The First Christmas: It Was Later Than You May Think!

describe the imageHistorians and theologians have for many years sought to link the birth of Jesus Christ with December 25th. The internal evidence from the Gospel accounts indicates a timing of the fall or autumn of the year for the birth of Jesus, so scholars have probed the literature written by the church fathers to establish the exact date and determine when it was first associated with December 25th. All efforts to find conclusive evidence linking His birth to that date have failed. 

Of recent date, a classical scholar, who is the Emeritus Professor of Classics at the University of Toronto, has made an observation that transforms the understanding of the relationship of December 25 to Jesus Christ.

Timothy Barnes has studied the Patristic period, from the 2nd through 5th centuries, specializing in one individual in particular, Constantine the Great. Barnes is considered a foremost authority on Constantine and his accomplishments. He has noted that December 25th first appears as a Christian event in Rome linked to the events of 312, the year that Constantine fought his battle at Milvian Bridge, conquering the city and thus becoming supreme Emperor.

In his 2011 book, Constantine, Dynasty, Religion and Power in the Later Roman Empire, Barnes writes: “In the winter of 312/313 Constantine began to grant fiscal privileges to Christian clergy and to raise the status of the Christian church within Roman society." Barnes notes that Constantine remained in Rome until January 6, 313, traditionally known as Epiphany day. By the end of his reign, Roman Christians were dating the nativity of Christ to December 25. So Christmas began in Rome with a newly ‘converted’ Roman emperor. Barnes questions whether it is “rash to suggest that it was Constantine who introduced this synchronism in 312, thereby in some way equating the traditional pagan god with his new Christian God” (Barnes 85).describe the image

It remained over half a century more before John Chrysostomas began to associate December 25th with the date of the birth of Jesus. But Chrysostom's misunderstanding of Scripture is a story for another day.



Tags: Christmas, Constantine, birth of Jesus, December 25, Timothy Barnes

Jewish New Testament Studies: revisited

Just in case you thought that the Jewish Annotated New Testament reported in a previous blog was unusual, I have just received two other recent titles that speak to a growing field of Jewish New Testament studies. 

Zev Garber is the editor of The Jewish Jesus: Revelation, Reflection, Reclamation, while Herbert Basser has produced The Mind Behind the Gospels: A Commentary to Matthew 1-14. Both Garber and Basser are notable and well published Jewish authors. 

As editor of his volume, Garber has assembled a cast of 19 scholars, mostly Jewish or if not Jewish, then involved in Jewish Christian dialogue, to address the subject of Jesus. The chapters, each by a different author, are divided into three sections namely: Reflections on the Jewish Jesus; Responding to the Jewish Jesus; and finally, Teaching, Dialogue, Reclamation: Contemporary Views on the Jewish Jesus. Shofar SupplementsGarber dedicates his book as follows: 

To the courageous and devoted essayists of this tome. Jews, who practice the faith of Jesus, and Christians, who believe by faith in Jesus. By the authority of Torah and Testament, they merge as one in proclaiming the Jewish Jesus and restoring his pivotal role in the history of Second Temple Judaism and beyond. The rest is commentary and controversy. Read and see why. 

The essays cover the historical time frame from the first century to the present. Most are focused on the time of the Second Temple, with contributions examining the Byzantine period, the pre-modern as well as current responses. They also examine documentary evidence outside of the Gospel accounts such as Rivka Ulmer’s Psalm 22 in Pesiqta Rabbati: The suffering of the Jewish Messiah and Jesus. In that essay, Ulmer challenges the ideas that the Messianic expectation of Jesus was something imposed later and that the idea of a suffering servant as a messiah was not part of Jewish thinking. Such approaches have been used to create a sense of distance between Christians and the Jewish ideas of his day. Israel Knohl of Hebrew University, Jerusalem, has also written on the fact that such an idea was current in Jewish expectations at the time of Jesus. Such essays help relocate Jesus as a Jewish reformer within a Judean matrix rather than the founder of a new religious movement. 

