Did the First Jewish Believers in Jesus Continue to Sacrifice at the Temple?

The question of whether the disciples of Jesus ceased sacrificing at the Jewish Temple in Jerusalem following his death is one that comes up occasionally among scholars interested in understanding the very earliest form of Christ-belief. This question has come up again in a new book by Paula Fredriksen, When Christians Were Jews: The First Generation (Yale, 2018).

There is no question that all of the earliest believers in Jesus as the resurrected Son of God were Jews. That acknowledgment represents a seismic shift in modern scholarship toward reappraising Jesus’s Jewishness and taking his religio-cultural background seriously. Scholars now try to understand the things that Jesus said and did in the cultural context of first-century Judaism. Judaism in the first century was complex, not at all uniform. There were many ways of being Jewish at the time. Jesus began to mark out another way of being Jewish by the things he did and said and required of his followers. According to Jesus’s own “brand” of Jewishness, then, did he deem worship in the Temple in Jerusalem acceptable and did he teach others to do so?

The importance of this question is tied up with the events of Jesus’s last week in Jerusalem. Each of the four New Testament gospels suggests that Jesus came into conflict with Jewish Temple authorities who directed that Jesus be arrested, perhaps interrogated, and then handed over to the local Roman authority, Pontius Pilate, for judgment and execution. Scholars seek to understand how and why Jesus might have been perceived as hostile to the Temple, its priestly administrators, and even to Rome. All four gospels report that Jesus made a public display of overturning the tables of businessmen and tradesmen operating in the Temple courtyard (Mark 11:15ff and par.). What was the reason for this? Did Jesus reject the Temple and teach his followers to do so?

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When People Die, Do Their Souls Go to Heaven? What Did Jesus Say?

It is a common and comforting belief among many Christians that when people die, or at least when “good” people die, their souls go to heaven to be with God. Does that belief actually reflect the teachings of Jesus (or any first-century Jew for that matter)?

The afterlife was not so important in the ancient world as one might suspect today. Life in the present world was difficult enough and required all one’s effort as well as continuous attention to obtaining the necessary assistance from the gods in order to survive. Death was ever present. People died from ailments easily treatable today: infected scratches and wounds, colds and flus, malaria and worms. As a result, life expectancy was about 40 years for a man, somewhat less for a woman. Women began having children early because as many as half of all children died before the age of five. Women often died in childbirth and many men and women had multiple husbands and wives over the course of their lives. As many as a third of women were widows at any given time. The struggle to survive was paramount.

For most, the afterlife was not looked upon as a remedy or reward for living justly in this life. For non-Jews, one’s departed soul was often thought to reside in Hades with the god of the dead. This was not “hell” in the modern sense but a place of repose where the shades remained for all eternity. The separation of the human into body and soul was a Platonic concept derived from the teachings of the Greek philosopher Plato and his student Socrates. It is a companion of the equally Platonic concept of a realm of perfect reality, what we might call heaven, juxtaposed against its imperfect shadow realm, our earthly world. Plato thought that souls faced a judgment resulting in reward or punishment. Some ancient eastern “mystery religions” advertised communion with its particular god in the afterlife as a benefit of membership.

Originally, Jews held the Biblical belief, not so different from non-Jews, that the dead reposed in a postmortem realm they called Sheol. There the nephesh, the essence of the human life, took up residence forever separated from God. It was not until a post-Biblical movement took root within Judaism that the hope of reward in the afterlife began to catch on.

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‘Tis the Season (for Miraculous Birth Stories)!

Most people are familiar with the basic elements of the stories of Jesus’s miraculous conception and birth as recounted in the New Testament gospels of Matthew and Luke. Though there are numerous differences between the two stories (a fact not often recognized or acknowledged – see my posts Are the Nativity Stories of Jesus Based on those of John the Baptist?, Elements from the Christmas Nativity Display, and The Imagery of the Nativity), the authors of both gospels agree that Mary conceived Jesus without the participation of a human father. Both credit the missing ingredient to the power of the Holy Spirit. Thus, Jesus becomes, from the very start, a god-man: part human and part divine.

