April 30, 2009

Writer's Almanac on Hemmingway

For encouragement today, I googled this old quote from Garrison Keillor's daily "The Writer's Almanac". I still like it.
Hemingway had been working on a long novel that he called The Sea Book. It had three sections, which he called "The Sea When Young," "The Sea When Absent," and "The Sea in Being," and it had an epilogue about an old fisherman. He wrote more than eight hundred pages of "The Sea Book" and rewrote them more than a hundred times, but the book still didn't seem finished. Finally, he decided to publish just the epilogue about the old fisherman, which he called The Old Man and the Sea.

It won the Pulitzer Prize, and two years later Hemingway won the Nobel Prize for Literature. He didn't publish another novel in his lifetime.
I certainly won't expect to win any prizes, but it does give me hope that by simply pressing on, at least some part - and hopefully the best part - of what I've been putting together since '05 will eventually find a fruitful final form. (Alliteration unintentional.) It also reminds me of the 10,000 hour rule. Onward, then...

Zeke, Liz & Gabe - 4

(Part 4 of 4) I hope it's clear that I'm not trying to make too much of the topic. Overall, the story of Gabriel, Zechariah & Elizabeth is certainly not a starting point to NT chronology. Even though we will never know how long Zeke & Liz took to conceive John or what the deal is with the priestly cycles, we can still insert their story into the timeline, for a given range of dates. We just need another pair of starting points.

Let's take, at least for example, my suggestion about Gabriel coming in the new Sabbatical Cycle (on or after Sept. 9 BC) along with my arguments for dating Jesus’ birth as early as April/May of 7 BC. If these are good parameters, the data on Zeke, Liz & Gabe fits very nicely and flexibly into the timeline. Here's how:

In the first 26 weeks of the new cycle, in 9 BC, Zechariah had three chances to serve. If he drew the lot in September, Zeke could have pouted for a while before Elizabeth began menstruating. Or, if Gabriel came closer to the opposite limit, then the pregnancy could have commenced rather efficiently. Odds, nature and scripture suggest moderation in making both estimates.

Problem wise, the flexible spans essentially cancel each other out, because our given parameters already place the conception of John around Feb/Mar. This brings me once again to the key point of my little blog series. We should date Zeke & Gabe by working backwards from an estimate on Christ's nativity. It cannot be done the other way around.

So when did Gabriel come to Zechariah? The truth is probably somewhere mid-range, in this case, perhaps in November. As a matter of fact, if the priestly courses reset at Rosh Hashanah, the week of Abijah fits into early November for 9 BC. That would certainly fit just as well as anything else. Eleven to fifteen weeks of pouting, reconciling, menstruating and ovulating (not to mention the repeated attempting) sounds realistic. As I said in part one of this series:
We should not assume God wanted it done with efficiency. ... Blood, sweat and tears were all due to come, and that would take time – weeks, perhaps months. And after all, isn’t that how God usually works?

April 29, 2009

Zeke, Liz & Gabe - 3

New Testament Chronology has some practical use for the data we’ve been considering. It just isn’t as nice and tight as we might wish it was. Still, a general range is far better than vague, wanton ignorance. So let's proceed.

Here's an exercise. Start with *any guess* for Jesus’ birth date. Subtract a 40 week gestation. Subtract another 150 to 180 days (from some point during Elizabeth’s sixth month) and we find the conception of John to be between 61 and 66 weeks before the birth of Jesus. On other considerations, John’s conception should be placed somewhere between two and 26 weeks following the week of Zechariah’s service. That gives a range of 63 to 90 weeks between Gabriel’s appearance to Zeke and the birth of Jesus, whenever that was.

Now, invert that exercise. Working those numbers the other way, if the earliest visitation for Gabriel is indeed late September of 9 BC, then Elizabeth conceived anywhere between October and March. That also puts Jesus’ birth somewhere between December of 8 BC and June of 7 BC, which intersects very well with other evidence suggesting the nativity belongs in that period. (Such as: the Roman census under Saturninus, Joseph’s fear of Archelaus, and the triple conjunction of Jupiter with Saturn.)

