March 27, 2009

Who Was The First Christian Writer?

Common people might not think about writing things down until the eyewitnesses are nearing their death. However, as I've said before, it only takes ONE GUY to be forward thinking enough to beat those commoners by several decades. However, he had to be more than literate. He also had to be literarily minded. Personally, I think that ONE GUY was Matthew the publican-scribe. Here's why:

Imagine you're Matthew the tax collector. You carry around some simple writing tools that you use for book keeping when you have to travel, which is often. When somebody pays you, you unroll your satchel and scroll, set your tools on their table, make a record of the transaction, and put everything away again. You'd keep a small jar of ink, and you'd know in which towns to buy more ink when you were running low. As a tax-collector, you are in small part a travelling scribe.
Now Jesus calls you. And you want to serve him. And writing is not only a skill, it's a part of your practiced profession. But one more important detail is... you're Jewish! You grew up hearing people read the scriptures out loud. You've spent many hours rolling and unrolling scrolls, just like you saw done in the synagogue every Sabbath, so writing isn't a mystery to you. In fact, writing is part of your daily mindset.

But there's more. In the synagogues, among other things, you had sometimes heard that God told Moses to write, God told Isaiah to write, God told Jeremiah and other prophets to write... and apparently some of them wrote without being told to. You see Jesus go into the Synagogues, and they read the scrolls, and at least one time you think, "They should hear what Jesus said the other day!"

To birth writing, literary capability needs to meet literary mindedness. One simple thought only had to cross Matthew's mind one time. He already had the skills and the tools. He just needed the spark. "I could write something!" And writing itself was abundantly extant.

By the time of Hillel, famous Rabbis had people who wrote down their sayings. Pharisees commonly put writings on their foreheads or sleeves, so common people could see it and want to know what it said. Herod's Temple had inscriptions written on it by those who donated materials. The average person might not see writing all day long, but they might see it daily. And pages of writings - for synagogue attenders - would be seen at least weekly.

Maybe Jesus himself made a remark one day that got Matthew to thinking about the potential. Maybe Matthew offered to sell his writing tools for food money, and someone suggested he keep them for future use instead. It doesn't matter how it happened - the point is that all of these possibilities are extremely plausible or common scenarios that could have nudged Matthew into thinking about recording some speeches and current events.

But what if it wasn't Matthew?

The odds of that thought coming at least once [at least to some writer] seem as certain as anything. And my whole point - again - is that the thought only had to come once. In a purely oral culture, maybe writing would never occur until the eyewitnesses were about to die. But in a partly literate culture? If the task only had to occur to one literate person? If it only took one guy to decide to write down what he knew? More likely than not, somebody would write.

For the sake of argument, let's pretend there were two hundred literate christians out of the thousands in Palestine. With those numbers, what are the odds that just one of them compiled an account? Those odds would be the inverse of 200 to 1. Those odds would be 200 in 1. That's two hundred chances for one guy to do it. Those are pretty good odds.

By the way, written testimony doesn't merely back up an eyewitness who might leave or die - it also backs up that witness' own memory while they're still around! Again, this only increases the odds that the earliest christians would not have waited so long to make written records about Jesus' ministry years.

So, after all that... my faithful blog reader... if YOU had to pick the most likely New Testament person to put down written records more early than others, who would you choose?

So far, I'm sticking with Matthew.

Do you have a better (specific) suggestion?

March 23, 2009

Josephus on 9/8/7 BC (4)

I posted recently that it was probably in November of 9 BC when Augustus "became still more angry and wrote to Herod in a harsh tone... that whereas formerly he had treated him as a friend, he would now treat him as a subject." (Josephus' Antiquities 16.290) What I would like to know more precisely is how many months passed before "Caesar's attitude underwent such a change that he condemned Syllaeus to death and became reconciled with Herod..." (Josephus' Antiquities 16.352)

Twelve pages of greek (Loeb edition) stand between those two lines of text. This alone tells us nothing about time, but the limits of travel and Dio Cassius' account of the Emperor's campaign in Germany - together - suggest the second event most likely occurred no sooner than August of 8 BC. (See previous posts.) That gives us at least a nine month long demotion. Skip the small print below if you don't want the details. ;)

Scholarship on this event sequence typically neglects to work out chronology in this much detail. Peter Richardson makes Augustus linger in Rome until Nicolas arrives but is vague about the timing of that visit and does not discuss the German campaign itself. Based on Peter Swan's analysis of Dio, Richardson's assumption is highly unlikely, more so because Josephus tells us that Olympus went to see Augustus as soon as he heard about Nicolas’ success. Since Olympus sailed to Italy from Palestine, he could hardly have arrived before June. But Augustus was hailed imperator by the German Legions in June at the latest. Therefore, it seems almost certain that Nicolas must not have been able to meet with Caesar until after the Emperor’s return – some time between August and October. Adding seven weeks for imperial couriers to reach Herod with news about each change in status, King Herod probably got the good news between mid-October and December of 8 BC, having previously received the demotion somewhere around the turn of January that year.

Regrettably, I have not yet found this much attention to detail, on this matter, in scholarly books about Herod. At least Richardson acknowledged the German campaign and considered the issue of time. Stewart Perowne skipped backwards and forwards during the late period of Herod’s life with scant chronological detail at all. Emil Schurer did not even bring Nicolas all the way into Italy! Surveys of the period tend to cover the whole affair in a sentence or two, and it is notable that Fergus Millar chose this moment at which to point out, "Problems of time and distance, often very important to the role of the near east within the empire, do not play any visible part." (emphasis mine) In fact, Millar himself had just skipped over one whole year of action in less than a paragraph. (To be fair, his survey was not aimed at events in strict sequence. Sadly, among scholars, too few are.)

