Elements from the Christmas Nativity Display: What Gospel Does That Come From?

Nativity scene

At this time of year throughout Christendom churches and homes (no longer, it appears, governmental institutions) recreate for display the scene of Jesus’s birth. Actually, they depict not the birth itself but a moment in time afterward. How long afterward? That is a question that cannot be satisfactorily answered. The reason is not because historians and biblical scholars can’t estimate the span of time between, say, the birth of Jesus and the arrival of shepherds from their fields, or the birth and the arrival of magi from the East. It is because those arrivals are depicted in different gospels and are therefore, incongruent.

The story of Jesus’s arrival featured in the Gospel of Luke tells of shepherds who arrive quite soon after Jesus is born. The magi of the Gospel of Matthew, on the other hand, seem to make their appearance in Bethlehem about two years after Jesus’s birth. That is because, after meeting the magi and discovering their purpose for being in Judea, Herod the Great, King of the Jews, finds out where they are bound, and orders the slaughter of every male child in Bethlehem less than two years of age. It’s not a pretty picture of course and one understandably left out of nativity scenes.

This difference in timing between the visitations recounted in the two gospels ought to alert the reader that story elements from multiple sources have been employed to artistically recreate the nativity. The images of the manger, a star, angels, animals, shepherds, magi, and so forth, derive from a number of ancient texts both canonical and apocryphal. Let’s explore the popular nativity display, also called a manger scene or crèche, and trace its various components.

Obviously the primary sources for information about the birth of Jesus come from the New Testament Gospels of Matthew and Luke. Each story both differs from, and agrees with, the other in multiple ways. One story element to which both agree is the presence of Jesus’s two parents, Joseph and Mary. Every nativity scene features the two parents of Jesus looking down approvingly upon the newborn child. But, as far as the gospel stories go, that is where the commonality ends in nativity displays.

The Gospel of Matthew reports that a moving star led magi from the East to Bethlehem then stopped directly over the exact location of Jesus’s birth. No modern nativity scene is complete without this star, be it a mere C7 light bulb or a handsomely luminous astronomical effect. The Gospel of Luke, on the other hand, features no star. It reports instead that shepherds in nearby fields were alerted to the birth of Jesus by an angel. The shepherds (and perhaps the angels as well, according to most nativity displays) then go to Bethlehem where they find Jesus in a phatnē, a Greek word that can simply be translated as crib but which most English Bibles prefer to call a manger or stall. As Luke explains, this was because there was no room for Joseph and Mary in the kataluma, Greek for “guest chamber.” The guest room(s) being otherwise occupied, the expectant couple was probably directed down below the primary dwelling to the cave-like cellar where produce, wine, and sometimes animals were kept. It was dark, cool, and private. Nevertheless, artists have almost unanimously chosen to depict the newborn Jesus in a barn lying in an animal food trough. And nearly every display follows Luke by showing Jesus wrapped in strips of cloth, or “swaddling clothes.”

Continue reading “Elements from the Christmas Nativity Display: What Gospel Does That Come From?”

The Fall (and Rise) of Pontius Pilate

Almost everyone, Christian and non-Christian, has heard of Pontius Pilate and is generally aware of his role in the death of Jesus. He was certainly an historical figure as archaeology, non-biblical historical sources, and the gospels can attest. Pilate was a prefectus, sometimes translated into English as governor, appointed by Rome to administer the relatively new imperial province of Judea and Samaria in 26 CE. Such men were chosen from the equestrian class, the Latin knights of Roman society. Thus Pilate was a military man with sufficient experience and accolades to suggest his appointment to the emperor. He, like the four prefecti before him, made his headquarters in the Mediterranean coastal city of Caesarea, only recently given an extensive Greco-Roman renovation by the late Herod the Great. Periodically, when the religious city of Jerusalem swelled with visiting pilgrims, Pilate would make his way with his cadre of non-Italian infantry and a few cavalry to take up residence not far from the Jewish Temple. There, he would reside in Herod’s Jerusalem palace. His accompanying troops augmented their stationary comrades located in the fortress named for Mark Antony astride the Temple itself. It was on just such an occasion, the Passover of 30 CE, that Pilate was presented by the Temple’s religious leadership with a Jewish offender who required Roman justice, one Jesus of Nazareth. It was he, the leading priests said, who had been making himself out to be a king. Pilate should therefore vanquish him forthwith.

