May 28, 2012

John P. Meier on the Year of Herod's Death, 4 BC

Published scholarly research makes the case overwhelmingly, imho, but Google searches online can still give some the impression that perhaps History's jury may be somewhat undecided about this question. Quite to the contrary, 4 B.C. as the date of Herod's death should be considered as firm as nearly any other from antiquity. I last blogged about this in 2009 (The Eclipse of Purim, 4 BC and Give up on 1 BC), but of course more information from professional scholars should be online to address this effectively.

It is therefore for the sake of online posterity that I hereby take the liberty of quoting in full the following two paragraphs from John P. Meier's famous Historical Jesus series, A Marginal Jew. Incidentally, these two paragraphs amount to a single footnote from Chapter 11, A Chronology of Jesus' Life (footnote #18):
The attempts by a few historians to prove that Herod the Great died in some other year have not met with general acceptance. For example, W. E. Filmer ("The Chronology of the Reign of Herod the Great," JTS 17 [1966] 283-98) uses contorted arguments in an attempt to establish that Herod died instead in 1 B.C. As Timothy D. Barnes points out very well ("The Date of Herod's Death", JTS 19 [1968] 204-9), Filmer's thesis collides with two major pieces of evidence: (1) Herod's successors all reckoned their reigns as beginning in 5-4 B.C. (2) The synchronisms with events datable in the wider context of the history of the Roman Empire - synchronisms made possible by Josephus' narrative of the circumstances attending Herod's death - make 1 B.C. almost impossible to sustain. Barnes goes on to suggest that perhaps December of 5 B.C. may be a better candidate for the date of Herod's death than March/April of 4 B.C. As is the case with other alternatives, this innovation has not met with general approval.  
The question of Herod's death is taken up once more in a number of essays in the Chronos, Kairos, Christos volume edited by Verdaman and Yamauchi. Ernest L. Martin ("The Nativity and Herod's Death," 85-92) revives the theory that Herod died in 1 B.C., with Jesus' birth placed in 3 or 2 B.C. This does not receive support from the other contributors to the volume who address the same issue. Douglas Johnson (" 'And They Went Eight Stades Towards Herodeion,' " 93-99) defends the traditional date of 4 B.C. for Herod's death, pointing out that Martin has mistranslated a key text concerning Herod's funeral in Ant. 17.8.3 §199. Harold W. Hoehner ("The Date of the Death of Herod the Great," 101-11) likewise champions 4 B.C. Paul L. Maier ("The Date of the Nativity and the Chronology of Jesus' Life," 113-30) adds still another voice in favor of 4 B.C., though his further thoughts on the exact year of Jesus' birth betray an uncritical use of the Infancy Narratives. (Indeed, most of the authors never face the critical questions addressed in Brown's Birth of the Messiah.) All in all, the scattered attempts to undermine 4 B.C. as the year of Herod's death must be pronounced a failure.
Meier lays out enough there to provide vigorous research opportunities, for those still desiring to contest this, what ought to be a dead issue, no pun intended.

Incidentally, my second contribution on this (Give up on 1 BC) goes into detail about some of the scholars listed in Meier's review here and a bit about how the counterarguments worked.

My earlier contribution (The Eclipse of Purim, 4 BC) actually stemmed from an original observation that the eclipse of 4 BC is the only one which satisfies certain details attached to it by Josephus' narrative. In fact, some graduate student (reading this now) should feel free to steal and publish all by themselves. Alternatively, I'll happily co-author, but only if you insist.

All in all, until the quality of research material generally available online begins to equal the quality of research material available to those with professionally credentialed access, here is one more attempt to set the record straight.

Herod died in 4 BC. Get your chronology straight!

May 21, 2012

Did the Rulers of Jews "lord-it-over" their people?

Why was Jesus so specific when he said, "The rulers of the Gentiles lord it over them, and their great men exercise authority over them. It shall not be so among you..."?

That's not a throwaway word, "Gentiles". According to all three Synoptic writers, Jesus was very specific. It's something about the gosh-darn Goy Rulers the disciples were suppose to avoid mimicing, here. But what is that something, and why did Jesus call it specifically Gentile?

Which Jewish rulers did Jesus have in mind, to exclude from his point, when he phrased things this way?

