August 27, 2011

Anti-Semites must love the term "Jesus' Silent Years"

It took nineteen centuries for Christian scholars to embrace the fact that Jesus was fully Jewish. Consciously or unconsciously, some experts still try to minimize the impact of that realization. But the primary and most certain conclusion about Jesus’ early life must be that his life in the Synagogue was extremely significant.

According to Luke, Jesus, the Jew, grew in favor with his Jewish community. That community, of course, was the Synagogue. It was more than his custom to meet there on Sabbath days. Not only are we told this distinctly, but logic demands we believe Jesus attended the Synagogue faithfully.  He could not have remained in good standing in Nazareth otherwise.

In his sovereignty, God chose for Jesus to grow up learning Torah, every Sabbath, with the Nazarene-Jewish community.  The Lord's faith, life and practice all blossomed, however uniquely, in the light and the life of that Nazareth Synagogue.  Any Biblical Historiography of the Lord’s life has to deal with those facts, and that context. But with such a realization, can there be any question that established Christendom, in centuries past, would have been less than eager to embrace such a view? And yet, given what little the Gospels reflect of Jesus' early life and hometown experience, there is no other view that can possibly be taken.

If Jesus' early years aren't to be muzzled, our Gospel based conclusion must inevitably be that those years must have been very centered on Synagogue, for Jesus. My own investigation took place two years ago, and remains online, right here.  As research based argument, it's a crude treatment, of course.  But I'd appreciate very much everyone taking another good look.

On today's point:  The past predominance of antisemitism certainly doesn't prove that my reconstruction of Jesus' early years is on track. It does, however, point out at least one reason why scholars ought to be more skeptical of the old, oft repeated mantra, "The Gospels are silent on Jesus' early life." In this amateur historian's opinion, they reflect much... but only to those who are willing to look.

Consider these things...

August 22, 2011

Mary should have stayed home!

If Joseph & Mary returned home as soon as their Judean business was finished, as Luke 2:39 seems to say that they did, then why was Mary even along for the journey at all?  Did the census require women to register in the land of their husband's father?  Did the Nazarene community ostracize her so badly that she had to be near Joseph at all times until the baby was born?  I doubt option one very seriously, but if option two is correct, then why should they go back to Nazareth?

The fact that Luke puts Mary in Bethlehem at all makes it highly suspect that Luke 2:39 is accurate to the letter.  Luke's own readers must have wondered.  Really?  "All" had to go to be registered?  (2:3)  But otherwise, why would Mary even be down in Judea?  It obviously makes no sense that Mary would prefer to give birth in a borrowed room in a strange city with seemingly only her husband around for help!  Plainly, women about to give birth should have remained at home, with her relatives and whatever passed for the local community midwives all remaining nearby.

The only reasonable inference as to why Mary would be in Bethlehem is to suppose that Mary *had* been somewhat ostracized from the Nazarene community and that Joseph was moving his new family down to Judea for permanent residence.  But in that case, again, why does Luke 2:39 say that they went back "when" all of their Judean business and post-birth requirements were finished.  Really?

To me, it seems like Luke 2:3 and/or 2:39 has some purposeful 'squishyness' pre-built into its wording.

Of course, if Matthew's testimony is true - that Joseph & Mary had a "house" and a "child" in Bethlehem, before fleeing to Egypt - and if Luke's basic narrative is accurate about Mary being from Nazareth at the time of betrothal and conception - then the most obvious solution would be to conclude that Mary & Joseph must have chosen to leave Nazareth, because of the scandal, and relocate to live with his family in Bethlehem.

The only interpretive trouble, at that point, is at 2:39... and perhaps also at 2:3.

We cannot know for sure whether Luke knew about Matthew's testimony, but if Luke did know, and if Luke had some reason to avoid telling the Egypt digression, then the squishiness of 2:39 would fall down to one word: "when".  The sentence, "when they finished all things, according to the Law of the Lord, they turned back to Galilee" now seems... well, misleading, at the very least.  On the one hand, if Luke knew about Egypt, he's been willfully inaccurate.  But if Luke didn't know about Egypt, the directness of his "when" shows either sloppy work or a misunderstanding of true facts.