Stories of the birth of such god-men were in wide circulation throughout the Greco-Roman world at the time the gospels were composed. That is not to deny (or affirm) the reliability of the gospel narratives with regard to Jesus’s circumstances. But it cannot be ignored that the authors were writing their stories using well-known narrative forms and tropes. After all, both writers and readers of the gospels were Greco-Romans steeped in the culture of their day. They would have recognized the similarities (and the differences) in the stories which helped them to make sense of the profound interworking of the divine and the mundane.

One ubiquitous story of divinely initiated birth was that of Hercules (Herakles). According to one version (Diodorus Siculus, Library of History 4.9.1-10), Hercules’s mother, Alkmene, was impregnated by Zeus. In order to sleep with her, Zeus took on the physical appearance of her husband, Amphitryon, and entered her bedchamber. The erotic undertones of the story are enhanced by the fact that Zeus tripled the length of the night for the purpose of lovemaking although Diodorus cautions that this was not done out of sexual desire but to foreshadow the exceptional power of the child thus conceived. Um-hmm.

Not only did mythic heroes begin life by divine concupiscence. Highly revered philosophers, for example, were sometimes thought to have been miraculously conceived. Pythagoras, the sixth-century BCE Greek philosopher whose teachings were an essential seedbed for later philosophers like Plato and Aristotle, was also believed to possess a divine lineage. His story begins with another mythical hero, Ankaios, another son of Zeus who sailed with Hercules aboard the Argos to find the Golden Fleece. It is from the Ankaios family tree that Pythagoras descends. Others thought that the god Apollo directly fathered Pythagoras. Though this was considered doubtful by the fourth-century Arab Neoplatonist philosopher Iamblichus (Life of Pythagoras 3-9), he admitted that the soul of Pythagoras, at least, did come from Apollo. It was sent down from heaven to dwell among human beings. Pythagoras, according to Iamblichus, “was the most beautiful and godlike of those written about in history.”

Apollo also figures in the genesis of the fifth-century BCE Greek philosopher, Plato. According to three sources consulted by the third-century biographer Diogenes Laertius (Lives of the Eminent Philosophers 3.1-2), Plato came close to not being conceived at all. His parents, Ariston and Periktone, were trying desperately but without success to have a child. About to give up, Ariston saw a vision of the god Apollo which he took to be a sign. He thereafter abstained from having sex with Periktone who, as a result, later conceived, it was assumed, utilizing the “divine sperm” (Origen, Against Celsus 1.37) of Apollo.

Divine parentage was by no means limited to philosophers. Alexander the Great, the fourth-century BCE Macedonian conqueror who made the entire Near and Middle East part of his Greek empire, could not possibly have had normal, everyday origins according to some ancient writers. Preserved for us by the first/second-century Roman biographer Plutarch (Parallel Lives, 2.1-3.2) is the story of Alexander’s direct begetting from Apollo. It happened like this: Philip II, the previous king of Macedon, looked through a crack in the door of his sleeping wife’s bedchamber and saw a huge snake wrapped around her naked body. Repulsed, and perhaps thinking it was an omen, he sent representatives to the oracle at Delphi to inquire of the god Apollo what the imagery might portend. The response was that Philip should begin worshiping Zeus above all other gods and put out his own eye that had spied on Apollo, in serpentine form, mating with his wife Olympias. Olympias herself later recounted this sexual liaison to her semi-divine son, Alexander, and charged him to act worthily of his special beginnings.

Not to be outdone, stories of the Apollonian origin of the first Roman emperor, Augustus, flourished in Roman circles. Quoting the mysterious book Theologoumenon by the equally shadowy Asclepius of Mendes, Suetonius (Lives of the Caesars 2.94.4) says that the niece of Julius Caesar, Atia, once took up with a number of other women and visited the temple of Apollo to perform the customary rites. Staying late, they fell asleep in the temple. But it was Atia who succumbed to the erotic designs of a great snake who slipped up on her that night. In the morning, the irremovable markings of a snake appeared on her body. Nearly ten months later, she gave birth to Octavian (Augustus).

Early Jewish literature also featured stories of divine conception though these generally concerned elderly or barren women who had no further expectation of childbearing suddenly becoming pregnant. Among such stories in the Old Testament are the birth of Isaac to an elderly Abraham and Sarah (Genesis 17-18, 21) and that of the twins Esau and Jacob to Isaac and the barren Rebekah (Genesis 25). The texts do not overtly credit God with inseminating either of these women but neither do they describe any further sexual activity between the parents leading to the miraculous conceptions. In fact, God tells Abraham, “I will bless her (Sarah), and moreover I will give you a son by her. I will bless her…” (Gen. 17:16). The emphasis is on her reproductive abilities being rejuvenated not his. The same is true in Genesis 25:21: “Isaac prayed to the Lord for his wife, because she was barren; and the Lord granted his prayer, and his wife Rebekah conceived.”