In their defense, we can easily point out these world class scholars were simply following Josephus himself in neglecting to tease out much detailed chronology around Herod’s demotion. Still, solid historiography requires logistical outworking, at least for double checking. On this issue, we owe these past scholars our efforts to make some improvement. Thanks mainly to Swan, this post is now my contribution. Hopefully, they would all approve.

It seems Herod the Great remained in disfavor for the first nine to eleven months of the year 8 BC. This is a significant amount of time and offers a new perspective for reconsidering other pertinent facts. For instance, now see my next point:

The extended duration of Herod’s demotion makes it less likely to have been insignificant, punishment wise. It is fine to say Herod lost certain perks of imperial friendship, but that is now likely less than the least we should assume. Eleven months is a long time to believe Caesar made no active efforts to “treat” Herod as a “subject”, as he promised to actively do. Three months of winter could perhaps allow an as yet unfulfilled threat to remain unfulfilled. That's conceivable. But nine months with a summer makes that threat, retroactively, implicitly empty. That does not at all fit what we know of Augustus.

This gives us a new problem. Why does Josephus list no punishments? For that matter, what would they have been? I already admitted my own suspicion, back in post #2. But to back up, the most basic question at this moment is: did Augustus take any particular actions to treat Herod as a subject, or not?

This question deserves more attention. Time is but one of the issues.

Stay tuned...

March 22, 2009

The Lord's Prayer - in Nazareth

Imagination has its place in reconstruction. These Nazareth posts will be explorations. Maybe even devotions. They're not necessarily intended to produce academic conclusions. So feel free to read with your spirit. :)

During the "sermon on the mount", Jesus prayed what we still call The Lord's Prayer. Two years later, somewhere in Judea, Jesus prayed it again, by request. These may be the only two times Jesus ever taught his disciples to pray. But they were hardly the only two times that He prayed.

How many times did Jesus pray that same prayer, during his ministry? It was certainly a timely prayer. It was tied to his message. It was his sincere hope and purpose in those years. Above all, it was a prayer for the Father to have his Kingdom, actually at hand. Personally, I bet Jesus prayed that prayer all the time - sometimes thought for thought - many times word for word.

And now I have a question. How many years had Jesus been praying that prayer before he called his disciples? If Jesus had any sense of his purpose before he left Nazareth, then that prayer - in some form - was probably born inside him during his "hidden years" in Nazareth. At least, I like to imagine it was.

I like to imagine the Lord praying that prayer sometimes in Nazareth... maybe a lot... not because he expected it to be answered immediately, but because there was nothing Jesus wanted more, on the Earth, than to see what his Father was wanting to see, on the Earth.

Jesus lived in Nazareth from 4 BC to 28/29 AD. One thing I do know he did - he talked to his Father. Sometimes, I bet, he prayed the same prayer we pray. I myself probably need to pray it more. Things in my neighborhood aren't quite like God's Kingdom... at least not yet.

What do you think? Did Jesus pray the Lord's Prayer in Nazareth? At what age? And did it sound at all different? Comments may be historical or devotional.

March 21, 2009

The Baptist & Sejanus - 7

The point here has been to ask whether the 3-year or 4-year chronology of Jesus' ministry fits better with Roman events. To recap:

In November, this series started out to answer the question: "Was Sejanus more likely dead or alive when Antipas killed John the Baptist?" That question quickly turned out to be more inconclusive than I'd previously thought. After the third post, I began thinking more about the period after John's death. Examining the withdrawals of Jesus more closely led me into examining again how Antipas could have overlooked Jesus for so long in the first place, but that's a question for another series. The point is, the original question stalled out and - so far, for me - has not revived.

It did, however, spark related questions that may prove more fruitful. The last three posts in this series (here, here and here) essentially wound up shifting the original question into its converse: "Was John the Baptist more likely alive or dead when Sejanus fell?" That one seems more conclusive, depending on the relationships Antipas had with Sejanus & the Sanhedrin (respectively). I blogged about Antipas & Sejanus last summer, but the relative depth of their connection needs more attention. I should also outline my thoughts on Jesus' first withdrawal from Judea a bit better as well.

That gives me at least two new series to work on in pursuit of this topic. With that said, I'll leave my thoughts from post #6 open for more feedback. As always, even harsh critiques will be much appreciated.

I wish historical/chronological rigor was less complicated. Stay tuned...

March 20, 2009

John Mark's Memory - 3

On Wednesday, I made the basic suggestion. On Thursday, I posted a spark for one possible reconstruction. These are my tentative thoughts and questions based on it all.

IF the story I just told is anything close to the context of the author's experience, there's no question about whether he'd remember things - only how many things and to what degree. Maybe I need to read more on the study of memory, but I know from real life it varies significantly from person to person. The period of life matters, too. Think about your own teen years for a while, and see what you remember. "First" memories are often much stronger than later ones.

IF the second Gospel was written by the John Mark of Acts, and IF he was that young man in the sheet, then we must reconstruct his life because the author himself is a pertinent issue in this debate. Someone can parse down the imaginative parts of my last post into something more defensible, but I believe I made my point. Logically, some such scenario must be considered. And IF that scenario is more simple and more plausible than others, shouldn't it be the leading theory on authorship? I'm just wondering...

Is that a lot of "IF"s for scholarship to tackle? Maybe. Maybe not. But my initial point is really my only point at the moment - it is in three parts. (1) The study of memory in general does not absolutely tell us about the memory of any particular eyewitness or writer. (2) Considering any particular authorship should require reconstruction of that author's life. And finally, (3) the relative difficulty of actually doing all this does not diminish its necessity.

After all, "A text without a context..."

Or am I missing something? Seriously - what do you think?

