That Talpiot Tomb again!

Review of book highlights the deeps of concern over methods

Just when the debate on the Talpiot Tomb had almost waned, it arises again. This time it is sparked by the review of a book by Simcha Jacobovici and Charles Pellegrino on the Tomb. Published in the Review of Biblical Literature the piece is written by Jonathan Reed, Professor of Religion at the University of La Verne, in California. It should be noted that this is not the first time Jonathan Reed has been publicly involved with this issue. He was part of a team of ‘experts’ that the Discovery Channel assembled for a post-airing debate on the Talpiot Tomb moderated by Ted Koppel. Reed will be remembered from that debate because of one contribution—his description of the documentary as “archoporn.” His distaste for the concepts espoused in the documentary and outlined in the book are clearly evident in the review.

While I can support Reed's dislike for the methods of Jacobovici and Cameron, the program has highlighted another aspect of this issue. Jacobovici provides a few video clips—probably from the program—on YouTube. In one such video, he discusses a little-known first century group known as the Nazarenes. This group most likely comprised the direct descendents of the followers of Jesus in Judea and Galilee.

Now if only the rest of the video of the Jesus Family Tomb had been as credible!

Tags: Jesus, Talpiot Tomb, Nazarenes, Jonathan Reed, Simcha Jacobovici

Dead Sea Scrolls in San Diego

Documents that existed at the time of Jesus and the disciples will be on display in Southern California.

The Dead Sea Scrolls, discovered in 1947 at Qumran and now belonging to Israel, are coming to San DiegoCalifornia. Beginning June 29, 2007, the San Diego Natural History Museumwill be hosting the longest and largest exhibition of the scrolls. The six-month-long exhibition, which undergoes a change at the mid point, is being produced in conjunction with the Israel Antiquities Authority’s Dead Sea Scrolls Foundation 

The display will highlight some 27 different scrolls, 10 of which have never been displayed previously. These include remaining parts of scrolls of Deuteronomy, Isaiah and a Commentary of Job. A number of faculty who teach at San Diego area universities and have been closely associated with the Scrolls will spearhead a lecture series that will run in conjunction with the exhibition.  

At the same time, the University of California at Los Angeles is launching a virtual Qumrantour which will be available to visitors to the exhibition. Designed initially as a teaching tool, the virtual tour has been enhanced to recreate the location where the scrolls were found.

Unfortunately, the tour doesn’t allow visitors to search for more artifacts in the caves. However some of the original equipment used in the excavations and recovery of the scrolls will be on display.

Tags: jerusalem, Dead Sea Scrolls, Temple, First Century, Qumran, San Diego

Why Paul Changed His Name

Was there a reason for the change of Saul to Paul?

The New Testament records in Acts 13 that Saul changed his name to Paul. Why did he do this? Many commentators have sought to find the answer in the help that Sergius Paulus, governor of Cyprus, provided to Saul and Barnabas on their first journey there. While it is possible that respect and gratitude inspired Saul to take the governor’s name, it seems unlikely based on a number of other intersecting facts.


Scott M. McDonough proposed recently in the Journal of Biblical Literature (Vol. 125, No. 2, pp. 390–391) that Acts 13 holds the key. This chapter contains the only reference in the New Testament to Israel’s first king, Saul, the son of Kish. There is more than one commonality between Paul/Saul and the ancient king. King Saul persecuted David, whom God had anointed to replace him. In a similar way, Saul persecuted the one he later understood to be the true Son of David. By changing his name from Saul to Paul, he distanced himself from the actions and mindset of his namesake. 


The choice of the Latin name “Paulus” is instructive as well. The word means “little” or, when referring to a person, “short.” Whether this is a description of Paul’s physical characteristics is not stated, but it has an application to both King Saul and King David. When chosen to be king, Saul was known to stand head and shoulders above his compatriots. But his physical stature was of no consequence to his ability as king. He was only effective in that role when he was “little in [his] own eyes,” or opinion (1 Samuel 15:17). When David was anointed king, his father, Jesse, referred to him as “the youngest” (1 Samuel 16:11). The Hebrew word used here is the same one used earlier to describe Saul’s initial view of himself as “little.” McDonough suggests that the choice of the name “Paulus” is a play on this description of King Saul and his successor, King David. Paul wanted to be known by his namesake’s good quality rather than by his name.



Tags: new testament, Apostle Paul, Saul, Scott McDonough, Sergius Paulus

Geza Vermes: Left Behind in the Study of Jesus

Notable scholar highlights difficulty of keeping up with research

Book reviews can often tell as much about the reviewer as about the book being reviewed. A case in point is Geza Vermes’ May 19 review, published in the Times (London), of Pope Benedict XVI’s book Jesus of Nazareth. The review aside, Vermes highlights how much the study of Jesus has moved on since he made his own definitive contribution. It in fact portrays the problems of being left behind in one’s own field.

Some 30 years ago, Vermes added greatly to the study of the historical Jesus Christ with his book Jesus the Jew, published in 1973. Although his conclusions have since been superseded, the book promoted scholarly consideration of Jesus of Nazareth as a Jew within a Jewish context rather than the theological context in which He had been placed in the early 20th century. Vermes continued to publish in this field with Jesus in the World of Judaism and The Religion of Jesus the Jew. He then supplemented the trilogy with a fourth book, The Changing Faces of Jesus, published in 2000.

Although Vermes has written several books since that time, they amount to popularized versions of his earlier scholarly works. He is now an emeritus professor at Oxford, and his review of Benedict’s book reveals when he ceased to be actively involved in expanding the study of Jesus. As part of his Times review, he outlines the progress of study into the historical Jesus throughout the 20th century, but he finishes in the 1980s—17 years ago at a minimum. Much has happened since then.

To be fair to Vermes, it doesn’t really matter in terms of Benedict’s thesis. He shows that the pope is not willing to accept and apply the scholarly methods of critical analysis to the New Testament texts. And he takes Benedict to task for not accepting his ideas of Jesus as “the Galilean itinerant healer, exorcist and preacher.”

As mentioned, however, several things have changed since Vermes last published a scholarly work on this subject. First, the labels he uses to define work on the historical Jesus were reevaluated in the 1990s. Second, the period during which he claims there was “no quest” for the historical Jesus has now been reconsidered, so that some of the 20th century’s most important material on the subject now falls within that time frame. Hardly a “no quest” period! Third, the identification of Jesus within his Jewish milieu continues unabated in academic circles, with new and constructive volumes appearing all the time. Amy-Jill Levine’s The Misunderstood Jew: The Church and the Scandal of the Jewish Jesus, published in November 2006, is an example of current scholarship made available for a general audience.

Finally, this research has had a spin-off effect in church history. If Jesus and His disciples were so Jewish, how and why did the church separate itself from Judaism? The question of the separation of the church from the synagogue has become as large an issue as the historical Jesus. That is perhaps even more challenging, not only to Vermes but to the pope, as the answers of the past are no longer accepted.

If Vermes really appreciated these facts, his challenge to the pontiff’s writing could have been more robust still.

Tags: Jesus Christ, Geza Vermes, Galilee, Benedict XVI, Historical Jesus, Jewish milieu

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