“The Apocalypse is Coming!” But Where Did It Come From?

Even in the 21st century, we are not without our warnings about the end of the world – euphemistically referred to as “the apocalypse.” Cults continue to arise predicting the end and even forecasting specific dates as to when it will happen. Movies and TV shows offer fictional recreations of the apocalypse. The atom bomb was supposed to usher in the age of the apocalypse. Climatologists warn that life as we know it will end if certain changes to our behaviors are not enacted. Are fears of the apocalypse a modern phenomenon or do they reach back deep into our collective history?

Apocalyptic notions actually began within Judaism and came to full flower in the 2nd century BCE. The Greco-Roman world generally viewed history in cyclical patterns in keeping with their observations of the rotation of the stars and planets and the repetition of the seasons. Kingdoms rose and fell, life came and went, the sun appeared every morning. Jews of the Biblical age (the Old Testament period) also tended to see history in this way. Their past was marked by repetitive, covenantal milestones in which the Jewish people would at times be faithful to God and be rewarded with blessings, and at other times be disobedient to God and be punished with various calamities. This is sometimes referred to as a Deuteronomistic view of history, named for one of the books of Torah.

But things changed for the Jewish people while they were under the domination of the Greek successor-kings to Alexander the Great. In the 2nd century BCE, the Greek king Antiochus Epiphanes of Antioch, Syria, forbid Jews in Israel from practicing their religion under penalty of torture and even death. In this new situation, whenever faithful Jews tried to be obedient to Torah and to God, they reaped punishment instead of blessing. Only acquiescence to pagan Greek demands resulted in the cessation of punishment. Good was rewarded with misery; evil collusion with blessing. The world view, for these Jews, had been turned upside down.

This upside-down view of the world is at the basis of apocalyptic thinking. How could Jews reconcile the incongruency that resulted from the fact that obedience to God led to punishment? They began to accept the notion that the world was not under the direct control of God but of God’s evil opponents. These forces of evil were envisioned as being led by an anti-God figure, often identified as Satan. Satan’s dark forces were temporarily in charge of planet earth. Their own human minions, the pagans, were acting on behalf of Satan and against the will of God. The world was indeed turned upside down: evil (paganism) was rewarded with power and wealth, goodness (Judaism) with persecution and suffering. How long would God let this happen?

Continue reading ““The Apocalypse is Coming!” But Where Did It Come From?”

Did Paul Think Jesus was Pre-existent?

This may seem like a question with an obvious answer to many Christians who have grown up believing in the Trinity. Trinitarian doctrine was developed after decades of debates over the nature of Christ and the Godhead in the early church beginning in the second century. But Paul lived in the first century and wrote his letters around the middle of that century. He was an observant Jew who came to have trust in Jesus as the Jewish Messiah. What did he think about the Messiah/Christ’s origins?

To understand the question adequately, one needs to review the beliefs of first-century Romans and Hellenized (Greek-acculturated) Jews with regard to the divine and earthly realms. Unlike the pervasive opinion today, the dividing line was rather porous between these two realities. Gods often crossed over into the mundane world of humans and humans were often known or believed to have been elevated into the divine realm. Their presence in the divine realm did not turn these beings into God (with a capital “G”). They may have been considered as gods or lesser divinities but they did not take on the identify of Zeus, Jupiter, or Yahweh. Daemons, angels, and other beings existed in the divine realm, according to common belief, without being God.

When early Jewish believers in Jesus the Messiah claimed that he had risen from the dead and was now seated at the right hand of God, they did not mean to say that he was God/Yahweh. They could not do so without violating their monotheistic, or better, henotheistic, beliefs. To say that Jesus was now divine, however, was not a violation of Jewish faith in Yahweh. Jews believed that a number of humans had been divinized in the past. Torah described Enoch as going to heaven (Gen. 5:24); 2 Kings 2:11 tells of Elijah’s ride into the next realm. Later Jewish traditions spoke of Moses ascending to heaven (Babylonian Talmud Yoma 4a; Pesikta Rabbati 20:4; Josephus, Antiquities 4:325-6). Jesus spoke of Abraham as residing there (Luke 16:19-31). This relocation did not make any of these patriarchs God. Neither was Jesus, strictly speaking, God, according to Paul.