This is the practical benefit of considering Zeke, Liz & Gabe, as far as it affects New Testament Chronology. Given these parameters, we can at least test the consistency of an overall view. Of course, the practical details here can also help us reconstruct the story of Zeke, Liz & Gabe, themselves.

To be concluded…

April 28, 2009

Zeke, Liz & Gabe - 2

We don’t know for sure whether the priestly courses rotated perpetually or reset at the civic New Year. We do know that each course/family drew lots at least twice a year, and all 'families' drew during major festivals. The good news is that we don’t need to know which family was due to draw at the civic new year. In this approach, we simply view *any* 24 to 26 week period as offering Zechariah one, two or three chances to serve. Of course, that still begs the question – where to begin?

I have suggested elsewhere that God did not send Gabriel to Jerusalem until after the sabbatical year ended in September of 9 BC. That’s a theological assumption, but it’s hard to start any earlier than about that time, anyway. From that starting point, then, the Tabernacles Festival and Day of Atonement were Abijah-lot-drawing chances one and two. If Gabriel did not come at those times, the 24 week cycle of courses would revolve once again between September and March. In all, the odds are strongest that Gabriel came sooner rather than later - perhaps early November (if the cycle reset each autumn), or we might take December as the median of statistical likelihood (if the cycle was perpetual, and thus undeterminable).

Again, however, this is just an example. None of this helps us date Jesus' birth with any precision. Given certain parameters, however, a range of dates can be constructed that fits what we do know. Here is the key challenge.

To be continued...

April 27, 2009

Zeke, Liz & Gabe - 1

A few have tried dating Jesus’ birth from Zechariah’s conversation with Gabriel. But even if we could be certain precisely which weeks the family of Abijah was able to draw lots for temple service, in any particular year, we can only use this data as a starting point for projecting a range of possible dates for Christ’s birth. Yes, Mary’s pregnancy can be dated from Elizabeth’s, but Elizabeth did not necessarily conceive the moment her husband got home.

We do not know how long it took Zechariah to get his wife pregnant and we should not assume God wanted it done with efficiency. Even if the old man came home with renewed faith and immediately began trying to conceive, Elizabeth had probably never so much as menstruated, let alone timed her own ovulation. None of this was bound to be purely mechanical. The major challenges involved were biological, emotional and spiritual. Blood, sweat and tears were all due to come, and that would take time – weeks, perhaps months. And after all, isn’t that how God usually works?

Therefore, the date of Zechariah’s service – even if we could know it with certainty – would still only tell us when Gabriel told him to go home and make his wife pregnant. It would not tell us how quickly John was conceived. What, then, can we say?

To be continued…

April 26, 2009

James' Seeker Friendly Epistle

My brain has a hair trigger when James' Epistle comes up. After some good interaction at Pat McCullough's blog, I decided to post these thoughts. As preface, let me first say I assume James' epistle was written by James the Just, brother of Jesus, chief cook and bottle washer of the latter "early" church in Jerusalem, who died in 62 AD. I further assume the Just one was writing largely in response to Paul's Galatian letter. As I've argued recently, Jimmy-J and Paulie G were "talking past" one another, much like certain scholars continue to do today. Bottom line, the fact that they seem to be arguing doesn't mean either man said anything inaccurate or untrue. All of this should be assumed when I make my first point, any moment now...

The big question to me is, "Who was James writing to?" Like a lot of believers, Pat seems to assume James' listeners were "followers of the Jesus movement". I am not at all convinced that they were. Pat also says "Jesus ('the Lord') obviously plays an important role in the letter." Funny, I have the exact opposite impression.

By my reading, Jesus only gets two brief mentions, just long enough for James to establish his credentials as a member of the new movement. Everything else in the letter suggests he was writing to non-christian Jews, especially this - James was writing to the twelve tribes who were meeting in Synagogues (2:2) with chief seats for offering to visitors. The vast bulk of the letter would seem to read the same to a Jewish audience even without the two references to Jesus. ("Lord", it is well established, can be a reference to the God of the Hebrews.)

