February 28, 2010

Paul's Arabia (or) Nabatea and the New Testament

East of the Dead Sea and Jordan River valley, south of Philip’s Tetrarchy all the way to the Red Sea, the land of Northern Arabia was called Nabatea by the Jews, Greeks & Romans of Jesus’ time. Here is the story of Nabatea in the days of the New Testament, and how it affected Paul of Tarsus. (See also Acts 9, Galatians 1, & 2nd Corinthians 11:32; Tacitus, Josephus & Dio Cassius; and Roman Arabia, by G.W.B.)


The first Herod’s mother was Nabatean and the Great King almost let his sister marry a powerful Arab named Syllaeus. That rejected groom then waged a secret war against Herod in his eastern territories, lands claimed by Nabatea before Augustus gave them to Herod in 20 BC. The insurgency Syllaeus funded, which lasted from 12 until 9 BC, was ended when Governor Saturninus came to Syria. But Syllaeus, King Obodas’ chief minister, fled to Rome and accused Herod before Augustus. During the year or so before Herod was able to clear his name with the Emperor, Augustus had Saturninus begin a population census of Israel. By the end of 8 BC, Herod was proclaimed innocent, but the census was allowed to continue. In early 7 BC, the Romans had gotten as far as Bethlehem, where Jesus was born.

Meanwhile, Nabatea had a new King, Aretas, whose army helped Governor Varus put down the Judean uprisings after Herod’s death in 4 BC. But Arabian soldiers burned innocent villages along the way, so Augustus sanctioned Nabatea in various ways until 1 BC, a punishment most likely made shorter by Aretas’ betrothing his daughter to Herod Antipas of Galilee. Also during that span, the Herodian Philip took over the lands north of Nabatea, the same disputed territory of Syllaeus’ secret war. However, Philip managed a peaceful rule on the Arabian border, even though his Tetrarchy was half-peopled with ethnic Nabateans.

Herod Antipas married his Nabatean princess some years later but divorced her in 28/29 AD. John the Baptist was imprisoned and later killed for denouncing this move, but the more offended party by far was King Aretas. The Nabatean-Herodian treaty was now dangerously void... and yet Aretas took no action against Antipas while his brother Philip was still alive.

The War over Philip's Tetrarchy:

With incredible timing, Philip the Tetrarch died in the winter of 33/34 AD, mere months after Jesus had died (and risen) and not long since the new cult had been run out of Jerusalem. From Nabatea, King Aretas - who had been raised by the generation of Arabs who’d lost so much land to the Herods - now began operations to reclaim those eastern territories.

As the Nabateans began marching north, Rome was otherwise occupied. Tiberius Caesar was retired on the Isle of Capri and his praetorian prefect Macro (Sejanus' replacement) was running the Empire. The Province of Syria had also gone through a decade of absentee rule by one Governor Lamia, who was followed by Governor Flaccus, who died in 33 (or 34) and who was not replaced until Governor Vitellius, who arrived in Sytria in the year 35. But Vitellius’ attention was immediately absorbed by conflicts in other areas.

Aretas took the advantage of the moment, pressed as far north as the Golan Heights, and captured Gamala – a city of Philip’s now being held by the army (!) of Herod Antipas. Meanwhile, the Galilean Tetrarch himself had been working to gain favor with Vitellius, and got back in late 35 (from negotiating with Parthia on the Euphrates) to find his army destroyed at Gamala. Having already boasted by letter to Tiberius (about his efforts with Parthia), Antipas now spent that political capital by writing to Tiberius about the Nabatean attack. Of course, Antipas wanted Rome to avenge him.

By the summer of 36, Tiberius (via Macro) had ordered Vitellius to attack Nabatea, but the Governor chose to delay the attack (resentful of Antipas’ stealing credit for the Euphrates negotiations) and continued delaying for several months, until word came (in late March of 37) that Tiberius had died. At that, Vitellius turned back north, having advanced his Legions no farther than Trachonitis. Wisely, Aretas’ forces had retreated to within their old borders, and had done so probably before the end of the year 36.

King Aretas may never have expected his land grab to last forever, but the old man settled a debt to his ancestors in making the attempt. Nabatea pushed far enough north that Aretas' countrymen could take pride for at least that duration, and meanwhile (perhaps more importantly) the King himself took vengeance against his daughter’s ex-husband for his offense in disgracing her.

Tiberius’ proxy Macro went on to advise Caligula for about the first year of his rule, but it seems Rome took no further action against Nabatea after Vitellius turned back.

The Nabatean aggression was over and done with. Aretas died in 39 AD. In 106, Rome annexed Nabatea as Provincia Arabia. "Nabatea" was no more.