Things are clearer in a first-century Jewish recounting of the birth of the priest Melchizedek (Gen. 14:18-20). In the Second Book of Enoch, Nir, a priest, and his wife Sothonim, cannot have children because she was sterile. In her old age, she conceives but without the aid of Nir. Furious, Nir berates his wife for her (presumed) infidelity. She vainly professes her innocence but it was not until the angel Gabriel announced to Nir that the child, Melchizedek, was “righteous fruit” that Nir accepted the situation as divinely ordained. There is no question in this Jewish text that Sothonim conceived by divine insemination.

The third-century Christian theologian Origen recognized the similarities especially in the Greco-Roman divine-conception stories and those offered in the gospels of Matthew and Luke. But in typical exclusivistic fashion, he wrote off the non-Christian stories as “really fables (Greek = mythos).” He explained that “people just fabricate such things as this about a man whom they regard as having greater wisdom and power than most others.” It seems likely that Origen never stopped to consider that the same might have been done for the man he believed once possessed greater wisdom and power than others.

Did the Apostle Paul Really Tell Women to “Sit Down and Be Quiet in Church”?

The apostle Paul is blamed for many of the controversies affecting modern Christian belief and practice. Did he, for example, support the institution of slavery as some have insisted? Did he condemn homosexuality? Did he reject Judaism as a failed religion? Was he a misogynist who looked upon women as second-class human beings? Centuries of Christian teaching and tradition based on the New Testament letters attributed to Paul have resulted in answers to these questions that in many cases would have astounded the apostle.

Fortunately, this essay asks a question that is fairly easy to answer. In short, no, Paul was not a misogynist and did not tell women to sit down and be quiet in church. But before rushing to your Bibles to look up passages you swore contained instructions to the contrary, we need to examine how Biblical scholars have come to understand both Paul and the texts attributed to him in the New Testament. First, let’s first look at those offending passages, ostensibly written by Paul, that you were going to look up anyway.

The first is found in one of Paul’s letters to the Christ-believers in the city of Corinth. First Corinthians, chapter 14, verses 34-35 read: “Women should keep silent in the churches. For they are not permitted to speak, but should be in submission, as the Law also says. If there is anything they desire to know, let them ask their husbands at home. For it is shameful for a woman to speak in church.” Seems clear enough. How can we deny what appears to be obvious? Before we address that question, let’s look at the next passage.

The second passage that relates to the silence of women in the churches is found in the first letter addressed to Timothy, a Christian missionary. First Timothy, chapter 2, verses 11-12 read: “Let a woman learn quietly with all submissiveness. I do not permit a woman to teach or to exercise authority over a man; rather, she is to remain quiet.” Seems to be in perfect agreement with what was written in 1 Corinthians above.

At first blush, these passages would appear to indicate that Paul wanted to issue a gag order on women in churches who felt motivated to ask questions, make comments, or even teach. The later church certainly understood Paul this way which is why it felt wholly justified in restricting church teaching, administration, and oversight to men. But was this really Paul’s position?

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Did Paul Really Say that Jesus Became “a Curse”?

Many things written by the apostle Paul have been deemed “hard to understand” (2 Peter 3:16). One of the misunderstood passages by Paul is the one referred to in the title of this article.

Paul’s letter to the Galatians has been considered one of the most important for understanding Paul’s attitude toward Judaism and the Torah. He certainly says much about “works of the law” (he mentions it five times in this letter alone). His overall argument in this letter to his Gentile (non-Jewish) converts in the Roman province of Galatia is that they do not need to become circumcised in order to be saved from the coming wrath that the God of Israel was about to unleash on the world. A divine mechanism had just been put into place, according to Paul, by which Gentiles could join their fellow Jews in avoiding the wrath and entering into a new age, one ruled by God and administered by his messiah (Christ).

