January 31, 2012

"Historically" having it both ways?

Why do conservative scholars defend the Gospels as historically reliable yet deny that it's possible to write a reliable History based on the Gospels? If daunting chronological work were the only obstruction, I suspect we'd have more people working on fixing those problems. So what's the real hold-up?

Apparently, and for whatever reasons, Institutional Christendom has thus far felt better served by keeping Jesus in this vague historical limbo. The Gospels can be relied upon, but not built upon. That is, unless we're writing Theology...

Two questions: What will it take to finally alter this indefensible trend? When it changes, will it change for the better?

January 29, 2012

Caesar vs Satan?

If Nero got to hear Luke's version of Jesus' wilderness temptations, one must wonder (I think) what Nero thought about Satan claiming to be the chief Kingmaker over all worldly kingdoms. Considering that Rome had taken up that precise role over recent centuries - especially in the East - Luke's testimony definitely would have tickled the Emperor's ears in a particular way. Actually, the NLT might best capture the key line, as Nero would have taken it's full meaning: "I will give you the glory of these kingdoms and authority over them," the devil said, "because they are mine to give to anyone I please."

To modern readers, this often makes Luke's devil sound like Rome's puppet master. But is/was this the case? Did Luke intend to tell us that the Devil rules Earth through his appointees? And is that true? Does Satan appoint Caesars... Kings... US Presidents?

If so, and if Luke was even partly intending his Gospel to be read at Paul's defense, then Luke seems like a total moron to have slipped in such an insult. He may as well have said, 'By the way, Caesar, we believe our God's greatest enemy is the one who appointed you Emperor!' But if not, or if Luke was fully expecting Rome's Emperor to learn of this passage, or perhaps merely if Luke was not a complete moron, then something else must explain what's going on with his text.

Here's my suggestion:

The Latin Vulgate renders "devil" as diabolo, a transliteration of Greek διαβόλου, which meant something like accuser, slanderer or enemy. Thus, any ancient hearer of Luke 4 was introduced to this 'Satan' as a non-credible figure. As far as Nero was [or would have been] concerned, the devil may or may not have presented a vision to Jesus, and even spoken this claim, but the strength of this claim should have been - to Rome's authorities - strictly laughable, especially given the deceiving nature of "devil". To the point, I suggest Luke should have expected this reaction precisely, from Caesar.

These days, if you read Luke 4 theologically then it's fair game to extract this choice nugget and apply it however you like best see fit. The Devil rules Earth. He appoints rulers. Caesar was Satan's pawn, as was Herod, and Jesus could have become like them all, if he'd wanted. However, read Luke 4 historically and things become far less certain. Of course, in some cases less certainty is a very good thing.

The point of Luke's passage - for Nero's sake - is that Jesus refused Satan's offer. Thus begins a strong anti-political theme running all the way through both Luke's Gospel and Acts. For all Jesus' talk about "God's Kingdom", he obviously meant something else... but as for what, that's a whole other post.

To the point, once again:  If we realize that Nero wouldn't have taken the devil's world-rulership claim as sincere, or as valid... then should we? This will seem ironic to some, but as I see it, the greater our faith in the text, the more we might be better off thinking like Nero.

Accepting the temptation as historical fact assumes the quote to have been somewhat accurately reported. Granting Jesus actually did hear the devil's offer that day, and granting that Luke wrote it down somewhat accurately, what we have is a story being told for what it says about Jesus... not for what it says about Satan.

The deceiver could have offered to make Jesus a ham sandwich on Herod's front porch. It would matter no less, and no more. Jesus didn't give in so we'll never know whether the devil was telling the truth.

I might guess that he wasn't... or I might guess that he was... but then maybe the point of the story is that I'm better off not worrying much about world kingdoms, in any event.


January 27, 2012

Roger Beckwith's Blind Spot, (or) The Profitability of Intercalation, Part 4 (of 4)

Now, at last, here's the major problem with Beckwith's proposal that Passover might have been one month earlier, sometimes, than we've tended to retroject when looking at lunar cycles. (See Parts 1, 2 and 3 if you're missing the details behind that statement.) To be simple about things, winter parties are smaller than spring parties, and bigger parties bring in more spenders. Yes, that's the whole point, but it certainly requires fleshing out in much greater detail.

Here, then, is the single most practical point.

The capacity of the festival season to bring in revenues depended on the ability of the Sanhedrin to maximize pilgrimage, and that required the Sadducces to provide at least one simple, reliable, logistical necessity: scheduling!

