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).

Continue reading “A New Perspective on Paul?”

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

Is the “Lord’s Prayer” Apocalyptic?

Perhaps the most quoted of Jesus’s sayings is a short, three- or four-verse prayer, one which Jesus actually instructed his followers to recite. And they do. The “Lord’s Prayer” is routinely offered in virtually every Christian church by members of virtually every Christian denomination. But do these words mean the same to the faithful today as they did to those who first heard Jesus teach them? Were they meant as a plea for help with daily life and a promise of continued ethical behavior? While people can certainly infuse any meaning they wish into their own prayers, I suggest that originally these words of Jesus were not meant to serve as a program for living. They are better understood within the context of the apocalyptic preaching of an apocalyptic prophet.

Just what is an apocalyptic prophet? The term is based on a type of ancient Jewish writing now known as an “apocalypse.” In its original Greek, the word apocalypse means “revelation.” Thus, apocalyptic writings propose to offer revelation given by God or another heavenly being to the author who often writes under an assumed name, usually that of a Biblical figure from the past. Examples of such texts include The First Book of Enoch, The Fourth Book of Ezra, The (Syriac) Apocalypse of Baruch and The Apocalypse of Abraham. Parts of the Biblical book of Daniel are apocalyptic. Early Christians adopted this style of writing and composed their own apocalyptic texts. The New Testament contains The Apocalypse of John. Other Christian examples include The Apocalypse of Peter and The Apocalypse of Paul, both written pseudonymously long after the deaths of their presumed authors.

The revelations received by the writers of these texts usually include a cosmic recreation of worldly events as well as a future forecast. At the time the revelations are received and written down, life looks bleak for both the author and his community. They were usually facing a severe crisis that threatened their very existence as a people. The world powers of the day were arraigned against them. But fear not, says the writer. These malevolent forces are destined for destruction and the evildoers (whoever they happened to be) will be destroyed. God will then restore the world and reward his loyal and righteous followers with new life in a new age, one like the Kingdom of God promised by Jesus.

Apocalyptic prophets saw themselves as messengers who were charged with bringing their revelations to the people. John the Baptist was such a prophet. He warned that the wheat (the righteous and loyal followers of God) was about to be separated from the chaff (the wicked, ruling powers) and that the chaff would burn in fire. According to John, the ax (of final judgment) was already at the root of the trees (people) and those trees that did not produce good fruit (the wicked) would be chopped down.

Jesus, according to most scholars, was also an apocalyptic prophet. There is much to commend this view. According to the gospels, Jesus often warned of a coming judgment in which a heavenly judge called the Son of Man would separate the righteous from the wicked (Matthew 13:41, 16:27 etc.). Jesus also seems to have believed that the coming of God’s rule, which he referred to as the Kingdom – or better “Kingship” – of God, would come during his generation (Mark 13:30). Apocalyptic prophets and writers usually emphasized the imminence of such world-changing events.

Jesus differed in some ways from what we know of most apocalyptic prophets and seers. Jesus seems to have given at least equal time to the positive aspects of the coming calamity. He actually referred to his warnings as “good news.” For repentant and faithful followers, the Kingship of God would bring complete renewal to the world restoring it to the way it was intended to be. It would be like a new Garden of Eden replacing the one which was lost due to Adam and Eve’s disobedience.

Under God’s direct rule, people would once again no longer have to fret about food and clothing as they had to after being expelled from the Garden of Eden (Mat. 6:25; compare with Genesis 2:21 where Adam and Eve must begin to wear skins to cover their nakedness, and Genesis 3:17 in which Adam is sentenced to farm for his food).  In the Kingship, peace and harmony will characterize social and ecological relations (John 13:34; compare with Genesis 4:1-8 in which jealousy, duplicity, and murder mar the relationship between the first “brothers” Cain and Abel, Genesis 3:14 in which animals were set against Adam, and Genesis 3:18 in which the land began to grow thorns and thistles). Satan will no longer wreak havoc with human lives in the Kingship (Mark 3:26; compare with Genesis 3:1-5 in which the serpent successfully tempts Eve to disobey and sets humanity on its path to destruction). Physical suffering would become a thing of the past (Luke 9:2; compare with Genesis 3:16 in which Eve is promised pain in childbirth). Finally, in the Kingship, life would be eternal (Mark 10:30; compare with Genesis 3:19 in which Adam is condemned to return to dust as punishment for his disobedience). Death, humanity’s sentence for disobedience, would be overcome (Matthew 19:29, 25:26, Mark 10:17, etc.).