So why mention Jesus? In my view, James was trying to show his diaspora brethren that not all the followers of the new Jesus movement were rejecting tradition as violently as Paul of Tarsus was doing. In other words, James claimed christianity just long enough to show how acceptable christianity could be, and how very, very Jewish some Jewish-christians still were. It's also possible James had an ulterior motive, that this could make Jesus more appealing to his nonbelieving brethren. The unstated message - it was possible to accept Jesus without altering their current faith or religion in any way. Perhaps even more, James wanted to give the impression that Jesus' followers were renewing true Judaism! (For more, see my post of last June.)

This view seems to fit with the James we see in Acts, who did everything he could to keep the new movement acceptable to those who were most firmly entrenched in the old ways. At the very least, I don't see any reason to assume James' listeners were already believers. To sum up my view with a comparison to recent trends, I'm suggesting that James' epistle was essentially "Seeker Friendly", a combination of P.R. and outreach to the Hebrew nation scattered abroad. Again, that's pretty much how James lived his life in Judea, and why he was famous there, well respected even among Jews who were not believers in Christ.

This may or may not be an original idea, but I'd love some feedback. Anyone intrigued?

April 24, 2009

Luke 2:1-5 as Historical Evidence (4)

In this series, I have claimed that faith-based historical reconstruction should prioritize the aspects of Luke's claim. We may believe his confusing synopsis is true, but it is too discordant at face value to trust in detail without first arriving at some proper perspective. In other words, historical study of this passage should pause at his central claim - there was a census - and seek out a classical context for that much, alone. Details might, hopefully, become clear by the end of that process. We trust.

This sums up the series so far. (See preface & parts 1, 2 & 3.) Now let's make it practical.

It just so happens that I raised a separate question recently, about Herod and Augustus. I asked, since Josephus and Dio together reveal that the King was officially in disfavor with the Emperor for as much as one whole year, did Augustus actually punish Herod? If not, I said, Caesar's promise to treat Herod "like a subject" boils down to an empty threat, which would be very un-Caesar-like. But if so, what evidence do we have for any means by which Augustus might have punished his temporary-former friend?

One possibility, all historians should consider, is the census. Since I am trying to show that Luke's central claim is worth considering apart from its trappings, I suggest that even secular history should consider isolating this element of Luke's testimony for its own ends. So, back to the problem of this phantom punishment.

Chronology of German campaigning and one Damascene's travel plans have cast aspersions on Augustus' character. That is, according to me. Classical scholarship needs to respond. At least, so now say I. At any rate, the only historical evidence I am aware of to suggest Caesar may have punished Herod is the census Luke mentions.

Let me put it another way. If Luke 2:1-5 is accurate about anything, it is that the census happened. There is no better candidate for the cause of such a census than the punishment of Herod by Augustus. If the rest of N.T. chronology can be reconciled (and it can) and if Luke's central claim is reliable (which I certainly also believe) then this suggestion must be considered the most worthy option for beginning any reconstruction of the historical census.

Again, this is merely the beginning of reconstruction. I am suggesting Luke's evidence belongs as a part of a larger search for the history between Augustus and Herod. I will pick up again with the Josephus study linked to above... sometime soon.

Finally, please note that at this point we still cannot yet bring in the less clear details of Luke 2:1-5. Thankfully, we do not need to. We may pick up perspective on them as we go through more of the classical sources, but those points will actually remain an almost entirely separate issue.

Defending Luke's veracity is one thing. Reconstructing the historical event sequence is another.

Fini. (For now)

April 23, 2009

Luke 2:1-5 as Historical Evidence (3)

Previously: In trusting Luke’s gospel we still have to rank details by credibility, at least for prioritizing what holds the most weight during historical reconstruction. Now...

Luke’s account of the census seems confusing on various points, but there is one simple aspect about which he is extremely consistent. It seems almost too simple to mention, but in fact it’s the most central, significant point that does need to be made. In fact, it is Luke’s own, central point – one he mentions four times in the brief passage at hand. And what is that point? Simply this: There was a census.

