December 29, 2008
The Baptist & Sejanus (3) - Political Risk
The three year chronology requires that Sejanus be dead for several months before Salome does her dancing. But even if Antipas feared a public backlash over John’s death, the politics of 32 AD might make him more likely to go through with it anyway (as opposed to less likely, as I’d thought). The distinction depends on whether Herod would have more to fear from an unhappy rabble or an unhappy upper class.
After all, it was the upper classes of Judea, complaining to Rome, that eventually upended Herod’s brother Archelaus; the ethnarch’s guilt for 3,000 dead pilgrims in 4 BC had been forgiven immediately [by Rome]. With Sejanus dead, Antipas’ biggest fear wasn’t the odds of creating a riot, it was the odds of giving his upper classes any reason to smell weakness. The way Rome had been prosecuting accusations of disloyalty, Antipas had a lot to lose if a group of wealthy opportunists [who somehow uncovered his connection with the fallen prefect] had any sudden reasons to prefer direct Roman rule.
At least, that might be the case if the three year chronology were true. For now, I’ll still hold to Cheney, in which case Antipas can kill John in early 31 with little fear of political impact whatsoever. But I’m going to have to drop the argument that 32 is unlikely because of political risk. If the question is about going through with a regrettable promise, the risky season after Sejanus’ death could possibly have given Antipas more incentive to stick with it, instead of less.
I’ll continue to look at other aspects of this seemingly neglected distinction: was Sejanus dead or alive when Antipas killed John the Baptist? Stay tuned…
December 28, 2008
Ancient Greek was Heathen
Sadly, I never expected a lot of christian scholars to agree with this. So it was wonderfully refreshing to see Eric Sowell and Esteban Vasquez (along with several of their commenters) celebrating the "buried footnote" of someone named Moises Silva, who said: "Ideally, students learning biblical Greek should do so only within the context of learning Hellenistic Greek generally..." Esteban agrees we should get away from the idea NT Greek "is some kind of "Holy Ghost language." Amen! This also reminds me of something Doug Chapin said to Mike Sangrey in August, which I loved: "Oh dear, those pesky native speakers just won’t stick to the dictionary definition."
On a related note, John Hobbins wondered last week why the Chronological Study Bible is currently outselling all the most popular translations. I don't know if it'll last, but for now I'm guessing it might be because ordinary believers feel like they need about as much help trusting God for one translation as another, but what they're most hungry for (that they're NOT getting) is CONTEXT.
Sorry for shouting. This just gets me excited. ;)
December 26, 2008
Which Star of Bethlehem?
Of course the astronomy matters, but the gaggle of interpretative possibilities is precisely what tells us it *could* have been any of them. How, then, should we choose? My money’s on the triple convergence in 7 BC, but I didn’t pick that one because I liked its interpretative scenario better than other ones. I settled on the triple convergence only after I was convinced that a lot of significant historical data strongly suggests a census and birth in 7 BC. Without building arguments in this post, here are the key points of that data:
If the historical data was more in favor of another year I’d have no problem changing my pick on the "star”, but we have to start with history. Herod’s deathday is the movst vital issue, though I’ve made the case that Archelaus’ exile is actually the best starting point. From those two points, the most important task is to identify specific evidence for the contextual details of a Roman-Herodian census. Historically speaking, the question of how, when and why hundreds or thousands of Roman soldiers were mobilized in Herod’s territory is infinitely more significant than the question of what esoteric particulars inspired the mobilization of a few wealthy, knowledge obsessed individuals.
1) Herod the Great died after an eclipse on a festival day, Purim, in 4 BC
2) Tertullian cited Saturninus as the census taker at Christ's birth
3) Saturninus was Governor of Syria from 9 to 6 BC
4) Herod got in major trouble with Augustus late in 9 BC
5) Event planning for the bizarre logistics of this unusual census must have required significant lead time with advance notification given for local scheduling
6) This special registration did not evaluate property (unlike in 6 AD)
7) Joseph’s fear of Archelaus in 4 BC was irrational, centered on protecting Jesus, and thus unlikely to abate while the Ethnarch was in Judea
8) Any birth date between April 7 BC and March 6 BC makes Jesus 12 at the first Passover after Archelaus was exiled, 7 AD, allowing Joseph to feel safe taking Jesus into Jerusalem
Note: From these points we may conclude that Caesar must have told Saturninus to count Herod’s people, but not to value their property. To preserve the integrity of scripture, we must then also conclude that Luke 2:1 refers to Augustus' provincial registration decree in 27 BC; and that Luke 2:2 should be translated, “this was the census before [the one in which] Quirinius was governor”; and finally that Luke 2:3 refers only to this unique and isolated event, as opposed to all Roman censuses since 27 BC. (See Hoehner and Finegan for more on the greek text of Luke 2:2.)
