Monthly Archives: February 2009

Jesus the Exile

Exile – Matthew 2:12-23

The Adult Bible Class of Home Moravian Church, originally broadcast Feb. 22, 2009.

Introduction:            Good morning and welcome to the Adult Bible Class. I hope it was a good week for you and those you love. Many of us are enjoying the basketball season, although it does cut into sleep at times. When we’re not watching UNC, Wake, and Duke on TV, I’ve been reading P. G. Wodehouse in the evenings to the family. We enjoyed reading about the adventures of Jeeves and Bertie Wooster in the car on vacation last summer, and had begun to miss them. I’m afraid that my accents for the different characters roam over much of the old British Empire, but for some reason I have the hardest time speaking like a visitor from New York. Rather than sounding like an upper crust lady, I sound like a guy ordering a bagel at Penn Station. Still it is fun to try to give voice to people like Bobbie Wickham, “the vermillion-haired menace to the common weal.” My daughter used that phrase on a red-haired friend of hers who is now studying in England. I’ll give a very long distance shout out to Laura. My students at Wake Forest have laden me with papers, which must be graded today. They seem to think they are the ones who are doing all of the work in my class.

Today is the last Sunday in Epiphany and it is the feast of the transfiguration of Jesus. This will be the last week in our study of the birth narratives of Jesus, and I’m afraid that the passage we are reading today provides a grim contrast to the glorious vision of the transfiguration in the lectionary. I’ll be preaching on that topic at Fries Memorial church right after this broadcast. Despite the apparent contradiction between Jesus’ exile and his transfiguration, there is a connection between these texts. Our lectionary text is about Jesus being revealed as in divine glory on Mount Hermon, which is a theophany or an epiphany for the disciples. The lesson for today is about King Herod’s response to the appearance of the Messiah, and it foreshadows the passion story.

Keep in mind when you listen to the gospel in church this morning that the story of Jesus’ transfiguration is sandwiched between two predictions of his suffering. In other words, the revelation of Jesus as the Son of God is intimately connected with the rejection of Jesus by those in power. The passage we are studying today is harsh, and I know it can be disturbing. Many of you have been saddened by deaths of friends and family in the past week. Some of you also know the almost unbearable grief of having lost a child. Our prayers are with you, and we hope that unlike Rachel, you may comforted. People often ask me how I can believe in God when death is such a hard reality, and all I know to say is that it is God who wipes every tear from our eyes and gives me hope to face the pain of living. In fact, let us attend to the gospel.

Read: Matt 2:13-23

This is a famous story and has been the subject of some very graphic religious art through the centuries, but it presents a number of problems for modern historians. This story is not read much in churches today, but that is not because of questions about its historicity. It appears in the lectionary every third year on the Sunday after Christmas, which is one of the least attended Sundays in the year. It is very rare that Christmas pageants end with this story because it is so tragic and brutal. Who wants to explain what happened to the children born around the same time as Jesus? This is hardly the subject for a Christmas special. Who wants to think about Rachael weeping for her children while hanging stockings by the chimney? We do not like Bible stories that are “downers,” but this little story has important lessons for Christians to ponder today, and perhaps it is good that we are reading it just before Lent.

History or Literature?            Many biblical scholars suspect that Matthew took two different stories and tried to work them into a single narrative. One story was about Magi from the east coming to worship the king of the Jews. The other story was about Herod trying to kill the Messiah in Bethlehem. Each story is plausible separately, but there are difficulties when we put them together. If the Magi told Herod exactly when the star appeared, why did he not know how old the baby was? If Herod was so worried by the news brought by the Magi, why didn’t he just send along a body guard with them to Bethlehem to see which child they identified as the messiah? If the star was guiding the Magi, why did they need to stop in Jerusalem to ask directions? If a group of men in foreign robes brought fabulous gifts to a house in Bethlehem, wouldn’t you expect someone to remember which house it was and point it out to the soldiers rather than having them kill everyone?

We could go on with such observations, and attempt to solve these riddles, but that would only distract us from exploring the real meaning of this story. It appears that Matthew was indeed working from older stories passed down by oral tradition, and that he assembled them this way to emphasize the fact that people responded to the good news of the birth of the Messiah in radically different ways. In other words, those scholars who think Matthew simply made this story up are probably wrong, but that does not mean that the story he tells is historically reliable. One fact in particular that has long troubled biblical scholars is that one has found any solid evidence that King Herod ever slaughtered infants in Bethlehem. There is nothing recorded in Jewish or Roman sources about such an atrocity, nor is it mentioned in the other gospels. Many scholars think it is impossible that something this horrible could have happened and it not be noted, but the sad truth about history is that so many crimes go unrecorded.

Herod:            Most of what we know about the reign of Herod the Great comes from a single author, Josephus. He provides a great deal of information about Herod and his rise to power, but his account of Herod is often contradictory. Despite the breadth of Josephus’ histories, it is unlikely that he knew all of Herod’s deeds. Even in our modern time investigators discover atrocities that went unrecorded at the time they were committed. We are still uncovering mass graves in Eastern Europe, for instance. The only reason Matthew mentions the murder of the children in Bethlehem was because of Jesus.

We need to remember that this would not have been a big event in Herod’s biography. Movies and artwork depicting this crime generally magnify the scope of the event for dramatic effect. Bethlehem was a small village, and it is unlikely that there were more than a few children involved. That does not lessen the misery for the families, but it does help explain why this would not have been big news in Jerusalem. Though there is no evidence to support Matthew’s claim that Herod murdered children in Bethlehem, but we do have numerous stories about Herod that shed light on Matthew’s account.

Herod was called the Great, and it was a worthy name because he achieved much. His father was closely connected to the high priestly family that ruled Judea after the Maccabbean Revolt. Herod’s parents had converted to Judaism after their country was conquered, but there is little indication that Herod himself was concerned with religious matters other than in a political sense. He built the magnificent Temple in Jerusalem primarily as a political statement to demonstrate his power. The Talmud states that he built the Temple to atone for “having slain so many sages in Israel.” (IDB 2:590), which indicates that Herod has killed a number of scribes and Pharisees over the years.

Herod lived during the period when the Roman Republic was degenerating into an Empire, and his rise to power in Palestine was intimately connected with the civil war between Marc Anthony and Octavian. We don’t need to go into all of the details of imperial politics today. Suffice it to say that Herod was just as ruthless as any of the Roman politicians and generals of the day. Not only did he brutally suppress rebellions in his realm, he had rivals to his throne murdered. As king he was jealous of the popular high priest Aristobulus. Shortly after Pentecost he invited the young man to a party in Jericho. While they were swimming, he pretended to playfully dunk him under the water, but he held the man down until he drowned. When he suspected one of his wives of adultery, he had her lover murdered. Eventually he killed her as well – and her mother. Around the time that Jesus was born, Herod had two of his own sons executed for treason. Even the Roman emperor remarked, “in Herod’s house, his pigs are safer than his children.”

