late in the 2nd century or even later. Before that, as far as we can tell, Mark ended at verse 16:8. But that means his Gospel ended only with an empty tomb, and a pronouncement by a mysterious young man that Jesus would be seen in Galilee–nothing is said of how he would be seen. This was clearly unsatisfactory for the growing powerful arm of the Church a century later, which had staked its claim on a physical resurrection, against competing segments of the Church usually collectively referred to as the Gnostics (though not always accurately). So an ending was added that quickly pinned some physical appearances of Jesus onto the story, and for good measure put in the mouth of Christ rabid condemnations of those who didn’t believe it. But when we consider the original story, it supports the notion that the original belief was of a spiritual rather than a physical event. The empty tomb for Mark was likely meant to be a symbol, not a historical reality, but even if he was repeating what was told him as true, it was not unusual in the ancient world for the bodies of heroes who became gods to vanish from this world: being deified entailed being taken up into heaven, as happened to men as diverse as Hercules and Apollonius of Tyana, and Mark’s story of an empty tomb would simply represent that expectation.

A decade or two passes, and then Matthew appears. As this Gospel tells it, there was a vast earthquake, and instead of a mere boy standing around beside an already-opened tomb, an angel–blazing like lightning–descended from the sky and paralyzed two guards that happened to be there, rolled away the stone single handedly before several witnesses–and then announced that Jesus will appear in Galilee. Obviously we are seeing a clear case of legendary embellishment of the otherwise simple story in Mark. Then in Matthew a report is given (similar to what was later added to Mark), where, contrary to the angel’s announcement, Jesus immediately meets the women that attended to his grave and repeats what the angel said. Matthew is careful to add a hint that this was a physical Jesus, having the women grovel and grab his feet as he speaks.

Then, maybe a little later still, Luke appears, and suddenly what was a vague and perhaps symbolic allusion to an ascension in Mark has now become a bodily appearance, complete with a dramatic reenactment of Peter rushing to the tomb and seeing the empty death shroud for himself. As happened in Matthew, other details have grown. The one young man of Mark, which became a flying angel in Matthew, in this account has suddenly become two men, this time not merely in white, but in dazzling raiment. And to make the new story even more suspicious as a doctrinal invention, Jesus goes out of his way to say he is not a vision, and proves it by asking the Disciples to touch him, and then by eating a fish. And though both Mark and Matthew said the visions would happen in Galilee, Luke changes the story, and places this particular experience in the more populous and prestigious Jerusalem.

Finally along comes John, perhaps after another decade or more. Now the legend has grown full flower, and instead of one boy, or two men, or one angel, now we have two angels at the empty tomb. And outdoing Luke in style, John has Jesus prove he is solid by showing his wounds, and breathing on people, and even obliging the Doubting Thomas by letting him put his fingers into the very wounds themselves. Like Luke, the most grandiose appearances to the Disciples happen in Jerusalem, not Galilee as Mark originally claimed. In all, John devotes more space and detail than either Luke or Matthew to demonstrations of the physicality of the resurrection, details nowhere present or even implied in Mark. It is obvious that John is trying very hard to create proof that the resurrection was the physical raising of a corpse, and at the end of a steady growth of fable, he takes license to make up a lot of details.

I had thought we were moving away from such cut-and-paste mentalities in scholarship; how is the Signs Gospel that much different than Thomas Jefferson’s New Testament?  Sure, we can make Jesus anything we want just by trimming out the miraculous bits and combining all the instances where a particular motif or trope holds sway, calling it the hypothetical ‘Whatever Gospel’, and get people to sign off on the idea.  The problem with this is quite simple: it removes context and as I have shown it allows for the collector of these verses, the redactor of this new hypothetical text, to ignore very important subcontexts, narrative functions, and intertextuality in the original text.

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