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. Read More »

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.Read More »

The Day the Sun Stood Still: Interpreting the Miracle of Joshua 10

Joshua 10 has one of the most remarkable miracle stories in the whole of the Old Testament  outside the opening chapters of Genesis. Fresh off of victories at Jericho and Ai, Joshua’s Israelite army faces down a coalition of five Amorite kings; victory is swift, and with the enemy on the run, Joshua commands the sun and moon to stop moving, apparently in order to give the Israelites more time to pursue and slaughter the Amorites. So great is this feat that the narrator exuberantly declares, “there has been no day like it before or since!” and the chapter eventually ends with Israel in firm control of the Judahite heartland.

This passage, sometimes referred to as Joshua’s Long Day, is a puzzler. Exactly what kind of miracle is supposed to have occurred here? What traditions is the author working with? Answering these questions has proven quite difficult, since voluminous books and papers have been written on Joshua 10, and there is a remarkable diversity of opinions on every facet of the story among biblical scholars.

The passage is also interesting for its role in the debate between science and religion that has embroiled theologians, church authorities, and other interested parties since the time of Galileo and Copernicus. Even today, the interpretations given by those with a more conservative perspective reveal much about the thinking of modern biblical literalists.Read More »

The Tower of Babel: Did It Exist, and What Does the Story Mean?

The Tower of Babel is another biblical story that will be familiar to anyone with a typical Western religious upbringing. Like many of the narrative snippets found in the first eleven chapters of Genesis (the Primeval History), its brevity and ambiguous wording have led interpreters to fill in the gaps in all sorts of ways in order to squeeze meaning out of it.

As we read the text, there are a number of interesting questions we can ask. Was the Tower of Babel based on a real building? What message is the text trying to convey, both on its own and in context?

I’m also interested in the story’s application to the modern creationist movement. How much attention does the Tower of Babel get in the science-religion debate compared to the Genesis stories of creation and Noah’s flood?Read More »

Princes of Darkness: The Devil’s Many Faces in Scripture and Tradition

Belief in Satan — the embodiment of sin and evil who exists in reality as a personal being — has been a mainstay of Christian doctrine and popular belief since the earliest days of the faith. As with most Christian theology, however, there is great diversity in the church’s teachings on the devil, both past and present. Most Christians assume that the qualities commonly attributed to Satan are derived from clear and straightforward readings of the Bible, but are they really?Read More »

Matthew’s Nativity Story, Critically Examined

Another Christmas has come and gone, and it is a time of year when one Bible story stands out above all else—the nativity of Jesus. Despite the deep reverence Christians have for this story, many (perhaps most) are aware at some level that the ubiquitous scene with the shepherds, the three magi, the star and the stable full of animals is an idealized fairytale version. As a mythologized tradition, it exists in numerous cultural variations—those from Naples may include taverns and merchants, for example, while Catalan nativity scenes always include a character who is defecating (!), called the “Caganer”. The Bible itself tells two separate tales of Jesus’ birth (one in Matthew and one in Luke), and neither of them presents an account that resembles the modern nativity portrayal. Nor, for that matter, can the two accounts be merged into a single, consistent narrative without altering or omitting numerous critical details. Then again, few people care really look that closely at the biblical texts and their background. The crèche, though not faithful to any biblical story or historical reality, is a powerful vignette full of symbolic elements that combine to create a sense of mystery and awe. In many ways, it has superseded the Gospels as the canonical representation of Jesus’ birth in the minds of believers.Read More »

Exodus and the Plagues of Egypt

With Ridley Scott’s new motion picture Exodus: Gods and Kings nearing its release date of December 12, I thought the Exodus would make a good topic for analysis. The tale of Moses, the ten (or so) plagues, and the Israelites’ flight from Egypt is in many ways the climax of the Pentateuch’s narrative arc — a Bible story that defines the nation of Israel and the most important figure in Judaism, Moses.

Investigation of the book of Exodus could fill (and has filled) innumerable articles and books, but even a fairly cursory look at the story of the plagues reveals tantalizing details and odd inconsistencies that imply a rich and complex history of authorship and revision.Read More »

Readers of the Lost Ark: Following the Literary Trail of an Ancient Religious Symbol

There is probably no artifact in the Bible more famous than the Ark of the Covenant — or, to use its fullest and most ancient title, the “Ark of Yahweh Sabaoth Who Sits Enthroned upon the Cherubim”.¹ When we look at what the Bible actually says about it, we find strange tales of the Ark’s dangerous powers, conflicting stories of its construction, contradictions about its contents, and a puzzling silence about its fate. If we dig deep enough, we even find signs of alternate traditions that have been erased by later biblical editors. A thorough look at all these passages would easily fill a book, but a few issues in particular have caught my attention lately.Read More »

The Book of Enoch as the Background to 1 Peter, 2 Peter, and Jude

Although the quotation of 1 Enoch in Jude 14–15 is often noted, the complex dependencies between 1 Enoch, Jude, and the Petrine epistles, as well as the general importance of the theology of 1 Enoch in the New Testament, often go under-appreciated. Taking a closer look at these books provides some insight into how early Christian authors adapted each others’ work and drew upon texts that were ultimately omitted from the Bible. The relationship between these books might also pose a problem for some conservative theologians and clergy who believe the Catholic epistles to be inerrant, but not earlier works like 1 Enoch.Read More »