It is possible that the story of Herod murdering children in Matthew’s Gospel was based on the memory that Herod murdered his own children around the time that Jesus was born. It is certainly plausible that Herod would have killed children in Bethlehem if someone had convinced him that a child had been born that someone might claim was the Messiah. Just to make sure that no one claimed the child had lived, he would have put all children to the sword. In light of Herod’s other spectacular crimes, it would not be surprising if this atrocity was remembered only by the families who experienced it. Whether the events in Matthew’s account are historical, the story remains a grim reminder of the real politics of Jesus’ day. Herod was the kind of king who did such things, and his grandson beheaded the Baptist.

Israel:                        Let’s leave the historical King Herod aside for the moment and consider the story from a literary point of view. Several times we have discussed the importance of the Old Testament for understanding Matthew’s Gospel. We’ve seen that the author quotes the Old Testament frequently, apparently from more than one version of the Scriptures, and he begins his account of Jesus with a genealogy linking him to the key figures of Jewish history. We’ve also discussed the possibility that Matthew intentionally portrayed the father of Jesus like Joseph in the book of Genesis. Both men had and interpreted dreams that were important in the history of salvation. Using these clues, let’s look at this story in Matthew in light of the OT.

The most important event in the Old Testament was the Exodus from Egypt. This is the event that is remembered every year at Passover. Many scholars would say that it was the Exodus that made Israel into a unique nation under God. It was the event that revealed God as a liberator, and it was after the Exodus that God gave the Torah to Moses on Mt. Sinai. Throughout the Scriptures, prophets and priests rely on the Exodus event to describe who God is and why Israel should be obedient to God.

In case you haven’t seen the cartoon Prince of Egypt or watched Charlton Heston in the Ten Commandments lately, let me refresh your memory about some of the key points of the Exodus story that shed light on Matthew 2. The story begins with Joseph who brought the children of Israel to Egypt in order to save them from a famine. In Israelite history, Egypt is both a place of refuge and a potential danger. In Matthew’s account of Jesus’ birth, Joseph has a dream that tells him to take his family to Egypt in order to save their lives. It sounds a little like the earlier story. Matthew even quotes the Old Testament to make a direct connection between the Exodus and the story of Jesus.

As the story goes, the Hebrews prospered in Egypt, but a new Pharaoh arose who did not know Joseph. The Hebrews were oppressed and are in bondage to the new Pharaohs. People in Egypt have reported to me that there are still hard feelings on the part of some Jewish tourists about this bondage 3000 years later. One of the problems with religious rituals is that they can keep grudges alive for a long time.

For reasons that remain somewhat obscure the Egyptian Pharaoh felt threatened by the Hebrews and ordered that all of the male children be killed. There is little doubt that Matthew viewed Herod as a new Pharaoh willing to kill his own children if he felt threatened. Whether of not Herod actually did slaughter the children in Bethlehem, Matthew wants us to remember the original story of Pharaoh trying to eliminate the Hebrews through genocide. One child by the name of Moses survived the slaughter thanks to the cunning of his mother, Jochebed. Likewise, the baby Jesus survived the wicked machinations of an insane king by the cunning of his father who takes him into exile.

Egypt:                        This account of the holy family seeking refuge in Egypt became very important to the people in Egypt who converted to Christianity in the 2nd and 3rd centuries. We often forget that there were many Christians in Africa before the rise of Islam, and to this day about 15% of Egyptians remain Christian. They are called Copts, and the Coptic Church is one of the oldest Christian churches. It was in Egypt that Anthony sold all that he possessed and the poor. He went into the desert to live as a hermit, and this was the beginning of monasticism. It was in Egypt that Clement and Origen used Greek philosophy to communicate Christian truths and helped created the doctrine of the Trinity. Matthew tells us that Egypt received Jesus even before he was baptized.

Coptic legends give details about the flight of the holy family through Egypt along the Nile, and there are numerous accounts of miracles along the way. Stories were told about how Joseph sold the gifts of the Magi to provide food and shelter for his family. Every exile learns that no possession is too precious to sell when your family is hungry. Some of the legends in Egypt are connected with sacred sycamore trees that miraculously grew to provide shade for Mary and the baby or sacred springs that provided water. Many of those sites were earlier associated with the Egyptian deities Hathor and Osiris. When Egyptian priests converted to Christianity, they told the story of Jesus in ways that would help the pagans convert from worship of such gods to the adoration of Jesus and Mary, much the way Patrick used Celtic legends to convert the Irish to Christianity.

Exile:                        The story of Jesus’ exile in Egypt has become even more important for Christians around the world today than it was in ancient times. The 20th century was probably the most violent age in the history of humanity. Some of you have witnessed first hand the devastating effects of war in Europe, the Pacific, the Middle East, or Southeast Asia. Whole nations disappeared in the 20th century, leading to mass migrations of peoples across continents. For the past fifty years, Africa has been the setting for one mass exodus after another. The sight of long lines of people, many of them pulling two-wheeled carts piled with their possessions or elderly relatives is all too familiar to us. War has become the scourge of the powerless throughout the world, adding its unique horrors to the persistent suffering of the poor.

There are so many refugees and “displaced persons” in the world that the United Nations has a high commission on refugees, which attempts to ameliorate their suffering. Currently they are trying to assist over 30,000,000 people who are in exile from their homes because of war and political oppression. Many of these refugees are Christian, and this little story in Matthew’s Gospel has been a source of encouragement since it shows that the Son of God shares their suffering. Exile was a reality for Jesus and remains a reality for millions. As we read the Gospel, we should remember that there are millions of Rachels today weeping for children who could not be saved from the ravages of war.

Conclusion:                        For those of us living in relative comfort and security, the story of Jesus’ “first exile” should awaken our compassion. Many of those legends about the flight to Egypt include tales of strangers who had compassion on a homeless woman and her child. If you are moved by this story to show concern for those in exile, you may be interested in a conference on immigration being held in Valdese, NC on March 21. It is co-sponsored by the Waldensian Church and Wake Forest University School of Divinity. You can learn more about immigration and ways that churches can respond. Even if you cannot attend the conference, at least remember in your prayers those in exile as Jesus was.

Postscript, Nazareth:                        Matthew tells us nothing about the life of Jesus in Egypt. Later legends described him learning all sorts of things from the Egyptians, but the early bishops rightly rejected most of those legends. All Matthew tells us is that after Herod died, Joseph took his family to live in Galilee because he was afraid of Herod’s son who had become king. Once again, it was a dream that pointed the way.

You may have noticed that Matthew and Luke disagree on whether Joseph and Mary lived in Nazareth before Jesus was born. Luke, you will recall, said that they had to move from Nazareth to Bethlehem because of a census. Matthew indicates that they always lived in a house in Bethlehem and only moved to Nazareth because of fear of the king. It is a minor detail, but it is further evidence for why we should not insist that there are no contradictions or factual mistakes in the Bible. All of the gospel writers agree that Jesus did grow up in Nazareth even if he was born in Judea. There are clues in the various gospels that some of the authorities looked down on him because he came from a hick town in the provinces, but Matthew offers a theological interpretation to Jesus being from Nazareth. He claims that this was to fulfill a prophecy.