March 19, 2009

John Mark's Memory - 2

Continued from yesterday...

Can we assess John Mark's potential mneumonic abilities by indirect methods? That could depend on whether or not we can produce a plausible reconstruction of that young man's life, within reasonable limits. I'll let you be the judge, but to illustrate my point better, please allow yourself to imagine this dramatic scenario, at least for starters...


It's 33 AD and YOU are a young teenage boy named John Mark. It's the week before Passover and you've been sleeping on the mountain of olives every night with Jesus and his disciples. The men even let you have one of their sheets. When you hear them talking, they sound like upcoming world beaters. When you see them standing together, you want to be with them and like them. Your mind is fully fixed on everything that's happening, because you're so excited to be part of whatever it is that's about to happen. It's not just all about Jesus. It's about Jesus and all of them.

One night that week, after sunset, under a heavily waxing moon, you're sitting with Jesus and all of them. You're excited simply to be there. And then, Jesus starts saying wild things and predicting they're all going to come true.

Remember, you're a young teen. Your mind is fixed on your heroes and their leader. Your brain is firing on all synapses, so to speak. This is one of the most wonderous nights of your impressionable young life.

A night or two later, Jesus is taken and all of them scatter. Three nights after that, all of them get together once more and Jesus appears. Seven weeks after that, YOU are involved in the start of something you wind up devoting the rest of your life to. Over the next several months, YOU meet thousands of people who never met Jesus. YOU met him. YOU saw him - briefly. YOU are young. And YOU are eager to tell everyone you meet about the week you spent with him before he died (and rose again!)

Yes, YOU practice telling that story dozens or hundreds of times. Many parts of it remain vividly in your mind for years to come. When Stephen is killed, Jesus' words about the Temple take on new significance. When Caligula threatens to claim it, you wonder again. You don't understand everything Jesus said - and so - you keep telling others just in case one of them knows how to respond. At least, some parts of it seem clearer than others.

Roughtly twenty years later, one day, you write it all down.


Obviously I can imagine a lot, but is this so far fetched? I don't think so. At any rate, whatever we reconstruct about Mark himself is valid fodder for consideration of Mark's mneumonic ability.
I'll share my own concluding thoughts in the next post. Any comments on this one?

March 18, 2009

John Mark's Memory - 1

Assessing the limits of memory - in general - seems to be a big subtopic in debating the authorship of the Gospels. But what about memory in particular? Critical scholarship may doubt that John Mark wrote the second Gospel (ie, publishing Jesus' predictions before their fulfillment) but since church tradition says he did we should at least assume that point long enough to see how far it can be carried. For such an exercise, the central question must be - what was the quality of John Mark's memory? To which the immediate response must be - how can we assess John Mark's memory?!?

Obviously - since John Mark is dead - there's clearly no scientific method for direct assessment of his particular mnemonic abilities as an individual. But even if the question cannot be answered, that does not diminish the significance of asking it. If the young man in the bed sheet at Gethsemane was the author of Mark's Gospel, all question of memory is absolutely particular to him. Perhaps the most we can do, academically, is to acknowledge this leaves an unprovable hypothesis. Or perhaps we can do more.

To be continued...

March 17, 2009

Can Anyone Confirm or Deny This?

I was twelve. I thought the winning answer was Professor Plum in the Conservatory with the lead pipe. Nobody could disprove it, so I got to look in the envelope. Unfortunately, two out of three counted as a loss.

Now I'm thirty-four. I think Matthew kept an intermittent journal during Jesus' ministry, which supplied much of Mark's material when he wrote in the early 50's AD. Then, in the late 50's, Luke used Mark's Gospel and Matthew's notes, plus first hand interviews, while living in Caesarea. By the early 60's, conflict between diverging streams of Jewish-christianity in Judea inspired Matthew to convert his own notes into a full composition, also borrowing material from Mark and Luke.

I'm pretty sure nobody can disprove that. Naturally, it's also unprovable. Now if only I could find that dang envelope! ;)

March 16, 2009

Josephus on 9/8/7 BC (3.5)

This post is a bridge between the first and last halves of this series.

Post #1: Traditional scholarship on the date of Alexander & Aristobulus' execution (by their father, Herod the Great) has been rightly held up as accurate but perhaps without stringent examination. A face value reading of Josephus' Antiquities shows events during the Governorship of Saturninus (mid-9 to mid-6 BC) are difficult to date with precision. Working on this issue may also help us determine how long Herod the great remained a "subject" of Augustus Caesar, after the accusation of Syllaeus the Nabatean (which occured about November of 9 BC).

Post #2: A review of events in Dio Cassius shows Augustus moving back and forth between Rome and Germany in 9 and 8 BC. The logistics of communication between Caesar and Herod (including the weight of Caesar's decision and the travel itinerary for Nicolaus of Damascus) must be weighed against various factors, including the possible lengths and end points of the Emperor's 8 BC campaign. On balance, Nicolaus probably missed Augustus in the spring and had to wait until Autumn. Herod's other envoy, Olympus, absolutely waited in Rome for Caesar's return because Olympus sailed. (Whereas Nicolaus may have gone over land.)

Post #3: A generous attempt to put the execution of Alexander and Aristobulus at the end of 8 BC is shown to stretch the limits of plausibility to a very high degree. It would also require Nicolas to sail back to Palestine during October-November. Without other evidence to demand further consideration of this scenario, it must be abandoned. The only alternative is to show that Nicolaus and Olympus both stayed in Rome over the winter of 8/7 BC. Therefore, Herod does not execute Alexander and Aristobulus until shortly after Nicolaus sails home from Italy in 7 BC.

Point One: The traditional date holds up - with a strengthened position, if I have examined these things fairly enough. This was worth investigating thoroughly and great exercise for me, besides.