Herbert Basser is a noted Talmudic and midrashic scholar at Queens University, Ontario, Canada. It may seem strange to find a Jewish Talmudist preparing a commentary on the Gospel of Matthew, but Amy-Jill Levine sums up his contribution by commenting: 

Herbert Basser’s commentary on Matthew 1-14 both offers fresh insights into the composition of the First Gospel and makes a major contribution to the understanding of the Jewish roots of Christian origins. Employing later compilations of Jewish literature along with the expected Tannaitic, Targumic, and Qumran materials, he is able to construct an interpretive model of how Jews read Scripture, discerned orthopraxy, and maintained community. His approach does not artificially force Judaism into a predetermined model; instead it recognizes that within the diversity of that thought there exist particular interpretive strategies and rhetorical modes of argumentation. Confirming many of his connections are both Septuagintal readings and Syriac translations of both Hebrew biblical material and early (Greek) Christian literature.

ISBN 978 1 934843 33 8 The volume covers half of the Gospel account. Basser leaves the reader in suspense as to whether another volume will address the remaining chapters (13). He does provide a listing of articles that he has already published which could or will form the basis for the second volume. For the benefit of a reader who does not have access to the sources of his articles, we hope that he is able to deliver that second volume.

Both books are part of larger series. Zev Garber’s volume is part of the Shofar Supplements in Jewish Studies, published by Purdue University Press, while Herbert Basser’s volume is part of the Reference Library of Jewish Intellectual History, published by Academic Studies Press of Boston.




Tags: Jesus, Judaism, First Century, Second Temple, Gospel of Matthew, Basser, Garber

Major New Testament publication launched.

Following the success of its Jewish Annotated Old Testament, Oxford University Press approached the editor and other Jewish scholars about producing a Jewish Annotated New Testament. The resulting New Testament Study Bible has just been released.

Using the New Revised Standard Version as the basic text, and Amy-Jill Levine with Marc Zvi Brettler as editors, they have assembled a phalanx of Jewish Scholarship to provide commentary on the entire New Testament. This may seem oxymoronic to most Christianity, but in reality, the New Testament addresses a Jewish audience with Jewish issues and challenges much more that a traditional Christian audience. As a result, they are able to illuminate various NT passages in a surprising manner.

Designed to follow the organization of other Study Bibles, the JANT provides introductions to the various books of the New Testament together with commentary on the various passages on the lower section of each page. In addition, some 18 essays on various background issues that are foundational to an appreciation of the New Testament, numerous maps, charts and sidebars are provided to add understanding for the reader.

Aimed firstly at a college student application, the book will also be valuable reading for the general Christian audience in providing a marked contrast and fresh approach to the traditional Christian creedal readings and interpretations of the New Testament provided in other study Bibles.

Care has been taken to avoid reading later Rabbinic teachings of the 4/6 th centuries back into the New Testament so that the commentary provided represents Jewish attitudes and understandings of the first century in which the New Testament is set. Some references to Rabbinic teachings are recorded when they throw light on the practice or teachings on the New Testament period.

For anybody who considers themselves a student of the New Testament, the Jewish Annotated New Testament is a volume that should be added to their library for regular use.

Tags: new testament, Judaism, First Century

Boating on Galilee; a marvel of archaeology

The Sea of Galilee was a principal setting for much of the Gospel accounts of the life of Jesus Christ. At least four of his disciples were fishermen who owned and operated fishing boats. In the recent decades, a first century boat has been recovered from the shoreline of the sea by archaeologists, providing valuable insight into the nature of the boats themselves and the way in which fishing was conducted.

In a recent article published in the Jerusalem Post, Wayne Stiles provides up to date details of the archaeological recovery of the boat and what we have learned from that discovery. Note that Kinneret is a alternative name for Galilee.


H/T to James Davila of PaleoJudaica

Tags: gospels, Archaeology, Jesus Christ, Galilee

The Tomb of Jesus

The burial place of Jesus is in the news again. Leen Ritmeyer, refers to this in a recent blog post. I have previously written about this subject in Vision and have also discussed the Talpiot Tomb at some length on this blog.