Surely it could not have been the Jerusalem leaders. The Sanhedrin and Temple authorities seem to have done a fine job of ruling over their subjects. Herod the Great? Surely not. Jewish he may have been, technically, but Herod learned from the Romans directly for 40 years (and indirectly from his other superiors before he became an authority himself). Was it Herod Antipas, near the Sea of Galilee? Or Philip the Tetrarch, up near Mount Hermon? Nope. Philip was nicer than Antipas, but each was still appointed by Rome to exercise personal and virtually unfettered dominion over all persons in their respective districts.

Which Jewish rulers in Jesus' day ruled so differently than Gentile rulers?

We have to consider the Synagogue.

Now, as far as we know, there was no standardized synagogue practice before 70 AD. Other than study of Torah, and presumably some amount of community prayer, there wasn't even a standardized liturgy for early first century synagogues, let alone the same organizational flowchart for all communities everywhere. Nevertheless, because there were multiple commonalities among Jewish synagogue culture, there also must have been some commonality among synagogue leadership in the various towns across Palestine.

Also, the Gospels imply Jesus took time to visit most if not all of the synagogues within Galilee, and many more elsewhere. Perhaps some synagogues would have fit more suitably into Jesus' mental exception than others, but the general pattern we're positing would have been common enough for him to get a strong impression about, regardless of which synagogues he'd visited, and regardless of what Nazareth's had been like.

With that in mind, what was this Jewish pattern? What traits did Synagogue leadership share, generally?

I'll suggest four.

First, regardless of whether they appointed officials or had ten people down by the river, one characteristic that must fit the majority of early first century synagogues, surely, had to be genuine community. That is, most synagogues were small. They were in small towns, or they were frequented by smaller groups. Beyond size, the word synagogue itself actually means community (via gathering). That's easy to contrast against Gentile government at the time, which was vast, impersonal, and universally dominant. In the Jewish synagogue, a prominent figure would be someone you knew well, not someone who sailed in to give orders, take money and leave early. In the most formal of synagogues, even, a "ruling official" would still be someone whose entire life had been long ingrained among all of your neighbors.

Second, because of that genuine community, another trait shared by persons of prominence, in any particular synagogue, had to be organic appointment. That is, most synagogues - communities, remember, who might not have quite yet afforded an entire set of scrolls, let alone a permanently dedicated facility to hold meetings within *ahem* - most synagogues were established at least one or two previous generations before Jesus' day, and (despite our historical uncertainty about the synagogue institution, universally) many or most had very easily been congregating for a century or more, if not much more.

The point is that virtually any synagogue "ruler" anywhere would have grown up within that community as a child and young person before becoming old enough and respected enough to be somehow (?) appointed, elected or defaulted upon as an official, an elder, a leader or a "synagogue ruler". Now wait, am I saying a small town can't wind up appointing a bad leader (perhaps for lack of much option)? Certainly, that can happen quite easily, and often did I might bet. Nevertheless, organic appointment probably held forth in more places than not, because a typical synagogue would have a plurality of elders at various stages of life, and their well-known reputations would allow them to recognize the congregation's natural predilection - being displayed over time through communal experience - for the newest members of [what I'd ideally like to call] the oversight committee, or the synagogue council, or so forth, however many members it had.

Third and finally, with so much lifelong communal interaction between the local body and it's own organically selected supervisory members, there would naturally be some level of social accountability, also. For example, if Jairus' sick daughter had caused him to seek out a sorcerer for healing, the community would have heard of this and their reaction would have affected his position, and perhaps also his tenure. Whether the procedures that followed had been previously established or whether the inevitable would simply take its due course, any ruler of any early first century synagogue was bound to be socially accountable to his fellow Jews on a daily, weekly and annual basis.

Let's call these the first three distinct aspects of (if you will) "Jewish eldership". They are: genuine community, organic eldership, & social accountability. But, again, there is at least one more characteristic to mention.

While these first three factors alone might have appeared to some degree in some tribal locations as well, such people groups were also quite commonly ruled by some sort of "might makes right" tribal leader(s) who would typically fight to establish a hereditary chain of succession in ruling the tribe, and for selfish as much as (or moreso than) for societal benefits. So, with this in mind, let's observe in contrast to this a fourth characteristic of Jewish leaders - they were also presumably chosen because of their dedication to learning, exhibiting and sometimes also teaching the spirit and strictures of God's Law.