Paul's "three years" in Arabia:

It was during Aretas’ three year offensive (33/34 to 36/37), that Paul of Tarsus spent something like three Passovers in Aretas’ home country. Having previously fled from the Jews in Damascus, Paul entered Nabatea in early or mid-34 AD. Less than a year after "the" Pentecost, Paul most likely was able to locate and join with the (few?) Arabian Jews and god fearers who had believed after Peter’s message (Acts 2:10-11). Paul, the zealous ex-Pharisee, may have been more ostentatiously Jewish than others in Nabatea, and Paul’s new sense of mission to gentiles must have also made things interesting at some point... especially during a war between Arabs & Jews!

Some kind of conflict in Arabia is most likely what caused Paul to return north - despite the Damascene Jews’ wanting Paul dead - and whatever trouble was that bad could also explain the long distance arrest warrant Aretas’ official was holding. Although the Ethnarch himself may indeed have been a local representative of the Arabians resident in Damascus, nevertheless that official was also Aretas’ direct subordinate (2Cor.11:32). Thus, whatever details we are lacking, the overall implication is that someone in Nabatea wanted Paul brought back to Nabatea. Of course - somehow - Paul was able to escape from Damascus again, probably by the same basket/hole-in-the-wall trick that worked so well the first time.

Because the Damascene Council would have been far more likely to cooperate with such extradition requests before the war, and far less after, and because Aretas is very unlikely to have ordered or allowed a forcible extradition from Syria after Vitellius had swept Nabatea's forces out of the region, we conclude that Paul’s second escape from Damascus must have come prior to 37 AD, and thus Paul’s “three years in Arabia” now appears to mean three Passovers and perhaps a long summer – but no more than 32 months or so, altogether – in Nabatea.

So now to sum up, chronologically.

Year-by-Year Digest (34 to 37 AD):

Paul of Tarsus fell off his donkey sometime very early in 34 AD. The Syrian Governor had just died and so had Philip the Tetrarch. All territory between Damascus and Nabatea had just become leaderless, and with no Roman oversight at the moment. Aretas began taking steps to exert his influence in Trachonitis, and Herod Antipas (with or without Roman approval) occupied Gamala. Paul was in Nabatea (probably Bostra or Petra) by the middle or end of 34.

In 35, Aretas took Gamala while Antipas was away at the Euphrates with Governor Vitellius. So far as we know, this year marks the farthest Aretas pushed north. There is no evidence that Nabatea ever had any control of Damascus in this era, at all. As for Paul, he stayed in Arabia/Nabatea all year - far away from the fighting.

In 36, Vitellius received Tiberius’ order to repulse the Nabateans, but the Governor was busy elsewhere. Aretas probably got wind and began to withdraw late this year. (At any rate, there was no Roman-Nabatean fighting.) Paul fled Nabatea, probably that summer, and escaped from Damascus on his way to Jerusalem. His short stays in those cities preceded a sea voyage home to Tarsus (Acts 9:30), upon which Paul must have embarked before October.

In 37, Vitellius spent an extended personal visit in Jerusalem, before and after the Passover, spitefully forcing Antipas to play host while further delaying his attack on Nabatea. Tiberius died on March 15, and the news reached Jersualem (by relay couriers, surely) a few days after Passover. At that point, Vitellius considered the Emperor’s orders as moot, and turned back to Antioch without bothering to avenge Antipas.

Epilogue - the rest of 37 AD:

The prefect Macro eased Rome’s transition to Caligula (whose first year in power was devoid of his later, infamous lunacy). One of the new Emperor’s first acts was to give Philip’s Tetrarchy to Caligula's own uncle Claudius’ childhood playmate, Herod Agrippa I. Maintaining decades of continuity in Eastern policy, Rome once again placed a buffer state between Petra and Damascus.

Finally - some time after Paul left Jerusalem, most likely while Vitellius and his Antioch staff were lingering during the festival, rumors came to the church there about Christians in Antioch. Soon after, Barnabas was headed for northern Syria, by way of Tarsus in Cilicia...

And of course, that's the start of a whole other story.

February 25, 2010

Furniture & Location in James 2:3

There's some good conversation budding below Matt Sevans' post on "Synagogue" in James 2:2, and I wanted to ask this follow up question over here. Does James' contrast between places to sit (in 2:3 - "a good place" versus "here by my footstool") offer any clues as to whether his readers were expected to meet in a home setting or inside a 'traditional' Synagogue?

It may be impossible to say, largely because we can't even say all Synagogues (assemblies) met in a Synagogue (building). Not hardly. As I noted somewhere here previously, about Nazareth's Synagogue, it's likely the architectural form was less important before the Temple's destruction, and we have plenty of evidence that Jews gathered in open areas, by rivers, gates and in personal houses. At least, I think I recall reading that archaeologists date most extant Synagogues after 70 AD, for whatever that's worth.