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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.

My Students are the Greatest!

This fall semester came to a close today (final exams begin Friday). In recognition of a great semester, the students in my class on the Apostle Paul at UNCC surprised me with this wonderful tribute baked by one of them and backed by all of them. I was taken aback to be sure. What great young people – fully engaged all semester long and making my humble efforts at teaching so rewarding. (GOAT means “greatest of all time” – I didn’t know that, either.)

Paul Cake 2019

Did the Historical Jesus Really Tell His Disciples to “Eat My Body” and “Drink My Blood”?

The long-standing aversion by ancient Jews to cannibalism and the consumption of blood should require no discussion. Biblical injunctions or warnings against the former can be found in such passages as Lev. 26:29, Deut. 28:53-57, Jer. 19:9, Lam. 2:20, 4:10, and Ezek. 5:10. Instructions regarding the latter are found in Gen. 9:4 and Lev. 17:14. These prohibitions have been noted by many scholars in connection with statements attributed to Jesus at the Last Supper. Could Jesus have incorporated symbols of cannibalism and blood consumption during a Jewish Passover meal and instructed his Jewish followers to repeat it “in remembrance of me” (Luke 22:19)?

Mark, widely regarded as the earliest of the New Testament gospels, quotes Jesus as saying:

“And as they were eating, he took bread, and after blessing it broke it and gave it to them, and said, ‘Take; this is my body [sōma].’ And he took a cup, and when he had given thanks he gave it to them, and they all drank of it. And he said to them, ‘This is my blood of the covenant, which is poured out for many’ (Mark 14:22-24 ESV).

Note the Greek word translated here as “body,” sōma, and also the mention of “the [new] covenant.” One might also stop to ask: Who are the “many” (not all?)? The importance of these elements will be discussed below.

That Jesus sprang this shocking conceptualization on simple Jewish people at this high holy feast seems incredible to some. It certainly fails the criterion of contextual credibility. Neither does it satisfy the criterion of multiple independent attestation, as we will see. For the multiple occurrences testify not to the historical veracity of Jesus’s own utterance, but to the growing use of a Pauline invention.

Continue reading “Did the Historical Jesus Really Tell His Disciples to “Eat My Body” and “Drink My Blood”?”

Agrapha – The Lost Sayings of Jesus

Those who have read my previous blog post, “Do We Have the Authentic Words of Jesus,” already know that the sayings of, and stories about, Jesus first circulated by word of mouth. Neither Jesus nor his immediate followers seem to have been educated to the point of being able to write. This was not uncommon in the ancient world where only 10% or fewer of the people could do so.

The stream of what scholars refer to as “oral tradition” flowed on without restriction, both geographically and linguistically, for centuries. It was probably not until at least four decades after the crucifixion that the first attempt at recording Jesus’s sayings in writing took place (the Gospel of Mark, if not earlier with “Q”). But the oral stream flowed on unimpeded. Picture the gospel authors as people dipping their buckets into the stream of oral tradition and capturing some of the contents in order to write it down. The authors do not capture all of the stream’s contents and the stream flows on. In fact, despite the appearance of numerous gospels between 70 CE and the end of the second century, the stream continued to flow, no one capturing everything in it. We can see evidence of this in the four New Testament gospels. Each gospel features sayings of Jesus not recorded in the other three. And there were more sayings besides these that were recorded in other written forms. They are called agrapha by scholars, meaning “not written,” i.e., in the four New Testament gospels.

