Know Your Herods: A Guide to the Rulers of Palestine in the New Testament

 

This article is a bit of a departure from what I usually write. It’s less about biblical studies, and more of a brief history lesson. I’ve always found the various references to “king Herod” and other Judaean rulers in the Gospels and Acts to be somewhat confusing — and, truth be told, the scheming Herodian royal family makes for a fascinating historical study. So read on if you’re interested in the Herodian dynasty and their place in history and scripture. (And if that doesn’t interest you, maybe the section on historical deaths by worms will.) For the purposes of this article, I will limit myself to individuals mentioned directly in the Bible.

In the process of doing this research, I also made a Herodian family tree for my own use. I share it below with the caveat that it is somewhat incomplete, especially where source references are concerned.

The Herodian Family Tree

Continue reading “Know Your Herods: A Guide to the Rulers of Palestine in the New Testament”

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Gog and Magog: Israel’s Mysterious Northern Foes

Like many children raised in an Evangelical, charismatic church environment in the 80s, I was surrounded by a simmering fervour regarding the End Times and the Rapture, which we were constantly reminded could happen at any time. And like so many Christian households of that era, our bookshelf held a copy of Hal Lindsey’s The Late, Great Planet Earth¹, which warned of a looming world war that had been foretold in the Bible. When we visited certain friends of my parents, the grown-up conversation would inevitably turn to current events and biblical prophecy, and my curious ears always perked up. I also remember my first encounter with the extremely lucrative End Times media industry — an episode of Jack Van Impe Presents — which left a lasting impression on me. Host Jack Van Impe would quote snippets from Ezekiel, Daniel, and Revelation in rapid fire, showing how they all described the coming apocalyptic war against Israel. Even the identities of the participants were helpfully provided by the Bible, Jack assured his viewers; Russia would be the main aggressor, leading a coalition of such diverse nations as Iran, Germany, Egypt, and Ethiopia against Israel and her Western allies. To reach this undeniable conclusion, one simply needed to convert the names provided by Ezekiel — Magog, Meshech, Tubal, Gomer, etc. — into their modern equivalents. Welcome to modern dispensationalism. Continue reading “Gog and Magog: Israel’s Mysterious Northern Foes”

The Roots of the Eucharist, Christianity’s Oldest Ritual

Every Sunday, Christians around the world (and sometimes even in space) consume small amounts of bread and wine as part of an ancient ritual shared by nearly all denominations1, though the details and theological significance may vary. Catholic, Orthodox, and Anglican churches call this ceremony the Eucharist, from the Greek eucharistia, meaning “thanksgiving”. To Catholic and Orthodox believers, the bread and wine become the actual body and blood of Christ, and consuming them plays a direct role in the believer’s salvation. By contrast, evangelical Protestants (who are likely to use grape juice instead of wine) call the ritual “Communion” and see it as merely a symbolic remembrance of the crucifixion. Anglicans and traditional Protestants fall somewhere in between.

Even in the early years of Christianity, there was diversity in the ritual’s liturgy and symbolism. The traditional conception of the Eucharist as a rite taught by Jesus himself to the disciples, preserved in the New Testament, and transmitted faithfully from generation to generation runs into problems when the evidence is examined closely. In the past, scholarship naively assumed an over-simplified view of the ritual’s origins and the homogeneity of early Christian practices. (König 123) In the twenty-first century, however, the views of scholars have changed remarkably thanks in part to fruitful comparisons with the Greco-Roman practices of the early Christian era. Continue reading “The Roots of the Eucharist, Christianity’s Oldest Ritual”

Luke’s Surprising and Oft-Ignored Views on Marriage and Resurrection

A few weeks ago, Stewart Felker wrote an article about what he suggests may be “the true most embarrassing verses in the Bible” — quoting a remark famously made by C.S. Lewis regarding Mark 13:30 (“This generation will not pass away until all these things have taken place”). What Felker has in mind, though, is a statement by Jesus about marriage and the afterlife found in Luke. In fact, when I first saw him mention it in an online discussion, I almost didn’t believe it was actually in the Bible.

