Just Published! Meet Paul Again for the First Time: Jewish Apostle of Pagan Redemption

Meet Paul Front Cover

I am happy to announce the publication of my latest book, Meet Paul Again for the First Time: Jewish Apostle of Pagan Redemption (Wipf and Stock, 2021). This book offers a new way to read and understand the self-styled “apostle to the Gentiles,” not as a hopeless sinner, not as an apostate Jew, not as a founder of a new religion, and not as a teacher of a “law-free gospel.” This approach takes Paul at his word. We discover that he was a faithful Jew, a mystic receiver of revelation, and one chosen by God to fulfill the end-time Biblical prophecies. His mission: to bring the non-Jewish nations into a right relationship with the God of Israel and enable them to join their Jewish brothers and sisters and be preserved from the wrathful judgment due shortly on the great and terrible Day of the Lord. Check out my post at davidchristianclausen.com for more or go directly to https://wipfandstock.com/9781666719567/meet-paul-again-for-the-first-time/ or  https://www.amazon.com/Meet-Paul-Again-First-Time/dp/1666719560/ref=sr_1_1?keywords=9781666719567&qid=1640125197&sr=8-1 to get your copy today!

From the back cover:

This bold, new look at the apostle Paul will challenge longtime thinking about the “apostle to the gentiles.” Unfortunately, common misperceptions and outdated characterizations continue to prevail in mainstream teaching and preaching about Paul. Meet Paul Again for the First Time introduces readers to a brand-new Paul which, as it turns out, was the original Paul all along. With clarity and purpose, Clausen rejects unfounded preconceptions about the apostle. For example, he did not teach a “law-free gospel,” he did not reject Judaism or the law, and he did not see himself as a miserable sinner who found forgiveness only in Christ. Based on a reappraisal of first-century Judaism, recognition of the pagan targets of Paul’s mission, and an appreciation for Paul’s skill as a Greco-Roman rhetorician and interpreter of Jewish scripture, Meet Paul Again brings consistency and clarity to critical Pauline concepts including the new covenant, works of the law, preservation and deliverance, the future of Israel, and the status of gentiles in God’s family. Paul’s was a mission of inclusiveness. His primary objective was to preserve sinning gentiles from God’s wrath, and welcome them in worship beside their Jewish brothers and sisters, before the imminent arrival of the great and terrible Day of the Lord.


“A new paradigm for reading the apostle Paul has recently emerged: Paul addresses only ‘gentiles’ and should be read within, not in opposition to, his native Judaism. Informed by this perspective, Clausen presents a different but still recognizable image of Paul. This liberated Paul’ originates from a consistent reading of Paul’s addressees as gentile, enhanced by clear thinking and uncluttered presentation. Scholars, students, and interested wider readership will welcome this thought-provoking ‘reconstructed Paul.’” William S. Campbell, University of Potsdam (author of Nations in the Divine Economy: Paul’s Covenantal Hermeneutics and Participation in Christ; and Unity and Diversity in Christ: Interpreting Paul in Context)

“In clear, concise, and careful style, Clausen introduces readers to many of the changes taking place in Pauline scholarship, especially among those rereading Paul within Judaism, at the same time advancing many new insights on specific topics and texts. Anyone interested in discovering ways to understand Paul apart from the traditional (and New Perspective) negative characterizations of Jews, Judaism, and Torah observance will without doubt find this a very welcome contribution.” Mark D. Nanos, Lund University (author of Reading Paul within Judaism; The Galatians Debate; Reading Romans within Judaism; Reading Corinthians and Philippians within Judaism; The Mystery of Romans: The Jewish Context of Paul’s Letters; and Paul within Judaism: Restoring the First-Century Context to the Apostle [with Magnus Zetterholm])

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, at least in the U.S.) 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 occur at different times.

The story of Jesus’s arrival according to the Gospel of Luke tells of shepherds who come to Bethlehem 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. For obvious reasons, this event is left out of nativity scene recreations.

The 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?”

‘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 Hellenists (Greek-acculturated people) 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 said by non-believers of the man he thought once possessed greater wisdom and power than others.

Did Baby Jesus Go to Egypt?

As many readers know, there are two stories of Jesus’s birth and childhood in the New Testament. They are told in the Gospels of Matthew and Luke but the stories are quite different. Beyond the core themes shared by both authors (Mary becomes pregnant but not by Joseph; Jesus is born in Bethlehem) the stories feature differing details and emphases. It is the Gospel of Matthew, for example, that relates such unique narrative elements as the moving star, the arrival of the magi, the attempt by King Herod to execute the baby Jesus, and the family’s brief trip to Egypt to escape Herod’s wrath. Why Egypt? Is such a trip even historical? We may never know the answer to the second question but we can offer quite a bit of insight into why Jesus and his family might have been portrayed as going to Egypt.