Point Two: My ulterior motive in all this is to more closely consider what I believe are solid grounds for the plausible reconstruction of an actual Roman Census in Judea under Governor Saturninus in 7 BC.

Preview of Future Posts in this Series: If Nicolas did in fact miss Caesar in the spring of 8 BC, as seems likely, then Augustus remained cold to Herod for nearly one full year - and Herod remained a "subject" of Caesar (and thus essentially of Rome as well) for the same span of time, plus a seven week courrier delay. Herod's demotion in status is usually not addressed as such an extended situation, partly because Josephus scholars don't necessarily include Dio Cassius' accounts of the same time period among their published considerations. It leads to an important consideration, namely - Which is more difficult? To imagine Augustus making an empty threat with no consequences that lingered for almost one full year? Or to speculate on what significance the demotion to "subject" had in practical matters, and to what extent it was able to take effect during the (almost entire) year 8 BC?

Preview of my Conclusion: Herod's punishment in late 9 BC is often treated as both brief and trivial. It was almost certainly not brief. Examination of other evidence will strongly suggest it was also very far from being trivial.

Related Topics also to be Covered: (1) The confusing details of Luke's testimony about this census and the extent to which those details may or may not be used as a source for Roman history. (2) Reconstruction for the sake of argument - assuming Saturninus did receive that order. (3) Examining the date and provenance of the oath of loyalty to Caesar and Herod. (4) Josephus' use of the term "subject" and similar usage in Strabo and elsewhere. (5) Others - TBA.

March 13, 2009

The Baptist & Sejanus - 6

Series History: Posts 1, 2 & 3 were late last year. Post #'s 4 and 5 were earlier this month.

If the three-year chronology of Jesus’ ministry were correct, we would probably have to suppose (as did Harold Hoehner, rather astutely) that Herod Antipas was essentially trying to chase Jesus out of Galilee after John's death - and all the more urgently because Sejanus was already dead. I admit, that's a plausible argument, assuming a three-year chronology. But after much examination, I do see a couple of problems with this scenario.

Forgetting chronology for a moment, the key point is Judea. When John got arrested by Antipas, Jesus prudently fled into Galilee. That only makes sense if the Judeans were planning to arrest Jesus and extradite him to Antipas. (And Jesus somehow heard, knew, sensed or guessed it - take your pick!) At the start of his ministry, Jesus had Jerusalem enemies, but it was their hearing of Herod's involvement with John that ran Jesus out of Judea.

Now, fast-forward to Sejanus’ death. All of a sudden, the Judeans can’t extradite Jesus to Antipas anymore. With Sejanus dead, the cagey tetrarch doesn’t want anything to do with condemning a popular messianic figure - not if he could avoid it. December 31 was no different than April 33. In those dangerous times, Antipas could not be too careful.

Yet the three-year chronology shows Herod acting dramatically – one might argue recklessly – by killing John and hunting for Jesus after Sejanus was dead. Still, that’s not the key point. Much more problematic is that the three-year chronology shows Jesus ignoring Judea for over nine months after Sejanus was dead! That is, the three-year chronology shows Jesus trying to stay away from Herod for seven months while also keeping far away from Judea. If Sejanus was dead, that just doesn’t line up.

Though we definitely should believe Jesus went where his Father led - which may only have happened to include the Decapolis, Syro-Phoenicia, and the northwestern limits of Philip's lands, during this time - the periodic withdrawals after John’s death still give the impression that Jesus was heading for safety in places Antipas could not get to him. If Sejanus was dead, then Judea would have already been such a safe zone. But Jesus doesn't go down until Tabernacles that September, suggesting Sejanus was not dead yet.

The Gospel of John shows Jesus gets some support from the crowd because of John's recent martyrdom. The threats of certain Jerusalem authorities shows Jesus needed that support. It is during this same trip to Judea that Jesus stays nearby (probably laying low, most likely in Bethany) for most of two months, until Chanukah. In the four year-chronology, this is early December, of 31 AD, about which time everyone learned that Sejanus was dead. That was the game changer.

I'll pause for reaction, if any. Is this sounding at all clear so far?

March 12, 2009

on Jesus' 13th Birthday

Another Archive Teaser: I've made it a point on this blog to say every month or three that I believe Matthew 2:22 explains Luke 2:42. Here's how I said it on December 8, 2008.
Since Joseph's irrational and personal fear of Archelaus was unlikely to dissipate while the ethnarch still ruled in Judea, I believe we must conclude that Jesus was twelve years old in March of 7 AD. That spring was the first Passover Joseph could bring his young charge safely into Judea after Archelaus had left (summer 6 AD). This means Jesus would have turned 13 any time in the twelve months after March, 7 AD. That same math also puts Jesus' birth anywhere in the twelve months prior to April of 6 BC - so as early as May of 7 BC.
For today, I'd also like to point out how this affects competition between the three-year and four-year chronologies of Jesus' ministry.

The 3-yr view puts Jesus' baptism in late 29 AD. If Jesus is born in May of 7 BC, he turns 35 in May of 29 AD, too late by most opinions to be called "about 30" at his baptism. The 4-yr view puts Jesus' baptism a year earlier, making him 34 (if born in early 7 BC). Aware of this distinction, some who take the 3-yr push Jesus' birth back as far as 6 BC, but there is no plausible way to posit a census in that year, as 6 BC was a transition year for the Syrian Governors.

This is a sample of what I was talking about last week, regarding Sudoku. Tomorrow, I'll get back to the Baptist and Sejanus...

March 11, 2009

The Letter of Acts 15

Jumping back into topics on James & Galatians... The letter of Acts 15 may be the first piece of christian literature ever written for a particular audience. It was definitely one of the most controversial.