To make the case with one famous example: Simon of Cyrene would not have been able to attend any festival that was in danger of being moved back by a month, for any reason at all, let alone because some Pharisee said the growing grain suddenly looked like it was fattening too slowly! [We can probably clock that with more rigor if somebody helps me with ancient Judean agriculture. For now, I'll admit I don't know how early the grain heads would sprout, or be measurable by, but for now we hardly need such precision in measurement. If Simon needed a month to get to Jerusalem, and the Sanhedrin needed a month before that to get word out of the schedule, then the Sadducees would have to reach final decision no later than three months before the latter moon Passover, and that's cutting it too close to maximize revenues, if you want pilgrims staying in town one or two weeks before the big feast day itself. And again, why? So they could have a cold festival?]

In short, the Sadducees would not have left such major profits to revolve around Pharisaical whims. We should be almost certain, I think, that after decades upon decades of hosting the festivals, especially after 7 AD, they should have arrived at the logically most business savvy decision. The festival had to be scheduled for whichever of the two viable moons gave them the greatest potential for both travel and ancillary sales. Pilgrims move better the warmer it gets. Doves sell better when fatter, relatively speaking, in any year, good or bad. And even if a pre-70 Gamalliel argued in a very extreme year that Passover needed to be pushed to May, we can absolutely expect that the Sadducees would have ignored him. The ideal month was late March to mid-April, partly because they'd prefer to keep Tabernacles in the moderate season as well, but mainly because the festival had to be scheduled and announced well in advance, in order to attain maximized (say it with me, now) profitability.

With this as our final analysis, one can easily look over a calendar of dates for the entire first century and predict which full moon would have been preferable for the Sadducees from a profitability standpoint. No, the Metonic Cycle wasn't around yet and the equinox 'rule' wasn't an officially documented requirement, at least, not that we're aware. Nevertheless, we should have no trouble concluding with that Passover in the first century should have always been scheduled after the equinox.

The bottom line now is their bottom line then. Scheduling Passover was entirely about revenue.

In 2001, Roger Beckwith did a magnificent job of detailing the intricacies of ancient intercalation, and for bringing such rigor to our awareness about such historical details, he is still very much to be commended. Unfortunately, Roger's blind spot was in failing to see the inevitability of convenient intercalation. It isn't what the calendar might have said that we need to be skeptical about. Rather, we should put our historical faith in what Jerusalem's upper classes needed that calendar to say, just in order to keep the whole thing going year after year, not to mention earning enough to pay for that giant Temple rebuilding project that was (apparently) still underway.

Jerusalem's calendar needed to say, "Open for Business", and it needed to say so many moons in advance.

For more of my (earlier) writings on these points, see the following posts:

Dating the Crucifixion: Sadducees, Calendars and Festival Finances (Nov '09)
Dating the Crucifixion, Despite Lunar Details (Nov '09)
The Passover Travel Itinerary of Simon, from Cyrene (Aug '11)


January 26, 2012

Roger Beckwith's Blind Spot, (or) The Profitability of Intercalation, Part 3 (of 4)

Let's cut to the chase about this Rabbi Gamalliel's letter, and what it might mean. (See Part 1 and Part 2 if you need to get caught up quickly.) As I said, there are two major oversights in Beckwith's whole argument, one minor and one major.

The minor problem is political and the major problem is economic.

First, the minor problem. It is well established that Jerusalem's local government was dominated by Sadducees before 70 AD, and that the Pharisees rose to much greater prominence only after the Temple's destruction. Thinking about Rabbi Gamalliel's concerns should lead us to question not in which era that letter might have been written, but to ask in which era that letter might have carried weight with decision making authorities. The answer is both obvious and clear. Before 70 AD, Jerusalem's ruling elite had no political reason to change course [as Beckwith's scenario suggests might have been the case] simply due to one Pharisee's opinion.

Now, we must quickly admit, despite this, that Gamalliel's ineffectiveness before 70 AD would not necessarily be a problem for Beckwith's scenario. That such a Pharisee could have felt moved to write such a letter, before 70 AD, is itself reason enough to suggest that the Sadducees could have scheduled Passover too early in some year for that Pharisee's preference. But as I said earlier, this is a theoretical possibility. It's not really a practical likelihood. Therefore, while this first problem isn't technically a problem for Beckwith's argument, it does display a lack of practical consideration about the political reality surrounding such a plea in the pre-70 era. That's a 'minor problem', to say the very least.