The Gospel of Matthew is considered by many scholars to be the most “Jewish” gospel of the four New Testament gospels although others have debated this assessment. Either way, the author is unique in crediting so much of Jesus’s activity to the fulfillment of Jewish prophecy. Multiple times we encounter such explanations for the things Jesus does as taking place “to fulfill what was spoken by the prophet” (Matt. 21:4 NET). If we read the gospel with this in mind, we can assume that the author wanted Jesus’s trip to Egypt to fulfill a scriptural prophecy. In fact, the author is quite clear about this. He wrote, “In this way what was spoken by the Lord through the prophet was fulfilled: ‘I called my Son out of Egypt.’” (Matt. 2:15 NET). The “prophecy” in question is from the Book of Hosea (11:1 NET): “When Israel was a young man, I loved him like a son, and I summoned my son out of Egypt.”

The Gospel of Matthew is concerned not only with providing evidence that Jesus was God’s son in a unique way (Israel, too, is often characterized as God’s son in the Jewish scriptures) but that he is a new, updated Moses. Like Moses, Jesus was saved from a wrathful potentate who wanted to destroy Israelite/Jewish babies. Like Moses, Jesus comes out of Egypt (as Moses and Israel did in the Exodus). And like Israel itself which followed the patriarch (ancient father) Joseph, Jesus initially goes with his “father” Joseph into the land of Egypt.

It is a theological question, and thus a matter of faith, whether Jesus actually fulfilled all of the prophecies Matthew suggests or whether the author searched for prophesies in the scriptures in order to place them into the context of Jesus’s life. Was the prophecy about Egypt so important that Matthew felt compelled to write a story to show that Jesus fulfilled it? Or did Jesus actually go to Egypt and Matthew later found a prophecy that fit the circumstances?

Continue reading “Did Baby Jesus Go to Egypt?”

The Church of the Nativity in Bethlehem


In Bethlehem, somewhat off the path beaten by most tourists, lies the Church of the Nativity, so called for the tradition that it was here in the manger-cave below that Jesus was born. The tradition is quite old and led the emperor Constantine to erect a basilica here in the early 4th century. Crusaders rebuilt and restored the church in the 12th century. Remains from both these eras are clearly visible in the lower levels of the structure.


As for the interior of the main church, it is, unfortunately, undergoing extensive restorative work and is mostly shrouded in tarpaulins and cannot be seen. Nevertheless, the cave in which Jesus was supposedly born remains somewhat accessible beneath this ornate shrine. (One may peer through the hole on the floor of the shrine to see the cave.)


Very beautiful to look at and peaceful to walk through is the courtyard outside the church. Statues of Mary, the mother of Jesus, and of St. Jerome, the Christian cleric and scholar who supposedly lived in the nativity cave in the fourth century, decorate the enclosed retreat.


Was Jesus Born on December 25?

The Christmas season often leads to many questions about the historicity of events surrounding the birth of Jesus. In this post, I would like to survey the historical evidence for the celebration of Christmas and the establishment of its date which did not necessarily happen at the same time. It may be surprising to learn that the Eastern and Western Churches initially recognized Christ’s birthday on different days! But in both regions of the church, the feast of Christmas only began to be celebrated in the fourth century.

Christmas was not immediately seen as important to the earliest Christians as Easter was. Debates about the date of Easter ran throughout the second century. Some in the early church celebrated Jesus’s resurrection on the first Sunday after Passover (based on New Testament gospel accounts) while others focused on the death of Jesus and celebrated it on the night of Passover, whatever day of the week it occurred.

The earliest evidence for dating the birth of Christ by members of the Eastern Church (going clockwise around the Mediterranean from Greece to Asia Minor, Syria, Palestine and Egypt) can be traced to the second century as well. Christian theologian Clement of Alexandria, Egypt (c. 150-215), believed that Jesus was born on November 18 in 3 BC (more about how Christ can be born “before Christ” later). In his book Stromata (“Miscellanies”) Clement also noted that followers of the Gnostic heretic Basilides chose May 20 as Jesus’s birthday. As we will see below, Clement may have confused the Basilidean’s reckoning of Jesus’s conception (the incarnation) with that of his birth.

