Jerusalem

The Old Testament and the Ancient Near East: A Christian Historian’s View

As a historian, I am struck by how much of the Old Testament consists of historical narrative, over a third of the total (and it’s a big volume!).  On the other hand, I am also surprised at the lack of historical method (as distinct from the methods of textual scholarship or archaeology) applied to these biblical narratives.  It seems that most Old Testament scholars have concluded that there is nothing historical in the text to which historical methods might be applied.  Yet I wonder whether the experts have not too quickly pre-judged the matter (always a dangerous conclusion for a non-expert such as myself to come to).  Indeed, I find myself in the rather unenviable position of distrusting the experts, and this post is an attempt to explain one portion of why I think that is, and to suggest an alternate approach to the issue. (more…)

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The Dating Game: New Testament Edition

Many arguments about the reliability of the New Testament documents hinge on when they were written.  This makes sense: documents written shortly after the events they describe might be reliable, while texts written centuries after everyone described is dead are more likely to be legendary than accurate.  Fortunately, biblical scholars are (almost all) very confident about when the books of the New Testament were written, dating some of them within a year or two.  But should we believe the dates the experts propose?   Some might be inclined to do so based on the greater training of NT scholars, but as a historian, I wish to explore some of the reasons given for the dates, and evaluate for myself how valid those reasons are.  My conclusion from doing so is that we know a lot less about when New Testament documents were written than the scholars claim.  This claim is neither for nor against the truth of the Christian faith as reported in the New Testament; the documents might as easily be older than scholars claim as newer.  It is simply a statement of the lack of evidence, leading to a more humble and open view of the past. (more…)

Did God Command Schism?

The Old Testament books of Kings are filled with wars between the northern kingdom of Israel and the southern kingdom of Judah, and make a strong object lesson of the futility, mutual recrimination, and other spiritual harms caused by schism, as both kingdoms turned away from God, whether to the worship of other gods in the north, or to a mere pretense of worshiping the true God among other gods in the south.  This makes sense.  What makes less sense to me is that the political divide was not an act originating from human pride and rebellious spirit, but in fact commanded by God.  With certain things, I am tempted to ask God what he was thinking.

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Who Were the “Hebrews”?

Biblical scholars like something to argue about, because they are academics, and academics make their living by making arguments.  (I know; I am one.)  And since what is at stake in biblical scholars’ arguments is almost always the question whether the Bible can be trusted, for skeptics who wish not to believe as much as for believers who wish to do so, biblical scholars’ arguments often degenerate into battle lines.  Often, I feel, a little more careful attention to the text may shed some useful light on the subject.

One debate which has intrigued me in the past is the question of the (non-)relation between the Hebrew word “Hebrew” (ʿibri) and the word “Habiru” and its variants in Akkadian and Egyptian.  It seems that some conservatives have argued that Habiru = Hebrews = Israelites, and thus the Ancient Near Eastern texts which mention the Habiru corroborate the biblical accounts of the Israelites.  Against this, some skeptics have argued that the term Habiru is used in contexts where the biblical Hebrews cannot possibly be intended, and sometimes carry non-Semitic names, which these scholars take to indicate that the Habiru were a mixture of Semitic and non-Semitic.

Now, I am not an expert in the Ancient Near East, nor do I read Sumerian, Akkadian, Egyptian hieroglyphics, or any of the other languages, so I can only approach this question from the Hebrew side.  But it seems to me that what the Bible says about Hebrews is not what most people have presumed, and may open the door to a different solution to the relationship between the Hebrews and the Habiru. (more…)

The Argument from (Dis-)Similarity

Will the real Church please stand up?  Go to a phone directory of any moderately sized settlement and see if the listings for “churches” don’t rapidly get bewildering.  Indeed, such an exercise is often an education into varieties of Christianity we didn’t know existed!  How should those who worship Christ sort through this denominational chaos?

One method frequently suggested by Roman Catholics, Eastern Orthodox, and Disciples of Christ (along with a few Baptists, on occasion) is to look at the evidence for early Christianity and see which contemporary denomination is most similar to the churches of the apostles and their successors.  This is the argument from similarity.  I recently read a blog post making this argument against Protestants of all stripes, and a commentator here pressed me to consider the same line of reasoning.  It was not the first time.  I have heard this argument made in favor of multiple different branches of contemporary Christianity.  I like to imagine the question by asking which church would look most familiar to the apostle Peter or any of the other earliest Christians, if he were sent on a time-travel expedition from AD 60 to the present.  I prefer someone else to Jesus for this exercise because Jesus is the God who knows the hearts, and this is usually posed as a question about external appearances. (more…)

Christ’s Donkey

Jesus entered Jerusalem riding on a donkey (Matt 21:1-11), and most commentators have interpreted this as a sign of humility, the contrast between the warhorse of the conqueror Messiah expected by some and the spiritual conqueror that the real Messiah was.  This view is authorized by Zechariah 9:9, which describes the coming Messiah’s humility linked with the choice of a donkey for a steed.  I accept this interpretation, but I wonder whether there might be another dimension.