But this minor problem eventually leads us to the major problem, which we'll get to in a moment.

There's another angle to question things from, altogether. Instead of asking in which era the letter was more likely written in, or in which era it would have been more likely to carry weight, we can ask more pragmatically, in which era was such a letter more likely to be necessary? Again, the answer should be immediately clear.

After 70 AD, with Jerusalem no longer able to host major festivals, and no Temple to hold the official sacrifice of each family's lamb, the Rabbis had to begin coming up with new procedures for largely decentralized observances. That the Rabbis had not been in charge of this ever before is one factor. That custom in general was now facing upheaval is another factor. Beckwith's Gamalliel letter is theoretically plausible in any part of the first century, but it makes much more practical sense in the post-70 time period. Likewise, in turn, such a letter makes much less practical sense in the pre-70 era, and for this we have several more reasons.

Up to 70 AD, the Sadducees had been lording it over Jerusalem for over two centuries. In the 30's AD - including all possible dates for Jesus' crucifixion (that question being the whole point of all this, remember), the Sadducees had just spent 20 to 25 years managing Jerusalem beneath the comfort of Rome's direct rule. Point being, for the first time in centuries Judea's local government did not have to concern itself one iota with the business of self defense.

Human History has long since revealed  that local governments in such situations tend to increase their aptitude for furthering economic prosperity, and they can often do so quite dramatically (the obvious 20th century examples come quickly to mind, but Roman Provincialism also bore this out over and over). The local ruling elite, the Sadducee Party - who naturally included the landowners, the brightest, and the most capable men in Jerusalem - they simply must have spent all of those decades becoming more skillful at increasing both civic and personal revenues. And when you look at first century Roman Jerusalem, between AD 7 and 70, the biggest single source of annual revenue was the festival season.

All this background, finally, brings us to the 'major problem' with Beckwith's proposal:

The Sadducees should have been way ahead of Gamalliel, in any year, because waiting for more grain and fatter birds and lambs, in any year, would have always been much, much more profitable.

In other words, it's a money thing. Duh.

To be concluded...

January 25, 2012

Roger Beckwith's Blind Spot, (or) The Profitability of Intercalation, Part 2 (of 4)

Without an official Metonic Cycle to go by, in the early first century, the particular Moons under which we'd expect Judea to have celebrated Passover each year may not be the same Moons that were actually used. If you caught that, it means that Jesus might have been crucified in March of some year, and not April. At least, so said Roger Beckwith, in 2001.

But maybe Beckwith missed something. Or maybe more than one something.

As I alluded in my last post, there were in fact other factors the Jewish authorities also had to consider.
The equinox, however, was not one of those factors - at least, not officially. In this, I once more agree with Beckwith - it does seem most likely the vernal equinox was not (yet) being used as an official boundary for the new year. Although the start of spring did eventually become a cut-off for when the Jewish new year could begin, but it doesn't seem to have been so quite yet, in Jesus' day.

On the other hand, in order to be thorough, we must consider that the equinox may have become a practical factor, affecting considerations de facto. (Note: On the Gregorian calendar, that equinox falls about March 22nd. On the Julian calendar, it was nearly the same, but the Roman calendar (reset in 46 BC) was already about two days behind by the time of Christ's death.  For the record, if the equinox HAD been in use, officially, it would have settled the Passover in almost all years.  As with Easter today, it would come in late March on occasion, but more often in April.)

Now, without the equinox as a boundary, what positive factors could be used to determine which full moon (March or April) the Passover week would be scheduled around? According to Beckwith, these pertinent but extraneous factors included two things: (1) the health of that spring's incoming grain harvest, and (2) the satisfactory girth [or lack thereof] of acceptable lambs and/or turtledoves as determined from sampling the available stocks.

More practically speaking - from a socio-political and economic standpoint, anyway - Beckwith's pertinent factors all seem to boil down to one thing: the exactitude of pharisaical preference.

Beckwith argues from one piece of evidence, from the Mishnah.  In some unknown year, a certain "Rabbi Gamalliel" wrote a letter advising that Passover should be moved back a month, because the Judean lambs, doves and grain-heads had not yet reached the acceptable size for proper sacrificing. Once again, Beckwith brings good evidence as this does, in fact, seem like a trustworthy example of how Rabbis like this Gamalliel would have and likely did think & feel about Passover preparations throughout the first century, and probably even before 70 AD (although the Pharisees had far more power after 70 AD, due to decentralization after the destruction of Jerusalem).