Epiphanius, the fourth-century bishop of Salamis on the island of Cyprus, wrote in his book Panarion (“Medicine Chest”) that a group of heretics called the Alogoi (“anti-logos”), opponents of the theology expressed in the Gospel of John, thought that Jesus was born in the year equivalent to 9 AD! Nevertheless, they dated Mary’s conception to either June 20 or May 21, the latter in agreement with the date given by the followers of Basilides for Jesus’s birth according to Clement but probably misunderstood as the date of his incarnation. Epiphanius himself accepted June 20 as the date of Mary’s conception. To arrive at the date for Christmas, he followed a tradition in which it was said that Mary’s pregnancy lasted seven lunar months less four days (202 days). An inclusive count results in Jesus’s birth being on January 6, the most popular date in the East for this event. Epiphanius accepted the year of Jesus’s birth as equivalent to 3/2 BC.

The Christian theologians of the western church (going clockwise around the Mediterranean from North Africa to Spain, Gaul, and Italy) also accepted the year of Jesus’ birth as 3/2 BC (Irenaeus, Tertullian, Origen, Eusebius). The Christian-generated Roman City Calendar (Chronograph) of 354 AD (probably reflecting the situation from as early as 336) gave the accepted birth date of Christ as December 25.

Future Eastern bishop of Constantinople, John Chrysostom, wrote in 386 that within the previous ten years, his church and others in the East had begun to follow the Western dating of Christmas as December 25. He supported his conclusion based on details he derived from the Gospel of Luke, chapter 1.

Chrysostom misinterpreted Luke 1:9 as indicating that Zechariah, the father of John the Baptist, was the Jewish high priest at the time of the announcement of John’s conception. This was because only the high priest could enter the Holy of Holies, the innermost and holiest part of the Jerusalem Temple. This entry could only be done on the Day of Atonement (Tishri 10; see Lev. 16, Num. 15:25, Heb. 9:7). Since Zechariah “had entered the temple of the Lord” when the angel announced John’s conception, Chrysostom concluded that Zechariah was the high priest and that Tishri 10 was the date of John’s conception. (In Chrysostom’s time, Tishri 10 fell on September 20.) Six months later, according to Luke 1:26, Mary received an angelic announcement that she would conceive. Chrysostom resolved that she had conceived the following month (April). Counting nine months out, inclusive of April, he affirmed that the month of Jesus’s birth was December. This was enough for Chrysostom to accept December 25 rather than January 6 as Jesus’s birth date.

Both dates, December 25 and January 6, were important in the ancient world. Both were variously given as dates of the winter solstice, the time when “the sun stands still” and the days begin to grow longer (today the solstice is calculated as December 21). Important pagan festivals were celebrated on these dates including Isis festivals in Rome. In Egypt, on January 5/6, a ceremony was held to mark the day of Kore, the virgin, who gave birth to Aion, a Hellenistic deity associated with time. Similar ceremonies were held at Petra and Elusa in Arabia according to Epiphanius. December 25, on the other hand, was the date of the pagan festival honoring Deus Sol Invictus (“the Unconquered God of the Sun”) who had been the official deity of the Roman empire since 274 AD. There were even Biblical allusions to the Messiah arising during the solstice according to some.  Malachi writes (4:2), “And for you who fear my name a sun of righteousness shall rise, and healing is in its wings.” As the December date gained supremacy throughout the Christian church, the January date, called the Epiphany, was kept to honor the coming of the magi, that is, the “manifestation” of Christ to the Gentiles, among other things.

Back to the question of how Christ came to be born “before Christ” (BC). This difficulty began with the method by which time was calculated in the ancient Roman world. In Jesus’s time and place, dates were reckoned with respect to the founding of Rome. The death of Herod the Great, for example, was recorded as occurring in 750 AUC (Anno Urbis Conditae = “from the founding of the city” of Rome). The year is equivalent by our modern reckoning to 4 BC. According to the Gospel of Matthew 2:16, Herod began looking to kill infants in Bethlehem who had been born within the previous two years (obviously, before Herod’s death). Thus, Jesus is reckoned by most scholars to have been born about 748 AUC (6 BC). But that still doesn’t answer the question of how Jesus came to be born “BC”.

After the advent of the Roman Emperor Constantine (r. 324-337), many Christians began to calculate time from the date of the greatest persecution to have ever been launched against them. This occurred under the former Emperor Diocletian who was crowned emperor on September 17, 284. Egyptian Christians, for example, began to calculate the “Diocletian era” as beginning on New Year’s Day of that year: August 29, 284. It was also known by some as the “Era of the Martyrs” and was a widely used dating method until the 8th century. Abyssinian and Coptic Christians still use it.

