There is a mysterious set of words that appears in graffiti, inscriptions, amulets, and other forms all across the ancient Roman world. Commonly known as the Sator Square, it is a Latin palindrome — a phrase that reads the same forward and backward — arranged as a square of five rows and columns, and comprised of five words that are each five letters long. Because it reads the same regardless of which corner and which direction (horizontally or vertically) one reads it in, it is also a two-dimensional palindrome. There’s no consensus regarding its exact meaning and purpose, so that’s what we’ll be looking at in a moment. Here’s what it looks like:
This ancient enigma, normally little more than a footnote in history books, has been thrust into the popular spotlight by the entertainment press¹ due to the upcoming (we hope) July release of a new film by writer-director Christopher Nolan, whose previous body of work includes Memento, Inception, Interstellar, and the Dark Knight trilogy. Nolan’s films often use unconventional, nonlinear storytelling techniques, including nested stories (Inception) and even narratives that proceed backwards (Memento), to explore the elusive nature of reality. We can probably expect another unique perspective on reality in his next movie — called Tenet — which apparently involves espionage and time travel. Continue reading “Magic Squares, Cryptocrosses, and the Upcoming Movie ‘Tenet’”
The story of Joseph stands out in the book of Genesis as a self-contained story with a beginning, middle, and conclusion. Its position in the Pentateuch also makes it a bridge between the stories of the patriarchs in Canaan and the sojourn of the Israelites in Egypt. Differences of style, narrative contradictions, details that don’t line up with the surrounding narrative, and other issues call into question the authorship and original purpose of the story, however. What can we learn from taking a closer look? Continue reading “From Robes to Riches: The Fairytale of Joseph”
The Bible is often difficult to make sense of without the proper conceptual framework. Why is Paul concerned about mysterious angels, principles, powers, forces, and archons in his epistles? Why are interactions with demons at the forefront of Jesus’ ministry in Mark? Why is heaven sometimes described as having different levels? Why does Paul describe people under the law as being enslaved to the elements? What motivated early Christians to worship a heavenly saviour? It’s hard to answer these questions without a detailed understanding of ancient Jewish and Greek cosmology, so I’ve spent a great deal of time reading the best books I can find on the subject. Much of what I learned surprised me; perhaps it will surprise you too.
This article might seem to ramble at first. There are dozens of different threads that need to be explored before we can see the tapestry they produce in Christianity. Continue reading “The Structure of Heaven and Earth: How Ancient Cosmology Shaped Everyone’s Theology”
I don’t usually post articles about website maintenance, but I’ve just added a topical list of almost all the articles I’ve written here over the past four years. You can access it here, and I’ve also added it to the primary menu at the top of this website.
Since Christmas is upon us, I would also like to suggest some topical articles to new readers as well as longtime regulars. My pieces on the nativity stories and genealogies in Matthew and Luke might come in useful for answering questions about the nativity that come up as we enjoy the usual holiday festivities over the coming week.
Merry Christmas to all, and watch for a new article in the coming weeks. You can follow me by all the usual methods — RSS, email, Twitter, and keeping an open browser tab that you refresh every hour.
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Few biblical characters are as obscure as Shamgar ben Anat. To be sure, there are many names that appear just once or twice in the genealogies, but Shamgar is a character whose actions distinguish him within the biblical narrative, and not just a forgotten name on a list. Although he is mentioned in only two verses, he is supposedly one of the judges of Israel who was remembered for a mighty feat in battle. However, I knew practically nothing about him beside the name before I set about writing this article, and I chose him as an experiment to find out how much biblical studies could tell me about such a marginal character. Continue reading “Shamgar Son of Anat and Israel’s Age of Heroes”
Speaking in tongues is one of the strangest behaviours that is regularly practiced in modern Christianity. Is it the initial evidence of a believer’s salvation? A futile charade? A demonic manifestation? A tool for missionary work? All these views and more can be found in the official and unofficial doctrines taught by various churches. For better or worse, tongues and other gifts practiced by charismatics have radically reshaped the religious landscape over the last century. Both defenders and detractors cite the Bible to support their views of the nature and purpose of tongues without coming to agreement. The most extreme views on either side are held by Protestants, while Catholics tend to fall somewhere in the middle. Not surprisingly, the debate is often driven by theological agenda rather than a sober analysis of the Bible or — Heaven forbid — the considerable scientific literature on tongue-speaking. Continue reading “Biblical Tongues and Modern Glossolalia: From Pentecost to Pentecostalism”
Few literary sources about the early religion of Israel are available to us. There is the Old Testament of course, and although many of its stories and traditions are old, the text itself comes to us through redacted manuscripts produced by Judean scribes at a fairly late date. From archaeological evidence and careful analysis of some of the Bible’s earliest passages, scholars have developed a view of early Israel that was much more polytheistic right from its origins than the traditional story would have us believe.