In all, Beckwith has found a magnificient piece of historical evidence, and he's applied it with careful insight.

However, the conclusion that Beckwith draws from this evidence - that Passover before 70 AD was therefore liable to being held before the equinox in unpredictable years - is almost certainly unfounded.

There are two problems with Beckwith's application of his evidence - one minor, and one major.

And we'll cover both of those next time.

To be continued...

January 24, 2012

Roger Beckwith's Blind Spot, (or) The Profitability of Intercalation, Part 1 (of 4)

Among other things, Roger Beckwith's Calendar and Chronology (2001) argued persuasively that Jerusalem's Passovers didn't follow the 19 year metonic cycle of lunar observance. Of course, he was right because the cycle had not yet been standardized. In Jesus' day, the spring New Year was set by observing the moon visually.  Observe one day too late (or too quickly, perhaps?) and the Passover Night could wind up "one day off" from the actual date of the moon's astronomical fullness. (We'll get to months in a moment.)

We'll get to the money part very soon, also. Bear with me for just a bit, please.

Although modern astronomy can now retroactively calculate which precise dates new and full moons appeared on, Beckwith's best point is that we can't be sure *they* called it precisely, each year. Therefore, in any given year, it's somewhat possible that the festival might have been held a day early - or a day late - although presumably they also got it precisely right on occasion. Perhaps the sky watchers even called it correctly most of the time. We're not 100% sure.

However, none of that is Beckwith's major point, nor the point of this post. The day was not the big deal. As alluded to just above, the real problem is knowing which month the Jerusalem festival was held, each year. Since the lunar cycle naturally requires a 13th month in occasional years - a bit more than every 3 years, or more approximately 7 of every 19, just about - that "leap month" would push back the religious new year, and the Passover season was always held in that first month.

Point: while we've long believed Jesus died in April, Beckwith suggested it could have been March.

Again, the key point is that Judea doesn't seem to have developed a formalized schedule of leap years based on the Metonic Cycle... and despite just how naturally as the Metonic Cycle really does kind of work itself out for anyone who looks into it veeeery deeply, Beckwith's general point here has to stand - we shouldn't retroactively insert the Metonic Cycle into our expectations of when the Jewish leap years occured. Therefore, it's entirely possible that the Judean authorities chose not to insert a leap month in some year we'd expect them to... which means the crucifixion - in whatever year it took place - could have taken place possibly a month sooner than we think.

At least, that's the theory. On paper, it's true. But how practical is Beckwith's concern?

Was there any other way of determining time, at that time? How early could Passover be scheduled?

April? March? February?

If there were no firm rules about this whatsoever, were there any other constraints on their judgment?

As I'll show you very soon, I believe that they were.

To be continued...

January 23, 2012

'NT Backgrounds' - Chronology

Chronology on the Roman Empire is much easier to sort through than chronology on the New Testament for one simple reason – because ancient historians like Livy, Tacitus and Cassius Dio followed the custom of writing in Annalistic fashion. In other words, they wrote Year Books. Other writers on Roman Events left accounts that blend easily in with the major sources. Chronological problems become easier to judge by using the Annals.

Dating events in Palestine is a little bit harder because Josephus rarely stops to tell us the year and often litters his narrative with flash-backs and flash forwards, and sometimes flash-backs which give way to flash-forwards before jumping back to the previous narrative-time. Sequencing these events can be tricky enough, but for actually dating them we rely heavily on tie-ins with Roman sources. Without dates for the terms of the Governors of Syria, many events in the lives of the Herods would be undatable with any kind of precision.

Roman History also gets dates from inscriptions and archaeology, of course, but the major Timeline comes from the literature. Translations of these works can be found commonly in bookstores, while Greek and Latin versions are available online.

Here is a sample of what I'm working towards putting together - all the major Roman source material, arranged by date of events told in content, for 9 BC to AD 14, a span which covers the Advent and first 20 years of the Lord Jesus' personal lifetime. (For source notes, see below chart.)