None of these options encourages faith in the so-called inerrancy of scripture... and certainly not the most politically useful versions of "inerrancy"... which is probably one reason why Evangelicals shrink from historically reconstructing these events, plausibly.

Personally, for the sake of historical sanity and a reasonable super-narrative, I'll quickly opt in for a squishy word or two and a Luke who's deliberately misdirecting the audience at some points.  Maybe Egypt was left out to avoid angering Herod's descendants, two of whom sat in at one of Paul's trials.  Or maybe Luke didn't know why Mary went along OR that anyone went down to Egypt.  Maybe "all" (in 2:3) was Luke's slapdash and deliberately vague effort to explain what he'd heard and believed to be true, that Mary gave birth to Jesus in Bethlehem.

Maybe something else explains Luke's apparently rough seamed transitions.  I don't know.  But at any rate, if Matthew 2 is at all accurate, then Luke 2:39 must be somewhat 'squishy', in fact, regardless of Luke's unknown intentions.

Otherwise, if the implication is that Joseph & Mary had planned to remain residents of Nazareth, after the census, then Mary should have stayed home and had the baby with family nearby, in Galilee.

August 8, 2011

The Passover Travel Itinerary of Simon, from Cyrene

How early would you suppose ancient Judean (and Jewish proselyte) Pilgrims begin making plans for their Passover journeys?  Perhaps as early as you start getting ready for Christmas?  Putting yourself into the first century pilgrimage question... your answer might not depend on - but may have to contend with - what Roger Beckwith argued in his 2001 book, Calendar and Chronology.

According to the Mishnah, a certain "Rabbi Gamaliel" once wrote a letter to someone in authority, declaring that Passover should be postponed (!) by a month.  The Rabbi's reasoning?  Lack of girth.  From a sampling of local/regional livestock, it seems lambs and turtledoves had not yet grown to the preferable sizes for sacrificing.  Also, the spring harvest had not yet produced grain heads of acceptable size.  Not to make light, but it should go without saying this Gamaliel was almost certainly a Pharisee.

Now, Beckwith admits this letter may well post-date 70 AD, but suggests that it may not, and even if so, that it likely reflects practice in pre-70 Judea as well.  Thus, Roger concludes, Passover was so unfixed it was possible to reschedule the whole festival by a month if the incoming grain wasn't ripening quickly enough.  Lambs and turtledoves, perhaps, could have been sized months in advance, but to disapprove grain heads it must have been past January, surely. If not past February. (Anyone?)

These agricultural questions I can't answer, but we can nevertheless consider the same question from another, equally valuable position.  In three parts:

(1) How early did Simon of Cyrene NEED to know which month that particular Passover was going to be held in?  (2) How much time did Simon require to get himself and his two boys from North Central African coast to Jerusalem, including time required for travel planning in addition to actual self-transportation?  (3) How much time did the news take to spread that Jerusalem's authorities had determined WHICH MOON the festival would be held under, that year, in March or in April?

It may not be necessary for us to answer these questions precisely so much as consider their general significance.  I find it difficult to believe that Jerusalem before 70 AD - especially with the Saducees leading under Annas & Caiaphas - would have allowed such nit-picking questions to amend Passover's date *after* the first of the year.  If Simon of Cyrene needed a month's travel time, minimum, just to arrive, and if the scheduling announcement required approximately the same lead time, then 'Rabbi Gamaliel' would have needed to CONCLUDE his successful calendar protest by mid-January at the very latest.  This seems unlikely, I must say, for a number of reasons.

Granted, I've only sketched out these reasons here, and in my earlier posts (October, 2009). Also November '09 here and here.)  Someone else should try a more thorough logistical, financial and agricultural analysis of the possibilities here.  However, it also goes to show that general skepticism about Gospel Chronology should be as doubtable as overconfidence.  Just because Roger Beckwith built a head of uncertainty around this issue since 1996, doesn't mean we should be quite so un/certain of what Beckwith asserted so confidently.

Recent Posts
Recent Posts Widget
"If I have ever made any valuable discoveries, it has been owing more to patient observation than to any other reason."

-- Isaac Newton