For purposes of historical inquiry, this is tremendous enough. If we leave aside the (confusing) Gospel details about the timing, scope and method of the event, Luke is at least extremely clear in testifying to us that there was one such event. To be specific, the central claim of this passage is that there was a Roman census of Herod’s Kingdom, at the time of Christ’s birth, which was both instigated and completed before Herod’s death.

That alone is a significant enough challenge to try and explain.

So forget Quirinius, the 'oikoumene' and the hometown arrangement – at least, for a while. Proving that Luke's text isn't *necessarily* inconsistent doesn't prove that (much less how or when or why) the census took place. We need a cause and a context. We need a cohesive scenario. We need classical history.

IF… IF… IF we can verify this central claim somehow, by going to the Roman sources… IF we can date that event by means apart from Luke’s text… IF we can find evidence of any kind that suggests when and how such a census occurred… THEN, THEN, THEN (and perhaps ONLY then) we might have enough perspective on the event to determine how the rest of Luke’s confusing testimony should be viewed. All else is blind wishful thinking.

Creative interpretations of Luke’s apparent disarray are in ample supply. Strong faith is more than capable of defending the scriptures. Amen, and praise the Lord, indeed! But historical reconstruction requires a different approach. I don’t care about coming up with things Luke might have meant, in order to show that he could be accurate. Please. Is that really our aim?

I care about figuring out logically what really, actually(*) happened! That’s what I call faith-based historiography. That’s what I’m after, here.

I believe I’ve made my major point. Now, before I close this series, I need to apply it.

To be concluded...

(*) most likely, as best we can tell - that part should go without saying

April 22, 2009

Luke 2:1-5 as Historical Evidence (2)

The problem of Luke’s statement about Quirinius may be easily solvable, but this is not necessarily apparent from the outset. Therefore, logic demands we set this point aside for a while. It’s just not a good starting point.

Likewise, the description of returning to one’s hometown seems problematic at face value. This detail also may wind up being solid, but if we are trying to start fresh it does not give us any sure footing at all. At least, not to begin with.

The final questionable item will prove less troublesome than the other two – although we don’t know that know, officially. That is, that Augustus decreed the inhabited world should be registered. We will come back to this point before addressing the other two, which are more difficult.

Isolating each detail is a temporary strategy. Eventually, they must all reconnect. But to begin any fresh analysis, we have to sift through what seems most or least immediately, apparently reliable.

In all this, one thing is sure. If Luke is entirely accurate, he’s been very unclear. Perhaps he was simply trying too hard to be succinct. Whatever the case, it should not prove insurmountable for our faith. But to sort out these facts AND place them firmly among the events of history, with chronological precision, it’s going to take quite a bit of work.

Fortunately, there is a simple way through.

To be continued…

April 21, 2009

Luke 2:1-5 as Historical Evidence (1)

Personally, I trust Luke. So I believe Luke’s Census was an actual, historical census that happened in Israel near the end of Herod’s reign. In that sense, faith is good enough for me. But I also believe that in order to be reasonable, faith based scholarship needs to work from both classical sources AND from Luke 2:1-3 to reconstruct this historical census… even if nobody’s ever done that before, to my knowledge… even if attempting to do so brings us into conflict with traditional conclusions on other chronological details regarding the Life of Christ.

In my preface post, I already said believers should prioritize the evident veracity of details in scripture, for purposes of historical reconstruction. In other words, we may say and believe Luke 2:1-5 is historical, but we also have to admit it seems awfully unclear. Scholarship is at least in agreement that some of the details seem to contradict history. But instead of defending those details right from the start, I’m suggesting we rank them. Whichever facts in Luke’s text seem most immediately reliable – whichever details we can most easily trust – those are the ones to begin from. That means, for example, that Quirinius can wait.

So what’s the best place to start? Let’s start by eliminating what isn’t.

Next time…

April 20, 2009

Luke 2:1-5 as Historical Evidence (preface)

It should go without saying that – as a believer – I can trust that apparent contradictions within scripture may have solutions even if we can’t see them at the moment. To me, that’s a given. However, there are some cases where historical logic requires us to prioritize the veracity & reliability of some details in scripture as opposed to others. I can still believe they’re all perfectly true, but the elements that seem contradictory belong on the back burner at the beginning of event reconstruction.

