Bethel, the Forgotten God of Israel

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”

What’s the Deal with Matthew’s Genealogy?

For most Christians who read the Bible casually or devotionally, Matthew’s genealogy — the very first chapter of the New Testament — is one of the dullest passages in all of Scripture. It was a tremendously important passage for the author and his audience, however; and for me, it is an incredibly fascinating window into the author’s methods and who he thought Jesus was. It also contains numerous puzzles — some more easily solved than others. What’s so interesting about this long list of begats? Read on and find out more than you probably ever wanted to know. Continue reading “What’s the Deal with Matthew’s Genealogy?”

The Twelve (or So) Tribes of Israel

The identity of Israel in the Bible is closely linked to the notion that the ancient nation was an alliance of twelve distinct tribes, each with its own territory. Reading the Old Testament in its canonical order, we encounter tales about Jacob the patriarch and his twelve sons who all moved to Egypt. Their descendants are depicted as remaining divided into distinct clans, which would later journey to Palestine, carve up the land, and then conquer their allotted portions.

History is not so simple, however, and neither are the traditions we find in the Bible itself. Not all biblical authors were aware of this storybook picture of Israel’s tribes, and many of the text’s later claims are rooted as much — or more so — in theology and politics as in history. Themes that have captured the imagination of exegetes for millennia, like the myth of the “lost tribes of Israel”, take on new significance when examined closely. Continue reading “The Twelve (or So) Tribes of Israel”

Some Observations on High Priests in the Gospels and Acts

Jesus before Caiaphas

The high priest, the Sanhedrin, and the Roman administration play an important part of Jesus’ trial and execution in the Gospels. Jesus’ trial thus provides the somewhat rare opportunity for known figures from history to be mentioned. There are some oddities when it comes to the key role of the Jerusalem high priest, however. Let’s take a look at who is cast in this role in the four Gospels as well as Acts. Continue reading “Some Observations on High Priests in the Gospels and Acts”