Jesus of History vs Jesus of Tradition

In the current issue of Biblical Archaeology Review, they provide one of their article free online.  You can read the article here.  The article, an interview with Sean Freyne, is very interesting.  I appreciated the insight that archaeology has provided in understanding what first century Galilee was like.  I definitely disagree with some of what he says.  I see no reason why Jesus was not born in Bethlehem.  I also do not think that the Greek myths have anything to do with the virgin birth.  Finally, I think he way off the mark on the resurrection.  His explanation of the resurrection of Jesus does not come close to explaining how Christianity started or the radical transformation of former skeptics like James and Paul.  I appreciate Freyne’s archaeology much more than his theology.  Still, it is an interesting article.

Biblical Archaeology Review

The September/October 2010 issue of Biblical Archaeology Review is out.  The main articles are:

“Achziz Cemetaries: Buried Treasure from Israel’s Phoenician Neighbor” by Eilat Mazar

“Did the Ancient Israelites Drink Beer?” by Michael M. Homan

“Queen of the Philistines: BAR Interviews Trude Dothan”

“The Fault Beneath Their Feet: How the Israelites Found Water Inside Hazor” by Ram Weinberger, Amihai and Eyal Shalev

Biblical Archaeology Review

The July/August issue of Biblical Archaeology Review is now out.  The main articles are:

“Jezreel – Where Jezebel Was Thrown to the Dogs” by David Ussishkin

“The Nash Papyrus – Preview of Coming Attractions” by Marvin A. Sweeney

“From Vespa to Ashkelon: BAR Interviews Lawrence Stager”

“The Destruction of Pompeii – God’s Revenge?” by Hershel Shanks

There are also web articles always available at their web-site: www.biblicalarchaeology.org.

Biblical Archaeology Review

I just finished reading the May/June 2010 issue of Biblical Archaeology Review.  The feature articles were:

Godfearers in the City of Love by Angelos Chaniotis

Escape Clause

The Devil Is Not So Black as He is Painted (An interview with Israel Finkelstein)

The Dig-for-a-Day Experience by Suzanne F. Singer

Volunteers Find Missing Pieces to Looted Inscription by Dorothy D. Resig

What is Ancient Judaism?

Most of us take the phrase “Judaism” for granted, even in its ancient setting.  Josephus scholar Steve Mason had a very interesting article on what the word “Judaism” really means in the latest issue of Biblical Archaeology Review.  You can read the article here.  I found it quite fascinating.

Secret Gospel of Mark

One of the most controversial discoveries in the area of early Christianity is the Secret Gospel of Mark by Morton Smith.  Smith claimed that was an authentic citation of the Secret Gospel of Mark and a previously unknown letter by Clement.  Others have claimed that it is a forgery.  I tend toward believing that it is a forgery, not necessarily by Smith, but at least by whoever put it in the book from which Smith discovered it.  The Biblical Archaeology Society has provided a nice translation for people to check out and judge for themselves.  You can find the translation for the Secret Gospel of Mark here.  They also have a good free article on the “discovery” of the Secret Gospel of Mark that you can find here.

Christ as Orpheus

There are a number of people who have come to the conclusion that not only did Jesus not exist, the story we do have in the Gospels is based completely on pagan myths.  There are a number of god-men that offered as options and one of them is Orpheus.  It does not help that there seems to have been some sort of early Christian building that had a mosaic of Orpheus as a picture of Christ.  Jas Elsner in the March/April 2009 issue of Biblical Archaeology Review does a good job of disproving the theory that Orpheus is used as a type of Christ or that the myth had anything to do with the Christian story.  Elsner concludes:

For more than a century since the discovery of the Orpheus in the Jerusalem mosaic, he has been playing his music to a series of chimeras created by unproven and unprovable scholarly fantasies, and he has masqueraded for longer than he deserves under the name of Jesus.  It is simpler and more economical to assume that the figure was made to be Orpheus when he was originally laid out on a floor of elegant late-antique Hellenism, whose imagery would not have been repugnant to the probably Christian but potentially Jewish patrons and users of the room over whose floor he presided.

Elsner also does a good job of dealing with some of the parallels in art between Gospel stories and pagan myths.  There are paintings of the three magi from Matthew wearing clothes similar to Mithras because of the common Persian connection.  That does not mean the story of the magi comes from Mithras (despite what Peter Gandy says) but that the artists drew on the Persian styles they knew from Mithraism.  Elsner pokes a lot of holes in the theories of dependence by the Jesus Myth people.  You can purchase the full article by Elsner here.