Roman History (Major Sources)
New Testament

9 BC
AD 14
Josephus’ Antiquities
Dio Cassius’ History
Suetonius’ Lives
Velleius’ Compendium

9 BC
Ant.16.271ff; Dio 55.1.1-5.4; Suet.2.61; Vell.92

8 BC
Ant.16.c.320ff; Dio 55.6.1-7.6; Suet.2.31

7 BC
Ant.16.c.358ff Ant.17.1-45; Dio 55.8.1-7
*Lk.2.1 @27 BC*

6,5 BC
Ant.17.c.46ff; Dio 55.9.1-9; Suet.3.10-11; Vell.99

4 BC

3,2,1 BC & AD 1
Ant.17.c.324-340; Ant.18.27-28; Dio 55.9.10-10a.5; Suet.2.48,65,69,93; Suet.3.13-16; Vell.99-103

AD 2,3,4,5
Ant.17.341; Dio 55.10a.6-24,9; Suet.2.65; Suet.3.13-16; Vell.102-109

AD 6,7
Ant.17.342ff; Ant.18.1-26,29a; Dio 55.25.1-32.4; Suet.2.49,65; Suet.3.15-16; Vell.109-114

AD 8,9,10,11
Ant.18.29b-31; Dio 55.33.1-7; Dio 56.1.1-25.1; Suet.2.23; Suet.3.16-19; Vell.114-121

AD 12,13,14
Ant.18.32-33; Dio 56.26.1-47.2; Suet.2.97-101; Suet.3.20-21; Vell.121-124

Again, these are the major sources.  Swan’s excellent commentary on Cassius Dio Books 55 & 56 happens to cover precisely this span of years and provides many other cross references for each Annum’s worth of Roman events, including minor source material.  Naturally, a similar work on Josephus’ Antiquities would be very difficult to produce, because of his non-annalistic structure, but Richardson and Hoehner’s studies are among the best studies on Herod the Great and his son Antipas, respectively.

Chronological placement of scriptural events is according to me, natch. For year-by-year explanations on those points, visit my Timeline page, or search the site for particular points.

January 19, 2012

Bill Heroman, on Acts 1-10 (Twelve Posts)

I've kept trying to get back to these posts that I did about Peter and Stephen a couple years ago. With one more last month and one this week, I feel like it can rest for now. In sum, then, here are my posted views on Acts 1-10. Someday, I'm hoping to re-tell this story straight through. For now, here are the order of things as I'd recommend going through them.

Can we question Peter? Please? - Mar'10
Peter and Cornelius - Mar'10
No Spirit for Eunuchs! (or Gentile widows, apparently) - Dec'11

Racism and Geography - Mar'10
Luke Liked Most Jews - Mar'10
Stephen's Real Bias - Mar'10

Situating Stephen's Speech at Yom Kippur - Mar'10

The Scapegoat & The Scattering - Sept'10

Chronology of Acts 1-9 - Mar'10

By the way, everything covered in Acts 1-9 took place in less than 1 year, between the Passovers of AD 33 and AD 34. As for Peter's travel throughout Acts 9, 10 & 11 - it can't be dated precisely but I include it here because it reflects strongly on what must have been going on during that previous era in Jerusalem, before the scattering. In my humble opinion, it is the harsh bigotry of Peter's two-tier gospel (albeit a position that's forgivably ignorant) which, perhaps more than anything, helps explain why GOD (yes) HIMSELF was (evidently) so eager to move on from this beginning stage of the Church.

That last statement is one I've been waiting six or seven years to post online. Grapple with it accordingly, please. ;-)

As always, if some amazing young grad student wants to take this and run with it, any piece or all whole, you have my complete blessing. There's a lot of rigor left to be desired in these presentations. But the core, I believe, is quite solid. And it's basically all there, I think.

Thanks for reading.

January 18, 2012

Nicholas Perrin, on Biblical Chronology

Please enjoy this abridged excerpt from four wonderful pages I only wish I had written. May their tribe increase mightily.
In order for us to make sense of ourselves, we need to make some sense of history. And history, we find out soon enough, makes absolutely no sense apart from some awareness of chronology, sequence, and causality. Without the ability to place figures and events on a kind of a map, the study of history soon degenerates into an insipid exercise of rehearsing assorted and seemingly meaningless facts. 
But then why is it that when it comes to "sacred events" (call it the "history of Israel" or the "human history of the kingdom of God"), it is almost a mark of piety not to know about precise dates and times? Why is it considered in so many circles almost a matter of true spirituality not only not to know the historical facts but also not to care? 
It is an odd state of affairs but it is a dynamic which I think can hardly be denied in the contemporary church. It is a dynamic in which we tacitly agree on the necessity and value of pinning down "real history" with real dates, but somehow make a virtue of keeping biblical history vague, fuzzy and hopelessly muddled in our heads.
The problem is that even though we grow up intellectually in how we think about things like law and economics and human psychology, we somehow cordon off the Bible from rigorous intellectual handling so that it in fact never grows up along with us. It remains more the stuff of storybook than real history.
God made history and history matters. Apart from the conviction that our faith is a historical faith, we are left only to cast about. But, when we are fully persuaded that sacred history meshes with the history in which we live and move and have our being, that is when biblical faith becomes a real possibility.