The remark occurs in a well-known Synoptic pericope. To understand it, we should look at Mark’s version first. The context, chapter 12, is a loosely-connected series of sermons and other opportunities for Jesus to dispense wisdom. In vv. 18–27, some Sadducees, “who say there is no resurrection,” pose a trick question to Jesus, perhaps in the hopes of discrediting him and the Pharisaic belief in a resurrection.

The scenario they pose is one in which a widow ends up marrying seven brothers in succession due to the Mosaic law on levirate marriage. Since polyandry is not allowed in Judaism, these Sadducees demand to know which of the brothers would be married to her in the resurrection (afterlife). Continue reading “Luke’s Surprising and Oft-Ignored Views on Marriage and Resurrection”

Did Mark Invent the Sea of Galilee?

Most of Mark’s Gospel prior to the passion narrative revolves around a body of water the author calls the Sea of Galilee. It is the geographical focal point where Jesus calls his disciples, preaches to the crowds, travels (by boat), and performs his miracles — including many that involve the sea itself. It is a dangerous body of water whose raging waves must be quelled by Jesus on one occasion to save his shipmates.

There is, in fact, no “sea” in the Galilee region of Palestine. There is a lake in the right location that matches the geographical description of Mark’s sea in many (thought not all) respects. But no ancient writer prior to Mark ever mentions a body of water called the Sea of Galilee, and some of the reasons Mark gives the sea such a prominent role are often overlooked. Continue reading “Did Mark Invent the Sea of Galilee?”

The Story of Balaam: How Biblical Tradition Turned a Prophet of God into an Arch-Heretic

In 1967, inscriptions written on a crumbled plaster wall were discovered during the excavation of Tell Deir ‘Alla in Jordan. Dated to the early 8th century BCE and written in a local Canaanite dialect, the inscriptions drew great attention when their title, written in red ink, was translated and found to say “Text of Balaam son of Beor, seer of the gods.” This remarkable find provided independent attestation of local tradition about a seer named Balaam who was already well-known to us from the Bible, and deciphering the fragmentary texts has been an ongoing task of archaeologists and linguistic experts since then.

The biblical Balaam passages are not without their own difficulties. The main story of Balaam in Numbers 22–24 is contradicted by other brief references in Numbers, Deuteronomy, and Joshua, as well as three mentions of him in the New Testament. The importance of Balaam to the development of Christian theology is also remarkable, as we shall see once we untangle the development of the Balaam legend. Continue reading “The Story of Balaam: How Biblical Tradition Turned a Prophet of God into an Arch-Heretic”

Jesus the Shapeshifter in Early Christian Tradition

What did Jesus look like? That’s a question that no book in the New Testament seems interested in answering. Growing up around illustrated Bibles and Sunday school flannelgraphs that depicted the Saviour as a tall, handsome, bearded Caucasian figure with wavy, chestnut locks, it never occurred to me that the Gospels were devoid of any physical description.

Let’s consider some texts about other characters from the ancient Greco-Roman world. Here is how the appearance of Aesop is described in Life of Aesop:

He was truly horrible to behold: worthless, pot-bellied, slant-headed, snub-nosed, hunchbacked, leather-skinned, club-footed, knock-kneed, short-armed, sleepy-eyed, bushy-lipped – in short, an absolute miscreant.

Though the actual existence of Aesop is dubious, character descriptions are an important part of a biographical text¹, and the appearance of Aesop helps convey his character as a “mad wise man”.

Diogenes Laertius describes Zeno, the founder of Stoicism, as follows in his Lives of the Eminent Philosophers:

Zeno…had a wry neck, says Timotheus of Athens in his book On Lives. Moreover, Apollonius of Tyre says he was lean, fairly tall, and swarthy—hence some one called him an Egyptian vine-branch, according to Chrysippus in the first book of his Proverbs. He had thick legs; he was flabby and delicate. Hence Persaeus in his Convivial Reminiscences relates that he declined most invitations to dinner. They say he was fond of eating green figs and of basking in the sun.