According to the gospels, Jesus forecasted this changing dynamic in his own work. He produced food in miraculous quantities, reached out to the socially marginalized, cast out demons, healed others of their infirmities, relieved them of their pain, and caused some to rise from the dead. By his actions, the gospels suggest, Jesus demonstrated for his followers what the kingdom would be like once it was fully established.

The authors of the Gospels of Matthew and Luke received the text of the Lord’s Prayer from an earlier, written collection of Jesus’s sayings which scholars have agreed to call “Q” (Q stands for Quelle, the German word for “source”). Q contained scores of sayings by Jesus including the famous prayer. Because the authors of Matthew and Luke have reworked their source material, or worked with different versions of Q, the prayer is rendered slightly differently in each gospel.

Our Father in heaven, hallowed by your name. Your kingdom come. Your will be done, on earth as it is in heaven. Give us this day our daily bread. And forgive us our debts, as we also have forgiven our debtors. And do not bring us to the time of trial, but rescue us from the evil one. (Matthew 6:9-12 NRSV)

Father, hallowed be your name. Your kingdom come. Give us each day our daily bread. And forgive us our sins, for we ourselves forgive everyone indebted to us. And do not bring us to the time of trial. (Luke 11:2-4 NRSV)

Luke usually preserves the original text of Q more faithfully than Matthew. In this case, however, I think Matthew preserves the apocalyptic ideas behind the prayer more in accord with Jesus’s other teachings and thus may reflect the more original form. Luke likely preserves the original word “sin” rather than Matthew’s “debts,” however. Let’s examine the prayer line by line.

To open, Jesus acknowledges the sanctity of the name of God (“Our Father in heaven, hallowed by your name”). This is the essence of the first of the Ten Commandments which also serves as the basis for the shema recited in daily prayer by many Jews: “Hear O Israel! The Lord is our God. The Lord our God is one.”

Jesus next makes the apocalyptic call that becomes our key to understanding of the rest of the prayer in its original context: “Your kingdom come.” Jesus is here calling on God to re-establish his dominion over the earth and all of his creation. This expectation is at the root of the message that he and John the Baptist have been proclaiming in their ministries. This is the same kingdom, or kingship, the benefits of which Jesus has been demonstrating through his deeds. From this point in the prayer, Jesus has his sights firmly fixed on the coming kingdom.

What will the kingdom be like when it comes? First, God’s will, his original intent for his created world once manifested in the Garden of Eden, will again be realized on earth (“Your will be done on earth…”). For now, this perfect expression of God’s intent is limited to the realm in which God resides (“…as it is in heaven”). The coming Kingdom will provide so many benefits and relieve so much suffering that a brief itemization is in order to remind the faithful of what they are praying for.

Under God’s rule, he will give food to everyone in abundance (“Give us this day our daily bread”) just as all food requirements were met for Adam and Eve in the Garden. This “daily bread” will no longer be a matter of concern: God will give it. It will not be obtained by planting seed, tilling the soil, and threshing the fields as Adam and his descendants have been sentenced to do because of their disobedience.

Under God’s rule, his faithful followers will be acquitted of all their sins (“Forgive us our sins…”; see also Mark 3:28). Both mutual forgiveness (“…for we ourselves forgive everyone indebted to us”) and forgiveness by God are hallmarks of life under God’s reign according to Jesus. Jesus and John the Baptist spoke tirelessly of forgiveness not only in the form of baptism but as part of the physical process of healing (Mark 2:5). Forgiveness is a status commensurate with life in God’s coming kingship. Forgiveness puts right the fouled relationship that exists in the present age between God and humanity and between one and another.

With the coming of God’s rule comes a judgment, a time of trial. John the Baptist predicted it and Jesus confirmed it. The righteous people hope to avoid judgment by virtue of their prior repentance and renewed faith in God. They plead for acquittal before the coming trial of judgment (“Do not bring us to the time of trial”). Jesus further instructs his followers to pray for the day when Satan and his minions are finally destroyed (“Rescue us from the evil one”). Only under God’s rule can this prayer line become possible. Rescue from evil is a prominent feature of the final victory of God reclaiming his cosmos from the demonic forces that oppose him. Jesus looked forward to the day when Satan would be defeated (Luke 10:18). The Gospel of Luke does not include this last provision in the prayer but the criteria of contextual credibility and coherence make it likely that Jesus included it in his teaching.

It is safe to say that most modern Christians interpret the Lord’s Prayer as a supplication for daily sustenance, mutual good behavior, and spiritual support. But the focus of the historical Jesus was not about good social behavior or how to deal with the mundanities of daily life. It was on the immediate future and its imminent end. By any understanding of the apocalyptic nature of Jesus’s teaching, he was calling for the kingdom to come in his lifetime bringing the benefits so eloquently outlined in his prayer.