Ritmeyer references two current articles on The Bible and Interpretation Web site by Eldad Keynan, a PhD candidate at Bar Ilan University. He contends that the tomb contained within the Church of the Holy Sepulchure in Jerusalem was originally  established by the Sanhedrin for the burial of criminals and hence Jesus could have been buried there initially. In other words, the implication is that this is what the Gospels refer to as the tomb of Joseph of Arimathea.

It is interesting to read the comments to Leen’s blog relating to tomb. Keynan is willing to engage in dialogue on the matter.

Tags: Leen Ritmeyer, Jesus Christ, Talpiot Tomb, Jesus Tomb, Jersualem, burial practice

Archaeology Season 2010

Archaeology season in Israel for 2010 is well underway, with some digs coming to the end of their summer season and others yet to begin.  Todd Bolen, of Bible Places blog, keeps track of the progress at a number of sites including an interesting time lapse video of an excavation.

Most sites also have "unofficial" blogs to provide details of progress--presumably as they are independent of the IT departments of the university sponsoring the dig. Aren Amaeir's Tel Es-Safi or Gath blog is an interesting example.

James Tabor also provides a positive review of the efforts of Eilat Mazar at probably the most controversial dig presently being undertaken, the City of David. In a post titled "Excavating the City of David: Has Eilat Mazar found David's Palace?" James sets out context of Mazar's efforts.

Will add details of interesting discoveries as they come to light.

Tags: israel, Gath, City of David, Archaeology Season, tel Es-Safi, Bible Places

Apostle Paul and the Book of Deuteronomy:

It has long been recognized that Deuteronomy, Isaiah and the Psalms were the most frequently quoted parts of the Bible by the writers of the New Testament.  In a new book, David Lincicum evaluates Paul's use of Deuteronomy in his writings. 

Mohr Siebeck, the publishers, provide the following comments on the new title:

Attending to the realia of ancient practices for reading Scripture, David Lincicum charts the effective history of Deuteronomy in a broad range of early Jewish authors in antiquity. By viewing Paul as one example of this long history of tradition, the apostle emerges as a Jewish reader of Deuteronomy. In light of his transformation by encounter with the risen Christ, Paul's interpretation of the end of the Pentateuch alternates between the traditional and the radical, but remains in conversation with his Jewish rough contemporaries. Specifically, Paul is seen to interpret Deuteronomy with a threefold construal as ethical authority, theological norm, and a lens for the interpretation of Israel's history. In this way, the volume sets Paul firmly in the history of Jewish biblical interpretation and at the same time provides a wide-ranging survey of the impact of Deuteronomy in antiquity.

Lincicum's work appears to chart some new territory in the appreciation of Paul's writing that grounds him in a first century Jewish tradition rather than the creator of some new religion as he has so often being portrayed.

Tags: new testament, Apostle Paul, Old Testament, Judaism, Mohr Siebeck, David Lincicum, use of Deuteronomy

"Petrus im Rom" or Peter in Rome revisited

A pleasant surprise was included in a recent Review of Biblical Literature. It contained a review by Professor James Dunn of Durham University, Durham, United Kingdom, of a new title on a subject on which I've been writing: Peter in Rome. Professor Dunn is a highly respected New Testament scholar. He provided a review of Petrus in Rom: Die literarischen Zeugnisse or to the non-German readers "Peter in Rome: The literary testimony". This was a monograph written by Professor Otto Zwierlein, a noted writer on classical literature and philology and published by Walter de Gruyter at $137.00. So don't expect to see it appearing on any best seller lists. Subsequent examination finds that another review was published in the Bryn Mawr Classical Review (03/25/2010) by Pieter W. van der Horst a Professor at Utrecht University and a member of the Royal Dutch Academy of Sciences.

Firstly a word of caution. The author of this book is not a theologian, but a classical scholar of some standing. The reviewers are both respected scholars within the area of the New Testament and related Jewish literature. None appear to be adherents of the Catholic faith. But Horst notes that the approach of Zwierlein is not that of a polemic (streichschif) against the Roman church but "a very sober and thorough philological and historical analysis of all the literary documents from antiquity that are commonly supposed to underpin the Vatican myth". Dunn corroborates this view with the opinion that Zwierlein provides a "painstaking examination of the textual traditions relating to Peter's residence and martyrdom in Rome, in which Zwierlein finds little or no sound history."