In the early 20th century, a collection of Aramaic papyri discovered in Egypt opened a new window on Israelite religion. They consist of letters, legal documents, and literature written by and for a colony of Israelites and Arameans who were apparently recruited as mercenaries to guard the southern frontier of Egypt at what is now Aswan. Dated to the fifth century BCE, these papyri are far older than any biblical manuscripts we possess, and unlike the Bible, they are original documents with no opportunity for editing and revision over the centuries. Although Yahweh is frequently mentioned in the form “Yaho” (YHW or occasionally YHH), the letters also mention the god Bethel and the goddesses Anat-Bethel (i.e. Anat consort of Bethel), Anat-Yaho, and the Queen of Heaven in association with people who are clearly Israelites. There seems to be a clear implication that these were other deities venerated by at least some Jews and Israelites. Can we find other evidence that such was the case? For this article, I am particularly interested in Bethel, but others may occasionally come into the picture. Continue reading “Bethel, the Forgotten God of Israel”
Like the climax of a novel, Paul’s sea voyage and subsequent shipwreck as a prisoner of the Roman centurion bring an exciting conclusion to Acts of the Apostles — a book that purports to tell a sweeping story of the church’s beginnings. To be sure, not a few Bible scholars past and present have regarded much of Acts as a fictionalized (or at least heavily embellished) account of the early church, and the final report of the Acts Seminar — a group of Bible scholars and historians that met regularly for ten years to share research on Acts — supports that conclusion.
The sea voyage and shipwreck story of Acts 27, however, has long impressed readers with its attention to geographic and nautical detail. Even leading Acts scholar Richard Pervo, who devotes two chapters specifically to historical problems in his book The Mystery of Acts, describes the sea voyage as “vivid and apparently accurate” (p. 137). That is not to say he regards it as a historical event, since he elsewhere categorizes it as a “miracle story” (p. 110), but rather, that no obvious inaccuracies stand out.
Leaving aside the issue of Acts’s overall historicity, I thought I would take a closer look at this particular story and see how plausible the shipwreck tale is. Despite the limitations of my meager nautical knowledge and the historical resources available, it’s been an interesting study. Furthermore, it has shown me (yet again) that historical concerns often lead us astray from what the text is actually trying to say. Continue reading “On the Plausibility and Purpose of Paul’s Sea Voyage in Acts 27”
The ghost of Caesar hath appear’d to me
Two several times by night: at Sardis, once;
And, this last night, here in Philippi fields.
I know, my hour is come.
(William Shakespeare, Julius Caesar, act 5, scene 5)
It’s several days late, but one of my readers suggested a Halloween-themed article, so I decided to put the other one I was working on aside and take a look at the story of Saul and his visit to the so-called “Witch” of Endor in 1 Samuel 28 in order to summon the spirit of the prophet Samuel from the grave. There is no other story in the Bible like it, and the text poses one or two enigmas that scholars fail to agree on. Let’s take a look. Continue reading “Spooky Tales from the Bible: The Necromancer of Endor”
“Why did the people in Genesis live to be hundreds of years old?” is a question that surely everyone who ever took the Bible seriously has asked. Those who have moved on from their childhood (or childish) adherence to a literal interpretation of Genesis are still generally curious about the ages and if there is any symbolism to the numbers that the Bible records with such tedious exactitude.
Some of the typical answers provided by biblical scholars are less than satisfying, and the fact is that most of the numbers themselves may simply be meaningless on their own. However, some odd facts concerning the ages of the patriarchs have recently been analyzed in biblical studies journals, adding to our knowledge of the Bible’s composition history in the process. There are two issues of particular interest: the numbers in the genealogies taken as a whole, and a problem introduced by the Flood story, which required some tampering with the genealogies by the Bible’s editors. Continue reading “Some Curious Numerical Facts about the Ages of the Patriarchs”