In Galatians, Paul explains how this mechanism works. Paul argues that “Christ redeemed us from the curse of the law by becoming a curse for us – for it is written, ‘Cursed is everyone who is hanged on a tree’” (Galatians 3:13). There is a lot to unpack in this seemingly simple passage so let’s begin by determining the nature of the target audience and who “us” is.

It is imperative that when reading Paul’s undisputed letters (i.e., deemed authentic by all scholars) that we remember that he is writing to non-Jews (Gentiles). They are the targets of his mission: “James [the brother of Jesus], Cephas [i.e., Peter], and John, who were acknowledged pillars, recognized the grace that had been given to me, they gave to Barnabas and me the right hand of fellowship, agreeing that we should go to the Gentiles and they to the circumcised” (Galatians 2:9). The Gentiles are polytheist (i.e., pagan) Greco-Romans.

When writing to these Gentiles, Paul employs a number of Greek rhetorical devices that would have been recognizable to his Gentile recipients (while, alas, they escape many modern readers). In this passage, Paul identifies with his collective audience, his Gentiles converts, by including himself among them. When Paul says that “Christ has redeemed us” he means “us Gentiles.” Paul, of course, is not a Gentile. But this technique of argumentation allows him to speak as if he is one of them. Keep in mind, too, that Paul is not writing to all people everywhere for all time. He is speaking to his Gentile converts in Galatia.

This makes sense because of what Paul says next. The “curse of the law” Paul implies they are under is not a curse for Jews. Jews have the law as part of their everlasting covenant with God. It is not a curse for them. On the contrary, it provides them with the means to live according to God’s will as a specially chosen people. The law can only curse them if they reject it. So who is cursed according to Paul’s Jewish understanding? Non-Jews! There are several passages in Hebrew scripture which provide the basis for this belief.

“Cursed is he who does not confirm the words of this law by doing them” (Deuteronomy 27:26). “But it shall come about, if you will not obey the LORD your God, to observe to do all His commandments and His statutes with which I charge you today, that all these curses shall come upon you and overtake you” (Deuteronomy 28:15). “Thus says the LORD, the God of Israel: Cursed be the man who does not hear the words of this covenant that I commanded your fathers when I brought them out of the land of Egypt” (Jeremiah 11:3-4).”

By the time of Paul, there was an understanding among certain Jews that all the world’s people were responsible for keeping Torah but that only Israel had accepted it when it was offered. Be that as it may, it was a universal Jewish axiom that Gentiles were, by default, cursed (there were sometimes exceptions for so-called “righteous Gentiles” but these were very few in number).

Next, Paul says that Christ redeemed Gentiles from the curse of not abiding by the law by becoming accursed himself. How and why did Christ do that? Paul cites a passage from Torah that he believes refers to Christ (by the way, for those who argue that Paul rejected Torah, one must explain why he relies on it for every proof text he employs to support his arguments): “If a man has committed a crime punishable by death and he is put to death, and you hang him on a tree, his corpse shall not hang all night on the tree, but you shall surely bury him on the same day – for he who is hanged is accursed of God” (Deuteronomy 21:22-23). Paul equates this passage with Jesus’ death on the cross (a “tree”). In this way, Jesus became accursed. Now that we have the “how,” it is time to address the “why.”

Paul has established that Gentiles are under a curse simply for being Gentiles. They have not accepted God’s law and this situation puts them under a curse. Jesus was executed by crucifixion, hung on a “tree,” and became cursed. But Jesus did not reject Torah. Nevertheless, by being hung on a tree he found himself rejected by Torah, accursed by the provision we cited above. That puts Gentiles and Jesus Christ, at least temporarily, in the same situation: they are all accursed. For that moment, Jesus has become like a Gentile. So now what?

Paul taught that God “raised Jesus from the dead” (Galatians 1:1). The curse Jesus fell under by way of his crucifixion was divinely undone, reversed. The cursed Jesus became the exalted Christ creating a pathway from curse to redemption that others could follow. To take advantage of this new possibility, Paul advised, Gentiles must baptized into the death and resurrection of Christ. Paul wrote, “Do you not know that all of us who have been baptized into Christ Jesus were baptized into his death? We were buried therefore with him by baptism into death, in order that, just as Christ was raised from the dead by the glory of the Father, we too might walk in newness of life” (Romans 6:3-4).