Still, I've often thought about this question in conjunction with Jesus' words about Jews who loved to sit in the "chief seats". Before I knew more about Synagogue history, I used to lean pretty heavily on that thought, supposing that . I still think James was most likely writing to Christian-Jews who still went to their Synagogues. (Actually, my personal theory is that James' Epistle was good public relations, sent to the entire Diaspora on behalf of those Jewish Christians, for the express purpose of showing that Christ's followers were (or at least, could be) still Jews first. And really good Jews at that. But I digress...)

Getting back to my point about furniture. Whether in a home setting or 'Synagogue', the likelihood of having "good" seats may have been better among congregations that had been established for decades (if not centuries). Likewise, such mature congregations would also have more corporate awareness of budgetary realities, and be more tempted to court the affection of rich visitors. In both points, it's also fair to suggest James was writing about something he'd seen happen generally (assuming the letter's points were general admonitions to a wide assortment of congregations). In all of these cases, I think it more likely James wrote to Jewish congregations.

Any thoughts?

Gamaliel's Galilean Theudas

The Sanhedrin had been confident. No prophet comes out of Galilee. Jesus had never been educated, and the same was true of his followers. But these north country fishermen were converting multitudes, and when the surrounding villagers swarmed in for a new wave of healings, the Council had their first real crisis moment since Jesus died.

We know Annas, Caiaphas & the Sadducees drew power from Jerusalem's wealthy, while Gamaliel and the Pharisees were preferred among common folks. The Sadducees had no trouble keeping control - partly because Rome favored the upper classes - but if local villagers were joining with Galileans, the Sadducees had new reasons for concern. If two separate Pharisee constituencies came closer together, it could bring on unpredictable political change.

Annas had maintained stability since Quirinius' census (6 AD) and there had been no outright rebellion in Israel since King Herod's death (4 BC). The last revolt that almost broke out was Judas the Galilean, whose plot to rebel was snuffed out by Quirinius in 6 AD. Prior to that, multiple uprisings had occurred in Judea, Idumea and Galilee after Herod's death in 4 BC. It had been four decades since an uprising, but Annas was aiming at a legacy and a dynasty. There must not be another.

Gamaliel, for his part, knew it was much better to keep the smaller half of a loaf than to try seizing it all. Like his predecessor Hillel, Gamaliel focused on teaching the law. Practically, therefore, he had nothing to gain from political turmoil. He, too, did not want the people to swell and demand more.

The Sanhedrin had been confident. But now they feared revolt. "You intend to bring this man's blood upon us." Peter, oddly, didn't deny the rebellion charge - and the Sanhedrin was ready to kill them.

Then Gamaliel spoke up.

Wait. Time out. Most commentators assume Luke has made a chronological error by having Gamaliel refer to "Theudas" in Acts 5:36. The famous Theudas of 45 AD - who claimed to be the messiah and led people out toward the wilderness - would indeed be anachronistic to mention at this point, and Luke's error is plausible even if we date Acts as early as possible. However, it may not be so simple as that.

The Sanhedrin's crisis in Acts 5 was the threat of rebellion, but Theudas' peculiar uprising was non-aggressive, so far as we can tell. Josephus calls his followers deluded, which they must have been to think that merely crossing the Jordan (into what was still Provincia Judaea in 45 AD) would mean anything at all. They were easily cut down by a single troop of horsemen and Josephus specifically tells us it ended before they had been able to make any advantage (at all) out of Theudas' crazy designs.

Commentators suggest that Gamaliel's description of Theudas "claiming to be somebody" best fits the Theudas of 45 AD, who did claim to be the messiah. But there's nothing strictly messianic about Gamaliel's statement. Furthermore, Gamaliel's Theudas - whoever he was - had 400 men, perhaps enough (even without weapons) to suggest more than "one troop of horsemen" be sent after them.

If Luke was merely confused, all bets are simply off, but if Luke was specifically referring to this messianic Theudas, as most commentators claim, then Luke's "chronological" error would be more problematic than a simple mistake in arithmetic. The movement in 45 AD came four years after the family of Annas lost control of the High Priesthood, one year after Herod Agrippa's death, about the same time when the sons of Judas the Galilean were also snuffed out trying to resurrect their father's philosophy.

When this Theudas was killed, Claudius was Emperor and Judea was under Procurators for a second time, having just lost their independent kingdom under Agrippa. The political tension that was building up at that time was pro-Jewish, anti-Roman, independence flavored.

But Gamaliel claims to speak of a Theudas who came before Judas of Galilee, who rose up in the days of the census. Whatever else Luke thought about Quirinius, and whether he ran one or two censuses, there can be no mistaking who Gamaliel means by this Judas. That gives us a Theudas whom commentators believe Luke has placed - not just in the wrong year - under the wrong Emperor, King and much worse.