In short, if we get the history right, the proper “star” should present itself. So this year, my Christmas Wish is that well meaning amateurs (and certain scholars) would spend less time going on about astronomy & astrology, and work a bit harder to learn classical history & geography. On these issues, we definitely need all the help we can get!
December 24, 2008
The Word Became Flesh
Forgive us again, Lord, and save us from false-good. The Kingdom is You.
Merry Christmas 2008, Y'all! :)
December 23, 2008
Antipas' "Birthday" after Purim
At that party, Antipas quoted the Old Testament! When Salome pleased him with her dancing, the tetrarch of Galilee offered her anything she wanted “up to half my kingdom”. As I was recently reminded, these were the words of Xerxes to Esther. Was the old, Hellenized, Arabian/Idumean/Samaritan tetrarch really quoting Hebrew Scripture? How likely is that?
Hoehner thinks it must have become a proverbial saying by then, but Hoehner also discounts the timeline at this point with an uncharacteristically a-historical view of the passages in question. I think the timeline of Mark 6 (and parallels) is clear at this point. (See note at bottom.) More importantly, preserving the obvious timeline here gives us a much better, perfectly reasonable explanation for Herod’s sudden expertise at Old Testament citation.
Nothing we know about Herod Antipas suggests the old Fox was much given to quoting scripture. But a party two weeks before Passover was a party held two weeks after Purim! Surely Herod had also taken the excuse to throw a similar party on the second night of Purim, which was the Feast of Esther, and surely that night’s entertainment would have included a professional oration on the dramatic tale of Esther in Persia. Furthermore, not only is the quotation at issue the climax of that story, but the exact wording gets repeated three times.
Not only does that quotation make a memorable part of the story, but Antipas and all his guests would have been extremely familiar with the story, having heard it once a year for all their lives. As a parallel example, modern secular people who may or may not care much for Christ still know the Christmas story. And while that story may not come to their minds a whole lot in April or June, they find their memories refreshed throughout the month of December. Many people, especially upper class folks, pay respectful attention to official holiday traditions, and it's common for Christmas references to linger on up to a week or two later. (In many places, Baby Jesus gets put inside “King Cakes” until at least February.) In this same kind of way, I believe Herod Antipas was unlikely to be thinking of Xerxes and Esther at any time other than the weeks before and after the Purim holiday.
So then, one to three weeks after Purim, Antipas throws another party. He probably threw it in the same palace, with many of the same guests, with some of the preparations being the same and some different. Attending two parties like this, upper class guests would no doubt have in mind the previous one, looking forward to a repeat of certain delights while anticipating some changes as well. In this case, it seems, that feeling must have extended to the entertainment.
At Herod’s birthday feast, Salome probably danced during a certain part of the evening, at which his guests would expect entertainment. The most natural time for this would have been the same part of the evening the Purim storyteller filled with his speech just a week or two before. In that case, not only would the words of Xerxes be fresh in everyone’s mind, the timing of Herod’s quoting them would have paralleled the recent party. This gives Herod even more reasons to reference the memorable quotation. Given this extra context, it seems the tetrarch was simply playing to the crowd and reminding them pleasantly of his last party. Quoting scripture had nothing to do with it, and the timing of the seasonal citation would have perfectly underscored the sense that his exact wording wasn't meant at all literally.
For a complementary twist, it has been suggested that Herod’s party wasn’t about his birthday at all. The Greek word in Mark & Matthew can refer to the birth of his rule over Galilee. The earliest Antipas could possibly claim to have begun that rule was on the death day of his father, Herod the Great. By the Hebrew calendar, that day (in 4 BC) fell not less than five days after Purim and not less than 16 days before Passover. (That last figure is by my own calculation of Ptolemy’s ride to Antioch and back. See this post.) In other words, Herod died about one or two weeks after Purim. Obviously, that fits perfectly into our range.
So – whether to celebrate his birthday or the birth of his rule – it seems extremely certain that Herod Antipas held this party a week or two after Purim. The following two or three weeks gives just enough time for the events of Mark 6:27-44, Luke 9:7-17, Matthew 14:10-21 and John 6:1-14.
A few final notes, for the record: The timeline of these passages is not compared to the sequence of text, but the sequence of events. Herod sends the executioner to Machaerus. John’s disciples receive a headless corpse, bury it, walk up to Galilee, find Jesus and tell him the news. Then Jesus withdraws, finds his disciples, relocates to a grassy slope outside Bethsaida, and the crowds find him there. That unbroken chain of action must take place in-between the party and a time which was still not yet Passover. By all reasonable estimates, those logistics require one to three weeks. Obviously, that fits perfectly into our range.