Both reviewers note the points of departure that Zwierlein takes with previous writers on this subject. Zwierlein's understanding that the use of Babylon in 1 Peter 5:13, not as a cipher for Rome but as "a metaphor equivalent to Jas 1:1 'in the diaspora' and hence equivalent to 'in exile'" is quickly noted.  That is a new approach to the use of Babylon in 1 Peter that I have never noted before and judging from Dunn's literary raised eyebrow, he has never seen or considered previously. 1 Clement is also re-dated to the second century and Zwierlein argues that Clement simply bases his detail of Peter and Paul on Luke's writings in the Acts of the Apostles. Such a dating is a departure as of recent date; some have been seeking to date the writing of 1 Clement into the 60's of the first century. Similarly, the Epistles of Ignatius are noted to contain later interpolations or are the product of the late second century which makes them unreliable evidence for the subject at hand.

Dunn records that Zwierlein's thesis is that the idea of Peter being martyred in Rome developed in the mid second century as a response to the challenge to the church from Gnostic ideas and groups that were using Simon Magus as a focus. Horst notes that "[h]e proves how in this process of anti-Gnostic struggle, which went hand in hand with the consolidation of the monarchic episcopate, developments that took place in the second half of the second century were retrojected to the middle of the first century (as happened so often) in order to provide them with apostolic authority." This idea is of interest as it is the same point I sought to make in "The Birth of a Legend".

Both reviewers note the care and detail given to the textual and philological analysis by Zwierlein, which is clearly the man's forte.

Dunn concludes with an interesting wish for Zwierlein. While accepting the plausibility of Zwierlein's argument,  Dunn notes his failure to connect with a lengthy article on this subject written by Richard Bauckham "The Martyrdom of Peter in Early Christian Literature" (ANRW 2.26.2:539-95). This is an interesting article and I'm indebted to Professor Dunn for giving me the segue to discuss it here. I read the article in preparation for my own writing on the subject and then put it aside, hoping to be able to write on Bauckham's approach subsequently. 

The article in question provides a comprehensive introduction to the earliest literature relating to Peter being in Rome. While a useful article as Dunn notes, my evaluation of Bauckham's article has a strong negative aspect.  Bauckham starts his examination of all the literary testimony with the New Testament "evidence" as he sees it. He reads 1 Peter 5:13 as being a cipher for Rome. However, he then approaches the rest of the New Testament with the ‘fact' that Peter was truly in Rome and finds numerous New Testament allusions to support his conclusion. However, if those same texts were examined without such a precondition, then the same readings would not be reached. To my mind, Bauckham establishes his conclusion by circular reasoning, which then influences the remainder of his work so that it lacks the objectivity for which he is normally known.


Tags: new testament, Babylon, Rome, James Dunn, Zwierlein, Petrus im Rom, diaspora, Richard Bauckham, Pieter W van der Horst, Peter in Rome

Early Manuscripts Answer Modern Question about Sacred Names

Should we use the Greek name Jesus to refer to the Son of God?

A feature of the 20th century has been the rise of a movement known as the Sacred Name Movement (SNM). Adherents believe that the Hebrew divine names are the essential names of God, and that those names should be used and not translated into other languages. For instance, the English name Jesus is considered a pagan name that should only be used in its Hebrew form of Joshua or more correctly Yehoshua.

The past century has seen a bonanza of early texts become available through archaeology. Today we have the benefit of being able to read and analyze texts that were written before and shortly after the time of Jesus Christ. This provides us with a new window into this idea. What do these texts tell us about the question of sacred names?

P52 is a fragment of papyrus that records part of John 18 and 19, while P66 contains most of the Gospel of John. P52 is considered the oldest New Testament text known presently, but both manuscripts have been reliably dated to the early part of the 2nd century. The Gospel of John was not written until late in the first century, so P52 and P66 are very early copies--within 50 years of the original. They show that the Greek name ‘Jesus' was being used and treated with reverence.  