Yes, there seems no way to deny that dedication to Torah must have been a key way in which Jewish synagogue rulers / leaders / elders (or at least, the best of all those whom Jesus had ever met) were somehow outstanding in the Lord's mind, as compared with specifically Gentile rulers. It should go without defending that dedication to Torah should quite naturally exclude the type of monarchical brutality that might help one lord it over, say, a barbarian tribe. And as far as other means of coercion, well, yes, teachers of God's Law have been known to manipulate people. (Obviously, we are not shocked to recall this!) But once again, nevertheless, we must affirm that even a fraudulent dedication to Torah meant that God's Law was being presented, which provided constant potential, at least, for God's spirit to actually have direct influence over hearts and minds of a synagogue community, including also its leadership.

One more point remains. We must briefly consider hierarchy.

Did the Jewish synagogue rulers exhibit hierarchy? It may be difficult to say. In some sense, perhaps it's a semantic dodge to attempt a "no" answer, seeing as how it's ingrained in humanity that any appointed official is generally considered "above" the larger body which the official ostensibly serves. On the other hand, to speak of hierarchy in a functional sense, we don't have a great deal of data to suggest whether the synagogue leaders (elders, rulers, etc) ever did much actual "overing" of anyone "under" them, at all.

There's a vast difference between directing and supervising. This brief survey did enough to consider Jewish community leaders as ontologically different from gentile civic leaders, and there are indeed several significant contrasts. A fully functional analysis may or may not lie beyond the scope of the data assembled by experts (and, honestly, there really isn't much data to go on at all), but such a functional analysis is absolutely beyond the scope of this humble blog post. I will leave that to others.

What has now been concluded? Let me try to sum up.

The title of this blog post asked a simple question: did the rulers of Jews "lord-it-over" their people? We didn't answer that question definitively, at least not in any functional terms. That question would require yet further research and consideration. However, we did answer an important, related and preliminary question:

Did Jesus have specific reasons in mind for excluding some types of Jewish leadership when he warned the disciples very specifically to avoid imitating Gentile leadership?

Because synagogue leaders can be characterized by four traits that gentile leaders were never characterized by, all together - and those being genuine community, organic appointment, social accountability, and dedication to Torah - yes indeed. It would appear Jesus had very good reasons for excluding Jewish leadership from those particular comments.

*Not that all Jewish synagogue leaders were leading as servants like he urged the disciples to do. No, of course Jesus' other experiences testify that he did not actually think all synagogue rulers were quite so laudable, in practice. But again, how many did or didn't live up to the potential inherent in a Torah-based community... well, as I said in my comments on "functional terms", that's a topic for a whole other post!

May 17, 2012

Tacitus the Pretty-Good Historian

QOTD, by Ronald Syme:
Historians in all ages become liable through their profession to certain maladies or constraints. They cannot help making persons and events more logical than reality; they are often paralysed by tradition or convention; and they sometimes fall a prey to morbid passions for a character or an idea. Tacitus in his account of Tiberius betrays each and all of these three infirmities. From a fourth, the most insidious and pernicious, he is wholly exempt. 
Historians know the verdict in advance, they run forward with alacrity to salute the victors and chant hymns to success. A chorus of hierophants or apologists acclaimed the Roman Caesars - but not uncontradicted, and not earning good fame. The Roman senator despised them. On his guard against specious or shabby concessions, he refused to condone violence because, having succeeded, it became respectable; and, if nothing short of authoritarian government ensured peace and stability, he accepted it without rejoicing or any subservience. 
Syme, Tacitus, Vol.1,Ch.33
In other words - more or less - Tacitus sometimes (1) oversimplified event chains & causality, (2) got bogged down narrating political stuff, and (3) revealed clearly his own feelings about tyranny... and yet he did NOT propagandize, he did NOT seek to excuse embarrassing things, and he did NOT force his own written account into celebrating pet views (either his own or his subjects')!