The letter from the Council of Jerusalem told gentile believers to follow some Jewish laws, but not others. It was carried by Judas & Silas to Antioch, where it brought much rejoicing. Chronology proves Paul deliberately left it out of his letter to the Galatian churches. Evidently, Peter felt the need to share about it with Corinth - because Corinth did not generate dozens of new questions about eating and idols and "es ee ex" (not to mention tongues and healing) until after Peter's momentous visit - which means Paul failed to mention that letter in Corinth as well. Later on, Paul contradicted it flatly to Rome. As the years went on, Paul fought against Jerusalem's restrictions in his own letters with less and less subtlety. It may not be a coincidence that Paul left Antioch after Jerusalem's letter caused joy there... or that Paul's dispute with Barnabas came about that same time, as well.

The letter itself gets included in Acts. Why? It seems it was supposed to show Paul was not actively persecuted by Christian-Jews, but only by Jewish Jews. While I find nothing inaccurate or dishonest in what Luke wrote, a larger context reveals a much more complex situation. Luke was prudent to be so selective in positioning Paul with a solid defense. It isn't lying unless he said something false. In fact, it is perfectly true that the Council's letter was encouraging, to a degree. It just didn't go far enough. At least, not for Paul.

Shrewdly, Luke's omission of commentary about the Jerusalem letter helped give Caesar a certain impression of Paul, in Rome. However, those of us reading today can put together much more of the picture than Nero had. Surely, we should form a more complete impression. Whatever you want to say about it... however you want to explain it... we need to admit it. Conflict between Paul and Jerusalem lasted long after 50 AD.

In my humble opinion, needless resistance to this obvious conclusion is one of the things that has kept us from reconstructing an accurate, coherent, holistic account of the New Testament Events in their larger context. We deserve better. Far better.

March 10, 2009

The Baptist and Sejanus - 5

Series History: Posts 1, 2 & 3 were 2 to 4 months ago. Post # 4 was last week.

Judea & Galilee learned about Sejanus' death by December of 31 AD. What was Jesus doing at that point? And what do the Gospels tell us about Antipas' activities at that time?

The three-year chronology of Jesus' ministry says Jesus was laying low. His disciples were out spreading good news. John the Baptist was rotting in prison. Three months later, John was dead and Jesus began moving frequently in and out of Galilee because Antipas was trying to find him, too. Nine months after that December, Jesus was back in Judea for a seven month tour, leading up to the Cross. If the three-year chronology is correct, this sequence must be historical.

In contrast, the four-year chronology says Jesus was at Chanukah in Judea in early December of 31 AD. His disciples were home in Galilee for their last normal winter. John the Baptist had been dead almost a year. Jesus himself would scarcely see Galilee again, and Herod Antipas will not appear again (in the Gospels) until Good Friday. In this chronology, Jesus leaves Galilee forever about five months after Sejanus' death (just after squeezing in his only visit north of Galilee) and thus begins an eleven month tour of Judea, leading up to the Cross.

The question I've been wrangling with for some time now is this - can we observe anything in either of these competing sequences that stands out clearly as seeming consistent or inconsistent with the effect Sejanus' death evidently had on Herod Antipas? I'm getting closer to firm on my own answer, I think.

But first, I'd love to know - if anyone's game - what's your quick impression, based on the above?

March 9, 2009

Location, Location, Location (and Time?)

I love, love, LOVE this quote from Matthew Montonini's interview with Gary Burge about his new book, The New Testament in Antiquity, I just found from last month. (I'm hoping Michael Halcomb makes good on his threat to blog through the book, also.) The quote:
...everyone living in Jesus' world knew the difference between someplace like Galilee and Judea. The Decapolis east of Galilee was Greek; lands west of Galilee were Jewish. To live in Sepphoris meant one thing; to live in Caesarea meant another. To understand Jesus' world, we must also understand the many geographical assumptions he and his followers lived with day after day. And when we do, new insights emerge.
Yes! Understanding geography is just like selling real estate or opening a deli - the most important rule is location, location, location! But what about time? Burge also said, in the embedded video interview:
...each of [the book's] sidebars illustrates some fascinating aspect of life in the ancient world or perhaps in rabbinic Judaism and this once again reminds the student that they are travelling to a new country when they begin to read the New Testament."
Notice how the word "ancient" is transferred out of a temporal and into a geographic-slash-cultural frame of reference: "travelling to a new country". The emphasis shifts immediately from the historical term "ancient" to the cultural-geographic "world". Maybe I shouldn't fuss about marketing and we'll see what the book's really like. But I've seen other examples where writers use the word "background" for a sense and flavor of history, when they're really just talking about culture.

Where's the real history? What about events and their sequence? That "ancient" world was not static in time. Things changed almost constantly! Wars and rumors of wars actually came and went within particular time windows. When Emperors, Governors, Prefects, Procurators, Kings, High Priests and Ethnarchs die or get replaced, the whole political environment shifts. Sometimes that matters a lot.

Caesarea was a day from Sepphoris by horse or carriage. If 35 miles really matters so much, and it absolutely does, just imagine what a difference a year can make. To piggyback on Burge himself, I'd say that to understand the events in Jesus' world, we must also line up the chronological sequence he and his followers lived out, year by year. And when we do, new insights emerge. Indeed, believe you me, they do.

Will the "Antiquity" of the New Testament come out in The New Testament in Antiquity? Probably in general. But I'll be shocked (and yet thrilled) if it even attempts to outline, flesh out and string together several decades worth of sequentially temporal details. We shall see...

March 8, 2009

Fleeing Damascus Again!