You have just read a succinctly abridged version of Nicholas Perrin's amazing and wonderful Foreword to Andrew E. Steinmann's recent book, From Abraham to Paul: A Biblical Chronology. All 309 words, above, are taken directly from Perrin's amazing foreword. Nothing was rearranged. Excerpts were spliced. It's certainly a lot to quote, and I didn't ask permission, so you should all rush out and buy the book, right now!

Full disclosure: I have not yet read Steinmann's work other than his timeline, with which I will unsurprisingly take certain issues. So goes discourse in this discipline, generally for the worse and not better! However, when the subject matter has to be justified so vigorously, is it any wonder that a consensus body of work has yet to be properly developed?

My greatest hope is that, perhaps given a few more uplifting messages like this one from Nick Perrin, a small field of diligent scholars might start devoting serious time to Biblical Chronology (or at least New Testament Chronology for starters!) After some decades of work, then, a few standard chronologies should emerge, and continue to be examined. One of those standard works will be Heroman's Chronology, naturally!

But in all deepest sincerity, arguing over this stuff, with proper scholarly rigor, will be light years better than leaving it "fuzzy and vague". And we'll get there before long, I pray.

Thank you, Nick Perrin, for lighting a torch on the path.

Also, H/T to Ched, from last October.

January 17, 2012

The Circumcision Party

(so called): Did it really exist before Acts 10:45? If it did, it was fully inclusive of all believers in Christ, at that time. Or, to put that more clearly - No, it did not.

I know, depending on your translation, Luke seems to say one particular group of circumcised believers was especially stunned when the Holy Spirit fell on Cornelius. However, a major problem here is that there simply were not any uncircumcised [male] believers in Judea, at this point. For one thing, that's the entire point of Luke telling Cornelius' story! But there's more.

Here's what Acts 1-10 tells us, about conversion and gentiles:

First, the whole problem of the gentile widows in Acts 6 was their lack of having a husband, whether Jewish or Gentile, who could have been circumcised. Otherwise, where were the gentile orphan boys also being overlooked? There were none. The overlooked persons are entirely widows. As for Philip & Stephen (etc), they simply must have been circumcised. Since Peter required a vision from God (10:28) merely to cross over Cornelius' threshold (10:25) and to touch him (10:26), there's no way 'The Seven' were walking into Jerusalem's christian storehouse if they had each been unwashed and uncircumcised. (On Nicolas the proselyte, see note at bottom.) But, again, if those hungry widows had even had gentile husbands, that daily chore could have been solved once for all, with a knife!

More broadly, there's a definite pattern that forms in Judean evangelism, after the scattering. The Samaritans, every male presumably being a circumcised son of Abraham, were baptized by Philip in water, and given the Holy Spirit by Peter and John (who evidently knew more about Samaritans than did Philippos). The Ethiopian eunuch, being uncircumcisable, was baptized only in water. Last, Cornelius, upon receiving the Holy Spirit while still being uncircumcised (the astonishing part), now only has to be baptized in water.  Quite consistently, each new convert required (1) baptism and (2) the Holy Spirit, but only received HS if circumcised into Judaism.

Back to Cornelius' house, where, depending on your translation in 10:45, this may not be so clear. A cursory reading of most renderings gives a definite impression that there were already two well established positions on whether circumcision was required. There's no evidence in Acts 1-10 for taking on that position. None at all. To create the appearance of such evidence, one must anachronistically rehabilitate Peter before his transformation's complete (or even begun, hardly, really).

Let's look at the scripture for Acts 10:45.

NASB says, "All the circumcised believers who came with Peter were amazed..." (Yes, but that statement would be equally true if omitting the word "circumcised".)  ESV says, "the believers from among the circumcised who had come with Peter were amazed..." (Right. As opposed to which other believers?) NLT says, "The Jewish believers who came with Peter were amazed..." (What? In the context of this particular story, WHO were the "Gentile believers" standing there, unamazed, in Cornelius' house?)