In the 6th century, a Scythian monk, Dionysius Exiguus (Dionysius “the short”), attempted to reconcile a number of different tables that were used for calculating future Easters. He ignored dates that had been calculated based on the era of the “tyrant” Diocletian, but began to number the years from what he considered to be the “Year of our Lord Jesus Christ,” that is, from his incarnation. Unfortunately, Dionysius ignored earlier attempts to date Jesus’s birth (as we saw above, many had concluded that it occurred in years equivalent to our 3/2 BC) and reckoned the birth of Jesus as occurring on December 25, 1 BC or 1 AD (scholars are divided on this point).

Dionysius’s efforts have resulted in the peculiar situation in which Jesus’s birth is now reckoned to have occurred “Before Christ” and, according to Dionysius, after Herod’s death despite New Testament evidence to the contrary. It is clear, however, based on the best evidence that Herod died in 750 AUC (in our reckoning 4 BC) and Jesus was born shortly before that.

Are either the dates January 6 or December 25 historically probable as the dates of Jesus’s birth? The oldest traditions agree that Jesus was conceived in the spring and born in the mid-winter. But we cannot say with certainty when or especially on what date Jesus was born. January 1 and December 25 have just as much chance as any of being historically correct. We can never know for certain, so maybe it is best not to worry about it and just enjoy the season. Merry Christmas.

Was Jesus Born on January 6?

Some ancient Christians thought so. In fact, other dates were considered as well.

A heretical Christian group (known as the Alogi) located in Asia Minor (modern Turkey) apparently dated Jesus’s birth on (what would for us be) either June 20 or May 21 (depending on the reading) in the year 9 CE. An unrelated group of Christian Gnostics in Egypt (followers of the Gnostic teacher Basilides) gave a similar date for Jesus’s birth: May 20. They also believed that Jesus’s baptism occurred on this same date exactly thirty years later.

Early Christian theologian and historian, Epiphanius of Salamis (315-403 CE), claimed that the May date was actually the date of Jesus’s conception rather than his actual birth. Was this what the heretical groups noted above originally intended? Epiphanius wrote that the actual date of Jesus’s birth was on January 6, a winter solstice date (when one of the Earth’s poles has its maximum tilt away from the Sun), and he cites a number of traditions to prove it. This date became known as Epiphany, which comes from the Greek word for “the appearing” as it is used in 2 Timothy 1:9-10:

He is the one who saved us and called us with a holy calling, not based on our works but on his own purpose and grace, granted to us in Christ Jesus before time began, but now made visible through the appearing (epiphaneias) of our Savior Christ Jesus. (1 Tim. 1:9-10 NET)

Thus, many early Christians thought that January 6 was the date that Jesus, the glory of God, appeared on earth and the same date that, thirty years later, the Spirit appeared to Jesus as a dove as it entered him during his baptism.

Another tradition understood that Mary’s pregnancy lasted “ten months less fourteen days and eight hours,” or, put another way, “nine months plus fifteen days and four hours.” Those Christians, counting backward from Jesus’s presumed birthdate of January 6, derived the date of Mary’s conception as March 20. Coincidentally, that would be the same date that they also believed Jesus was crucified. Therefore, some Christians claimed that Jesus both came into the womb of an earthly, human woman and left the earth as a human being on March 20.

Scholar Jack Finegan notes that the birth date of January 6 may have been chosen to supplant a popular, pagan religious ceremony dedicated to the goddess Kore that was held on that date in such locales as Egypt and Arabia. On the night of January 5 and the morning of January 6…

“The participants stay awake all night…making music to the idol with songs and flutes. In the early morning at cockcrow they descend by torchlight to a subterranean shrine and bring forth a wooden image, marked with the sign of a cross and a star of gold on hands, knees, and head. This image they carry in procession to musical accompaniment, and then return it to the crypt. They explain the meaning of the ceremony to the effect that in this hour this day Kore, the virgin, gave birth to the Aion.” (Handbook of Biblical Chronology, pg. 325)

December 25 was also a winter solstice date as well as the date of another pagan festival. It has equal claims on early tradition as being the date of Jesus’s birth, deriving from at least the second or third century. Unfortunately, December 25 has no greater claim to authenticity than January 6. Nevertheless, fourth-century theologian John Chrysostom defended this date by claiming that, since John the Baptist, in his view, was conceived between September 25 and October 1 (the Feast of Tabernacles), then Mary would have conceived Jesus six months later (Luke 1:26) in April. Nine months after that (counting inclusively), Jesus was born on December 25.