 

Magi and Stars

Magi – Matthew 2:1-12

The Adult Bible Class of Home Moravian Church, originally broadcast Feb. 15, 2009

Introduction:               Good morning and welcome to the Adult Bible Class on this Sunday after Valentine’s Day. It is probably just as well that pop culture has dropped the “Saint” from the day considering how it is marketed. In an effort to wean pagans away from the debauchery of an old festival in the middle of winter, the church promoted the feast day of the martyr Valentine. It appears that debauchery eventually won out over piety. Yesterday was also the feast day of Saints Cyril and Methodius, the patron saints of Moravia. On a more somber note, it was a tragic week for many. Not only was there a horrifying plane crash, wildfires swept through Australia. Our prayers go out for the victims and their families.

It was a big week for basketball fans as the Tarheels met the Blue Devils in the latest contest in an epic struggle between good and evil. At least that is the way it seems to the faithful of both teams. Congratulations to the victors! There is not much news in the Atwood home to report, but we did finally get our new propane fireplace hooked up. Now we don’t have to worry about losing electricity in an ice storm. My mother-in-law was wondering if she could get one for her new apartment in Indiana where winters are harder. She and my wife talked about different options, none of which would work in an apartment. Cherie proposed she might just put an insert in her fireplace. My wife replied in surprise: “You have a fireplace? Why don’t you just keep some logs handy and light a fire if the power goes out?” Sometimes we focus so much on what someone else is doing that we forget the obvious solution to our own problems. That has almost nothing to do with our lesson for this morning but it was too good a story to pass over.

This week we are turning our attention to the second chapter of Matthew, which provides one of the most popular stories in Christian history. It has inspired a great deal of art, music, legends, and literature. The Magi who pay homage to Jesus are unique to Matthew’s gospel, but this short tale has captured the imagination of generations of Christian scholars and worshipers. By now it should probably not surprise you that this section of Matthew has been the subject of intense controversy as well.

Read Matthew 2:1-12

Epiphany:       This is the traditional reading for the feast of Epiphany, which is January 6. So, my timing is a little off in the liturgical calendar, but the story doesn’t really tell us when the Magi came to Bethlehem. All we are told is that it was sometime after the birth of Jesus, perhaps as late as two years. It is curious that Matthew says almost nothing about the actual birth of Jesus. He is much more interested in the response of the world to birth of the Messiah. Keep in mind that he was writing about fifty years after the resurrection when Gentiles were beginning to believe in Jesus as the son of God. At that time there was also growing animosity between Jews and Christians. There are clues in the Gospel that the author was a Jewish scribe who was one of the leaders of a Christian community that included Jews and Gentiles. They may have lived in Syria, and they felt persecuted. It is not surprising that his gospel opens with two dramatically different responses to the birth of Jesus. Herod, the king of the Jews, rejects the Messiah and tries to kill him, but Gentile sages pay homage to him in fulfillment of ancient Jewish prophecy. Chapter 2 foreshadows not only the life and death of Jesus, but the response to the preaching of evangelists in Matthew’s own time.

Magi from the East:              The main actors in this chapter are the Magi or Wisemen from the East. The word Matthew used is magoi in Greek, and this is the only time in the New Testament that the word is used positively. Normally it referred to magicians, like Simon Magus. Matthew says merely that the magoi came from the East without details about their origin. Westerners have generally seen the Orient as exotic and mysterious, and that has played into our popular descriptions of the Magi. It is possible that Matthew is using the Orient as a way to add flair to his story of Jesus, but it is more likely that he is connecting the East to the rising of the Sun. In the ancient world, the East was the direction of life and new birth while the West symbolized death.

It is likely that Matthew was not thinking of any specific country of origin for these exotic worshipers, but scholars through the centuries have offered three reasonable suggestions: Persia (Parthia), Babylon (Chaldea), or Arabia. These regions all had magician/astrologers like the magoi in Matthew. The Greek historian Herodotus described Magi as a priestly caste in ancient Medes who served the Persians after they conquered Medes. Magi interpreted dreams and advised the emperors, much as Joseph did in Egypt. With the rise of Zoroastrianism in Persia, the magi became priests of the new religion. This is why you sometimes hear that Matthew’s Wisemen were Zoroastrian priests. There was a legend in ancient Persia that Zoroaster’s seed had been preserved in a lake and one day a virgin would conceive after swimming. Her son would destroy evil and raise the dead. It is possible that Christianity spread in Persia in part because of the similarity of Matthew’s account of Jesus’ birth and this Zoroastrian prophecy. Early Christian artists painted the Magi in Persian dress.

Many scholars think Matthew’s Magi came from Babylon rather than Persia. You may remember that thousands of Jews were deported to Babylon six hundred years before the birth of Jesus. Many of those families flourished and remained in the country for centuries. The Jewish Talmud was written in Babylon about six hundred years after the time of Jesus. A number of important Jewish books, most notably Daniel and Esther, are set in Babylon. The Greek version of Daniel mentions Magi in Babylon who interpreted dreams. Babylon was famous for its astrologers, and modern star gazers still use some of the Babylonian names for stars. It could be that Matthew assumed the reader would associate the East with Babylon.

The suggestion of Arabia as the home of the Magi is based on the gifts that they brought. Isaiah 60:6 and Psalm 72:15 talk about dignitaries from Midian and Sheba bringing gold and incense to the king of Israel. You may have wondered why there are always camels in crèches when none are mentioned in Matthew’s gospel. You can find them in the caravans from Arabia mentioned in Isaiah 60. There were connections between Judah and Arabia dating back to the time of David. By the time of Matthew there were already Jewish settlements around Medina. Centuries after Matthew, some of the Jews in Medina thought Muhammad might be the Messiah. Some of the Arab tribes worshiped stars before Muhammad appeared. If Arab sages brought gifts to Israel to honor the birth of a king, they would have brought camels. Such speculation is interesting, but the truth is that there is no way to determine who the Magi were or where they came from. The important point for Matthew’s Gospel was that Gentile sages recognized the birth of the Messiah when Jewish scribes did not.

Three Kings?             The Magi play a minor role in Matthew’s gospel, but they grew in Christian legend. They appear in some of the earliest Christian artwork, and relics of the Magi were much prized in the Middle Ages. One of the Greek emperors, Zeno claimed to have possession of the bodies of the Magi in the 5th century. The most famous relics are housed in Cologne in a beautiful shrine. They were given to the city by Emperor Frederick Barbarossa who had sacked the city of Milan in 1162. In the early 20th century, Cologne returned some of the relics to Milan. Of course, no one has a clue whose bones are actually being venerated in those cathedrals.

Several years ago I was asked to preach in a church in Honduras, and it happened to be Epiphany. I wrote a beautiful and inspiring message about the need to be wise people today like the wise men who came to Jesus. When my interpreter read the text, she was very confused and told me that it would make no sense to the people. In Latin America the visitors who brought gifts to Jesus are never called Wisemen; they are always kings. Epiphany is Three Kings Day. So, she basically preached a different sermon in Mosquito after I preached mine in English. Hers sounded better.