This is another example of what I mean by text centered versus event centered. Biblical Scholars have discussed the textual parallels at length. We ought to discuss things like WHY Herod Antipas was thinking about Xerxes & Esther at that event, or even – and here’s a thought for another day – whether Herodias was inspired by Esther’s story to come up with her plan in the time in-between these two parties!
Generally, Classical Historians seem more balanced at this – they critique the text, but they keep in mind the overall goal is to reconstruct actual events. Indeed, why Christian and Biblical scholars have been so purely text driven may be a historical question of a whole other sort. But I’m way over my word quota for this post… ;)
December 22, 2008
Joseph of Nazareth, died 30 AD
The question is, when did Joseph die? I think it was sometime around the "who is my mother" visit from Mary (30 AD in Cheney's Chronology, 31 in Hoehner's). This is the only time on record where Mary comes to interrupt Jesus. He was in the middle of his work, surrounded by large crowds, teaching them difficult things, and yet Mary didn't wait for him to finish. What could have been so pressing, unless it was Joseph on his deathbed? Besides, we know Mary still treasured in her heart the fact that Jesus had to be about his father's business. She must have thought Jesus would make an exception to come home to see Joseph one last time.
Another point in favor of this view - the text suggests Jesus' sisters might have been there as well. The greek plural 'adelphos' is gender neutral - it means "brothers" or "siblings". In other places, this word has been translated "brothers and sisters", and that rendering should be considered here as well. When Jesus responds to the phrase 'adelphos' he says "whoever does the will of God is my brother and sister and mother." So it's at least possible the word "sister" here implies the Lord's own sisters were waiting outside the crowd with Mary and the boys. Combined with the other considerations above, and assuming Mary would want the girls to see Joseph one last time also, I'm thinking it's not just possible, but in fact more likely.
So here's the picture. Mary takes one to three brothers and leaves Capernaum to find Jesus, leaving one or two brothers back home to take care of Joseph. Mary and her sons go through Nazareth first, pick up the girls, and use that travel time to listen for reports about where Jesus is. They find him in one of the towns on the Lakeshore's west side, somewhere south of Capernaum. And then... he doesn't go with them! Is that cold? Not necessarily.
The next thing Jesus does (after the storm and the pigs) is tell the ex-demoniac, who was begging to come along, to go back to his family. Evidently, Jesus felt there were times and seasons for "who is my mother?". Then, immediately after that, Jesus healed Jairus' daughter. A dead girl,
Whatever the case, we have to trust Jesus had his reasons for letting Joseph die without even going to see him. But there is one final detail. This had to be some time later, but the next event on record after Jairus' daughter is the occasion of Jesus' second trip back to Nazareth. (This time the disciples are there, so nobody tries pushing 13 men off a cliff!) Last time, the crowds said, "Is this not Joseph's son?" But this time they leave Joseph out of it. This time, they call him the son of Mary, the brother of James, Joses, Judas and Simon, and they point out his sisters are there with them. Evidently, the sisters have come back from Capernaum and the small town Nazarene folks all know why they were away. Their father just died.
So this Nazareth trip is our last piece of evidence to suggest when Joseph died. But what I think is so very touching - assuming this is all accurate - is that Jesus did go back home to console his sisters. Even if he couldn't make it up to them, even if he couldn't explain and even if they wouldn't understand, the Lord did at least try to go visit his own sisters after their father had died. Okay, he did also preach while he was there, and the visit might not have gone well (at the end, he said a prophet had no honor among his own relatives.) but I do think it's sweet that he went.
At any rate, Joseph of Nazareth must have died in-between the move to Capernaum and Jesus' second visit to Nazareth. Joseph was in Capernaum long enough to have been known by the Jews of that Synagogue, but probably died about a year after the move, around the same time Jesus was healing Jairus' daughter, if not just before. This adds a whole new dimension to the episode in which Jesus told his disciples and the crowds, "Who is my mother?" It might even give us new sympathy for the level of sacrifice the Lord was making, just at that moment, in order to keep on doing the will of his father in heaven.