The Greek, of course, says καὶ ἐξέστησαν οἱ ἐκ περιτομῆς πιστοὶ ὅσοι συνῆλθαν τῷ Πέτρῳ ὅτι καὶ ἐπὶ τὰ ἔθνη ἡ δωρεὰ τοῦ ἁγίου πνεύματος ἐκκέχυται, which being approximately transliterated, means something like "and they were amazed, those of the circumcised believers, the ones who came with Peter, that also upon the nations the gift of the holy spirit was poured out."

There are two possibilities here.

First, Luke may be putting in a deliberate allusion to Paul's phrase, τοὺς ἐκ περιτομῆς ('those of the circumcised', Gal.2:12), which Paul likely repeated elsewhere, including probably after his arrest. A few verses later in Acts, Luke uses almost the same construction at 11:2, οἱ ἐκ περιτομῆς A(same meaning), this time to reference Peter's vigorous opponents in this suddenly realized debate. This may be the same point in both verses. But if Luke is using the phrase in 10:45 to refer to the opponents of 11:2, or Gal.2:12, or anywhere in the historical middle... in other words, if Luke is referring to the oft labeled and partly mythical movement scholars long ago labeled "The Circumcision Party"... then Luke is creating a deliberate anachronism.

By deliberate anachronism, I mean something like "America's first president was commanding general in our Revolutionary War." or "I met my wife at Hartsfield International Airport". In both cases there's a chronological discrepancy, but if you know the backstory of either situation, there's no misunderstanding. This is a common enough way of speaking, efficiently adding additional information into a conveniently succinct statement.

Now, the second possibility is that Luke may have meant to refer simply to ALL the believers who were standing at that moment with Peter. As has been pointed out here, above, Luke's statement DOES in actuality refer to all such persons, anyway. Even so, it may ALSO be the case that Luke was foreshadowing 11:2 with this phrase in 10:45. Either way, this second possible view says that Luke had no intention of identifying a sub-sect which was instantly forming at this time, and certainly not one already existing prior to this time.

By all accounts, this sub-sect "of the circumcision" had pretty well started forming by the time they returned to Jerusalem... but of course that's getting things backwards. Whichever view took the early majority after Peter's return, that first sub-sect within Christianity began in Cornelius' house. Prior to that, all believers in Christ were required to be circumcised (or have circ'd husbands). All of them.

It's anachronistic to think anything other than this, about Acts 1-10.

As Peter himself said to Cornelius, up until then the procedures for gentile proselytization were internationally well known (10:35) and it had been made very clear that the way to salvation in Christ was through joining with certain Jews in Jerusalem (10:39). Yes, according to Luke that's what Peter believed, right up until that next moment. While the full meaning of God's sheet letting down and the clean/unclean talk becomes clear to a reader at this point (10:45), one of Luke's purposes in telling the story this way is to point out that not even Peter understood this before now - not after Joppa, not after initially knocking on Cornelius' door. In fact, Peter was still spouting off about what the plan was when the Spirit intervened.

And at that point, Peter, he of the circumcision, was astonished.

And the other believers, also circumcised, were astonished right along with him.

At 11:2, we've got the start of division. Maybe Luke's slight ambiguity in 10:45 is the spark of that division, but there's no evidence in Acts 1-9 to suggest there was any other opinion for how gentiles could be saved but "Circumcision". Indeed, that was how everyone in the Jerusalem church had been taught. Luke doesn't bring it up quite so early, in Acts 2, but the Day of Pentecost may have included several circumcisions of God-fearing proselytes. (Note: that double term is not a redundancy. A circumcised Gentile was also called 'proselyte'.)

That, of course, would be a Circumcision "Party" of an entirely different kind!

I'd go on to show how translators also anachronistically rehabilitate Peter's sincere question at 10:47, making it into a noble rhetorical defense of Cornelius... but this post is too long as it is. Suffice it to say that the situation was unprecedented (and perhaps also that Peter was used to communal decision making) and I'll let you all go look at the Greek and its popular renderings for yourself!

January 15, 2012

Yes, Religion > Hypocrisy

Nick's right. Duh. But 1,000 ships launched vs. one word? Wow, people. To the well educated it's obvious that Jeff Bethke could have spoken with more precision, and he admits it. But is that really the thing to get up in arms about? Apparently, hordes of bibliobloggers thought so, this week. 