The elevation of the Magi to royal status probably came from preachers using Psalm 72 to interpret the Matthew text. That Psalm says that the kings of Sheba and Saba will pay homage to the messiah and bring him gold. By about the year 500 it was generally accepted that the Magi were kings as well as priests, and thousands of sermons have been preached on the theme of kings paying homage to Christ as the king of kings and lord of lords. I even know people who claim to be biblical literalists who insist that three kings brought gifts to baby Jesus even though there are no kings in Matthew.

Names and Gifts:       You probably grew up singing We Three Kings from Orient Are. As a kid I always wondered where Orient-R was. The tradition of there being three gift-bearers comes from there being three gifts, but in ancient Christian art there are sometimes two or four Magi bearing gifts. Some ancient Syrian documents list twelve Magi who paid homage to Christ. The names of the Magi have also changed over the centuries. One of the earliest texts says that they were Hormizdah, Yazdegerd, and Perozadh, and that they were kings of Persia, Saba, and Sheba. An ancient Ethiophian book names them Hor, Basnater, and Karsudan. The names of Balthasar, Melchior, and Gaspar were known in the West in the early Middle Ages. Around that same time, the legend arose that Balthasar was black.

From early days, Christian theologians proposed that the gifts the Magi brought were symbolic representations of three roles of Christ. Gold was to honor him as a king; incense was to worship him as a deity; and myrrh was a foreshadowing of his death as the sacrificial lamb. Thus the gifts revealed Jesus as king, God, and high priest. None of this is in Matthew’s gospel, but it makes for good allegorical preaching. This also shows that people continued to add to the story of the exotic visitors. Whether or not Matthew’s account is historical, his Magi have continued to speak to the church.

The Star          Perhaps even more famous than the Magi is the star that inspired them to travel West. While I was writing this lesson, I had to answer a query about Moravian stars from a shopkeeper in San Antonio who sells tin stars similar to our 28-point stars. Every year Moravians around the world hang stars on the first Sunday in Advent in memory of the star that guided the Magi to the Christ child. It is a way to light a beacon of hope in a world overshadowed by hatred and fear.

For Matthew, the primary purpose of the star was to signal the birth of a great king. Modern scholars are skeptical about this mysterious star, but people in Matthew’s day would have found it odd if there had not been some kind of portent auguring the birth of the son of God. After all, according to Virgil a star showed Aeneas where to build the city of Rome. Josephus claimed that a star and a comet stood over Jerusalem for a year after the city was destroyed. Cicero said that a new star appeared when Alexander was born and thus the Persians knew their empire was in peril. Other Roman authors claimed that a star announced the birth of Augustus. It was not until the writings of Pierre Bayle that educated people began to doubt that stars and comets were portents.

For centuries astronomers proposed that the Magi saw a nova. Today we know that novas are not new stars; they are old stars that have exploded. And we know that they are so far away that we do not witness the explosion for many centuries after the fact. Modern astronomers doubt that it could have been a nova that the Magi saw, especially since there are no other reports of a “new star” appearing around 4 BC. Others have proposed that they saw a comet even though comets were typically viewed as portents of bad things. It is interesting that Halley’s Comet appeared around 11 BC, and it would have been pointing towards the Zodiac sign of Leo, which was associated with Judah. It is unlikely that Jesus was born in the year of the comet, but it is plausible that people recalled it being near the same time as the great comet.

The most popular explanation for the unusual star was made by Johannes Kepler in the 1600s. He calculated that around 6 BC there would have been a rare conjunction of the planets Jupiter, Saturn, and Mars. Ancient star charts confirm that such a conjunction was noted early in 6 BC or late 7 BC. When I was a kid, I saw an elaborate program on this topic at Moorhead Planetarium in Chapel Hill. It is no longer shown because it was considered too religious for a state institution. There is little doubt that a conjunction of stars occurred toward the end of Herod’s reign and it would have been viewed as significant by astrologers, but there is no evidence anyone thought it meant a king had been born in Judah. The most that a modern historian can say is that someone might have remembered that an unusual event had taken place in the heavens around the time Jesus was born.. The idea that the star itself moved and somehow guided the Magi to a specific house in Bethlehem is a bit more fanciful and impossible to explain scientifically.

Balaam:          Raymond Brown proposed that there may be another explanation for the star appearing in Matthew’s gospel. There is a famous little story in the book of Numbers about an oracle given by a man named Balaam who was summoned by king Balak to curse the Israelites. This was part of the story of the Exodus and wandering in the wilderness. Instead of cursing Israel, Balaam pronounced a blessing on them because he was compelled by the spirit of God to do so. By the time of Matthew, a Jewish philosopher described Balaam as a magus, and his oracle inspired hope that the Jews would be freed from Roman oppression. The oracle says that “a star will rise from Jacob.” (LXX) Matthew may have taken the reference to a star literally.

A century after the death of Jesus there was a major Jewish revolt against the Romans. It was led by a man called Simon ben Kosibah, and the great rabbi Aqiba hailed him as the Messiah. It is intriguing that he was popularly known as Bar Cochba, which means “son of the star.” In Revelation, Jesus is called the Morning Star. In other words, Matthew may have been drawing on a tradition of referring to the Messiah as a star rising in the East when he wrote this story of Magi. In other words, his simple narrative may have been more metaphorical than historical.

Conclusion:                 We will never know for sure what Matthew was thinking when he wrote this story, but we can be sure that he was less interested in astronomy and ancient magicians than he was in Jesus. In our desire to make sense of mysterious stars and exotic astrologers, it is easy to lose sight of Matthew’s primary purpose. It is particularly appropriate that we ponder this text on the feast of Cyril and Methodius, wisemen who came from the East to translate the Gospel into the Slavic language. We are out of time, but we will continue to examine this story next week.

Matt. 1:18-25

Matthew 1:18-25, Joseph’s Dilemma

Adult Bible Class of Home Moravian Church, originally broadcast Feb. 8, 2009

Introduction:            Good morning and welcome to the Adult Bible Class on this first Sunday after the Super Bowl in the sports calendar. It is a big event for my children because it means that they can watch what they want to on TV after church. I’ve missed several Super Bowls in recent years, mainly because I’ve been away at church or academic conferences, and unfortunately I missed most of this one as well. We got to see the last five minutes of the first half, which meant that we did get to see the great interception, but the game ended as we were deplaning. Julie and I had a great time in San Antonio. We happened to be there when they had the parade to start the annual rodeo, so we got to see the longhorn steers being driven down one of the main streets of old San Antonio. We spent a lot of time in the old Mexican market and purchased a few items. The meals were fabulous. I had very memorable chili releno sitting by the river. My workshop on Comenius went well, and there are a few Presbyterians who know a little more about Comenius. There were over 1200 church educators at the conference, including 8 Moravians, and the organizers did a great job with the event. I want to thank Dr. Moore for filling in for me while I was away. I hear that folks loved her talk about Roman history. This week we are returning to our study of the birth narratives of Jesus in the New Testament. We’ll pick the story up with Joseph learning that his betrothed bride is pregnant.