Because of this uncontrolled stream that flowed for at least 200 years, scholars cannot help but ask if that stream became polluted over time. In other words, does every recorded saying of Jesus actually go back to the historical person? Clearly not. How one decides which are authentic is not the subject of this post. Instead, let’s take a look at some of the sayings attributed to Jesus that were captured in other written sources outside the four New Testament gospels. Perhaps some of these will strike you as something Jesus might actually have said.

A few sayings of Jesus not captured in the New Testament gospels can be found elsewhere within the New Testament. A well-known maxim attributed to Jesus is recorded in the Acts of the Apostles: “It is more blessed to give than to receive” (Acts 20:35). Various forms of this saying were popular in the ancient world; Plutarch, for example, credits the 5th-century BCE Persian king Artaxerxes I with saying it. There is, of course, no a priori reason why Jesus could not also have said it. Another saying attributed to Jesus and found in Acts is, “John baptized with water, but you will be baptized with the Holy Spirit” (Acts 11:16).

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Baptism: From John to Jesus to Paul

Baptism comes from the Greek word baptizo which means “to immerse” in the sense of making clean with water. Ritual washings were commonplace in the first-century, Greco-Roman world. The purpose was not hygienic but sacred: such washings symbolized purification in anticipation of performing some holy ritual or entering sacred space. From archaeological discoveries, it appears that ritual washings were widely performed in Jewish Palestine at that time. Washing pools, called miqva’ot, have been found all over Israel, inside homes, beside synagogues, and around the ruins of the Temple.

Jewish priests were most concerned with remaining ritually pure due to their frequent presence in the Jerusalem Temple. Rules governing the need for priestly purity are articulated in the book of Leviticus in the Torah. Other reasons for ritual washing by Jews were established around the time of John the Baptist. Evidence of more widespread practice of ritual washing can be found in the New Testament gospels. Pharisees had taken upon themselves the purity requirements normally reserved for priests which included a number of ritual washings. These included washing the hands before eating (Exodus 30:17-21) and ritually washing cooking and eating items (Lev. 11:32ff; 15:12). Jesus is portrayed as speaking out against focusing on such matters when weightier points of the law were being ignored (Mark 7:6-9).

Ritual washing for repentance and atonement from sin perhaps has its origin among the sectarian group of Jews known as Essenes (4Q414). Originally a priestly group that separated itself from the Jerusalem Temple in the 2nd c. BCE, the Essenes established themselves by the banks of the Dead Sea at a place called Qumran. Since the Temple was deemed unacceptable for sacrificial atonement for sin, the Essenes turned to other means of atonement such as prayer, righteous living, and ritual bathing.

It is unclear, and frequently debated, whether John the Baptist was an Essene or was exposed to Essene ideas. There are several clues in the gospels that lend credence to the theory of some connection between the two. John, like the Essenes, had an apocalyptic worldview. He proclaimed that the end of the world was about to occur. God would soon exercise his wrath against the sinful and redeem the righteous. John encouraged the people to get right with God now. Rather than waiting until they could get to the Temple in Jerusalem to offer sacrifices for their sins, the people should repent before John and submit to his washing as a sign of atonement. (It is unclear, according to the textual evidence, whether John’s baptism brought on repentance or was a result of it; in any event, repentance was a prime ingredient.) This procedure may have alarmed the priests in charge of the Temple who reserved the right, per Torah, to pronounce sins forgiven (e.g., Lev. 4:20, 26, 35, etc.). There is evidence in both the gospels and in the writings of first-century Jewish historian Josephus, that John aroused enmity from both the leading priests and the political authorities in Galilee. Among the reasons were the crowds attracted by John, his claim that political realities were about to change, and, no doubt, his pronouncement of forgiveness for sins (Matt. 21:23-27, 32). John was of priestly descent according to the Gospel of Luke (1:5, 13).

It is incorrect to characterize John’s baptism as an initiation or an intentional “once for all” washing. If John’s baptism for repentance was performed only once it was because John did not think the world would last much longer. In John’s view, one would not have had time for repeated washings to prepare for the new age. Neither John nor his baptizands could know that the world would not end and that neither God nor his messiah would not establish His rule after all.