That is, for Tacitus, early Imperial Rome simply was what it was. "Rome at the outset [had been] a city state under the government of kings" which soon enough adopted "liberty and the consulate" as permanent institutions, and yet "Dictatorships were always a temporary expedient". Temporary, that is, until Octavian's fellow Triumvirs flamed out, at which point "the sole remedy for his distracted country was government by one man." (Annals 1.1, 9.5)

It seems that being transparent about his own bias actually made Tacitus more free to be fair about things he disliked.

That's a pretty good formula for writing pretty good history.

May there be many more such historians to come...

May 15, 2012

On the US, Gays, and Marriage

This post may not win me a whole lot of friends on either side of the issue, but here goes!

Homosexuality is a sin, not a crime. Let the gays marry. If the social conservatives had compromised on Civil Unions eight years ago they might have claimed the word "marriage" for hetero couples, but all the extra resistance has now successfully entrenched the term, "gay marriage". So there's no point in fighting for words anymore.

More importantly, it's inhuman to keep demonizing subgroups for the sake of preserving one's own religious illusions. Our society at large is not - and has not been for a very long time, if it even was in the first place - Christian.

Let me be very clear. Yes of course the US Constitution should afford equal protection to any same-gendered couples who are of a mind to declare themselves legally married. As I said, the only remaining debate should have been about what to call it, but that's over now and we need to be done with the argument. If you vote, vote for gay marriage. The sooner it happens, the better, for all of us.

Now, with that being said.

The genuinely ethical righteousness of legal justice and political equality should not confuse any believers about questions of sexual morality. No, being gay isn't any worse than being prideful or gluttonous or hetero-lustful, but it's not any better at all, either. But then, Pop American Christendom has been trending towards the excusing of all sorts of sin. It's like we're all trying to tell God, "It's too hard to be good, so c'mon, Big Guy, just let us go with the groove."

I may be wrong, but I think one reason support for gay marriage is growing, particularly among young american christians, is because we're already too accepting of promiscuity and self-indulgence of all kinds. If being gay is the worst sin out there today (which it's not, but you get my point here) then accepting homosexuality is like automatically de-clawing sin. In other words, fighting for gay marriage as a righteous cause helps assuage the conscience of licentious hetero christians. Culturally, at this point, if being gay is 'okay', then so is everything else.

That's why, for any level of social conservatism, the real danger isn't gay marriage. The real danger today is prolonging the debate. The meaner and more inhuman conservatives appear to be, the more liberals will feel righteous and justified... in their own personal sins. That's the twist. More and more, these days, Pop American Christendom is pushing hard towards a Gospel that says "Everything is okay." And it's not. Not by a Jesus-sized longshot.

That last point will be hotly debated, I realize. But not justifiably, imho.

The Jesus of the Gospels was against hate, injustice, hypocrisy, authoritarianism, and sin. You can choose four of those five if you like but then you can't claim that it's christ-like. Now, personally, I confess, I've got no stones to throw. Absolutely none whatsoever. Nevertheless, one of many things Jesus was actually uncomfortably clear about is that God would strongly prefer it if people would live lives of moral righteousness, and for Jesus that definitely included issues of marriage and sexuality, issues on which he consistently took very traditional and conservative positions, no matter how graciously he discussed them.

Jesus would love gays, as he loved prostitutes. Far better than you or I currently love prostitutes, Jesus would love homosexuals. Then again, Jesus' personal celibacy would give him a far better testimony than most of ours, but that's a whole other topic.

Jesus is loving and forgiving, but he would never condone homosexual practice.

The US Government being a whole other entity, I say it's high time to let gay people marry, legally.

Just get this whole debate over with. Please.

May 13, 2012

Augustan Registrations outside Italy

Is there a comprehensive list of these, anywhere? I sure can't find one online. Google keeps giving me bad apologetics sites and a Wikipedia page on Quirinius (sigh).

This reminds me again of a key reason why apologetics can be counterproductive, because their content appears to focus on elucidating the past, but it becomes clear that they only care about "defending the Bible".

Most readers aren't looking for dogmatic justifications so much as a rationally plausible scenario.

Therefore, if your true goal is defending God's Word, you might do best to admit ignorance on this one.
But if you're interested in the historical census of Luke's Gospel, we've discovered Quirinius is Irrelevant

Whether anyone knows it or not...