P66 John 1 
 John 1 in P66


Beginning in the period of the second temple, Jews did not utter the name of Yahweh, substituting the term Adonai in Hebrew or Kyrios in Greek. The name was apparently only used by the High Priest on the Day of Atonement. Greek texts of the Old Testament discovered as part of the Dead Sea Scrolls show how this sensitivity to the name was handled. The translators of the Scripture into the Greek language made a practice of writing the name YHWH, known as the Tetragrammaton, either by using Paleo-Hebrew characters or by abbreviating the title in Greek as IA- (Ja- or Ya-). The intention was to highlight to the reader that the name should not be pronounced. A third letter was added to provide the grammatical case--whether the Name was used as a subject or object in the sentence--thus maintaining the grammatical rules of construction.
That the likes of P52 and P66 are valid texts to consider is made clear by the way in which they continue to abbreviate the names of the Father, God and Jesus Christ. They are normally reduced to two or three letters in which the last letter changes according to the grammatical use--see above--and the name is highlighted with a line over the abbreviation. Jesus is abbreviated as Ιη-, (transliterated into English as Je- or Ye-).  Christ is abbreviated as Χρ- (literally Chr-). The word God is recorded as Θ- while Father is shown as Πρ- and Lord as Κ-. These abbreviations clearly derive from the Greek terms and not the Hebrew. All early manuscripts of the New Testament were written solely in upper case letters (uncials), so the abbreviations used above would have been capitalized. I have used upper and lower case for clarity as some Greek letters are easier to recognize in the lower case. Hence we can depend on the fact that the names of the divine Beings were recorded in Greek and not Hebrew. A reader of the text would read the Greek title and not the Hebrew. Conversely, the Aquila translation of the Scriptures in Greek, created and used by the Jews in the second century after Christ, continued to use the Tetragrammaton in Paleo-Hebrew characters.

The question should rightly be asked as to why the scribes abbreviated these names. Clearly the Jewish practice began to avoid the usage of the Tetragrammaton.  But we should note that they did not appear to handle the term Elohim in the same consistent manner. With the New Testament being recorded in the Greek language a problem arose that did not exist in Hebrew. Scribes writing in Hebrew differentiated between words as we do today by the use of spaces. Greek was not written with spaces between words. Spaces appeared only at the end of a sentence.  By abbreviating, there was less chance of misspelling the name and with over marking the names respect was shown as it would not be read as part of another word by mistake. As a result the reader would not take the name of God in vain.

This is clear documentary indication that the early followers of Jesus Christ did not place any importance on the Hebrew names as the Sacred Name Movement would claim, but translated the names into the language that was being used for the proclamation of the Gospel and the instruction of the Church. 

We can therefore conclude that the earliest available texts of New Testament writings deny the validity of the sacred name concept.

Tags: Dead Sea Scrolls, Greek, Hebrew, Tetragrammaton, Sacred Names, Early Papyrii, P66, P52

Noted Jewish Scholar Dies: Impact on Studies of New Testament

Jacob Milgrom, a noted Jewish academic and Biblical commentator, died last weekend in Jerusalem at the age of 87. Professor Milgrom will be long remembered for his work on the priesthood in ancient Israel and especially the aspects of ritual purity that were required of the priests and the community. His commentaries on both Leviticus--published as part of the Anchor Yale Bible Commentary Series (3 volumes) as well as the Augsburg Fortress Continental Commentary Series--and the Book of  Numbers, published in the JPS Torah series--will form the basis of study in this area for considerable time. 

The impact of purity is often overlooked in terms of the New Testament. Christian scholarship, in a desire to create distance from Jewish antecedents, often overlook the importance of this within the early church. Most of the healing miracles that are detailed in the Gospels were undertaken by Jesus Christ to enable the sufferer to become "clean" and hence avoid the stigmatism of being impure. The great debate in the early Church was the application of the purity laws to gentiles who wished to be followers of the way.

Milgrom has thus made a sizeable contribution to further studies in this field.

As a prolific scholar, Milgrom had just finished a section of a new commentary on the Prophet Ezekiel for the Anchor Yale series.

Tags: new testament, gentiles, New Testament Studies, Jacob Milgrom, purity, priesthood, healings, Leviticus, Ancient Israel

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