Why the Jewish leadership thought Pilate might willingly acquiesce to such a request is not hard to fathom. The late first-century CE Jewish historian Josephus gives us a number of examples of Pilate’s brutality in reaction to real and imagined rebellion during his tenure. Pilate, hardly a friend of the Jews, arrived at his post in a contemptuous manner sending his troops into Jerusalem carrying the iconic image of the emperor attached to their military standards, an obvious violation of Jewish laws against graven images. Only after threats by the populace did he have them replaced. Later he made plans to modernize Jerusalem’s water delivery system by using, with the chief priests’ acquiescence or not, temple funds to do so. This, too, created an uprising which resulted in casualties. During an event that took place after Jesus’s execution, Pilate was quick to violently strike down a group of Samaritans who had assembled near the ruins of their own temple. There they had joyfully followed a self-appointed leader who promised to dig up the temple’s buried holy furnishings from the past. The subsequent over-reaction by Pilate resulted in his recall to Rome.

Although Josephus only gives us his side of the story of the altercations mentioned above, we may add the characterization of Pilate by the first-century Alexandrian Jewish theologian Philo (“inflexible,” “vindictive,” “furious temper”) and a New Testament reference to an incident involving “Galileans whose blood Pilate had mingled with their sacrifices” (Luke 13:1) to confirm that crucifying Jesus would not have unduly worried the Roman governor. Yet this is not quite the picture we get of Pilate by reading the accounts of the hearing that Pilate gave to Jesus. In fact, Pilate is made to seem quite reluctant to sentence Jesus to death.

Continue reading “The Fall (and Rise) of Pontius Pilate”

Disagreement over Jesus’s Resurrection: How did it Really Happen?

Tomorrow Christians celebrate the pivotal event that lead a group of disheartened, first-century Jews to feel as if their faith in Jesus as the messiah was vindicated even after his horrifying execution. The event is known as the resurrection and it helped transform a Jewish sectarian reformist movement into a worldwide religion that ultimately left its Jewish roots far behind.

But how did those first followers of Jesus experience that life-changing moment? It is troubling to some students in my New Testament class that the texts which describe the resurrection do not entirely agree with regard to what happened. Specifically, Christians struggled during the first century to come to terms with the form in which Jesus was raised from the dead. Was Jesus’s post-mortem vindication by God revealed to the disciples in a vision? Did Jesus manifest his resurrected nature as a ghost or spirit? Or, did a corpse rise from the tomb in flesh and blood, appearing essentially the same as before, crucifixion wounds and all?

The earliest texts in the New Testament were penned by the apostle Paul. Anything he has to say on the subject at least chronologically supersedes any gospel account as currently written. In his first letter to the followers of Jesus in Corinth, Greece, Paul “handed on” the tradition that he “received” about Jesus’s resurrection appearances. In the famous chapter 15, Paul wrote that Jesus was “buried, and that he was raised on the third day in accordance with the scriptures, and that he appeared to Cephas [Peter], then to the twelve” (1 Cor. 15:3-5 NRSV). He goes on to say that Jesus also appeared to more than five hundred believers at one time, to James, the brother of Jesus, then to all the apostles, and lastly to himself. Whatever we make of the list of appearances, none of which are described in the gospels (the appearance to Peter is only hinted at in Luke 24:34; and the gospels describe appearances only to the eleven [Matt 28:16, Luke 24:33-36, John 20:26 and 21:1], not the twelve, since Judas was no longer a participant), the formula Paul uses is instructive. He speaks of an “appearance.” (In his letter to the believers in the province of Galatia in Asia Minor, Paul wrote [Gal. 1:15-16] that God “was pleased to reveal his son to me.”) The question is: What appeared or was revealed?

Further on in chapter 15 of First Corinthians, Paul describes what a resurrected body looks like. It should be kept in mind that Paul included himself in the string of resurrection witnesses as if they all experienced the same thing. He does not give any indication that one appearance was different from the others. Therefore, his description of a resurrected body should give us a clue as to what Paul experienced when the resurrected Jesus appeared to him.