As many readers will already know, December 25 was the date of the pagan festival of Sol Invictus, the “Invincible Sun.” As Finegan points out:

“The cult of Deus Sol Invictus was still at its height in the time of Constantine and the portrait of the sun god was on the coins of the emperor, but with his rise to sole rule of the empire (A.D. 323-337) Constantine was free to accept Christianity openly. Thereafter his coins and inscriptions were no longer offensive to Christians and Dec 25 was freely the birthday of Christ, as attested in the Roman city calendar in A.D. 336.” (pg. 328)

Regardless of the date chosen, ancient Christians seemed to agree that Jesus was conceived in the spring (shepherds abiding in the fields?) and born in the mid-winter. Whether either of these choices are historically accurate is debatable. Each has a 1/365 chance of being right! The Feast of Epiphany is still celebrated in Christianity either as the day of the visitation of the Magi to Jesus’s crib (Western tradition) or the date on which Jesus was baptized (Eastern tradition). While most churches continue to celebrate Epiphany on January 6, others do so on January 1 or even January 19. Some call it Twelfth Night, Three Kings’ Day, or Little Christmas. Whether or not Jesus was born on this date, it remains a prominent festival in the Christian calendar.

A Case for Enoch

Arguments are sometimes made that one or more ancient Jewish or Christian texts, ultimately omitted from the canons of both faiths, might comfortably belong in the Bible and should be added to it. They point to the fact that many Jewish and Christian texts were considered authoritative prior to the establishment of those canons but were, at the last moment so to speak, left out, sometimes without explanation.

Those Jewish texts now collected as the Apocrypha in some Bibles were ultimately omitted from the Hebrew canon. Yet they were once part of the early Greek Bible. Early Christians relied on the Greek Jewish Bible for centuries until Jerome began to argue that the texts later omitted by the rabbis as they established their Hebrew canon should probably be omitted from the Christian canon as well. And so they were (though Roman Catholic and Orthodox Christians continue to regard them as at least deutero-canonical).

The development of the New Testament followed similar lines. A number of early Christian texts were included in the Christian Bible but later removed. A 4th-century Bible, known today as Codex Sinaiticus, included the Christian compositions The Shepherd by Hermas and the Letter of Barnabas. In the 4th century, according to a manuscript known as the Muratorian fragment, other Christians were being warned not to consider The Shepherd canonical. The Muratorian fragment also rejects certain letters attributed to Paul including one to the Laodiceans and one to the Alexandrians. The Apocalypse of Peter, accepted by some early Christians as canonical, was similarly dismissed in this fragment. Fourth-century Egyptian bishop Athanasius even had to write his priests instructing them to refrain from including The Shepherd and also the Didache (“Teaching of the Apostles”) in the church readings.

Once both Hebrew and Christian canons stabilized there seems to have been little appetite to reform either one. As we said, the omitted Greek Jewish texts were preserved for Christian reading as either apocryphal or, in the case of Roman Catholic and Orthodox bibles, deutero-canonical. Rejected Christian texts were generally condemned to the dust heap of history only to be rediscovered in modern times.

One text that was both forgotten by most Jews and Christians after the 4th century and yet continues to be included in one Christian canon is the First Book of Enoch. The Ethiopic Orthodox Church accepts 1 Enoch in its biblical canon. It is fortunate for us that it does because the Ethiopic language version is the only complete version of the text available to us so far. Nevertheless, fragments of most of the work have been discovered among the Dead Sea Scrolls indicating that the composition dates from as early as the 3rd century B.C.E. We now know that the entire work was originally composed in Judea in either Hebrew or Aramaic (or both). Let’s take a closer look at 1 Enoch. There is good reason for both Christians and Jews to become familiar with this ancient text. It is one of our earliest representatives of the apocalyptic movement within Judaism. As should also be obvious, apocalyptic beliefs informed nascent Christianity as well.

Continue reading “A Case for Enoch”

A New Look at the Mysterious Intruders in the Letter of Jude

The Letter of Jude, one of the shortest texts of the New Testament and of the entire Christian Bible (25 verses), is often overlooked for devotional reading or relegated to the sidelines when investigating early Christianity. A review of the many commentators on Jude makes the reason for this neglect clear. The letter has been traditionally interpreted as representing a battle of words between competing Christian theologians. The author of Jude brings to the fight a number of literary examples of God’s past punishments of the wicked. But I think the author is reacting more to something that is happening in the church of his addressees and not just arguing Christian doctrine. This little letter gives us an excellent if tiny window into a situation that probably occurred in a number of early churches as the struggle for Jewish versus Gentile control of the congregations grew in intensity.