With that, consider afresh the case for Luke’s Census. Typically, discussion either begins with Quirinius or arrives there very quickly. Too often, faith-based arguments for dating the census focus almost entirely on dating the career of Quirinius. Too many sloppy apologists still treat Luke 2:2 as an absolute proof text, believing their interpretation of it is authority enough to reshuffle decades of ancient chronology. Of course, skeptical viewpoints that toss out the whole thing because of Quirinius are just as embarrassing.

My whole point – so far – is that we should leave poor Quirinius alone for a while. Yes, of course I believe there is a good solution to explain away the apparent contradiction, but defending verses is not my top priority. Reconstruction is. Besides, even the best, most sound apologetics are aimed at unbelievers, who just aren’t my mission field. This Story of Faith (which we believe is also true and historical) belongs first and foremost to the Ecclesia of Jesus Christ. We should not merely spend the resources of our heritage fighting against unbelieving arguments. We should rebuild this Story as a whole, in the full context of history. We both need and deserve to view it with much more integrity.

To that end, as believers, let’s not allow the more troubling details to steal our whole focus. I’m shelving apologetics for a decade or four. Let’s do more than guess a year and leave it bare. Let’s attempt to actually reconstruct the full historical context of Luke’s Census. What do you say?

April 19, 2009

Finding Critical Points

When graphing higher order equations, the first trick is to plot the parameters. When polynomial and rational expressions are involved, boundaries and starting points make the curve easy to plot. Don't remember your High School Algebra? Okay. How about Sudoku?

When starting a Sudoku puzzle, the first trick is figuring out where to start. "Easy" puzzles have lots of helpful information and "difficult" puzzles offer the bare minimum required. On the other hand, if the puzzle makers accidentally include too little information, you'll have multiple solutions available. Of course, the whole idea is that there should be precisely one solution.

Finding the critical points to begin from requires ignoring all other data, no matter how tempting. A 500 piece jigsaw puzzle may feature a bright yellow flower in the center, but the green shades with straight edges (and corners!) are the right place to start.

What are the critical points of Biblical Chronology? They're all fairly well known, but there's too many pretenders. Some details don't deserve first place in authority. Not all points are critical. And that bright yellow flower in the center? Yes, He's the focus, by far, but He still needs a frame to be properly fit all around Him... IF we want to understand His whole Story. Anyway, back to the puzzle metaphor.

One of the reasons I'm blogging is to test the reducibility of the historical data for reconstructing a comprehensive NT chronology. Up to now, there's been too much argument based around too many shifty, debatable details. So I'm asking, what are the critical points?

Stick around, and I just may be able to tell you...

April 18, 2009

A Historic Nativity - We Can Do Better

Dating Jesus’ birth is partly tied to the dating of Jesus’ crucifixion (33 AD) and baptism (28 or 29). This is as it ought to be. Settling on the Lord's birthdate should NOT, however, be restricted by over-committment to worn out apologetic refrains aimed purely at defending a [reading of a] verse than have little or no practical concern for reconstructing an actual, historical event sequence.

Yes, dating Jesus' baptism is tied to stretchable interpretations of the word "about" and stretchable interpretations on the "fifteenth" year of Tiberius. Not too stretchable, thankfully, so we can at least settle on 28 OR 29. Following Cheney, I conclude an induced passover in Matthew 17 (tax season) gives us 4.5 years between the major events, so the baptism falls in (autumn) 28 AD. Unfortunately, and for various reasons, a lot of traditional christian scholarship has tied itself to a baptism in 29. That causes enough problems with event-sequencing on the Lord's ministry years, but what's worse is that it leaves a historical nativity completely out in the cold.