My deeper questions are these:

I'm addressing *you* if you were feeling defensive about *your* Religion this week. If, however, you were just taking any good chance to quibble with public misuse of theological language, then you're off the hook. At least, this hook.

(1) Why do so many young people feel that *your* Religion is dead, when you don't? Why are *you* so quick to say they're wrong, and *you're* not? How does one tell the difference? By superior wordsmithing?

(2) Are the maladjusted merely uneducated? (*You* don't really think the video would have been as big a hit if Bethke used the word "Hypocrisy" instead, do *you*?) 

(3) Do you think word lessons are going to make them feel as positively about your Sunday Service as they did about that video? Do you think a semantically adjusted semi-agreement with Bethke's message is going to make them reject *your* Religion any less than they already do? Or embrace it any more?

(4) Do these anti-religionists merely want "New Wine"? Or are they just sick of *your* "Old Wine"? Is this merely a cultural thing? Or is there a deeper problem with them? Or with you? Or with all of us?

(5) Is anti-religion popular largely because recent generations are becoming more lazy and licentious? Or does Christian Religion at large, even that of the stripe which stays largely hypocrisy free - does it often display symptoms of actually turning people away from wanting to know Jesus?

I'll refrain from answering myself, for today.

Feel free to blow up the comments, below...

January 14, 2012

Apologetics aren't for Unbelievers

They're like BMW commercials, which are primarily on the air so that people who've already bought one can feel good about their expensive purchase after the fact.  (Think about it. Who buys a $70,000 car just because it came on during the Super Bowl? No, it comes on during the Super Bowl so the BMW owners can puff out their chest a bit while the other guys reach for more nachos.  Anyway.)

I say this to piggyback on Tim Hendrson's blog post the other day, which points out that one doesn't hear of tons and tons converting to Christendom just because someone defended the resurrection of Jesus. True. Apologetics programs are generally much better at protecting confused sheep than at transforming goats. As I said once, regarding Apologetics vs. History:
Christian scholars, believe that the scripture is trustworthy and affirm that its historical content is accurate.  But, don't make proving that your objective.  Begin there.  Assume historicity, and then go on further to reconstruct actual history. 
I think that what most people want is not extra reasons to believe that it happened.  More than that, we want a scenario to suggest how it happened. 
By the way, Henderson was discussing Mike Licona's book on The Resurrection of Jesus, about which I also blogged my thoughts a while back:
As long as resurrection isn't ruled out a priori, it's the best explanation for everything the apostles did (and also for what Paul did) after Jesus' death. Of course it is. Seriously, this really is very old news. 
...it's clear that his goal must have been, from the outset, "to defend the faith once delivered".  And again, that's fine... [but] the book as a whole remains yet another example of a conservative Jesus history which *concludes* with a positive judgment about *historicity* - See, brethren, we can still believe that it's all really true!  
I'll keep on repeating these points till I'm blue in the face. Or until the tide someday turns.
...the ironic tragedy here is that skeptical reconstructions display plenty of confidence in what they assert - and unbelievers lap that stuff up, despite their indefensible presuppositions, because of their confidence - but our christian scholars are the ones who won't go so far as to build one fluid chain of events based on the Gospels. 
In other words, it's WE who don't seem to have faith!
But we do. Or we say that we do. We believe in the Story.

Lord, increase our Faith in the Story.


January 12, 2012

Fish + Cat = Orange

Doing History is 2 + 2 = 5, but Theology often seems like Fish + Cat = Orange.  At least, it often seems like that to me.

Anyway, I said so on Facebook today and a friend posted this picture.  I like it.

I think I'm converted now.  Mesmerizing.  Maybe Fish plus Cat does equal Orange.


January 11, 2012

The Historical MJ

Turns out, Michael Jordan both was and wasn't "cut" from his HS team, a story he's often repeated. Obviously, the scare quotes indicate spin, but the interesting part isn't whether it's "true". To see what I mean, and how Jordan's spin sheds far more light on his personal history than it ever cast shadows, see Kelly Dwyer's succinct post over at Ball Don't Lie.

It's a fun illustration of something I mentioned just last month. Slanted testimony can often reveal BOTH what it attempted to hide AND more information besides... which is one reason why it's much more fun as historians (and more productive as well) to grant the basic historicity of someone's narrative, but weigh various interpretations of the account.

Was MJ cut from that team, or wasn't he? Let's not debate historicity. Let's try to get at the deeper Story.

Well done, NBA Blogger.  Well done.
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