Our earliest gospel, Mark, indicates that Jesus was baptized by John in the same way as everyone else (Mark 1:1-18). Later gospels, apparently embarrassed by this acknowledgement of John’s superiority or the notion that Jesus had sins to repent, mask the event. The Gospel of Matthew creates an extended conversation between Jesus and John wherein John admits his inferiority but baptizes Jesus anyway. Luke has Jesus baptized after John is imprisoned (so who performed it?). The Gospel of John does not even mention it. It should be remembered that these are Christian texts designed to highlight Jesus as the hero, even at John’s expense. Nevertheless, it appears that some of Jesus’s followers were baptized by John as well (John 1:35-37; Acts 1:21-22). They were all apocalyptically oriented, believing that the end was just around the corner.

The arrest and ultimate execution of John must have caused many to rethink the imminence of the Day of the Lord. John clearly was not the messiah since he died before doing the things a messiah was expected to do. Jesus picked up the apocalyptic and prophetic mantle of John and ran with it. He took his message to the towns and villages, not limiting his missionary field to watery places as John may have done in order to effect baptisms. Whether Jesus baptized or not is debated (John 4:1-2). He probably did for a while but the gospels in general play down a specifically baptizing mission for Jesus and his disciples before Easter.

Yet baptism would not be forgotten after Jesus’s crucifixion and resurrection. This indicates that it was always part of the program of the Jesus movement even if rarely mentioned in the gospels. According to the gospels, which may be suspect at this point, John promised that God would send someone who would baptize with spirit/fire as well as water (Mat. 3:11). This spirit baptism seems to have begun after the resurrection. An early Christian belief was that the Spirit of God empowered the followers of Jesus to continue to spread the message of the end times by ensuring that the people would be found in a righteous state. This was the focus for John, Jesus, and Jesus’s disciples; it was not about individual salvation.

The New Testament Acts of the Apostles dates the first “baptism” by the Holy Spirit (as fire) to the first Pentecost (Feast of Weeks) after the resurrection. Tongues like fire are said to have alit upon the disciples after which they proceeded to baptize with water and spirit. Sometimes the spirit was conferred afterward by the laying on of hands (Acts 6:6; 8:16-17). Other times the conferral of the spirit preceded baptism (Acts 10:44-48). Generally, though, it seems that the two were meant to go together (Acts 19:5-6).

Whether Paul was baptized or not is debatable though he probably was (Acts 9:17 only describes a laying on of hands to confer the spirit to Paul). His primary concern, of course, was not so much the righteousness of the Jewish people but how to include the nations (non-Jews) in God’s promise of everlasting life. The nations were comprised of sinners with no means of atonement since they did not subscribe to Torah. Paul adapted the spirit baptism of the Palestinian Jesus-movement for the nations in order to “justify” (make righteous) non-Jews before God. For non-Jews, being made righteous could not simply be a matter of ritual washing. That was alright for Jews who were the chosen people of God guided all their lives by Torah. More was required for non-Jews.

Paul came up with the idea of a non-Jew being baptized “into the death” of Jesus Christ (Romans 6:3-4). This joining in the death of the god was not unheard of in the Greco-Roman world; ritual washings were part of the process of joining certain mystery cults in Paul’s day (e.g., the cults of the Great Mother and Attis, Isis and Osiris, Mithras, etc.). By joining in the death of the god (e.g., Osiris, Mithras, Jesus), the believer might also join in his/her rebirth. Paul was cautious about guaranteeing this rebirth, or resurrection as apocalyptically-minded Jews understood it. He only speaks of the “hope” of resurrection (Romans 5:2; Galatians 5:5; 1 Thess. 1:3). Nevertheless, this process in effect atoned for the sins of the non-Jew (though Paul used other terms like “redemption” rather than atonement or even forgiveness). After such baptism the spirit of God (conferred in the process) would work within them, according to Paul, as evidence of their adoption as “sons” of the God of Israel. These “gifts of the spirit” included speaking in tongues, prophesying, healing, etc. (Rom. 12:6-8; 1 Cor. 12:1-13).