Read: Matthew 1:18 – end

Adultery?                        Unlike Luke, Matthew begins the story of Jesus after his conception. You may recall that Luke described angelic messengers coming to Zachariah and Mary, and he gave almost as much attention to the birth of John the Baptist as to Jesus. Matthew, in contrast, focuses on Joseph. He describes him as a righteous man with a problem. He has agreed to marry a young woman named Mary, and he has probably sealed a legal agreement with her family, but he learns that she has gotten pregnant before the wedding. This would be a problem in our day, but image the scandal in an ancient patriarchal culture. According to ancient Mosaic law, a woman in this situation could be stoned to death. The actual practices had changed by Joseph’s day, but it was still a scandalous situation.

Matthew is clearly implying that Joseph knew he was not the father of Mary’s child. We do not know a great deal about the actual social norms in Galilee in the first century, but it appears that it was permissible for a couple to have intimate relations after the betrothal and before the marriage. In other words, there was not stigma against a woman giving birth to a baby just a few months after the formal wedding, so long as the groom was the father. Since the primary purpose of marriage in pre-modern times was to have children, it is unlikely that Mary’s pregnancy would have been a cause for concern for Joseph if he thought he was the father. In fact, the opposite was probably true. Infertility was a common cause of divorce in ancient times.

The clear implication of verses 18 and 19 are that Mary discovered she was pregnant and Joseph was not the father. The author of Matthew’s gospel was clearly sympathetic to Joseph’s plight. What should a righteous man do in such a situation? Ancient Israel was more like modern Saudi Arabia or Pakistan in its approach to women and sexuality than like America. Even though the marriage was not formalized, this was viewed as adultery. Though the time was long past when a man could have a woman stoned to death for such a breach of trust, a shamed bridegroom could take her before the authorities and have her condemned publicly. He might do this to preserve his own good name or to force her to reveal who the father was, but he might do it simply to humiliate the girl and her future. A woman who was publicly identified as immoral or who had a child out of wedlock could be cast out by her family. She and her baby would be left to the mercy of the streets.

Unlike Luke, who leaves Joseph almost completely out of his account of Jesus’ birth, Matthew acknowledges what a problem Mary’s pregnancy posed for Joseph and Mary. Most modern biblical scholars reject the idea of the virginal conception of Jesus on the grounds that it is medically impossible and thus is legendary. There is really no way to resolve the issue of the virginal conception on medical grounds since miracles by their nature are outside the normal laws of nature. As with all accounts of miracles, it is up to you to decide for yourself what you believe.

Some scholars dispute the claim that Matthew simply made this whole story up or was repeating a legend. It appears that the author knew that Jesus was conceived before Joseph and Mary were wed since he acknowledges that this was embarrassing. Later Jewish sources claimed that Jesus was illegitimate, and it would have been simple for Matthew to answer such a charge by having Joseph and Mary get married earlier rather than later, if he was making this all up. Matthew seems to be working with a generally accepted tradition about Jesus, and he seems aware of problems with it..  

It is interesting that Matthew says nothing about what Mary said to Joseph. Presumably they talked about her awkward condition, but Matthew was not interested in Mary’s feelings. He was only concerned with Joseph’s actions. How would he deal with this crisis? Matthew tells us that Joseph chose to put Mary away quietly, which means that he planned to stop the marriage plans. In setting her aside quietly, he may have planned to give her some money to live on. The main concern for Joseph was hard to break off the engagement without hurting Mary or offering himself up to ridicule. Keep in mind that Joseph was living in a society in which a righteous person did not associate with “sinners.” In pondering Joseph’s dilemma, keep in mind how offended the Pharisee was when Jesus let a prostitute anoint him.

Dreams of a New Future:                        After Joseph made his decision to be merciful and deal with Mary as kindly as possible, he changes his mind. The gospel tells us that an angel appeared to Joseph in a dream and told him not to reject Mary. This angelic appearance is different from those in Luke since it clearly states that Joseph was dreaming. This is consistent with the tendency in Judaism at that time to put greater distance between God and sinful humanity by adding intermediaries. For some Jews, even angels are too holy to appear in physical form to people. Instead they would appear in dreams, as in Matthew’s account. For modern interpreters, this adds to the realism of the story since it is easier for people today to believe in dreams of angels than in angels themselves. It is tempting to use modern psychology to understand Joseph’s dream of an angel telling him to do what his heart wanted to do, which was to take Mary as his wife.

It is worth noting that the appearance of angels in Luke and Matthew are consistent in that there were no witnesses. These were religious experiences, perhaps even mystical experiences that were outside the normal realm of reality. It is possible that the story of Joseph having a dream was suggested by the example of the patriarch Joseph in the book of Genesis. You may remember that the original Joseph was a righteous man who both had prophetic dreams and who could interpret the dreams of others. When I was in NY I heard a couple of good papers on the role of dreams in 17th century Protestantism (I know you are envying me) which pointed out that theologians used the dreams of both Josephs to justify dream interpretation in modern times. As we example Matthew’s birth narrative, we will see other parallels to the story of Joseph the patriarch, such as a journey to Egypt.

Jesus:                        Angels in the Bible are messengers, and so the most important thing is what the angel told Joseph. The reason he should take Mary as his wife is because her child comes from God. The angel says that the baby is “of the Holy Spirit.” The angel did not specifically say that it was the Holy Spirit who made Mary pregnant, but that may be implied. So far in the story, there has been nothing about Mary being a virgin. Many people have suggested that the question Joseph faced was whether to remain faithful to Mary and accept her child as a gift from God despite the implicit scandal. This is in contrast to Luke’s account where the virginity of Mary is central.

Keep in mind that many of the saints of the Old Testament were conceived through the power of God’s spirit, especially prophets of old. Isaac, Samson, Samuel, and others were conceived through the power of the spirit and were living signs of God’s faithfulness to his covenant with Israel. The central part of the angel’s message was that the child would save his people; therefore he should be named Jesus. It would be Joseph’s role to name the child and give him his identity. By taking Mary as his wife and naming her son, Matthew would be publicly acknowledging the child as his and legally bringing him into the genealogy of David. By giving him the name revealed in the dream, Joseph would be acknowledging the child’s sacred destiny even though he knew he was not the biological father of the child.

The name “Jesus” is the anglicized form of the Greek form of the Hebrew name Yeshua or Yehoshua. It is basically the same name as Joshua, a fact that gets lost in translation. Literally the name means “Yahweh helps,” but over the years the meaning was changed to God saves. It was a fairly common name in biblical times, which is why you shouldn’t get too excited when archaeologists find tombs with the name Jesus inscribed in them. Lots of people named Jesus or Joshua were buried in ancient Judea. Interpreters through the centuries have seen a connection between Joshua who led the Israelites into the Promised Land and Jesus, but the gospels do not make an explicit identification of the two.

Isaiah’s Prophecy:                        I mentioned that the angel’s message did not say anything about Mary being a virgin, but the author of Matthew’s gospel clearly believed that she was. The narrator states that this was to fulfill a prophecy from the book of Isaiah about a virgin conceiving. This is the first of many times in the Gospel of Matthew that the narrator interrupts the story with a quotation from the Hebrew Scriptures. Matthew asserts that all of the key aspects of the biography of Jesus were in fulfillment of ancient prophecy, beginning with his conception. This intense interest in the Scriptures is one of the bits of evidence that Matthew was probably one of the scribes or a Pharisee, by the way.