To belong before Judas of Galilee, Luke's Theudas should have rebelled under Augustus and Herod the Great, or his son Archelaus. Josephus' Theudas (45) was killed by Romans. Gamaliel does not specify who killed his Theudas, but any Theudas before 6 AD would have been killed by Herodian forces (unless he rebelled in 4/3 BC). In short, the contextual differences are enormous, making it hard to believe Luke was somehow that confused.

To the point, if Luke WAS so confused, how can we possibly believe he knew enough to specifically meant the later Theudas? And if Luke merely grabbed a name, again, how can commentators be sure which Theudas Luke meant? Just as Josephus names two Galilean rebels named Judas, it is certainly possible there was some other, earlier Theudas. At any rate, the problems listed above suggest the usual critique is too easy.

If we're going to find fault with Luke on Acts 5:36, it would be simpler and more plausible to suggest Luke got the name wrong. If Gamaliel's "Theudas" were instead the earlier "Judas" (son of Ezekias) who led one of the 4 BC uprisings, a lot of things about Acts 5:36 would suddenly make a lot more sense.

For one thing, the Judas of 4 BC was from Sepphoris in Galilee. Changing Theudas to Judas gives Acts 5 a thoroughly Galilean context, making Gamaliel's speech even more appropriate, and explaining why he chose that particular rebel of 4 BC, instead of Athronges or Simon the slave, whose movements also came quickly to nothing.

For another thing, Judas of Sepphoris did militarize. He terrorized people physically and led enough men to seize a royal armory and hold Sepphoris briefly against a Roman siege. Instead of "one troop of horsemen", Judas of Sepphoris was brought down when an entire Roman Legion burned the whole city. Could "about 400 men" hold an entire city? They could - especially if they'd already terrorized the rest of the populace into going along, most of whom presumably would have claimed coercion afterwards and thus avoided being counted as Judas' men.

Okay, let's consider this in context. Time back in.

Gamaliel stands up and reminds everyone of the last two rebellions that started in Galilee. Popular in rural Galilee, the Pharisee specifically indicts his own constituency, perhaps partly to ease the fears of the Sadducees. His laizzez-faire attitude is backed up by his confidence that Galileans (especially) don't ever get very far with these things. His acceptance of those past failures reminds everyone that the Pharisees are content with the current political situation. In this context, Gamaliel's phrase "if it is of God" sounds as skeptical as it does logical. In the subtext, he's already declared his true expectations.

I submit this reading of Acts 5 is more emphatic with a Galilean Theudas. If both movements mentioned by Gamaliel were rooted in Galilee, it's not only more appropriate to the situation - it also helps explain why the prominent Pharisee voice would have been the best one for quieting controversy on that particular day.

*Compare, by the way, the incident in John's Gospel (7:52) when Nicodemus (also a Pharisee) was shouted down for speaking well of a Galilean.

**PS: Thanks also to Mike Koke for reminding me to blog about this one.

February 23, 2010

We follow only the Torah!

When James & Paul wrote about "works of the law", they each meant "the law" according to their own interpretation of it. Or according to the traditional interpretations through which they'd come up. So says Martin Abegg, according to David Stark.

I gasped audibly when I made the following connection. This sounds exactly like when christians say "We follow only the Bible!" What they always mean, of course, is the Bible according to them.

Suddenly I'm re-reading Paul's critiques on "works of the law" as if he were attacking "only the Bible". That's fascinating, and fun, but I don't know how well it fits in the first century. So if anyone who's read Abegg would respond to my sudden apostrophe, I'd be glad for the feedback. Or just try it on with me and see what you think...

Does Living Water "seek its own level"?

This is a bit philosophical for me, but I was just reading skimming Daniel Kirk's longish post on Douglas Campbell's massive book about Romans, so blame them! Anyway, here's the question:

God said, "Jacob have I loved, Esau have I hated." Pontius Pilate said, "What I have written, I have written." And a lot of human beings have figured out a lot of instances in which certain things just only work in certain ways. And while I don't have any idea what the arguments are about God, Jacob & Esau - I think I heard once that Calvinists have some strong ideas about that one - all I'm wondering is this:

What if God was simply saying, after the fact, "It is what it is."(?)

I really don't know. Maybe not. Maybe Jacob was simply chosen. Maybe Jacob was simply a divine exercise in nature vs. (divine, long term) nurture. Maybe it was just like what the Duke Brothers did to poor Dan Aykroyd that one time. Or maybe... maybe God could just look inside both young men as they were developing and see which of Isaac's sons was going to be more suitable for loving, for a lifetime, by God's own divine standards.

Maybe God was thinking (partly): Jacob, I was able to work with.

Again, I'm not after theological implications of all this, but I will point out these are precisely the kinds of questions I think we should most avoid drawing firm conclusions about. In either case, it's the same for us, here & now.