May 12, 2012

A Classics Bazinga!

In the back of A.H.M. Jones' brief survey on Augustus, among other notes, there appears this bibliographical synopsis. Note especially the last four words (emphasis mine):
The reign of Augustus is very thoroughly covered in the Cambridge Ancient History, vol. X ... Chapters I-IV (W.W.Tarn and M.P. Charlesworth) treat the period 44-30 BC; V-VI (H.Stuart Jones) the constitution; VII-VIII (G.H.Stevenson) the administration and the army; IX (J.G.C. Anderson) the Eastern frontier; X (H.I. Bell) Egypt; XI (A.D. Momigliano) Judaea; XII (R.Syme) the Northern frontiers; XIII (F.Oertel) economic developments; XIV (H. Last) social policy; XV (A.D. Nock) religion; XVI (T.R Glover) literature; XVII (E. Strong) art. There is a final summary by F.E Adcock (XVIII). As might be expected from the authors this is all sound stuff, some of it interesting.

Btw, the CAH X is indeed a sound introduction, and much better for beginners than the Second Edition (1996) which is not a revision but contains totally new material. Also "solid stuff" of course, some of it helpful.

May 6, 2012

on The Avengers

Joss Wheedon's amazing movie obviously championed freedom, but to be more precise, Wheedon's real focus was on exploring the dynamic relationship between freedom and authority.

***** SPOILERS AHEAD *****

Freedom rang out most clearly when the villains were preaching about dominion, from Loki's introductory line in the trailer (You were made to be ruled.) to the after-credits debriefing scene, where the alien says They're unruly, and therefore cannot be ruled. The bad guys are against freedom, so we know the writer/director was for it, but the good guys' illustration of freedom was a lot more complex.

Natasha was tied up, but felt in control of her "interrogation". She then "persuaded" Banner to help S.H.I.E.L.D., though Banner later claimed he was there of his own choice. Speaking of Banner, even self-rule was an obvious work in progress, as it seems to be also with Tony's borderline alcoholism. Speaking of Tony, who kept succeeding repeatedly despite the fact that his controlling nature was constantly undermined, his megalomania ultimately gave way to unavoidable self-sacrifice. (And what could possibly be less free than suddenly realizing that one has to go die?)

The good Captain supported Nick Fury before breaking into his vault, but when Cap stole two of Fury's agents and one of his airships, Cap was actually playing right into Fury's design. Fury argued with his superiors and fought against them when they overruled his insisting. Thor first tried helping his brother, the villain, but that patience helped force him into fighting a war. Barton (Hawkeye) lost his mind magically and was freed from Loki's control only when Black Widow knocked him out cold.

Each protagonist struggled ironically against constraints brought about by their own freely made choices. But each protagonist also found plenty of moments to value the benefits of authority.

Tony told Bruce to take control of the Hulk. (You're tiptoeing.. you need to strut.) Tony told Cap to give them all marching orders, and Cap gave the orders, which they all dutifully obeyed. Hawkeye also gave Tony a suggestion, but it was phrased as a command. Again, Tony immediately followed. As soldiers, Cap, Natasha, Barton and Fury were obviously comfortable with military style chain-of-command. As for Thor, he was pretty free with the commanding tones, even in casual conversation, but the 'thunder god' was actually the most agreeable of them all, pleading with Loki and for Loki, but backing down when Natasha said, "He killed 80 of our best men." (He's adopted.) Perhaps because he truly soared above them all, Thor was self-controlled enough to know that he didn't always have to be "in control".

Perhaps the single best moment to illustrate Wheedon's real theme was the New York City Cop who asked Captain America "Why should I take orders from you?" Just then, two or three aliens interrupted and Cap put them down with a quick and very impressive sequence of moves. Thus, seeing Cap's power, the Cop immediately accepted Cap's authority. This was a powerful encapsulation of Wheedon's thesis for at least two major reasons: (1) the Captain gave him a good reason to follow those orders, but more importantly (2) in that moment Wheedon gave us the right question to ask.

The right question isn't "Should I ever take orders?" or "Should I ever be ruled?"

The right question is, "Why should I take orders from you?"

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