Responding to the Gabriel Stone

An article in the New York Timesrecently caused a stir as the discovery of the Gabriel Stone (it was actually discovered about eight years ago) has led some to suggest that it is a pre-Christian example of a messiah who dies and rises on the third day.  This has had number of responses from both critics and believers.  If this is true, it could demonstrate that Jesus’ death and resurrection were indeed a part of the Jewish messianic expectation and that it makes the New Testament more credible.  On the other hand, it could suggest that it was a Jewish tradition and that when the Gospelwriters were creating the story of Jesus, they based the death and resurrection on this already existing tradition.  Israel Knohl, the scholar who has been making the headlines over this find, argues that it does demonstrate the existence of this expectation and that this more firmly places Jesus in his Jewish context.  At the same time, we must remember that in 2000 Knohl wrote a book about Jewish expectations of a suffering messiah and so he was already thinking in these terms before this was made public.  However, we cannot dismiss his claims based on his bias (we are all biased).  Let us look at the evidence.

The Biblical Archaeology Societyhas the text of this stone available online in both Hebrew and English.  BAS also has an article online that you can read here.  The key part of the text is this:

69. Thus He said, (namely,) YHWHof Hosts, the Lord of Israel …:
70. Prophets have I sent to my people, three. And I say
71. that I have seen …[…]…
72. the place for the sake of(?) David the servant of YHWH[ …]…[…]
73. the heaven and the earth. Blessed be …[…]
74. men(?). “Showing mercy unto thousands”, … mercy […].

75. Three shepherds went out to?/of? Israel …[…]

76. If there is a priest, if there are sons of saints …[…]
77. Who am I(?), I (am?) Gabri’el the …(=angel?)… […]
78. You(?) will save them, …[…]…
79. from before You, the three si[gn]s(?), three …[….]
80. In three days …, I, Gabri’el …[?],
81. the Prince of Princes, …, narrow holes(?) …[…]…
82. to/for … […]… and the …
83. to me(?), out of three – the small one, whom(?) I took, I, Gabri’el.
84. YHWHof Hosts, the Lord of(?)[ Israel …]…[….]
85. Then you will stand …[…]…
86. …\
87. in(?) … eternity(?)/… \

Now most people would be confused as to where this death and resurrection is.  In line 80, Israel Knohl claims to be able to see the Hebrew imperative for ‘live’ – hayeh.  However, the fact that this word does not appear in the current transcripts of the text tells us that this is far from certain.  What about the reference to ‘stand’ in line 85?  That word does not have to mean resurrection and could simply be a reference to standing in the face of opposition. 

Now resurrection does not appear very often in the Hebrew Bible (Old Testament).  One of the few passages is Isaiah 26:19 which has two Hebrew words in paralleland yet neither of these words appear in the Gabriel Stone (although the NIV has ‘live’ in this verse, the Hebrew is better translated ‘awake’).  The other passage is Daniel 12:2.  This passage has the same word that appears in Isaiah 26:19, quwts which means ‘awake.’  It seems as if the preferred Hebrew term for resurrection is not ‘live’ (which may not be in the Gabriel Stone anyway) or ‘stand’ but rather ‘awake’ (which does not appear in the Gabriel Stone).

There is another reason to suggest that this is not evidence of a tradition of a three day resurrection.  If you notice in this passage and the text as a whole, that the number three is very important and appears often.  If the person described here does rise on the third day, the only reason for this is that everything happens in threes.  The point is that all that takes place is under God’s direction and control as demonstrated by the threes.  The number three does not play the same role in the Gospels.  Jesus has an inner core of Peter, James and John, but no big deal is made of that as the traditional three.  Twelve is still a much more important number than three in the Gospels.

Finally, we have to ask how likely is it that this text could have influenced the Gospel writers?  This reminds me of claims that some obscure inscription in a long lost pyramid is the key to understanding the New Testament.  Even if there was a parallel (and there usually is not), it does not matter if that inscription was not available to the biblical writers.  What are the chances that the Gabriel Stone was known to the Gospel writers?  Unlike other non-biblical texts such as 1 Enoch and other examples from the Pseudepigrapha, we do not have evidence of this being a popular text in the first century.  This is the first we have heard of it and it is very possible that it was forgotten as soon as it was written. 

The excitement about the Gabriel Stone is another example of people getting worked up about something that is not that important.  Yes, it may help us to understand some of the Jewish culture and beliefs at the turn of the century but it is by no means the “first draft” of the Gospel of Jesus.  In all likelihood it has nothing to do with the resurrection and probably the Gospel writers had never heard of the Gabriel Stone.