Practically, we should just do our 'best' to make a way for the Water. (Amen?)

February 22, 2010

Did Peter visit Corinth?

Ph.D student Phillip J. Long has a great post today about "the Historical Peter". One of the issues discussed there caused me to (finally) write this post here. Enjoy. (Update (2/23): Phillip and I have extended this discussion here.)

Concluding that Peter did visit Corinth is a lynchpin of my Pauline Chronology, because it pushes 1st Corinthians back at least one sailing season after Acts 18:18-22 (which, combined with Paul's plans changing after Claudius' death, nails 1st Cor. down to 54 AD). But is this certain? Did Peter travel and minister to Paul's church in Corinth? While it's not the tightest slam dunk in the history of History, here are FIVE REASONS why I believe Peter DID go to Corinth.

1) It makes more sense for the faction brandishing Peter's name to do so if Peter had actually visited them personally. One thing that is clear from the Gospels, Acts & Galatians is that Peter stood out and stirred things up. He was a dynamic figure, evoking reactions from people wherever he went, even by accident. The mere mention of Peter in Rome inspired the Catholic tradition that Peter was Pope number one. True or not, there's a reason that sold so well. If Peter DID visit Corinth, it would be nearly impossible to imagine him NOT starting a faction - if inadvertently so.

2) If the faction had merely been looking for a figurehead from the mother church, James was a much better choice. After the Council in Acts 15, it is clear that James (not Peter) was the head honcho in Jerusalem. Furthermore, James' letter had gone out by this time, to the entire diaspora. James was revered among Jews who were not even believers, and James' was the name brandished by Judaizing factions elsewhere (Galatia, Jerusalem, Antioch). If Peter did NOT visit, we should more likely expect to see James' name in 1st Corinthians (not Peter's).

3) Dating Galatians after Acts 15 means Paul didn't go out of his way to share Jerusalem's letter with churches other than Antioch. But the issues of Jerusalem's letter - especially meat sacrificed to idols, and fornication - are extremely prominent in much of Paul's letter. Although there are many ways those issues could have come up in Corinth, it seems as if they have all come up at once. Combined, this suggests Corinth had recently heard about Jerusalem's letter to Antioch - and the best way for that to have happened is if an elder or apostle present at that Council meeting had personally come to Corinth and shared about it.

4) Similarly to point 3 - the amount of ink Paul spills on the issue of tongues suggests that something (or someone) has recently stirred up the Corinthians regarding this issue. Yes, Paul spoke in tongues (14:18), but - assuming things in Paul's letters are generally things Paul had not gotten to say to a church during his time in their city - it seems Paul had previously left the Corinthians somewhat if not largely "ignorant" (12:1) about much of what he has to say on the topic. Again, there are many ways the issue could have gained prominence, but our best guess is that Peter came to town speaking in tongues (his particular giftedness in that area was world-famous, after all).

5) Also likewise to points 3 & 4 - The two mentions of healing in chapter 12 similarly demand that we ask: who was healing? In the NT, Paul is not reported to heal until Acts 19 & 20. We might imagine there were lots of believers performing miracles at that time, but we don't have evidence for that. So, once again, if we ask how the Corinthians could have met anyone with healing powers, a visit from Peter must be our chief hypothesis.

Now let's be clear. Only points 1 & 2 directly address the question at hand - Did Peter visit Corinth? In contrast, points 3-5 reverse the issue, raising three other questions and suggesting Peter's visit to Corinth as the most likely answer in each case. Full disclosure: these three issues are what first convinced me that Peter must have gone there. But for more on that question directly, start with Phillip's post again.

Want some fun? Here's a dare.

Try this. Assume Peter DID go to Corinth. If so, it was only his second apostolic foray into Gentile territory, as far as we know, and we do know his first foray set off a major crisis at Antioch. It makes sense that something similar could have happened again. For instance...

If Peter had innocently assumed all the gentile issues had really been fixed by Jerusalem's letter (an assumption easier to maintain from Jerusalem, but one which Paul's entire career proves is false) - then Peter probably went in unprepared; overconfident that all was well. The controversies were all taken care of. In that mindset, Peter casually mentions Jerusalem's letter. At that point, most likely, someone in Corinth says, "What letter?" (Open can. Eat worms. Commence barfing.)

Now, read 1st Corinthians again, add then judge for yourselves. Like too many things, the evidence isn't airtight, but of this much I'm certain:

If Peter did go to Corinth, it would really explain quite a lot.

February 19, 2010

Do we NEED "church"?