In particular, when David’s son Adonijah presumed he was the heir apparent and hosted a banquet to announce his kingship, the prophet Nathan and Solomon’s mother Bath Sheba asked David to appoint Solomon his heir instead.  And the way that he was appointed heir was to ride the king’s mule down to the Gihon spring outside the city and back (1 Kings 1:33, 38).  Now, a mule (Hebrew pirdah) is not a donkey (Hebrew ḥamor), but they’re related, and both event required riding into Jerusalem on a non-horse (although Solomon’s also required riding out of the city first).  So I wonder whether, in addition to the humility meaning, there is also a link to Davidic kingship in the Lord’s triumphal entry into Jerusalem on a donkey.

Were you there?

A well-known African American spiritual asks, “Were you there when they crucified my Lord?”  By a series of questions focusing on aspects of the crucifixion, it highlights the horrible suffering that Christ endured, for those who witnessed it and for those who reflect on it even long after the fact.

Of course, the straightforward answer to the question is “no.”  This is not mere flippancy; I don’t know that I would have been there, had I been living in Jerusalem at the time, though the disciples ought to have been there.  If I had been there, it wouldn’t have been as John or Mary; there were others there, too, who expressed their mockery and scorn for Jesus.  On the other hand, I’m always a little uneasy around crowds, so perhaps I wouldn’t have been there.

Around Good Friday, I have sometimes sought to imagine what the experiences of Holy Week would have felt like for those involved.  This year, I thought to wonder where I, or rather my counterpart in that society, might have been.  And in that vein I offer a fictional historical autobiography:

[NB: the anti-semitic attitudes expressed in the following work of fiction accurately represent the hateful views of the Roman oppressors of the Jews; they are in no way my own!]

For a Jew, the guy called Jesus has achieved a certain degree of fame, and some people, when they hear that I lived in Jerusalem under Pontius Pilate, will ask me what really happened then.  It was a bad affair, really, as Pilate found out to his dismay, and I did not wish to get too involved.  I was a newly purchased steward in the household of a centurion, so I was well placed to observe, however.  I remember that it was a busy week.

The thing about Jerusalem, before the pacification by Emperor Titus, was that its population would balloon out shortly before any festival, and this was one such time.  I have no use for such rabble, but Jewish peasants would come from all around Judaea, and some from further afield, even from Rome itself, for their arbitrary festivals.  Every errand took longer, since the streets were clogged with the Jews from all over, and some items could no longer be obtained from the market, I suppose because the visitors had consumed them all.  Festival times were always a test of one’s patience.

They were also a time of high alert for the army, as so many Jews in one place could pose a security risk for the state.  So my lord had more to do, which made him less pleasant to be around.

I had heard of this man named Jesus before the events leading to his death.  He had been to Jerusalem a number of times, and made something of a sensation among the Jews, and even some of us who should have taken no interest in their superstitions were intrigued by the man.  I had seen him from afar, though never heard him, and he seemed a docile enough workman.  I did not expect much trouble from him.

So I was surprised when, while the Jews were converging upon Jerusalem for their festival, this Jesus did a fool stunt and had himself acclaimed king.  I couldn’t really understand what they were saying, as I have never made a study of their Hebrew dialect, but the palm branches and riding over garments in the street were clear enough.  I avoided the commotion, of course, since I am not moved by the force of the mindless crowds, but I heard of it from the other slaves.  This Jesus was playing with fire; perhaps the poor rustic did not know how such a move would appear to our enlightened Emperor, were he to hear of it.  Even so, the whole excitement seemed to fizzle out; Jesus came in, spent some time in their temple (for the Jews had only a single temple, before it was necessary to destroy it), and left the city.  Over the next few days, I am told, he entered and exited the city repeatedly, but he was just debating with the Jewish leaders, which is of no interest, because no threat, to Roman sovereignty.

The next I heard of this Jewish pseudo-king was his trial.  Evidently he had been arrested overnight, and the Jewish authorities were asking for his death.  I was with my lord the centurion at the trial, as it turned out, when Pilate was arguing with the Jewish priests.  He was accused of all kinds of strange things, but they were no concern of anyone other than those Jews.  Curiously, he refused to defend himself, but perhaps he didn’t understand what was being said.  Pilate tried to reach an agreement with the Jewish leaders, to secure the peace, and thus offered torture or scourging rather than an execution.  I said to myself, “the poor blighter,” affecting the imperial accent as well as I could.  But when the crowd started demanding his crucifixion, and the Jewish priests threatened to report to the Emperor that this Jesus claimed to be a king, Pilate found himself in a corner.  Some have called Pilate an incompetent coward, and I am under no compulsion to defend him, but even apart from his incompetence I saw then that this was a bad business from first to last.

Crucifixion is an ugly way to die, and I had no desire to see another.  I am a cultured man, not one of these common barbarians who enjoy mocking the unfortunate.  So from the trial I made my way back to my master’s house and returned to the frustrating work of trying to secure the supplies that were necessary to run the household.  Fortunately the feared revolt did not, then, materialize, and it was not for another generation before it became necessary to enforce the pax romana more completely upon the fractious province of Judaea.

May the Lord have mercy on all of us who, in our busyness, our elitism, and our cowardice, have looked upon the Lord of life with contempt.