In his discussion, Paul claims that there are different kinds of flesh (1 Cor. 15:39): one for humans, one for animals, birds, fish, etc. He differentiates this type of body from a “spiritual body”. Paul says that while the physical body is perishable, dishonorable, and weak, the spiritual body is imperishable, glorious and powerful. He concludes by affirming that, “flesh and blood cannot inherit the kingdom of God, nor does the perishable inherit the imperishable” (1 Cor. 15:50). We may conclude that when Paul says the resurrected Jesus visually appeared or was revealed to him, it was as a spiritual body. Since flesh and blood cannot inherit the spiritual, as Paul states, it could not be any other way.

This notion of a visual appearance or revelation of the resurrected Jesus is fundamental to the tradition that he first “appeared to Simon/Cephas/Peter.” Remember, Paul claimed to have met and conversed with Peter and James, the brother of Jesus, on his first visit to Jerusalem three years following his witness of the resurrected Jesus (Gal. 1:18). It is inconceivable that Paul did not discuss with them his experience or that they did not discuss theirs with him. It is logical that they should have been in agreement on this issue if nothing else. Therefore, it seems safe to conclude that the earliest accounts of Jesus’s resurrection appearances described the phenomenon as a revelation, a vision, a visual appearance – not a flesh-and-blood body returned from the grave.

Hints of this early form of belief still remain in the gospels written twenty to perhaps fifty years or more after Paul’s letters. The appearance of Jesus to the disciples as described in Matthew’s gospel gives no hint that he arrived in the flesh. The disciples “saw” and “heard” him (Matt. 28:17-18) but made no contact. In fact, the appearance was such that the author admits “some doubted” it. The Gospel of Luke retains some traces of this early belief in the story of the two disciples who encounter the resurrected Jesus on their way from Jerusalem to Emmaus (Luke 24:13-35). They apparently knew Jesus during his lifetime but did not recognize him on this trip because his form has changed. This is an example of polymorphy, the ability of entities to transform their appearance, and seems appropriate to a story about the appearance of a spiritual body or the experience of a visionary revelation. Indeed, Jesus does reveal his identity at the end of the story but suddenly vanishes like a ghost. According to John’s gospel, Jesus first appeared to Mary Magdalene but warned her not to touch him because he was about to ascend to heaven (John 20:17). Later he appeared to his other disciples, twice materializing suddenly in a locked room (John 20:19, 26). Another example of polymorphy may be evident in the appended chapter 21 of John’s gospel in which the resurrected Jesus stood on the shore yet the disciples on their boat upon the sea do not recognize him (John 21:4).

Even though the gospels retain hints of the earlier belief in Jesus’s non-flesh-and-blood resurrection, it is evident that with the passage of time traditions arose that Jesus did indeed resurrect in the flesh. Basic to all of these accounts is the empty tomb story and the witness of Mary Magdalene (Mark 16:1-8, Matt. 28:1-10, Luke 24:1-10, John 20:11-18), both of which serve to provide evidence to believers and non-believers alike that the physical corpse of Jesus arose out of the grave.

Matthew’s gospel goes to great lengths to insist on corpse revivification expanding the empty tomb story. (Interestingly, Jesus, according to Matthew, described resurrected bodies to be like “angels in heaven” (Matt. 22:30) not flesh-and-blood bodies.) Matthew reports that hostile witnesses (guards) were sent to prevent the disciples from stealing Jesus’s body from the tomb. This was to prevent a later claim that the body was miraculously raised. But instead of being able to serve as witnesses for the prosecution, the guards are described as having seen the resurrection for themselves (Matt. 27:62-66; 28:11-15)! They will later be paid to shut up about it (see below).

Mary Magdalene, replacing Peter in the earlier tradition as the first witness to the risen Jesus, “took hold of his feet,” according to Matthew, thus demonstrating Jesus’s flesh-and-blood nature (Matt. 28:9).

At the end of the Emmaus episode, Luke combines both notions of a visionary and a flesh-and-blood resurrection by having Jesus physically take matter (bread) and manipulate it (break it) (Luke 24:30). Later, Jesus appears to the disciples and defends (on behalf of Luke’s readers) the flesh-and-blood nature of his appearance, claiming that “a ghost does not have flesh and bones as you see that I have” before displaying his crucifixion wounds (Luke 24:39-40).