A.Knox quoting M.Luther:
In one word, if we only had people who longed to be Christians in earnest, Form and Order would soon shape itself. But I cannot and would not order or arrange such a community or congregation at present.
For Marty, "community" probably meant monasteries, reminding me that even 16th century townspeople interacted only so often. I tend to romanticize how the modern lifestyle has robbed us of life's more communal aspects, but christians can always find ways to avoid one another six days a week - even when their entire world is no bigger than one square mile and some farms down the road.
I have not the requisite persons for it, nor do I see many who are urgent for it. But should it come to pass that I must do it, and that such pressure is put upon me as that I find myself unable with a good conscience to leave it undone, then I will gladly do my part to secure it, and will help it on as best I can.
"Should it come to pass that I must..." Apparently, urgency also failed Luther himself.

In Century One, christians anywhere clung together like aliens in a foreign land. It's oversimplifying to say that persecution makes the church pure again, but isolation has ways of impressing us all with the necessity of one-anothering. I myself long to have many more saints - reservoirs of the Lord - in my life. But the number of people I need, evidently, is far fewer. Still, it would be so nice to find a few of those requisite persons...

What must I do? Who must I be? In order to meet up with such urgent people?

Aye, there's the rub.

February 18, 2010

A Dynamic Event: John's Imprisonment

From a narrative standpoint, regarding event sequence, there are a few fairly obvious examples of episodes Matthew, Mark and Luke could not have relocated beyond the boundaries of John the Baptist's arrest and/or JTB's beheading. Not even if they'd wanted to. (Note: the fourth gospel only alludes to John's arrest and never mentions his death or Herod's involvement.)

The most obvious example - that the arrest (Mt.4:12, Mk.1:14, Lk.4:20) pretty much had to be mentioned before the beheading (Mt.14:10, Mk.6:27, Lk.9:9) - is a clear instance of the general chronologicity that runs through all three Synoptic Gospels. On top of "birth, baptism, cross, resurrection", we must also insert John's arrest and beheading. Besides their chronological sequence, these were 'game changing' moments. Both were very impactful events for the Lord's life and ministry.

The less obvious examples begin with the fact that the Synoptics always agree on locating events [mentioned by at least two of them] either before or after JTB's death. That is, even when Matthew 4-14 diverges so greatly in sequence from Mark 1-6 and Luke 4-9, the jumbled events remain in that same time span. Lots of these are introductory elements - things about Jesus that fit better near the Story's beginning whether the writer's purpose was historical accuracy or just basic narrative construction. And of course, some things mentioned during JTB's imprisonment belong there more obviously than others. (Likewise for content that gets mentioned after John's death, but I'll save that for future posts.)

Three particular instances:

One easy argument is the "old wineskin" episode (Mt.11,Lk.7); obviously, since John's disciples brought questions from John in prison, this event belongs during that time span. One safe argument is all the introductory stuff between Jesus and his own disciples; since Herod kept John in prison for some time, few would doubt that Jesus' recruiting efforts were well underway before John died. One impossible argument is the grain plucking incident (Mt.12,Mk.2,Lk.6); apart from invoking the writers' general agreement on sequence, there's nothing inherent about this event by itself that says the grain plucking couldn't have happened in Judea (and/or) after John died.

In that last case, much more could be said, but it probably boils down to this. If you think JTB's imprisonment was less than one year long, you pretty much have to toss that grain plucking incident into the future. But that does make it odd. On the contrary, if we suppose that the narrative content located in JTB's imprisonment was most likely meant to relate those events which belong to the time span of JTB's imprisonment (and assuming at least one Gospel writer had reasons for knowing so) then that imprisonment must have been more like two years long. Hoehner agreed with this; so do I; Blomberg does not. What do you think?

For more on the chronology of Jesus' ministry, see here and here. For more analysis of Dynamic Events in Gospel Narrative, and how they may or may not imply aspects of chronologicity, stay tuned...

February 15, 2010

A Dynamic Event: Jesus Separates from Peter

At Luke 5:8, Peter says, "Go away from me, Lord, for I am a sinful man." Conservative Theologians like to assert that the miraculous catch and Jesus' holy presence suddenly combined to make Peter aware of his own wretched, sinful condition. I'm not so sure Luke (or Paul) thought the same way as Augustine & Aquinas, but let's skip that debate for the moment... I'm going to try fishing with narrative bait today.

On the contrary assumption - that Luke intended Peter's confession to be taken as reference to some particular failing - we must review Luke's narrative to that point for an answer to the question: what sinful act had Peter committed? Aside from being a bad fisherman, there is only one answer. Peter must have been with the people who "tried to keep [Jesus] from going away" after his mother-in-law's healing. And Peter, in particular, had failed to go with Him (or failed to stop him from going).

It is Mark's Gospel in which Peter approaches Jesus himself, and in which Jesus challenges Peter to come along. We certainly, Luke's readers may not have been expected to know this, but we do not need Mark to infer guilt and shame on Peter's part, here. Luke gives it to us. Again, if Luke 5:8 is meant as a specific confession, it can only refer to the morning conflict in Capernaum. Thus, Luke's narrative implies Peter's participation at 4:42, and makes clear in the following sentences that Jesus departed alone. Peter, we see only five verses later, had remained at Capernaum, by the sea.