December 19, 2008
Best Advice of 2008
1) I don't want or need to become a professional scholar to do what I'm doing. 2) I can still aim to write with an accuracy that should impress scholars and satisfy my own ambitions. 3) I can still strive to be conversant with scholarly issues and debates while mainly doing my own thing academically. 4) People in my position can sometimes make important, helpful contributions that professional academics can't make directly - but the contribution can enter and influence scholars' ongoing research and discussions.On that same June day, Dr. McMahon also quoted by heart to me some famous lines by Samuel Johnson, which I quoted here in July, so I'll paraphrase this time:
Enough 'bait' for now. Get to 'fishing'. Do what you can do. Dragging this thing out might not make it better. People spend lifetimes looking for evidence they just can't find, even if it exists. One question always leads to another. Every new book cites another new book. A lot of endless trails aren't much better than dead ends. In short, research isn't always helpful, searching isn't the same as finding, and finding doesn't always mean I've got it. Therefore, trying to complete a perfect work is like trying to catch the sun. You just can't.Doctor Johnson's 'advice' seems impossible, but I'm determined to follow it because, after all, eventually I must! And naturally Dr. McMahon's good advice is a lot easier to embrace than to execute well, but I'm working on it. So far, Bibliobloggers have been both kind and patient. Far beyond that, my Lord has been much more so. Who knows? At length, I may be finding my place...
December 18, 2008
Wallace on Hoehner
For more illustrations of Hoehner's exacting scholarship on NT History and Chronology, and some personal stories, have a look at what Dan Wallace posted today - evidently one of multiple celebrations in honor of the professor's eventual or impending retirement. I may disagree with several of Hoehner's points, in small and large ways, but I feel I owe the man a great debt. If I'm lucky enough to meet Dr. Hoehner before long, the first thing I ought to do is thank him profusely.
We need more Christian Historians like Harold Hoehner. God help me, I won't be one of them. But I'm keeping my eyes out for whoever is...
December 17, 2008
Early Writings Just as Likely
Yes, communities of people pass on stories by oral tradition, but writing isn't done by "communities". Writing is a solitary endeavor. The writings of ONE GUY could find an audience (especially if his pages were from God) because Jewish communities valued writings. A reader stood at every Synagogue meeting to exclaim the Hebrew scriptures. Parents would tell children stories about Abraham, Moses and David, but they also took those children to hear those stories read out loud, every Sabbath. Of course, each passage they heard read had been written by ONE GUY.
If there was ONE GUY who could write (who had practical and/or professional reasons to think about writing) he'd have noticed elements of writing in the Synagogue readings. On certain days, the reader would have explicitly reminded such a writer that God told Moses to write. God told Isaiah to write. God told Jeremiah and other prophets to write. And surely God had something to do with all those other Hebrews who wrote down the rest of the Scriptures, too.
Now, if you were that ONE GUY with some practical or professional reason to think about writing on a regular basis, and if you were a follower of Jesus... wouldn't you think Jesus' story and sayings deserved to be written down and read aloud as much or more than the writings of Moses and the Prophets? And wouldn't you get started right away... or would you suddenly become like a common man, like a non-writer? Would you just talk about it for decades like everyone else, recording a final memoir sometime before you died?
If you were that [rare but probable] WRITER, I daresay you'd write. Right away.
There are bad writers and there are good writers, but both kinds just can't keep from writing. All bibliobloggers should know this! ;)
December 14, 2008
Searching for Nazareth
One of these days I'd like to start a group blog to look at the Gospels and invert possible views/clues as to the Lord's growth and development in Nazareth. On such a group blog, every post would begin with a passage of scripture, suggest a perspective, and/or offer a couple of questions about the passage. In the comments and follow up posts, we'd try to find out IF there ARE any solid, reliable conclusions we can draw - based on the Gospels - as to the details of what Jesus' private life was like in "the hidden years". (Inspirational sharing would also be welcome.) Knowing me, it should go without saying that liberal deconstructionism is NOT on the agenda. ;) Still, since it's such a subjective approach, the value could wind up being mostly as an interpretative exercise... or we could wind up producing some valuable, reliable aspects of a valid reconstruction (in limited detail). You just never know till you try!
I'll give one example here. If you're interested, reply in the comments. If I get ten people, we'll definitely do it. Here goes:
Scripture: Matthew 1:1-17. (Yup, the Geneaology. May as well start at the start!) Spark/questions: How many of these names would Jesus have known, growing up? How important were names like Abraham and David to the Jewish community of Nazareth? How many times did Jesus hear the stories, whether at home or the Synagogue? And at what age might Jesus have recalled the fact that he, himself, was "before Abraham"?As I said, that's just an example, but feel free to respond in the comments. Without a doubt, there must be millions of pages in print that could help address these questions, and those writings would absolutely belong in the conversation. But I'm personally unaware of any study that has attempted to go through all four Gospels with the sole perspective of "mirror-reading" for clues to Jesus' life in Nazareth. (If there is such a study in print, please let me know.)