Let’s dispense with the preliminaries first. The letter’s author self-identifies as Ioudas in Greek, that is, Judas or Judah. The English “Jude” is often preferred as it avoids any association of the author with Judas Iscariot but it likewise hides the author’s connection with Judaism. That is unfortunate. I will identify him as Judah. This Judah was probably meant to be understood as one of Jesus’s brothers (Mark 6:3) whether or not he actually was. In other words, the author may have claimed kinship with Jesus in order to promote his views and establish authority for the letter. I side with those scholars who consider the work a product of the late first or early second century, that is, after the time of the historical Judah. That decision is based on the good Greek grammar of the letter, its use of the word faith (pistis) as a body of beliefs rather than trust in Christ/God, its mention of “our common salvation,” and the representation of the apostles as figures of the past. Be that as it may, its date of origin does not affect our review of the text.

The letter was written by a Jewish follower of Christ. Its intended audience was a Christian church that was predominantly Jewish but had Gentile members as well. These two facts can be deduced from references, some of which are obscure, to Jewish literature both Biblical and pseudepigraphical. Both writer and reader would have had to be familiar with the references for there to have been a profitable exchange of meaning. I propose that the intended readers belonged to a church in the city of Antioch or elsewhere in Syria where Jewish customs prevailed in Christian churches for a long time.

At the outset of the letter, Judah refers to “those who have crept in” to the congregation and made trouble. The identity of these mysterious creepers has occupied scholars of Jude for a long time. I submit that they were not Christians with an alternative Christology (such as Gnosticism) but pagan mystics who were invited into the church, possibly as catechumens or even as authority figures, by some of the Gentile members. But the interlopers had a hidden agenda: they sought to ridicule the beliefs and disrupt the practices of the congregation. Let’s look at the clues.

The author describes the infiltrators as “ungodly” (asebeis; vss 4, 15 [3x], 18). He wrote that they denied Christ (4), committed sexual sins (7-8), indulged in corruption like unreasoning animals (10), were mockers (18), and psychical (natural) rather than spiritual men (19). Judah says they were predestined for judgment (v 4).

In my view, the denial of Christ and the rejection of God (ungodly) both point to pagans. Yet somehow these interlopers were admitted into the congregation. Therefore they may have been accepted provisionally as guests, catechumens, or teachers (vs 4). They have been allowed to participate in the Christian “love feasts” (agapais; vs 12). But Judah implies that their presence profanes the feasts. They were like “hidden reefs” (12), unforeseen and unexpected, upon which the boat of Christian ritual celebration had crashed. Is it possible, as some claim, that intra-Christian antagonisms, enflamed by “false teachers,” are in view? Or is it more likely that an incursion has taken place by mean-spirited outsiders? Given the author’s choice of proof texts used to characterize the wickedness of the interlopers, I think a solid case can be made that they were disingenuous pagans.

The first prooftext is biblical and recalls the rescuing of the Hebrews (by God? by Jesus?) from Egyptian slavery (5). But Judah adds that “[God] in the second place destroyed the ones who did not believe.” Most scholars understand this reference to refer to the destruction of some of the liberated Hebrews due to their unfaithful behavior at the foot of Mount Sinai where Moses received the commandments. But there is another possibility. Judah may be referring to the destruction of pharaoh’s armies in the Red Sea, a miracle of God that saved the Hebrews and destroyed the pagan Egyptian forces (Ex 15:4).

Judah’s next example speaks of the evil angels who once broke out of heaven but now reside in hell (“nether gloom”) awaiting judgment (6). These are demons (Nephilim), probably the ones who fornicated with human women according to Torah (Gen 6:4) and whose demonic roles were elaborated in later Jewish writings (such as 1 Enoch and Jubilees). Jewish speculation considered these fallen angels to be the false gods worshipped by pagans.

Next, Judah makes reference to Sodom and Gomorrah. The interlopers are compared to the residents of these cities who “whored about and went in pursuit of other flesh” (7). Many scholars suggest that the “other flesh” were Lot’s angelic visitors with whom the inhabitants wanted to have sex. But there is Jewish literature from around the time of the Letter of Jude that accuses the residents of Sodom with human sexual misbehavior typical of pagans (see, for example, Philo, On Abraham 26:133-6).