The Gospel of John also mixes in the flesh-and-blood resurrection tradition no less subtly than Luke. Thomas, one of the disciples, actually demands, and is allowed to, put his fingers in the crucifixion wounds of the resurrected, flesh-and-blood Jesus (John 20:27). Finally, in the last chapter, the resurrected Jesus even eats breakfast with his disciples (John 21:12-15). Why are these later accounts trying so valiantly (and so crudely) to drive home the belief that Jesus arose from the tomb in the flesh and not simply as a vision or spiritual body?

We get a clue to the answer by studying the verbal attacks by opponents of the early church against the Christian profession of Jesus’s resurrection. These opponents could easily challenge the Christian claim that the ghost of Jesus was somehow proof that God had vindicated him and made him Lord. Christians countered that it was not just a ghost that appeared but actually Jesus in the flesh. As we saw in Luke, the resurrected Jesus himself was made to defend his physical, flesh-and-blood nature as if the belief in his resurrection were under attack. Indeed it was. Ignatius, leader of the Jesus movement in Antioch, Syria during the late first century, fights back against those who denied Christ’s resurrection by affirming that, after it occurred, “he was still possessed of flesh and I believe that he is so now” using as proof the tradition in which “he ate and drank” with the disciples (Ignatius, Letter to Smyrna 3). Ignatius’s claim was also challenged. Pagans did not believe in flesh-and-blood resurrection.

Christians reacted to such challenges as early as the Gospel of Mark (ca. 70 CE) by spreading the story that on Easter morning Jesus’s tomb was found opened and his body missing. Opponents blamed the missing corpse on theft. Matthew’s gospel, also written in Syria during the late first century, countered those charges by appeal to the hostile guards who, though they were said to have actually witnessed the resurrection of the flesh-and-blood Jesus, were paid to say that his body was stolen. Matthew reminds his readership that the lie was still being spread in his day (Matt. 28:15).

Christians eventually reconciled the various natures of Jesus’s resurrected form claiming that any perceived discrepancy in the accounts was due to its mysterious nature. Regardless of what form the resurrected Jesus took, belief in the event itself served as the springboard for a revitalized, re-energized group of followers to take its story and spread it, as Matthew says, to “all the nations.” As Matthew also says, it is still being told to this day.

New Discoveries in Archaeology

I’ll try to add some additional posts over the holidays to catch people up on some recent discoveries.

Just in the news is the discovery of a 1,300 pound stone off of the coast of ancient Dor bearing an inscription dating from around the time of the second Jewish revolt against Rome (ca. 132 CE). The Greek text of seven lines mentions Gargilius Antiques, prefect of Judea. It is only the second time his name has been found in an inscription. Immediately after the revolt the Romans changed the name of the province from Judea to Syria-Palestine. The stone was buried in the sea and only just recovered for preservation. It is now on display at the University of Haifa.

During the second revolt, led by Simon bar Kokhba, hailed as the messiah by some, Christians were apparently charged with accepting Simon as messiah and aiding the revolt or face persecution. Christian Jews already had their messiah in Jesus and refused to accede to the revolutionary’s demands. Other Jews likely suffered from refusing to support Bar Kokhba as well.

The Last Surviving Crusader Capital in the Cenacle

In an article published in 1983, Bianca and Gustav Kühnel draw our attention to what may be the only Crusader-era capital remaining in the Upper Room of the Last Supper on Mount Zion in Jerusalem. Now supporting the qubba (dome) over the stairway between the upper and lower chambers, the capital was apparently re-used by medieval Muslim architects and placed in its current position.

dscn6151

In style and size it is quite different from the capitals atop columns found elsewhere in the building. The authors point to the unique combination of motifs carved into the capital that reflect a developing Christian symbolism that combines the eagle, the rock, Christ, and Satan with baptism and the Eucharist. On the face of each capital are three eagles – the one in the center looks to the side as two other eagles (chicks?) place their heads upon its breast. Barely visible in their enlarged bills are small stones. The center eagle stands atop a frightening mask like a human face.