Paul seems to have adopted and adapted baptism for his non-Jewish audience but did not consider his own personal calling to specifically include baptizing. He claims that he did baptize on occasion but apparently left most of the work to his assistants (1 Cor. 1:14-17). Paul never addresses in his letters the subject of baptizing a person multiple times. Again, this is likely due to his apocalyptic outlook. Paul expected the return (parousia) of Christ at any moment (1 Thess. 4:15-17). There should have been no reason or time to conduct multiple baptisms. In fact, Paul does not seem prepared for the situation in which the baptized Christ-follower continues to sin. He instructs his communities to throw the sinners out (1 Cor. 5:5; Rom. 16:17)! Had Paul a longer-range mission in mind, he might have developed some protocols for treating the sinning believer. On one occasion he does counsel forgiveness and readmission (2 Cor. 2:7-10).

The event horizon has as much to do with the administration of baptism as with the rationale behind it. Regardless of who performed it, the early Christ-community saw baptism as a last-minute “righteousing” to prepare the people (“Jew or Greek”) for God’s coming or the coming of His messiah. No thought was given to the failure of that day to materialize. How might baptism have been conceived if the day were thought to be far off? Would the ritual have even been instituted?

Baptism appears to be a residual ritual left over from a first-century apocalyptic movement, one that had to be reinterpreted if it was to be kept as a rite within the emerging non-Jewish religion known as Christianity. It developed, in fact, as a non-repeatable initiation rite as well as a sign of spiritual cleansing for members in the young church (Justin, Dialogue with Trypho 13, 166). Baptism as initiation was not foreign to Judaism either, with some texts advocating such a process for non-Jews (especially/only women? See Joseph and Aseneth 14:12-13, 15) to be admitted to Judaism. Christians eventually added a trinitarian formula to the baptismal rite, washing the initiate in the “name of the Father, the Son, and the Holy Spirit” (Matt. 28:19; Didache 7.1, 3). In time, Christian baptism would only be performed on converts who had successfully spent up to a year being instructed in the faith and who could memorize a Christian creed or properly answer a set of doctrinal questions (catechism). Orthodox and Conservative Jews continue to practice ritual washings for purity or holiness’s sake, especially at festivals, often following Biblical prescriptions where possible.

Animals in the New Testament

Specialists and general readers alike spend so much time focusing on the various human characters in the New Testament that it is easy to overlook the role that members of the animal kingdom play in its stories and teachings. Animals feature throughout the entire Bible playing memorable parts usually in the service of moral lessons (most people have heard about the serpent in the Garden of Eden). The New Testament is not without its animal references either. But even more surprisingly, many people imagine animals in stories where they never appear at all!

For example, nearly everyone reading this is familiar with the Christmas story – it’s the story of Jesus’s birth. Recreations are on display in thousands of homes and churches during the Christmas season, featured on TV and in movies, and sermonized in church. Animals play a prominent role in these depictions. Joseph, for example, brings a very pregnant Mary from Nazareth to Bethlehem riding on a donkey. The couple are forced to lodge in a stable with oxen and asses. Baby Jesus must be placed in an animal food trough for lack of a proper crib. Wise men from the east arrive on camels while shepherds bring their flock to Bethlehem to see the newborn king. Joseph is later warned to take his family to Egypt to escape King Herod’s wrath and dutifully places Mary back upon a donkey, perhaps the same one she rode from Nazareth. Animals everywhere!