Judah’s three historical examples all seem to point to the punishment of pagans or pagan-style behavior. Judah writes that “in the same way these dreamers [the infiltrators] defile the flesh” (8). Calling them dreamers or visionaries indicates they may have appealed to supernatural authority, divinations, or revelations that called into question the practices and beliefs of the Christians. That they defiled the flesh may mean that they did not observe Jewish restrictions regarding sexual activity.

Judah went on to cite other historical examples with which to compare the intruders and to make his case that whatever the intruders could not understand (e.g., Christian teaching), “they blasphemed” (8). He was making the case that what is impure contaminates what is holy.

First, Judah charges the intruders with “traveling the path of Cain” (11). Cain’s actions brought the denial of God (godlessness) into the world (see Josephus, Antiquities 1:60-61). These interlopers would therefore be considered Cainites, a term later used for gnostic Christian groups who turned Cain into a hero. Despite what some scholars suggest, however, I do not think Gnosticism is in view in the church being addressed.

Judah then charges the intruders with “abandoning themselves to the error of Balaam” (11). Balaam was a pagan seer in the days of the Hebrew invasion of Canaan (Num 22-24). At that time, the fearful Moabite king offered money to Balaam to prophesy against the Hebrews and stop their army’s progress. The charge made by Judah likely reinforces his identification of the interlopers as pagan diviners who, like Balaam, seek to work against God’s purposes.

Finally, Judah refers to the “sedition of Korah” (11). He means, of course, the Korah mentioned in Numbers 16. Korah was snubbed in his efforts to be awarded honors by Moses. His unmet demands for authority led him to recruit members of the tribe of Reuben and others to challenge Moses. God opened up the earth to swallow the leaders of this revolt and sent fire to burn the remaining troublemakers. Those these insurrectionists are not identified as pagans, they do become godless (damned) and profane the holy community.

Judah’s final literary citation comes from the first century BCE apocalyptic work known as First Enoch 1:9 (14-15). In the prophecy chosen by Judah from this pseudepigraphical text, God was expected to bring his holy army in order to defeat ungodliness at the end of days. Again, ungodly means without God—in a Jewish context this refers to those outside the covenant, i.e., pagans. Judah reinforces the prophecy with another made “by the apostles of our Lord Jesus Christ” to the effect that there would be such men as these interlopers who “follow after their own desires for ungodly things” (18).

In summary, someone, probably Gentile Christ-followers, had invited into the church certain pagan mystics who feigned an interest in Christianity but later revealed their true colors. They were only interested in defaming and ridiculing Christ-faith and perhaps taking over the community on behalf of their own theology. The Jewish Judah wrote to the largely Jewish membership of this church and warned them both of the danger such intruders posed and the ultimate fate that awaited the intruders at the judgment (which perhaps attests to the difficulty of removing them). The letter ends by encouraging forgiveness of those of the congregation who had succumbed to doubt. He urges the preservation of their salvation “by seizing them out of the fire” (23). “Have mercy on them in fear,” he wrote, “hating even the inner tunic stained by the flesh” (23).

Did Jews Reject Christ Because His Followers Claimed He Was Divine?

It is a common misunderstanding that Jews rejected Jesus of Nazareth as the Messiah because his followers declared that he had been made divine. Quick reflection ought to dispel such a notion. All of Jesus’s early followers were Jews and all of them believed that he was divine. So how could monotheistic Jews make the claim that Jesus resided with God in heaven and still consider themselves Jews?

The answer is that divinity was a much broader concept in the ancient world. The heavens of both pagans and Jews were populated by many divine figures. Among the Romans, a number of chief gods like Jupiter (Zeus), Juno (Hera), Pluto (Hades), and Mars (Ares) populated the celestial realms competing for space with localized, ethnic deities like Isis and Osiris in Egypt, Cybele in Anatolia, and Mithras from Persia. Tribal and clannish gods filled out the ranks of the supernatural along with the daimones, nature gods, and spirits. Even humans could enter the divine realm. Pharaohs were considered gods as were certain Roman emperors.