We know Paul went to Damascus twice (Gal.1) so he left twice as well. We should not need a text that explicitly says "Paul left Damascus twice". This should be obvious. Now, then. Paul describes one time he escaped from Damascus (2.Cor.12). Luke describes one time Paul escaped from Damascus (Acts 9). Each of these times must be placed at one of Paul's two Damascene departures. We should not assume both accounts refer to one escape. Logically, we must consider that it may just as well have been two separate and similar events.

(Now take a fresh look at the texts. Done? Let's continue.)

Luke's account shows Paul besought by Jewish authorities, upset because he'd been preaching in the synagogues, soon after his conversion. Luke omits all reference to Arabia, and so omits Paul's second departure. Paul's account does not give a reference to time, but Paul does mention two Arabians - Aretas and his ethnarch. If Paul's return from Arabia has anything to do with the ethnarch's (and/or his King's) desire to apprehend Paul, then this account best fits with Paul's second Damascene departure. Since no actual evidence suggests any other cause for the ethnarch's presence, and since the chronology of Roman events suggests Aretas' authority did not extend near Syria until after Paul's conversion, the ethnarch's pursuit is most likely related to Paul's return from Arabia. (Links are to my posts last year on this topic.)

Therefore, each account fits best with a different departure. Luke's account happened before Paul saw Arabia, while Paul merely shared of his second escape. This is the most natural assumption. Since the overall storyline clearly shows two different contexts, each befitting one of two distinctly different accounts, the burden of proof should fall on anyone wishing to conflate these distinctions. Which is more simple? To reconcile divergent texts, historical details and time lines, inventing either a cause for the ethnarch's involvement (if early) or else an omitted cause for Paul's first departure (if the joint pursuit was late)? OR - to place things where they most naturally seem to belong?

If the only problem with this view, as stated by some, is that we should not imagine the same trick being used twice, then I beg to differ in the extreme. A sneaky escape trick, successfully employed, would no doubt be the first and most prudent option for future escapes. No one could have seen the basket or rope being pulled up unless Paul was still physically nearby when they saw it. In that case, Paul would probably not have escaped. And the brothers who lowered the rope would be somewhat pleased with themselves for making the trick work so well. They would be extremely likely to try it again - especially if there was no better option.

Therefore, it seems Paul fled from Damascus two separate times, by the same method. Luke describes the first event in Acts 9 and Paul told the Corinthians about the second. Luke omitted Arabia to avoid weakening his case that anti-Paul bias by Jewish authorities played out consistently all over the empire. (I see this as spin but not outright deception.) However, Paul omitted the first escape for reasons I cannot practically fathom, unless he simply chose the one that most broadened his 'resume' and omitted the other to avoid adding confusion.

Any comments or questions? ;)


Since I only clarified this on friday, I hope everyone knows I know it's not really a DFW conference. Schools represented were from TX, LA, OK, MS and elsewhere. (Still, there were a lot of DFW scholars in attendance.) It's not merely SBL either. It's SWCRS. If you even care, you already knew that - just don't think I didn't. ;)

Anyway. Today I spent four hours in SBL sessions or the book room and five hours afterwards talking to Lou. None of the presentations wowed me today, but I enjoyed learning how others think about Matthew. I also enjoyed listening to the interactions afterwards, which were unfortunately brief. Warren Carter of TCU was presiding and contributed to the discussion after each presenter. (If he hadn't, a couple of times, there might not have been any.) Carter's comments and questions revealed a historically focused mindset, which I appreciated, so I bought a couple of books by him, even though he takes a liberal position quite different than mine. They reveal the same perspective. I'm sure I'll learn a lot going through them both.

Somebody suggested later that Q&A/discussion was sparse at a lot of the sessions that were more loosely themed. Also, today's session was small - like 20 people. Yesterday's NT sessions were more like 30 or 40. I don't know if the SWCRS was larger last year or not.

I met some people, I worked on understanding different perspectives, and I made a contact or two for the future. I also spent several hours talking to Lou. I guess that's what I'm looking forward to the most about SBL 'Nawlins this November - seeing people I already know, to a degree, from their blogs. Lou and I have been able to build on our blogging experience for some fruitful discussion in person, twice now. I look forward to that.

As I blogged about James & Paul recently, it's amazing how much we "talk past one another". Learning the best ways of explaining myself (and building a working understanding of 'modern biblical scholarship') is going to take longer than I thought it would. Longer than I wish it would, too.

'Sokay. If there's one thing I got, it's time. ;)

See y'all down there in 'Nawlins. :)


Yesterday, based on some famous advice, I skipped in and out of sessions trying to get to the papers that looked most interesting, and that was great... but I started to feel the downside socially. At least, I noticed groups of people sticking with one section all day. So today I'm planning to stay in one of the SBL New Testament sessions all morning in the interest of meeting people and learning who's who.

Neither "Pauline Interpretation" or "The Gospel of Matthew" looks as interesting to me as the ASOR section doing archaeology of Roman Judea - but I figure I can look that stuff up down the line. This weekend I'm here to meet people and learn what "SBL" is like. The section on Matthew has some local TCU professors and one from LSU that I've heard of but never met. So that group's my huckleberry today. I'm sure I'll learn some good stuff in there too. ;)

More later...

March 7, 2009


What a day! My brain is tired and my people skills are sore. I definitely met a lot of people and heard some interesting presentations. So far the people I'm striking up conversations with wind up being independents and grad students, but I did meet a couple of professors at lunch. That fits, since I don't know who's who and what they study (yet) anyway. I'm starting to figure it out though - naturally, that's one major reason I'm here.

Texas really is pretty conservative overall, God bless it. ;) Check the list of presenters if you want to see who's represented (there've been few changes). Personal hilights so far were:

Michael W. Martin from Lubbock Christian University on Rhetoric in Mark - I haven't paid much attention to the whole rhetorical approach but this presentation made me a little more interested, I gotta admit.