Alexander the Great is described thusly in Plutarch’s Life of Alexander:

The statues that gave the best representation of Alexander’s person were those of Lysippus…, those peculiarities which many of his successors afterwards and his friends used to affect to imitate, the inclination of his head a little on one side towards his left shoulder, and his melting eye, having been expressed by this artist with great exactness. But Apelles, who drew him with thunderbolts in his hand, made his complexion browner and darker than it was naturally; for he was fair and of a light colour, passing into ruddiness in his face and upon his breast.

Perhaps the closest thing we get to a character description in the Gospels is Matthew’s introduction of John the Baptist:

Now John wore clothing of camel’s hair with a leather belt around his waist, and his food was locusts and wild honey. (Matt. 3:4)

However, there are certain Gospel passages related to Jesus’ appearance that fostered an interesting belief among early Christians: Jesus was a shapeshifter. Continue reading “Jesus the Shapeshifter in Early Christian Tradition”

Is the Parable of the Rich Man and Lazarus a Fable about the Afterlife?

Luke’s parable of the Rich Man and Lazarus is remarkable for several reasons. It is the only Gospel parable in which a character is named. It seemingly has no parallel in the other Synoptics. It is often thought to be based on a pagan folktale. And it presents a view of the afterlife that is utterly unique in the Bible.

Figuring out the author’s intent with this parable has been a challenge, and many differing opinions have been offered. I’d like to look at some of the sources Luke may have drawn upon, and what message I think the parable is intended to convey. There are also some connections with the other Gospels that might get overlooked by most readers. Continue reading “Is the Parable of the Rich Man and Lazarus a Fable about the Afterlife?”

Luke’s Nativity Story, Critically Examined

The nativity of Jesus is such a beloved tale, it’s hard to read it critically without feeling a twinge of guilt, as though I am betraying something sacred and magical in my desire to see where the story comes from and how it’s put together. And yet, it’s not the text itself I defy by scrutinizing the Bible, so much as the myth our culture has created in place of what the text actually says.

When I wrote about Matthew’s nativity story a year ago, I tried to emphasize that, despite its reverence for the Bible, Christianity shows remarkable disregard for the actual details as written. Whether we admit it or not, it is clear from our actions that we understand the Christmas story as a malleable, adaptable legend and not as a fixed historical event.

Purely by coincidence, the nearby preschool my two boys attend here in Japan is a Christian institution, and their annual Christmas recital always includes a nativity play, acted out by the oldest class. This year’s performance was a blend of the stories found in Matthew and Luke, with elements freely modified or omitted as the director saw fit. King Herod — played by my six-year-old, who wore a golden crown obviously modeled after the British crown jewels, Anglican cross included (what a wonderful anachronism!) — heard about the messiah’s birth before the magi ever arrived. No slaughter of innocents was shown, and the family of Jesus had no need to flee to Egypt. The angels sang, and everyone lived happily ever after.

Of course, the Bible tells no story resembling this or any other church nativity play I’ve ever seen. Matthew’s story of the star, the magi, and the flight to Egypt is entirely different from Luke’s tale, which I’m looking at in detail today. Once again, I am indebted to the writings of David Friedrich Strauss — one of the first Protestant theologians to read the Gospels critically — and the renowned Catholic scholar Raymond E. Brown. Continue reading “Luke’s Nativity Story, Critically Examined”

The Development of the Lord’s Prayer

It’s time for another look at the Synoptic Problem. This time I’m interested in a very well-known piece of text called the Lord’s Prayer or Pater Noster, which is how it begins in the liturgical Latin version.

Recitation of the Lord’s Prayer from the King James Bible was a daily ritual at my childhood school, so it is something I know by heart like perhaps the majority of Christians over the past two thousand years. It is precisely this familiarity that makes the textual development of the prayer difficult to analyze, since scribes had a strong tendency to correct the version in front of them with the version they knew from memory. Thus, the version we find in Luke 11 of the late Greek Textus Receptus — and in English versions that are based on this text, like the King James — is nearly identical to that found in Matthew 6. But it was not always so. Continue reading “The Development of the Lord’s Prayer”