The prophecy he quotes is from Isaiah 7:14, and there are few verses that have been more debated in modern biblical study. We don’t have time to go into all of the details on the scholarly and not so scholarly debate, but we can summarize the controversy. First, there is an issue of translation. Second is an issue of interpretation of Isaiah’s prophecy itself, and third is Matthew’s use of that prophecy to explain the birth of Jesus. The fact of the matter is that the modern debate is not all that different from debates between Jewish and Christian scholars in the 3rd and 4th century.

The passage in question is part of a longer prophecy recorded in Isaiah 7:10-25. The LORD spoke to Ahaz (presumably through the prophet Isaiah) during the Syro-Ephraim war. The prophecy began with the phrase “Hear O house of David,” which may have been what drew Matthew’s attention to it as a messianic prophecy. The LORD said that a young woman would have a son who would be named Immanuel, which is not a common name. By the time the child would be old enough to distinguish good and bad foods, the war would be over and Judah would be spared. Ahaz’s enemies would be destroyed. There is little doubt among biblical scholars that this prophecy referred to a particular woman in the royal palace, perhaps even a young girl in Ahaz’s harem, and that the events predicted were to take place not long after the prophecy. Until Matthew wrote his gospel, no one had suggested that this was a prediction about the birth of the Messiah.

The Hebrew word used to describe the young woman is Alma, which refers to a woman who has just finished puberty and can get married. Such a woman was considered a virgin since she was only just old enough for marriage and would have been kept away from men until this time. The Hebrew word for a mature woman who has not had sexual relations was Betula. When Isaiah was translated into Greek (the Septuagint), the translator used the word Parthenos to translate Alma. Parthenos does mean virgin. Matthew, like most of the New Testament authors, quoted from the Greek Septuagint. Thus, he probably thought that the passage did refer to a virgin conceiving.

For centuries scholars have known about the discrepancy between the Greek and Hebrew versions of Isaiah 7:14, and Christian scholars even accused Jews of changing the Hebrew text as a way to discredit idea of a virginal conception of Jesus. When the Bible was translator into Latin, the word virgin was used, and most later translations followed suit. Some English Bibles were more accurate and said “maiden” which preserved the ambiguity. A maiden was a young unmarried that was presumably also a virgin biologically as well as sociologically. When the Revised Standard Version of the Bible came out in the 1950s the translators boldly translated the Hebrew literally and Alma became a “young woman”. A preacher was so incensed by this that he publicly burned the Bible outside of his church in North Carolina and sent the ashes to the editor. The editor of the New Revised Version of the Bible, Bruce Metzger told me that he was given the jar of ashes as a reminder of the dangers of translation.

Born of the Spirit and a Woman:                         Regardless of the translation of the Hebrew of Isaiah 7:14, Matthew believed that the prophecy was about a virgin, and so he chose it to support the idea that Jesus was conceived by the power of the Holy Spirit without the assistance of a man. We talked at length about the idea of a virginal conception when we discussed the birth narrative in Luke. Though it is never mentioned again in Matthew’s Gospel, he also goes out of his way to assert that Joseph did not have sexual relations with Mary until after Jesus was born. Aside from the fact that the Jewish law discouraged sex during pregnancy, one wonders how Matthew could have known such an intimate detail from the private life of Mary and Joseph.

Immanuel:            Even though no mention is made of a virginal conception elsewhere in Matthew’s gospel, it is interesting that Luke and Matthew give two independent witnesses to this claim. That indicates it had become an important idea in Christianity from early days. There is no indication that the idea of a virginal conception was association with a view that sex itself is sinful. On the contrary, it was to emphasis that Jesus was indeed the divine agent destined to be the savior. That was also part of the prophecy that Matthew quoted. The young woman was to name her child Immanuel, which was a Hebrew phrase meaning “God with us.” That was not the name Joseph gave to Mary’s baby. He was named Jesus, but the phrase Immanuel revealed his true identity for the church. Matthew was writing long after the resurrection when it was made clear to the disciples that Jesus was more than just a prophet from Nazareth. He was, and is, and will be God with us.

Conclusion:                        Before Christmas we discussed the importance of Mary’s decision in Luke’s Gospel. Matthew leaves Mary almost entirely out of the story, but he reminds us that Matthew also had a decision to make. He chose to take her and the baby into his home despite the risk of scandal. Men today can learn something about love and responsibility from Joseph. True righteousness is not a matter of keeping ourselves free from criticism; it is remaining faithful to those God has given us to love. I will leave you with this thought from Martin Luther. There were three miracles of Christmas. First was that God took human form as a baby in a manger. Second was that a virgin conceived. And the third was that Joseph believed, and that was the most astounding. 

A Quick History Lesson

Home Moravian Church
Adult Bible Class
Sunday February 1, 2009

Hello, and welcome to the adult Bible class at Home Moravian Church. I’m Megan Moore. I know the people in the room know me, and perhaps you in the radio audience remember me from previous engagements here, too. As Craig mentioned last week, he’s at a conference with a bunch of Presbyterians today. In turn, I, a Presbyterian, am hanging with the Moravians this week.

By Craig’s request, and apparent demand, I am going to talk about my favorite topic and academic specialty: history, and especially its relationship to the Bible. My main focus will be Roman times in the area in which the New Testament is set—Judea and the Galilee. But since I can’t cover anything close to a comprehensive history in 22 minutes, I am going to range broadly about the Mediterranean and through the ages to give a sense of how Roman Judea came to be what it was, and what significance knowledge of history can have for understanding the New Testament.

The so-called lands of the Bible, often called Ancient Israel or Ancient Palestine, are located in an area that is maximally 120 miles north to south and 60 miles wide. However, despite the Bible’s claims about the size of the area that God’s chosen people inhabited, the vast majority of Old and New Testament stories take place in an area that is maximally 45 miles north to south and maybe 25 miles wide. More narrowly, a great deal of the stories take place in and around Jerusalem. Even Bethlehem is only 6 miles from Jerusalem (and would be as close as 3-4 miles in places today, but transit between the two towns is now interrupted by the wall or fence that separates Israel from the Palestinian territories).

This small piece of land that we call ancient Israel is located, as you know, on the eastern Mediterranean seaboard. It, like Lebanon, lay on the route between northern Africa, namely Egypt, and Anatolia (which is modern-day Turkey), and Mesopotamia. If you look at a map, you will notice that once you cross out of Africa, the most direct way to Mesopotamia would be across the desert. Except people did not travel that way in antiquity. They followed the fertile crescent, which hugs the Mediterranean coastline and then turns southeast toward Mesopotamia by following the Euphrates River, which starts in northern modern-day Syria.