Unfortunately, none of these animals appear in the gospel accounts of Jesus’s birth. Mary is not said to ride a donkey (ever); no animals are described as cohabiting the stable with the family; no camels accompany the wise men; and, while the shepherds were earlier watching their flock (Luke 2:8), no sheep are said to arrive with them at the stable. These animal appearances are all the result of later Christian imagination perhaps partly inspired by Jesus’s accusation in Luke 13:15 (“You hypocrites! Does not each of you on the Sabbath untie his ox or his donkey from the manger and lead it away to water it?”) The role of these animals in the nativity story began in the second century in such extra-canonical texts as the Proto-gospel of James and the Infancy Gospel of pseudo-Matthew.

Nevertheless, the first animals we encounter in the gospel accounts of Jesus’s life are, indeed, mentioned in the birth stories. Following her delivery, Mary must be purified as commanded in the Torah (Leviticus 12). The rite involves the sacrifice of a lamb and/or two pigeons or turtledoves at the Temple in Jerusalem. Being poor, the family offered the latter. A dove features again in Jesus’s very first adult act, his baptism by John. The dove is meant to symbolize God’s spirit alighting on Jesus as he rises from the water. In fact, birds were frequently associated with the divine in antiquity due to their ability to soar upward toward the heavens. Birds were known to act as messengers of the gods.

Along with the pigeons and turtledoves mentioned above, birds are featured in a number of Jesus’s teachings. He points out how birds “do not spin” (Matthew 6:26; Luke 12:24 calls them “ravens”) and yet are clothed by God. Birds play meaningful roles in Jesus’s parable of the small mustard seed which grows so large it provides nests for birds (Matthew 13:32). Jesus laments that, while the lowly birds have nests, Jesus, as the Son of Man, has nowhere to call home (Matthew 8:20). Birds devour seed carelessly scattered by the sower in another of Jesus’s parables (Matthew 13:4). Pigeons again appear in the story of Jesus’s stormy visit to the Temple in Jerusalem where he overturns the tables of those who sold the commercially-raised birds for sacrificial purposes (Matthew 21:12). Pigeons and doves were considered ritually clean by Jews and thus appropriate for sacrificing. For Jesus, doves were symbols of innocence and cited as role models for his followers (Matthew 10:16). In Jewish thought, the dove was the ultimate symbol of Israel and of the soul.

Continue reading “Animals in the New Testament”

Fatherhood in the Gospels: The Good, the Bad, and the Ugly

Fatherhood is well-represented in the New Testament. One of the very few authentic words spoken by Jesus and recorded in the gospels may be the Aramaic form of father: abba. Jesus, like other rabbis of ancient Judaism, characterized God as the male parent, benevolent but just, forgiving but demanding. The first-century world was a patriarchal one in which the father was head of the family and men generally ruled the political and social world. Just as the kings of Israel were men (with a rare queen here and there), so the God of Israel was conceptualized in masculine terms. In the pagan world, the gods could be of either gender though the primary god of the Greco-Romans, Zeus/Jupiter, was envisioned as a male.

There are a number of references to fathers other than God in the gospels. I thought it might be interesting to look at three of them, each distinctly different and spanning the spectrum of what we might judge to be good examples of fatherhood, bad examples, and just plain dysfunctional examples. Let’s begin with the first human father mentioned, Joseph of Nazareth.

Despite doctrinal belief in Jesus’s origins as the product of a union between the Spirit of God and a human woman, the role of human father in Jesus’s life was apparently played by Joseph, probably a lifelong resident of Nazareth. Despite the opening story of Jesus’s supernatural conception in the Gospel of Luke, that author twice refers to Joseph unabashedly as Jesus’s father (2:33, 48). The Gospel of John, which takes great pains to characterize Jesus as God’s preexistent Word made flesh, has the residents of Capernaum call Jesus “the son of Joseph, whose father and mother we know” (6:42). Both Jesus and Joseph are described by the Greek word tekton, a builder or craftsman (frequently translated in English as “carpenter”). The Gospel of Matthew refers to Jesus as “the tekton’s son” (13:55) despite its opening story of Jesus being conceived by the power of the Holy Spirit. Only the Gospel of Mark avoids calling Joseph the father of Jesus and instead calls Jesus “the son of Mary” but adds that he has brothers and sisters (6:3). This gives us a basic understanding of Jesus’s family situation.