Mark Goodwin from the University of Dallas on dating John's Gospel - I got to sit next to Lou during this one and he's the Johnine studies fanatic (not I) but I found it very interesting and Lou told me it was a good survey of the issue since someone named "Martin". John A.T. Robinson got mentioned by Goodwin during the Q&A, which makes three catholic scholars I've seen mention him recently. That's deeply intriguing...

The Big One (to me) -- Peter J Haugen from Baylor University gave a talk on "The Damascus Incident" about textual issues involving 2.Cor 11:32-33 and Acts 9:23-25. I need to get a copy of that paper and read it again. The Q&A was my one chance to pipe up about my view (Paul fled Damascus twice, by the same trick) and his response was very positive overall. In fact, we continued talking after the session and plan to stay in dialogue about these issues. It was nice to feel like I made a personal and topical connection. I hope it pays off for both of us.

I attended as many presentations as I could, but those were the stand outs for me. I also missed a couple more that looked good because of time conflicts, and two or three that looked promising weren't what I expected - I wish they'd print an alphabetical list of abstracts in addition to the program guide. I'd gladly have paid extra for that or printed a digital copy at home before coming. Just thinking 'out loud'.

More tomorrow...

March 6, 2009


My twin brother Lou is picking me up tomorrow for the Southwestern Regional SBL (SWCRS) conference. Several of the New Testament papers being presented look interesting and there are a veritable plethora of Texas schools represented in the sessions altogether. If I meet a few new people, make a few new contacts, learn something at every session, and listen ten times as much as I talk, it'll be a successful weekend for me.

This will be my first conference with wall to wall biblical scholars. Playing it cool has never been my strongest suit, so we'll see how that goes. ;) But I know the reason I'm going is to find out what this meeting is actually like and how SBL folks interact in person. I've got a lot to learn, and a few precious (still secret) ideas that will keep until due time. My purpose in going to SBL is the same as my purpose in the biblical studies blog-o-sphere for the past year. I've got to learn how to at least speak the lingo if I'm ever going to have the impact I'm hoping to.

As a non-native Scholarese speaker, this weekend will be my first 'total immersion' experience. Old friends, pray for me! :) But I can tell you one thing - I feel a lot better prepared going in thanks to ten months of reading biblioblogs. That's for sure.

More as the weekend goes on...

on Dating Jesus' Birth

From time to time, I'm going to start posting Archive Teasers, aka self-quotes from old posts I'd still like to get feedback on. Maybe fresh eyes or thoughts will catch hold this time. Besides, I still think this just makes a really strong point, even if it won't sell lots of DVD's at Christmastime. ;)
"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 [stargazers]."

--from Which Star of Bethlehem?, 12-26-08

Feel free to comment here OR there. And thanks for being tease-able. ;)

UPDATE: Wow! Someone just told me this sounded agnostic! Let me be clear - I absolutely believe the three magi visited Jesus. I just don't think that guessing which "signs in the heavens" they followed is a great foundation for NT chronology. We should focus on dating the census first and then figure out how the 'wise men' fit in. Hope that helps, folks. :)

March 5, 2009

The Baptist and Sejanus - 4

Note: This is an intermittent series that began last year - see Part 1 (November 3rd), Part 2 (December 6th) and Part 3 (December 29). A synopsis of the whole idea is also here.

In the year that John the Baptist died - which was 31, not 32 AD - Jesus spent several months darting in and out of Galilee, because Herod was looking for him. That period of "withdrawals" ran thru September, followed by two months in Judea. It was the first time Jesus had ventured back to Judea since John's arrest. Fittingly, one thing keeping Him safe at that time seems to have been the people's strong opinion of John as a martyr. (John 11:39-42)

Skip forward to Good Friday, April 3rd, 33 AD. John's death isn't so fresh anymore, but Pilate and Antipas still play "jurisdiction hot potato" over having to decide the Lord's fate. At this point, their political caution is due to a different death - that of Rome's prefect Sejanus, who died in October 31, being allied (to some degree, at least) with Pilate and Antipas. Note that some of Sejanus' allies were still being persecuted as late as 35 AD. (Suetonius, Vitellius 2.3)

One good question is - how far back does Herod Antipas' political caution go? In history, probably to December 31 AD, when news likely reached Israel of Sejanus' fall. In scripture, we don't see it until Good Friday. Or do we?

To be continued...

March 4, 2009

Why NT Chronology is Like Sudoku

The first thing people often learn about how to play Sudoku is that there's no arithmetic involved. It's all one giant, convoluted logic puzzle. That part alone - the logic part - is enough to turn many away, but the convoluted part is what beats all of us, eventually. At least, most of the time. At any rate, the convoluted part is actually where the beauty of Sudoku truly hides.

At it's heart, Sudoku is Eastern Logic. There's not one certain starting point with a linear path towards any obvious finish line. Like a Japanese garden, there are many paths one might meander through without seeing the whole thing. Therefore, to actually solve the puzzle, you must master each and every piece - forwards, backwards, sideways and round-in-circles. Eastern Logic all by itself is a topic for another essay - by not by me.

What I can say is that I know my own scratch work. Chronology is four-dimensional arithmetic, and filling in the blanks is simple (ok, complex) logic. In every sudoku puzzle, especially at the expert level, there comes a critical point when you seem to run out of solid clues. You have to guess, and then proceed on that assumption until (a) it produces a contradiction or (b) leads to a complete, all-encompassing solution. If a contradiction appears, you go back to the point of the guess and begin again, but you also have to erase each and every move made on the basis of that guess. It's a lot to keep track of.