In any case, all three places—Anatolia, Egypt, and Mesopotamia—were the seat of great empires at different times prior to the emergence of Israel, which came on the scene around 1200 BC at the earliest and is not well-attested in historical records until about 850 BC. During Old Testament times, Mesopotamia especially gave the world impressive regimes, namely Assyria and Babylon. Thus, when Assyria or Babylon wanted to fight Egypt, or at least contain it, or vice-versa, they attempted first to secure the territory of ancient Israel. In fact, a particular area in Israel became the scene of so many big battles that it has been immortalized in apocalyptic scenarios. I am talking about the plain of Jezreel, which begins on the west at the ancient town of Megiddo. Over many centuries, Megiddo’s occupation levels were successively destroyed or they decayed, and new versions of the town were built on top of the old ones. This resulted in Megiddo sitting atop a Tel, which is the Hebrew and Arabic word for this kind of artificial hill that contained the occupation levels of past cities. It can look like a small mountain. Now, the word for mountain in Hebrew is har. Thus, the har Megiddo, the artificial mountain which overlooked the plain where great battles took place, was translated into Greek as Armageddon and became, in the imagination of the Apocalypticist, the place where the great final battle between good and evil will take place.

But, we digress a bit. What I want to point out here is that the area of ancient Israel was overrun by empires for much of its existence, and, importantly, that in Old Testament times, these empires were Mesopotamian. Their people were Semites, like the Israelites, and we know that their languages were related, as were their worldviews including ideas about cosmology—the arrangement and order of the cosmos—anthropology—their ideas about humans and how they came to be and how they function in the world—and even theology—the depiction of the god of the Bible is in many places comparable to more ancient depictions of the Babylonian god Marduk, for instance. Of course, the cultures were different: American and German cultures are closely related in many ways but obviously different. But they were all still ancient Near Eastern. Furthermore, the ancient Near Eastern empires’ policies of governance may be called provinciliaztion at times, but never were colonization. For important periods of time, the kingdoms of Israel and Judah were left to govern themselves, as long as they paid the proper tribute to, say, the Assyrian king. Assyria may also have expected other concessions from Israel and Judah, but they never expected either kingdom to be turned into a little Assyria.

Matters changed somewhat with the rise of Persia and its conquering of the Babylonian empire in 539 BC, but today I want to emphasize the drastic change that the exploits of Alexander the Great and the ensuing Hellenistic empires brought to the area. Alexander left Macedonia around 333 BC and campaigned until his death in 323 BC. He destroyed the Persian empire, centered in modern-day Iran, made it as far as the Indus River valley, and died under mysterious circumstances in Babylon. Along the way, everything in his path, including Egypt and Syria-Palestine, had come under his control. Alexander’s conquests were the beginning of the Hellenistic period (Hellas being Greek for Greece), and brought about a sea-change in life in the lands that experienced it. New, western, and very different modes of thought, including rationalism and a spirit of internationalism, and a very palpable idea that Greek culture was superior followed Alexander and his successors. Thus, inhabitants of cities such as Jerusalem started to have access to Greek educations for their children and to entertainment. They were also expected to accommodate Greek religion, which often included a cult of the Emperor.

Jews in Palestine apparently had mixed reactions to Hellenism, with some deciding that this new western, modern way of life was the way to go and others resisting, sometimes violently. The intertestamental books of the Bible take the side of the resistors, and no doubt in Jesus’s time, old time heroes, such as the Maccabees who captured the temple from the Greeks, rededicated it after the slaughter of a pig on the altar, and thus observed the first Hanukkah, were hailed as heroes among some of the Jews.

In 64 BC, the Roman general Pompey annexed Syria, taking it from the Greek descendants of one of Alexander’s generals who had controlled the area. In 31 BC, the Romans defeated the Greeks who held Egypt, ruled by Cleopatra, a descendant of one of Alexander’s generals who had taken over Egypt and reinstated the pharonic line, making themselves the Pharaohs. Thus, Rome ruled the area of ancient Israel and its surroundings. For Rome this was a big deal, but I think it would be fair to say that for the Jews it must have seemed like “same stuff, different day.” Roman culture was a direct heir of Hellenistic culture, and its attitude toward native cultures was not remarkably different. For instance, whereas Jerusalem for a few centuries had been built under the model of a Greek city, the Romans made it a Roman city. The point is not that Greek and Roman were so different. The point is that Greek OR Roman, these were western ideas and models.

Rome was immensely successful in building up the area of ancient Palestine, and a large part of the Mediterranean world and northward, and in making a large swath of its known world Roman. It’s amazing—you can see Roman ruins in Palestine, Jordan, and then of course Italy, then France, then England, and the similarities are unbelievable. A theater here, a columned market street, called a cardo, over there, probably a hippodrome and other common features to be found, too. It must have been a bummer for the ancient traveler—you mean I spent all this money to get to Paris and I’m still eating at McDonalds’ and shopping at the Gap?

Now, the big story in Roman Palestine was Herod. And this sets us up nicely to talk about the New Testament—I promise, I have been getting there this whole time. Now you see that in Jesus’ time, the Jews of Palestine were in a very familiar situation, that is, ruled, colonized, whatever you want to call it by a western power with a very different thought system from the traditional one, and while some of the Jews were cool with that, others had resisted. The tension between resisters and accommodators in Jewish society had been going strong for well over one hundred and fifty years (and probably much longer) when Jesus appeared, and no doubt there was tension in individuals’ minds as well. But then in walks Herod, who was sent to unify and get control over the area. Herod did accomplish greater unity among Jews than may have been in existence before, but this unity came out of a strong dislike of him. There’s nothing like a common enemy!

Herod was an interesting character, to say the least. He was of Idumean ancestry. Idumea was the old Edom, southeast of Judea and intertwined with Israel in history and culture. At one point many Idumeans converted to Judaism, and Herod’s ancestors were among these. Thus, Jews didn’t consider him a real, pure Jew at all. To the Romans he looked close enough. He was sent to Galilee as a ruler in the late 40s BC and eventually was named by the Romans as—brace yourself—king of the Jews. You can imagine how this was received. Nevertheless, Herod reigned, in some fashion, for approximately 40 years—a good biblical number, don’t you think?

Herod, as I said, is THE story of Roman Palestine. At the top of the list of his achievements was the restoration of the temple in Jerusalem. Now the first temple is said to have been built by Solomon in the mid 900s BC, and was definitely destroyed by the Babylonians in 586 BC. The second temple may have had its start sometime in the late 500s or early 400s BC. I think if you had encountered this temple you would have thought it was pretty unimpressive. Herod appears to have thought so, too. So he had it enlarged, beautified, and its foundation built up, using the latest architectural and engineering techniques. Under his rule, the Jerusalem temple became something he, and the Jews, could really be proud of, and show off to the rest of the world. This is the temple where Jesus worshipped.

Since Herod was a real personality, historians have had fun trying to figure out his motivation for the aggrandizement of the temple. Was it to show himself off? Or was it to entice the Jews to love him—many have psychoanalyzed Herod as feeling unloved and unappreciated and craving the approval of the Jews. Something, whether it be lack of love or psychosis or some disease, caused him to be paranoid, depressive, and even murderous. He had members of his own family killed and attempted to have many more of them executed. Various stories and legends surround his paranoia and rage.