But what of the story of Jesus’s miraculous conception? Was Jesus Joseph’s genetic son or an adopted one? Much depends on how one reads and accounts for the story of the supernatural pregnancy of Mary. It is common knowledge that the two birth stories of Jesus featured in Matthew and Luke are quite different in detail. Yet, they agree on several points. One is that, whoever fathered Jesus, it was not Joseph. Later attacks on Jesus’s origins claimed that Mary had become pregnant by another man while betrothed to Joseph. Adultery would have been the accusation in real time if Joseph was known not to be the father of Mary’s baby. Matthew even makes the point that Joseph knew that Mary had become pregnant by someone else and he seriously considered abandoning her (Matthew 1:19). Nevertheless, whether Mary told him the story of her conception as we have it in the gospel accounts, or whether he believed it, he took mother and child under his wing and raised Jesus as his own.

Continue reading “Fatherhood in the Gospels: The Good, the Bad, and the Ugly”

Do We Have the Authentic Words of Jesus?

My New Testament students are sometimes surprised when I ask this question in class. Most of them have never thought about it before. Why would we even ask whether we have the authentic words of Jesus? Aren’t they recorded in quotations in the gospels? Weren’t the gospel authors ear- and eye-witnesses writing down what they saw and heard? It turns out, in fact, that this is a very important question and one that is not considered seriously enough by many who read the Bible.

There are many reasons for pursuing the question of the precise words, known in Latin as the ipissima verba, of Jesus. For one thing, some of Jesus’s sayings seem contradictory. For example, Jesus teaches that one must follow the Ten Commandments (Matthew 19:17) and honor one’s father and mother (Mark 10:19). Yet he also says that one must hate one’s parents in order to follow him (Luke 14:26). Some statements by Jesus seem difficult to apply literally. Some are just hard to understand.

When comparing Jesus as portrayed in the Gospel of Mark with Jesus as portrayed in the Gospel of John, one might be forgiven for wondering if the two authors were even writing about the same person! Jesus in John’s gospel never speaks in parables while Jesus in Mark’s gospel does so frequently. Jesus in Mark never equates himself to God the Father while Jesus in John frequently does. Jesus in Mark wants it kept secret who he is; John’s Jesus never stops talking about who he is.

In trying to reach an answer to our query, it is best to place ourselves in the context of the first-century Roman world, specifically Jewish Palestine, at the time of Jesus. No serious scholar doubts that Jesus was, among other things, a gifted teacher. If the gospels are any guide at all, Jesus taught using various forms of figurative language: parables, aphorisms, similes, etc. He was an itinerant Jewish craftsman who gave up his occupation to wander about the Holy Land teaching about God and making various observations on everyday life.

Now imagine Jesus actually doing that. Envision him in Capernaum in Galilee surrounded by a few disciples. He decides that the time is right for trying out a story he has been composing in his mind about a Samaritan who gives aid to a fallen Jew. The parable is well-received and his audience is moved to consider the story’s various implications. Four months later, Jesus is in Jericho in Judea. This time he is surrounded by a more skeptical crowd; some are downright hostile. For different reasons, Jesus feels it is appropriate to share his Samaritan parable, knowing that the effect on this crowd will be different. Ask yourself: What are the chances that in Jericho Jesus recited his parable using the exact same wording that he used when he told it in Capernaum? I mean exact, word-for-word, repetition. The answer is nil. Not only would Jesus not be concerned about telling the parable identically, word-for-word the same way he did previously; but he probably intentionally altered the parable given the different circumstances and the different impact he wanted to make on this different audience.

Continue reading “Do We Have the Authentic Words of Jesus?”