The “Antitheses” of Jesus: Overturning Moses and Torah or Something Else?

All of the first followers of Jesus were Jews. They characterized Jesus in a number of Jewish ways: as Messiah, God’s son, a prophet. The latter designation, prophet, seems an obvious and even insufficient understanding of who Jesus was when compared with the other titles. Nevertheless, this characterization of Jesus is likely based on a prophecy from the Torah, the first five books of the Bible. In the book of Deuteronomy a future prophet like Moses is promised to God’s people (Deuteronomy 18:15, 18; see also 34:10).

Some first-century Jews expected that this prophet would arrive to herald the End Times just before God reclaimed his rule over the earth and the people inhabiting it. Some saw Jesus as this very prophet, a Moses-like figure who would, incidentally, perfectly fulfill the Torah that Moses left behind. How best to follow Torah was and continues to be a matter of utmost importance for Jews. But once God’s kingship was established on earth there would be no need for such laws. People would live in perfect righteousness and the earth would return to its original perfect state. In a world like that, laws would no longer be necessary.

According to Jesus’s followers, the herald of the New Age did come. It was Jesus. But the transformation of the earth did not occur as a result. The evil kingdoms of the world were not overthrown nor did the earth become another Garden of Eden. Thus, for Christian Jews, the Torah remained in effect and the debate continued on how best to follow it. Evidence of these concerns can be found decades after the crucifixion as written in the Gospel of Matthew.

Continue reading “The “Antitheses” of Jesus: Overturning Moses and Torah or Something Else?”

The Bloodline of Jesus? Descendants of the Holy Family

Every now and then, the subject of Jesus’s celibacy is raised, usually in connection with Mary Magdalene who some suggest was his wife. Still others believe that the tomb of Jesus has been found in Jerusalem, a tomb that contained the remains of Jesus, Mary Magdalene, and their son. While the jury is still out on such proposals, many who are interested in learning more about the historical Jesus remain unaware of the early Christian traditions that testify to other members of Jesus’s family. It is to these “lost” descendants of the Holy Family that we now turn.

Most readers of the New Testament gospels know that Jesus had brothers and sisters. His brothers were named James, Joses (“little Joseph”), Judas, and Simon (Mark 6:3); the sisters are left unnamed though early tradition knows them as Mary and Salome. An unbiased reading of the Gospel of Mark would lead to the conclusion that these children are sons and daughters of Mary and Joseph. Later Christian tradition, emphasizing sexual abstinence as a means of attaining piety, would make them Jesus’s step-brothers and step-sisters or even cousins. Identifying them in this way allowed for the belief that Mary remained a virgin her whole life and that even Joseph sired no offspring. Be that as it may, the brothers and sisters are historical figures and we know something about at least one of them beyond Mark’s meagre introduction.

“James,” an English revision of the Hebrew name Jacob, was a very important person in the life of the early community of those who believed in Messiah Jesus. He is mentioned several times in the New Testament: in the Acts of the Apostles and in Paul’s letters to the Galatians and Corinthians. There is even a letter in the New Testament attributed to him although many scholars remain doubtful as to its authenticity. Regardless, James became the undisputed leader of the apostles in Jerusalem either immediately after the crucifixion of Jesus or after the departure of Peter for places unknown (Acts 12:17).

Continue reading “The Bloodline of Jesus? Descendants of the Holy Family”

The Burial and Remains of St. Peter – A Study of the Evidence

Several years ago I prepared a paper detailing what archaeology and history have revealed to us about the last days and ultimate burial of Peter, apostle of Jesus Christ. Few scholars today would doubt the historicity of the tradition that the apostle Peter suffered martyrdom in Rome. The exact year or the circumstances that surround the event remain unclear but the common presumption that the execution took place during Nero’s retaliatory persecution of Christians blamed for the great fire of Rome in 64 C.E. remains tenable. Though knowledge of the precise date and proximate cause of Peter’s death is not necessary in terms of this paper, the general manner of it, i.e. martyrdom, and the location in which his death and burial took place is.

Much earlier in the life of this blog site, I provided a summary of the primary topics and promised the full paper. It was recently brought to my attention that this never happened! So I am pleased to provide the following dropbox link to the paper in full. I hope you will enjoy it!

https://www.dropbox.com/s/ayj81vyk3p5ta7m/Burial%20and%20Remains%20of%20St%20Peter.pdf?dl=0.

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?”