The Jewish world was little different. Although all Jews recognized YHWH as their chief god, there were divine “sons of God” (Gen 6:2-4; Job 1:6, 2:1, 38:7) angels (Gen 1:26, 24:7; Exod 3:2; Num 22; etc.) cherubim (Ezek 10) and seraphim (Isa 6) in the heavens. The Watchers were a special class of angel (1 Enoch 1-36). Satan (Matt 4:10, etc.) and other hostile supernatural forces were acknowledged to exist by the time of Jesus. Mastemah (Book of Jubilees), Belial (Prov 6:12 “adam beli-yaal”), and Asmodeus (Tobit 3:8, 16) joined their ranks. Even humans were acknowledged to become divine. The Torah tells of Enoch who “walked with God, and then he disappeared because God took him away” (Gen 5:24, NET). The historical books of the kings told how “suddenly a fiery chariot pulled by fiery horses appeared . . . and Elijah went up to heaven in a windstorm” (2 Kgs 2:11, NET). Later Jewish speculation about Moses concluded that he, too, had become divine probably owing to the Torah’s claim that God “buried him in the land of Moab near Beth Peor, but no one knows his exact burial place to this very day” (Deut 34:6, NET). Abraham, Isaac, and Jacob were thought to be living in heaven by the time of Jesus. The gospels attest to Jesus’s belief in their divine nature, as well (Mark 9:4, 12:26-27; Luke 16:22).

So, there was no a priori reason why a Jew could not believe that a human had been made divine. That was, after all, the claim made by all his followers. Christ had risen and would come again. Most Jews, however, objected to the idea that Jesus of Nazareth had become divine, not that a human could not ascend to live with God.

Jesus’s followers did not make the claim that the risen Christ was synonymous with YHWH or God the Father. Even the apostle Paul, who some revere as the founder of Christianity, subjugated Christ to God the Father (1 Cor 15:28). But some Jewish believers could go so far as to identify Christ with an integral aspect of God the Father. Take for example the concept of God’s Wisdom.

Paul identified Christ as God’s Wisdom. Wisdom, normally described in feminine terms due to the word’s grammatical gender, was conceived by some as an anthropomorphized expression of, or manifestation of God. Though God’s Wisdom was God’s, she could function independently on God’s behalf. We learn a lot about Wisdom from the Bible (Job, Proverbs, Ecclesiastes), as well as from a number of intertestamental Jewish texts (the Wisdom of Solomon, the Wisdom of Ben Sira) considered authoritative by many Jews in the Greek-speaking world at the time of Jesus and Paul and now found in the apocryphal or deutero-canonical sections of modern Christian Bibles.

Wisdom was God’s first created entity and assisted God with the creation itself. Wisdom, speaking for herself, proclaimed that . . .

“From eternity I was appointed, from the beginning, from before the world existed . . . When he established the heavens, I was there; when he marked out the horizon over the face of the deep, when he established the clouds above . . . when he marked out the foundations of the earth, then I was beside him as a master craftsman, and I was his delight day by day, rejoicing before him at all times, rejoicing in the habitable part of his earth, and delighting in its people.” (Prov 8:23-31, NET).

Notice what Paul says about Christ as God’s Wisdom: “But to those who are called, both Jews and Greeks, Christ is the power of God and the Wisdom of God” (1 Cor 1:24, NET) and God “is the reason you have a relationship with Christ Jesus, who became for us Wisdom from God, and righteousness and sanctification and redemption” (1 Cor 1:30, NET). Paul called Christ “the Wisdom of God, hidden in a mystery, that God determined before the ages for our glory” (1 Cor. 2:7, NET).

Notice how people traditionally had a bad habit of rejecting God’s Wisdom.

Wisdom calls out in the street, she shouts loudly in the plazas; at the head of the noisy streets she calls, in the entrances of the gates in the city she utters her words: “How long will you simpletons love naiveté? How long will mockers delight in mockery and fools hate knowledge? If only you will respond to my rebuke, then I will pour out my thoughts to you and I will make my words known to you. However, because I called but you refused to listen, because I stretched out my hand but no one paid attention, because you neglected all my advice, and did not comply with my rebuke” (Prov 1:20-25, NET).

This is just how Christ was portrayed in the gospels: rejected yet vindicated by his followers.

“To what then should I compare the people of this generation, and what are they like? They are like children sitting in the marketplace and calling out to one another, ‘We played the flute for you, yet you did not dance; we wailed in mourning, yet you did not weep’ . . .  The Son of Man has come eating and drinking, and you say, ‘Look at him, a glutton and a drunk, a friend of tax collectors and sinners!’ But Wisdom is vindicated by all her children” (Luke 7:31-35, NET).

This is the closest that Jews would come to identifying Jesus Christ with God himself. It is not quite the same as saying that Jesus was one of three persons in the Godhead, as later trinitarian Gentile Christians would creedalize, but it was close. It should cause us to reassess the “high christological” statements made about Christ throughout the New Testament. Perhaps quite a few of them were actually acceptable to many Torah-observant Jews.