For Paul, then, the most important aspect of the life of Jesus Christ is this death-curse-redemption trail blazed for the benefit of the non-Jewish world, heretofore denied salvation other than by conversion to Judaism. It is this theological supposition that is at the heart of Paul’s entire missionary career. He brought this message to the non-Jewish world “until the full number of the Gentiles has come in” (Romans 11:25). Then he believed the end of the age would arrive. By doing this, Paul believed he was fulfilling the prophecy of Hebrew scripture: “At that time they shall call Jerusalem the throne of the LORD, and all the nations [i.e., Gentiles] will be gathered to it, to Jerusalem, for the name of the LORD; nor shall they walk anymore after the stubbornness of their evil heart” (Jeremiah 3:17).

A New Perspective on Paul?

Mention the apostle Paul to most people and they conjure up an image of a first-century traveling missionary bringing his new “gospel” to the masses. His “good news” is a universal message of right-standing with God obtainable by anyone who expresses faith in his son Jesus, the Christ/Messiah. Having been rejected by his own people, Christ now offers, according to Paul, eternal life for everyone through such faith. This opportunity comes enshrined in a new religion, one that is superior to and supersedes the outmoded, failed, legalist approach of Torah-based Judaism. A new people of God have been chosen to replace Israel due to the latter’s unfaithfulness.

Sound familiar? This basic summary is at the root of almost every teaching, sermon, commentary, and textual treatment of Paul and his letters. But is this summary historically correct? A small, though growing, number of scholars are adamant that it is not. They claim that reading Paul in this way simply perpetuates centuries of Christian (and Jewish) misunderstanding. The historical Paul’s intended message has become distorted even to the point of denying what Paul actually affirmed. This failure to grasp Paul’s real teaching is the result of a number of factors including faulty knowledge of first-century Judaism, a lack of facility with Greco-Roman rhetorical writing, and a built-in, centuries-old anti-Jewish bias that taints every aspect (even translation choices) of coming to terms with the historical Paul.

Where did it go wrong? From reading Paul’s letters, the Acts of the Apostles, and other New Testament texts, we learn that audiences misunderstood Paul almost from the beginning. Suspicions arose immediately as soon as the former persecutor of the Jewish “Jesus-movement” became one of its staunchest supporters. Paul made the unusual announcement that he was sent by God (or Christ) to preach the benefits of Christ’s death and resurrection only to non-Jews (Gentiles). His message for them was that they did not have to become Jews by way of circumcision in order to share in the covenant promises once made to Abraham and his progeny (Genesis 17:4-7). With the death and resurrection of Christ, a new age had begun, one in which non-Jews were being called to worship the Jewish God. Paul’s belief seems to be based on scriptural prophecies (Psalm 86:9; Isaiah 49:6, 60:3; Jeremiah 3:17, etc.). Paul was not the only Jew to believe that non-Jews could be made righteous with God without circumcision (see, for example, Philo, Questions and Answers on Exodus 2.2; and Josephus, Antiquities of the Jews 20.17).

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Reviews for “The Upper Room and Tomb of David”

Reviews for The Upper Room and Tomb of David: The History, Art and Archaeology of the Cenacle on Mount Zion:

“Judicious use of archaeological discoveries and insightful witnesses, beginning with the Bordeaux Pilgrim in 333, through the Muslim conquest to the crusader period, often supported by images and illustrations, enhance this first full length study of the Cenacle…With impressive reflections, Clausen concludes, inter alia, that the tomb of David was in the Lower City but Christians, assuming Jesus and James were Davidids, located David’s tomb in the more impressive New Zion… Since the identification of the Cenacle as the remains of an early synagogue prompts my focus on Clausen’s chart of early synagogues that is extremely relevant for those devoted to Jesus Research… Clausen’s superbly helpful chart should also now include the discovery by Motti Aviam of a Roman period synagogue on Tel Rekhesh a site east of and near to Nazareth… The reflections in the book prompt thought and lay the basis for more excavations and study. I find Clausen’s book well written and full of valuable information.” – James H. Charlesworth, Princeton

“This is an absorbing volume of 268 pages of detailed information, diagrams, and drawings regarding this historical site on Mount Zion…For the serious student of church history, this volume presents information that is critical to the understanding of this period of religious activity.” – “Book Reviews,” M. G. Paregian, Publisher