crusader-capital-detail

The Kühnels trace the development of the symbolism. In his first letter to the Corinthians (10:4), Paul writes of the water miraculously provided to the Hebrews who wandered in the desert for forty years with Moses: “They drank from the supernatural Rock which followed them, and the Rock was Christ.” Early church fathers also equated Christ, imagined as having flown back to his Father after his resurrection, to an eagle. In Greek mythology, the sea eagle could only rid itself of its incapacitatingly large bill by breaking it against a rock thereby allowing him to eat. This represented a conquest of old age and death. Writing to Christians of the fifth century, Augustine combines these and other motifs: “Old age sealed your mouth; the stone was given to you in order to vanquish old age and to renew your youth as the eagle did, in order to be able to eat the bread, that bread of which has been said: I am the living bread which came down from Heaven (John 6:41).” Here the stone symbolically becomes Christ in the form of the Eucharist. The eagle could likewise serve as a symbol of the communicant. And as the eagle is the natural enemy of the serpent, the serpent retains its representation as Satan.

According to the Kühnels, the twelve eagles on the capital represent the congregation of believing Christians. The stones they each hold in their oversized beaks are the bread of the Eucharist. The four medieval masks they stand upon represent Satan, symbol of death, who is conquered by those who partake of the life-affirming Eucharist. All in all, these are fitting motifs for the so-called Upper Room of the Last Supper.

According to the Kühnels, capitals with similar depictions have been found carved upon other twelfth-century capitals in Europe, particularly in France, as well as in Crusader-period Jerusalem structures. The date of the capital may be further narrowed to the time of the reign of Fulk V, Count of Anjou, and King of Jerusalem from 1131-1143.

Bibliography

Bianca and Gustav Kühnel, “An Eagle Physiologus Legend on a Crusader Capital from the Coenaculum,” in Norms and Variations in Art: Essays in Honor of Moshe Barasch (Jerusalem: The Magnes Press, The Hebrew University of Jerusalem, 1983), 36-48.

 

Back to the Alamo…

Things have been quiet this summer here at the blog but are already picking up quickly.

I will be presenting my paper discussing the question of whether the Upper Room in Jerusalem was ever a Jewish synagogue at the annual meeting of the American Academy of Religion/Society of Biblical Literature in San Antonio on November 19 at 11:00 a.m. I will be on a panel with a number of great scholars such as Drs. F. Stanley Jones, Simon Mimouni, and others. The paper is called “Was the Tomb of David Built as a Synagogue? Further Evidence from Archaeology.”

An article on the Upper Room which I wrote for Biblical Archaeology Review will be featured in their “Archaeology Views” column in the January/February issue in 2017. It will be an attempt to bring readers up to date with where we are in Cenacle research. If you are not a subscriber to this wonderful publication and are interested in the historical aspects of the Bible, I strongly encourage you to subscribe. The rates are eminently reasonable for this colorful publication. And readers may attend a companion seminar that is always offered in tandem with the AAR/SBL meeting as noted above. So this year it will be held in San Antonio on the same dates. The BAR seminar features the very best Biblical scholars all targeting their presentations toward the discriminating non-professional.

I will likely be returning to Jerusalem during spring break 2017. This time I will be accompanied by a number of scholars from UNC Charlotte who will be examining various sections of Mount Zion using the latest technology to begin to assemble a picture of the area as it looked in the first century. Stay tuned for further developments.

And, as has become standard now, I am once again teaching a whole crop of new UNCC students the basics of New Testament history and textual criticism. I am looking forward to a very productive year.

With the next post, I hope to update you on some wonderful books I have been reading that I can recommend to my blog readers. Til next time…

Another Season Complete!

Digging at Mount Zion in Jerusalem, sponsored by the University of North Carolina at Charlotte (where I teach!) has come to a close for this 2016 season. A great write-up about the dig and its associated discoveries was published July 13, 2016 in Jerusalem’s Haaretz news website in an article called “Archaeologists Uncover Second Temple-era Priestly Quarter of Jerusalem.” You can read it here:

http://www.haaretz.com/jewish/archaeology/.premium-1.730486.

Come join us next year for the final concluding season at this amazing site. No experience necessary! Check out digmountzion.com for further information.