On the feeling that we shouldn't stretch "about thirty" to beyond 34 years, traditional Christian scholarship has (de facto) excluded 7 BC (and earlier years) from consideration. If there's another reason, I honestly cannot detect it. Unfortunately, the years 6 and 5 BC give us no plausible justification for reconstructing a Roman census in Herod's Kingdom - 6 BC saw a turnover of Syria from Saturninus to Varus and 5 BC gives us nothing at all to work from. (There is more to say on these points for another time.) On the other hand, a baptism in 28 AD allows a 34 year old Jesus to have been born in 7 BC. (There was no year zero.) And in case you didn't know, 7 BC has quite a lot going for it.

The case for 7 BC has been made on this blog, and will be made again. But the point just now is that traditional scholarship has settled for assigning years to something that has never been fleshed out in full historical context. Yes, at some point we all leave some questions to faith, but a whole census? Responsible faith-based historiography must at least try to reconstruct some explanation for why Augustus Caesar would have mobilized hundreds or thousands of Roman soldiers into Herod’s sovereign Kingdom, especially since it was merely to count heads (and not property also, unlike the census of 6 AD).

Failing or refusing to attempt even modest reconstruction gives tacit support to the notion that events in scripture may be unhistorical. Believing they may be historical should rightly require us to support that belief with historical evidence, if possible. Some defenders of our faith have unfortunately been straining out gnats by defending interpretations of verses, when the entire historical content of Luke 2 has been mainly ignored. To me, that camel has not been swallowed, it has been pretty much left for dead.

April 13, 2009

4 BC (a la 1066 AD)

I've got a 200 page first draft called 4 BC (online here) that needs a ton of work. Looking back, it was almost more of an exercise than an actual draft. I was trying to line up the events in a narrative format, in simple grade school english, but with somewhat exhaustive detail. That's writing for two different audiences at once. I don't think it worked. Since then, I've been trying to figure out how to write a book that would appeal to everyone but also provide intriguing arguments worthy of academic attention (maybe in the appendices). I may be getting closer to a solution. (Lord, hear my prayer.)

One model I've found for how to do this might be David Howarth's 1066. While not a professional scholar, his treatment (I am told) gained a permanent place in the larger conversation going on about his topic. If this were Roman History, and if there were a long, sliding scale between works like Ronald Syme's two volume Tacitus and Robert Graves' fictitious I, Claudius - a book like 1066 probably fits somewhere not too far from the exact middle. It's a popular history that nevertheless aspires to high academic standards and perhaps even to stand among related scholarship as a modest if not or perhaps a substantial contribution - albeit not a formal one.

Here are some excerpts from Howarth's Preface that explain what I'm thinking about doing with 4 BC:
"This book is not about the historical importance of the year, it is simply about the tremendous drama [that took place] ... [it] is not meant to be read as a work of scholarship, only as an evocation... but I hope it is accurate enough to satisfy scholars.

"Strictly speaking, every sentence in a story nine centuries old should include the word perhaps: nothing is perfectly certain. But that would be boring, and I have left out the qualification whenever things seem reasonably certain... Sometimes I have made a guess, but not without saying so.

"Better scholars might say I have gone too far in trying to draw the characters of the people of 1066; but I think this is the most enjoyable part of history. ... I think it is possible, using every scrap of information, to make a worth-while portrait of each of the leading actors in the drama. ... I have not tried to hide this blatant prejudice, but I hope my portraits are fair enough to let anyone else disagree with me.
The whole preface is something I read often. His summary critique of biases among the earliest sources is itself very interesting. Obviously, I also like the fact that he's focused on the events of a single Year. For the record, Howarth didn't include a full bibliography or cite any recent scholarship (to 1978) but listed twenty contemporary works from 1050 to 1245, his only ostensible sources.

According to the paperback blurbs, the Boston Globe called it "literate popular history", a dramatic account with a sensible conclusion. And the New Yorker called it "a model of scholarly popular history". Overall, that's extremely impressive, especially if the story is true that it still commands some attention from professional scholars. Seriously, I should hope for so much.

At any rate, my plan for this summer is to blog less and write more. If it's a very good summer, I might just finish this new version of 4 BC. Or maybe something similar, but bigger. I'm not sure just yet. We'll see how it goes.

Watch this space...
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