In this reading, it is only at 5:8 that we realize how Peter felt about Jesus' decision to separate from them there, but Peter's new exhortation (not 'request') also reveals the cause of his own shame. "Go away from me" is not merely a present and future request, but an extension of what Jesus had already done, separating himself from Peter - just a few sentences back. Yet Peter now urges the polar opposite of his previous desires. "Don't go" has become "Go", which means Peter must have become accustomed to being separated from Jesus. Evidently, Peter has also realized his own preference was/is selfishly (& locally) motivated.

While Luke did not imply in chapter 4 that Peter could have gone on with Jesus, Peter now confesses an unspecified failing of some kind. The only substantial inference to be taken from Luke's narrative is that Peter regrets letting Jesus go, or regrets not going along. Once again striking Mark's version completely from our thoughts, we might even suppose Peter assumes himself sinful since Jesus did not stay longer in Capernaum. But whichever the case, one conclusion arises:

If Peter's confession is specific, it must both imply and refer back to their prior encounter, at 4:42. That gives these two events a causal relationship, and serves as a Lukan assertion of chronologicity of the event sequence, at this point.

The implications of this for comparisons with Mark's narrative (and whether Mk 1:16-20 relates a distinct incident from Lk 5:1-11, as many think it does) are best left for some other time. All I'm suggesting at the moment is that Luke intended the narrative sequence from 4:31 to 5:11 to be taken chronologically. This is a first instance of working out ideas I posted on Thursday. Before closing, however, let me here say just another word about generalized vs. specific sin.

Luke gives us no reason to suppose Jesus' holy presence should have been any greater during the catch of fish than it was during a whole day of healings at Capernaum. Likewise, we have no reason to think Peter would be any differently moved by the miraculous provision of food for his family than Peter was by the miraculous provision of health for his family. Despite these similarities, however, Peter's response to Jesus has completely reversed. As far as I can see, there is no reason for this, unless the interim separation was significant for Peter. Thus, theological generalizations about Peter's sinfulness at 5:8 are not only bald faced assertions, they don't necessarily have any grounds in Luke's actual narrative.

It goes without saying that arguments against my reading of Luke 4-5 will be warmly invited. Those who wish to debate various philosophies of sin in general, however, may have to engage with a more Theologically minded opponent. ;-)

February 11, 2010

Event Sequence: Mark vs. Luke

Apologetic harmonization needs no more than wishful thinking to suppose the Galilean fishermen were called twice and that Jesus' homecoming in Luke is an early one, whereas Mark tells of a later, only somewhat similar event. Wishful thinking, unfortunately, is not how we properly reconstruct historical events.

First of all, for the record: The most basic harmony is as simple as laying Luke 3-9 next to Mark 1-6 and weaving both into one, without alteration of either sequence. Also note: The simplistic nature of that exercise does not automatically invalidate its historical potential. Notoriously, Gospel Harmonization is as difficult to deny as it is to confirm.

If we could be assured that both writers are giving us perfect sequentiality, the only logical conclusion would be that, yes, similar things must have happened twice, on at least two occasions. Lacking that assurance, conservative seminarians have embraced "theological redaction" as a means of explaining these narrative differences. I suspect they mainly find it more defensible. I myself find it less historically sensical.

For one thing, if Luke altered Mark's sequence to emphasize different thematic aspects of those stories, then why did Luke not do so more often? More substantially, if Luke's differing details are based in fact due to some alternate source(s) other than Mark, then how do we know the alternate source(s) didn't describe at least one alternate event?

Some evangelical scholars dismiss sequentiality in Luke's Gospel simply for lack of "chronological" language. They point out that transition phrases between episodes in Luke's Gospel aren't necessarily explicit about the historicity of the narrative sequence. Language, phrases, narrative: christian exegetes seem to have a verbal fixation. Sometimes I'd swear they think events are just vehicles for relating ideas. (I'd say 'think about that at your next protestant church function' - but then I'd be digressing.)

Okay, now. So what else can be done?

One major purpose of studying History is to note the significance of dynamic events. Julius Caesar crossed the Rubicon many times, but that one famous time he did so, it changed everything. Therefore, one way to analyze the Gospels' event sequence is to look for dynamic events. Which moments altered the status quo? What do Mark and Luke have to say about that? About 'game changing' aspects of certain persons' behavior? About causal relationships between actions that take place in narrative?