And thus, finally you see, we come to the New Testament itself. Herod’s massacre of the innocents is one of the first events reported, after the birth of Jesus. You can surely understand why such a story would have had currency in the ancient world. It was probably written down over 75 years after the events would have happened, but no doubt stories of the horrible Herod were circulated far and wide for a long time. Matthew’s story of his activities would probably have just been another one of those stories about the terrible king.

Herod also provides one of the important anchors for dating Jesus’s life. Herod died in 4 BC, apparently in the spring. So, if Herod was alive when Jesus was born, Jesus must have been born before 4 BC. Combining these with the reference to a particular census in Luke puts Jesus’s birth maybe sometime between 6 and 8 BC. This, of course, assumes that Matthew and Luke, writing at least 80 years after these events, were historically correct—that Herod the great was alive when Jesus was born, and that Jesus was born during the census of Quirinius.

Since we’re on the topic of dating, let me discuss a few more examples. Roman history can help us get a time range, but not an exact date, for the crucifixion. Pontius Pilate was governor of Judea from 26 to 36 AD. Estimates of the year of crucifixion range all over those years. Some look at when Passover could have been on a Friday, which is when Mark, Matthew, and Luke report that Jesus died. However, John disagrees and places Jesus’s death on the day before Passover, meaning that if the third day was Sunday, Passover would have started on a Saturday. Various vague traditions and references in early Christian documents, as well as notes in the gospels about Jesus’s age when he began his ministry (about 30, according to Luke) and who was emperor of Rome complicate the picture. But thanks to Roman interest in recording the present and the past, we can have a general idea for when the crucifixion occurred.

Paul’s ministry is another important New Testament event that Roman history can help us date. In Acts 18, it is reported that Paul encounters trouble at Corinth and ends up being brought before Gallio, governor of Achaia. This seemingly arcane reference didn’t seem to be of much significance until fragments were discovered at Delphi that conclusively put Gallio as governor of the area during the years 51-53 AD. Thus, if Luke, the author of Acts, is right, Paul would have been in Corinth sometime between 51 and 53. From this anchor, and using chronologies in Acts and hints in the Pauline letters, scholars can construct a tentative timeline of Paul’s activities. Well, not A tentative timeline—as many timelines as there are scholars, perhaps even more. In any case, we can put Paul in a general ballpark thanks to the Romans’ fondness for memorializing things in stone. We can also thank the excellent communication and transportation systems that the Romans set up for Paul’s ability to travel all over the Mediterranean and to pass letters through travelling disciples, as well. Also, Paul’s final journey to Rome, where tradition has it he was executed, is possible in Acts because Paul, as a Roman citizen, appeals his sentence all the way up to the Emperor.

Finally—one last date. We know that Jewish resistors of Roman rule finally got enough support to stage a full revolt in Judea starting in 66 AD. This culminated in the temple being destroyed in 70. The importance of Jesus’ prediction of the temple’s destruction in the gospels is one of the many reasons scholars date them to after 70 AD.

With the time left, I’m going to pull back again to more general ways that knowledge of life in Roman Palestine can help us understand, or, probably I should say, lead us to questions about the New Testament. I already mentioned the good Roman cities that sprang up in Palestine. One, called Sepphoris or Zippori, was an impressive hilltop Galilean city just a few miles from Nazareth. I excavated there twice in the 1990s. Scholars who try to understand the historical Jesus debate whether Jesus would have spent significant time in Sepphoris, and whether the knowledge he could have acquired there of Greek and Roman culture is reflected in his teaching. Would he have worked there as a carpenter with Joseph? Would he have seen plays? Would he have spoken or understood any Greek or Latin, or at least have been familiar with the way Romans, and probably assimilated Jews, lived?

Another topic that comes up frequently when talking about Roman Palestine is Jewish religion at that time. This is a topic for another complete talk, but I can mention a few things here.

There were several varieties of Judaism out there at Jesus’ time. One was Sadducean Judaism. The Sadducees appear in the New Testament. From what we can tell, they seem to have been influential in the temple and to have often had good relationships with the Romans. Of course, this led some to call them collaborators, but I choose to imagine them as pragmatists, keeping the temple going for their fellow Jews while keeping the Romans happy, as well.

Also at that time we have the Pharisees. They are the really bad guys of the gospel of Matthew. The early Pharisees apparently promoted separation from the dominant culture. This means that they would have kept distinctive dress and kept kosher strictly, kept their kids from going to Roman schools and watching Roman TV, and so forth. In trying to follow God’s law so strictly, the Pharisees produced a corpus of oral law that was eventually codified as the Talmud. These rules were carefully thought out, and usually rather strict, interpretations of the laws found in the first five books of the Bible. One of the most important things to recognize about the Pharisees is that this type of strict observance of the law offered Jews a way to be obedient and faithful in their everyday lives. Thus, when the Romans destroyed the temple in 70 AD, and Jews no longer had a place they could go to meet God, and make atonement for their sins, the Pharisees had a system that allowed Jews the possibility to be religious without the Temple. Thus, Pharisaic Judaism became Rabbinic Judaism, and Rabbinic Judaism is the basis of all forms of Judaism we know today. This knowledge of the importance of the Pharisees after 70 AD also tells us something about the gospel of Matthew. When Matthew was writing, after the destruction of the temple, the Pharisees were becoming the dominant Jewish group. They were not at the time of Jesus. So, to most scholars, Jesus’s clashes with the Pharisees are highlighted in Matthew because Matthew needed to emphasize how Jesus was different from this type of Judaism.

A third type of Judaism known from the time of Jesus were fully separatist movements. The most famous are the Essenes, who appear to have produced the Dead Sea Scrolls around this time. They lived in the desert and lived very strictly ascetic lives, bound by all sorts of rules and practices. To us they might look a bit like a cult—besides living in a marginal area and being a fully religious community, they had a very developed sense of the apocalypse, the end of the world as we know it, when good and evil would clash at that final great battle. We could talk at length about Jesus’s or Paul’s ideas about the apocalypse, but now I want you just to think of John the Baptist. He was likely not an Essene, but he was not entirely unique, either, that is, he was not the only Jew dressing kind of oddly and living in the desert, preaching about the repentance of sins and the coming of God.

The final specific type of Judaism around at the time of Jesus is one that, not surprisingly, supported violent resistance to the Romans. These people especially would have admired the rebels who took down Hellenistic rule of Jerusalem, which I mentioned earlier. There is much speculation that Judas Iscariot may have had leanings toward this kind of philosophy, and that some of Jesus’s other followers hoped to sway him in this way, as well. For instance, when Jesus is praying and the Romans come to arrest him, one of the people with him cuts off the ear of a Roman soldier. Was he trying to start a revolt, right there? In any case, the notion of violent resistance to western colonization was surely alive and well at the time of Jesus.

Thanks for listening, I hope this adds to your knowledge of the concrete world in which these stories were set and written, and in which the people involved lived. Remind

I should have mentioned on the air that the majority of Jews in Jesus’ time, including apparently Jesus himself, did not think of themselves as any type of sub-group of Jews: Sadducees, Pharisees, Essenes, or Zealots.