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...

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