Here's what I am suggesting: If the writer relates an event in such a way that it would make little or no sense (as written) being moved to another stage in the 'plot', then the writer has explicitly implied the sequentiality of that event. In other words, if the narrative presents any episode as necessarily pivotal, and the surrounding narrative illustrates a permanent alteration of the status quo (the 'narrative sitz im leben' we might say) both before and after that episode, then that historical event has been deliberately located within the writer's event sequence, and placed there with chronological intent.

Furthermore, if two writers seem to hold different opinions on the dynamic significance of an event, our analysis of their accounting for that event could hold keys to determining historicity (and chronologicity) of the historical event sequence at large, or at least portions of it.

Obviously, I'm still working out these ideas. For a first illustration of what the method might look like, come back on Monday and think with me about the fishermen calling(s?).

February 9, 2010

Schedule Update - Yes, I'm Still Blogging!

I'm sure you've all noticed I've got less time these days, but when I do get the time - rest assured - I've still got plenty to say. ;-) So keep on coming back. Or maybe subscribe, if you haven't done so already. A free blog reader is a great time saver, and ensures you won't miss anything - unless you want to!

My next two posts (and perhaps more) will revisit some aspects of Gospel Chronology (or, if you will, Chronologicity!) I was talking about in November. Thursday's Post will be called "Event Sequence: Mark vs. Luke". Monday's Post will be on the Fishermen's calling(s?) And more to come. God willing...

Thanks for reading. Tip your waitress and try the veal. :-)

February 4, 2010

Paul and the Peloponnese

Ancient Sparta was already a shadow of its former self before Rome destroyed Corinth in 146 BC. By 130, Rome was building a highway across Macedonia, but no such highway was ever (nor could it have been) built across southernmost Greece. Even more mountainous than Achaia, almost an island except for the Corinthian isthmus, with no major cities or ports of trade: the Peloponnesian peninsula had always been isolated. Her glorious period had only been brief.

Roman Sparta was made a free city in the Empire, but remained a dictatorship locally. There was no direct land route to Corinth; at least, none that was easily passable. These are all some of the reasons why Paul's second journey did not take him beyond Corinth. By land, there was virtually no place to go. By circumstance, there was no immediate link within Paul's larger strategy. Geographically, Corinth was an isthmus, but in terms of making one's way through the civilized world, Corinth was basically the end of the road in Achaia.

Of course, Paul had both short and long term views, about strategy. About six years after he first walked into Corinth, Paul had been as far west as Illyricum, but Paul had still not traveled outside of the old (pre-146 BC) Achaian League territories. He'd just helped plant a church in Rome, from far away, but Paul had avoided the hinterland of each major city. Thrace, Lycia, northern Galatia, and the Peloponnese were still outside the limits of what Paul had been able to reach himself, to that point. But Paul had greater hopes to accomplish much more, in time, through his churches.
[W]e were the first to come even as far as you in the gospel of Christ... with the hope that as your faith grows, we will be, within our sphere, enlarged even more by you, so as to preach the gospel even to the regions beyond you, and not to boast in what has been accomplished in the sphere of another. (2Cor.10:14-16)
That word sphere ('kanwn') in this context means limits, rules or boundaries. In this case, it may as easily mean "province" as "sphere". That in turn may mean, according to Paul, that the church in Corinth was eventually supposed to evangelize its own backyard. Through them, Paul hoped, his reach would be extended. For Paul, this regional strategy was limited and yet unlimited.

Paul's feet never touched the Peloponnesus, so far as we know. But his heart did.

Chronological footnote: Partly, I said all that to say this. For Paul, "beyond" Achaia wasn't west to Illyricum - a poor reason why some argue that 2nd Corinthians belongs earlier in Paul's travels. For Paul, as for the vast majority of all Greeks everywhere, the region "beyond" Achaia was the Peloponnese.

February 2, 2010

LOST: a Study in Storytelling

I admit it. I am way too excited about tonight's big premier. The latest previews on abc.com pretty much rule out the infinite loop theories, which makes it oh so ironic that our time-travel cliffhanger picks back up on Groundhog's Day. Count that as one more homage to an influential story, one more pop culture reference embedded by Damon & Carlton. How perfect. As one critic suggested this week, "LOST is a show that is fascinated with the art of storytelling itself."

Yes. And the prominent and creative manipulation of time in storytelling. To be honest, LOST continues to influence my thoughts about re-presenting the New Testament Story. So much of the past is always going to be learned about in bits and pieces. Putting it all back together in order is very important, but it may not need to be the top priority in teaching and learning the Story itself. After all, whose introduction to scripture was ever restricted to chronological order? Like all things, an awareness of time comes, well, in time.

In homage to these thoughts, witness a different way of viewing the crash of Oceanic flight 815. Damon Lindeloff himself tweeted this link with one word, a week ago. "Wow." There are times for alignment, and there are times for thematic flashbacks. Eat your heart out, Jack Bauer fans. ;-)

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