I'm hopeful to think ten of you out there might be interested. You don't have to be scholars. You just have to be - well - interested! :)
December 8, 2008
Matthew 2:22 explains Luke 2:42
Without a doubt, there are plausible explanations to account for the many chronological ramifications of this conclusion. (Especially in 7 BC.) But it should be strongly considered that analysis of Luke 2:42 in the light of Matthew 2:22 grants us a historical basis for positing the age of Jesus during one actual point in time, which is a far sight better than basing estimates of the Lord's birth on pure speculation, sketchy astronomical interpretations or (the ever popular) "sometime before 4 BC".
If scholars come to consider this a solid historical connection, then it should prove helpful as an improved starting point for New Testament Chronology. The alternative is to continue working from "about 30" and the "fifteenth year of Tiberius", data about which (unfortunately) there is far too much 'wiggle room'. Theories on the census and star of bethlehem will always require speculation, but the only resistance from what we know of Jesus' ministry years will be some unnecessarily staunch definitions of the word "about". Surely, all christian doctrines and views of scripture are flexible enough to swallow a 4 to 6 year difference in Luke 3:23. (Also, we'll never know when the "46 years" of John 2:20 began, because we don't know how many years of prep-work was needed before the Jews would allow Herod to begin actual construction! See Josephus' Antiquities' 15:388-390.)
For all these reasons, I hope scholars will begin giving extra attention to the historical view of Luke 2:42 in connection with Matthew 2:22. Besides, May of 7 BC begins a count of forty years (inclusively) up to just before Pentecost of 33 AD. Not that numerology has anything to do with history, but I hope it might inspire some to take a closer look. ;)
December 6, 2008
The Baptist and Sejanus (2) - Half My Kingdom
Here's one aspect of the issue, just for starters - why did Herod Antipas say "up to half my kingdom"? Does that only prove he was drunk? Does that simply mean he assumed she wouldn't ask for so much? Or is the truth more complicated? Giving away territory, if the offer was serious, could hold a different significance politically if it happened in early 32 AD. It seems impossible to tease out any solid implications, but we ought to ask these questions anyway.
Is there anything about Antipas' statement that makes it seem Sejanus was alive or dead? "Take half my kingdom" could be the brash statement of a confident ruler secure that Rome would never approve it. Or - if Sejanus was dead - it could be the tortured brinksmanship of a man in the throes of depression at the very peak of anti-Sejanus reactionism, slipping out because of the alcohol? Or - again - was it just a safe bet she wouldn't bite?
Clearly, we don't know, but we can't even venture to guess because we don't know how drunk Antipas actually was! Does it require sobriety to feel political peer pressure in the matter of keeping an oath? (The request, regret and decision came "immediately" and "in a hurry" according to Mark; Herod's following-through is another issue entirely. But at the moment, we're just talking about the promise.) Or was Herod an accomplished drinker who felt few effects? Without knowing his blod-tox levels or their practical effects, we have zero ground to interpret any political context from Herod's promise that night.
Chronological work in other areas can tell us whether Sejanus was alive or dead when Salome did her dance, but we won't get very far from the political phrasing of Herod's promise, "Up to half my kingdom."
Stay tuned for blog posts on other aspects of this question and it's implications for New Testament Chronology.
December 4, 2008
Some Readers' Favorites
Stories: Saying Goodbye, The Damascus Story, Knowing the Lord, Sunrise in Thessalonica
Poems: Life Spent Preparing, My Spirit, Completely Different
Btw, in case anyone's curious: these were written in '97, '03, '05, '06, and '08. Five of the seven came here in Texas. I wrote "My Spirit" in Grant Park (Atlanta, GA) and "Saying Goodbye" in Orange Park (Jax, FL). The one about "Driving the Car" is still the most linked to post of mine ever, I think. Over the years, I've (re-)written [the lyrics of] a few well known songs for house church meetings, too, but I never blogged any of the good ones. Maybe some other time...
December 1, 2008
Life Spent Preparing
The head of John the Baptist bent low when he baptized the Lamb./ The sight of his Lord and the sound of God’s voice put a thought in John’s head./ He must increase. I must decrease.
The head of John the Baptist pressed hard against the wall of his cell./ Disconnected from the body of his followers, a sense of doubt grew in his mind./ Was his cousin really the One?
The head of John the Baptist hung from a saddle, bouncing inside a wet sack./ Up the Jordan a hundred miles, from prison to palace – first time in Galilee./ Then it went to a girl on a platter.
The head of John the Baptist was an outrage all over Israel./ The people’s disfavor made their leaders slow to repeat that same crime./ For a time, Christ was safe in Judea!
John’s head, once again, had prepared the Lord’s way.