Obviously, one problem with this metaphor is that we don't have nice, tidy parameters for every facet of the NT event-sequence puzzle. The rules of Sudoku ensure a limited number of options when solid clues dry up. So in a way, this entire post is like comparing chess or football to actual war. Just like armies don't always line up and take turns, true history doesn't always give us a finite number of clues. The key point, however, is that sometimes it does!

This is all to say the following. One of my life goals is to work from identified critical points of NT chronology and try to show whether the "guessing" can be moderated by (1) conclusively reducing the number of plausible options at those critical points, (2) demonstrating a finite number of possible consequence-chains resulting from those critical points and (3) ultimately reducing the entire 'web' by seeing how each set of parameters affects all other sets.

Regarding a few particular critical points - Herod's Death, Paul's Conversion and counting the Passovers of Jesus' ministry are just some of the big ones. I've written about smaller ones during the past year, on this blog. One big critical point is the death of Paul, which depends on the number of days in Passover (in the diaspora), the timing (and singularity) of Fair Havens, and the distance to Dyrrachium from Ephesus. That's enough to get the "pastorals" before 64 AD with no invented itineraries... if you know what I'm talking about. If you don't, please stay tuned. By the way, what happened to Cestius could get John down to Patmos inside a six-month window if not less. Look that up, and you might even scoop me! But this is just for the early-record. I'm telling you now...

At the very least, we should be able to construct a framework for what data we have and for which data well-known guesses are based on. The goal here is finite reducibility, and with "luck", certain critical points will bear heavily enough on one another to force one most plausible solution to the entire puzzle. As I say, I know my scratch work. We'll just have to see how well it all holds up.

At the moment, when I read NT scholars doing any degree of event reconstruction, I most often get frustrated by missed ramifications. Journal articles understandably proceed through a series of potential considerations and qualified sub-conclusions, but I always feel like they're missing too many trees in the interest of painting the forest. I know a lot of folks don't expect things to get more concrete than a rough sketch, but I do. I believe the event history of Jesus and Paul can be - and for crying out loud, ought to be - every bit as clear as that of Augustus and Herod the Great. So far, based on published works to date, it ain't.

Even C.S. Lewis (famously) knew that arithmetic should all be scrapped and restarted if a problem appears at any point along the way. With chronal-spatial-math as my only defense for such arrogance - or maybe it's really just a unique collection of starting points - I'll admit I can't respect the 'scratch work' of most *complete* NT reconstructions that I've perused. But there are others I've not yet read that may prove me happily wrong. We shall see.

Like Sudoku, New Testament Chronology is a puzzle that can only get solved if we master each piece and part along the way towards mastery of the whole. It isn't a question of substandard logic or incomplete scholarship - though we have too much of that as well - no, it's mostly a matter of being comprehensive and exhaustive. Piecemeal considerations on isolated topics, that happen to include assumptions based on the same done by others, does not effectively deal with the problem - which may partly explain why it has not yet been solved. IMHO. ;)

March 3, 2009

BMCR Items of Interest

One of the Books Received from the Bryn Mawr Classical Review this month that looks really interesting to me - Hannah, Robert. Time in antiquity. Sciences of antiquity. London; New York: Routledge, 2009. xiii, 206 p. $39.95 (pb). ISBN 9780415331562. Another one also received that I'd settle for a synopsis of - Nichols, Mary P. Socrates on friendship and community: reflections on Plato's Symposium, Phaedrus, and Lysis. Cambridge; New York: Cambridge University Press, 2009. viii, 229 p. $80.00. ISBN 9780521899734.

Obviously, I'd devour every page of a comprehensive take on the first topic. Time isn't only central to chronology but to storytelling, ancient and current.

Of the second book, I mainly want to know if either Nichols or Plato make any distinction for "friendship" working differently depending on status and income. What I'd really love to see is someone thinking Ruby Payne's type of thoughts a la M.I.Finley's Ancient Economy. Something like "A Framework for Understanding Poverty (and Wealth) in Antiquity". Payne's book is eye opening stuff to how "hidden rules of wealth and class" impact everything we do in daily life. Finley showed that was true for ancient economics. Who's doing that for the rest of ancient life?

If you know... and I don't... please do tell.

March 1, 2009

James' Epistle, c.AD 52 (part 3.5)

This post is the bridge between the first and last halves of this series.

Previously: (1) James & Paul don't have to be homogenized for the sake of our faith. (2) The conflict in their history together suggests there should indeed be conflict in their writings, but we may still believe they were both speaking truth and merely arguing from different perspectives - even if they often argued in the same terms, and even if this went on for years. (3) The traditional arguments for necessarily dating James' Epistle before 50 AD are invalid for various reasons.

Point: We need a better set of arguments for dating James' Epistle.

Also Recently: (1) The second chapter of Paul's letter to the Galatians can only refer to the Council of Jerusalem, which therefore dates this letter after 50 AD. (2) The vocabulary of Galatians is consistent with a situation after the Council and reveals Paul's lingering sense of conflict with Jerusalem. Now: Without defending it at this point, for the sake of time, I'm going to take the position that Galatians was written some time in the middle of 50 AD, in between the events of Acts 15:39 and 15:40.

Preview of my Conclusion: The best and most conservative date for James' Epistle is a year or two after Paul's writing to the Galatians.

Preview of Posts Left in this Series: We need to look at the linguistic connections between Galatians and James and consider possible explanations for them. After that, it's back to chronology and logistics. The next chance Paul and James had to sit down together (Acts 18:22, in the Autumn of 52 AD) could possibly be a terminus point for the last most likely date of James' Epistle. Although we cannot assume the two men came to any unity of understanding about their significant differences in perspective - at this time, if ever - we should at least assume they saw one another and spoke at some length. However much headway James & Paul were able to make during this probable meeting, it is that much less likely James would have gone on to write the same Epistle that he did.
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