Tag Archives: Second Temple

Why Did Matthew’s Nativity Story Have References to Gold, Frankincense, and Myrrh?

Whenever I hear the word “myrrh,” I can’t help but remember a comedy bit by Cathy Ladman (note: you may not be able to view that video in your region). She tells us:

My best friend is Lutheran and she told me when Jesus was born, the Three Wise Men visited him and they brought as gifts: gold, frankincense and myrrh. Myrrh? To a baby shower?

So in my head, “myrrh” is always pronounced with a New York/Brooklyn accent.

But seriously, why did those mysterious men from the East bring those three particular gifts to Bethlehem?

St. Albans Psalter, The Three Magi following t...

St. Albans Psalter, The Three Magi following the star (Photo credit: Wikipedia)

Gifts fit for a king of kings

In general, modern scholars have explained Matthew’s choice of the three gifts as simply items fit for a VIP. We shouldn’t worry too much, they argue, over their specificity. For example, in his commentary on Matthew, John Nolland says:

No particular symbolism should be attributed to the individual items making up the present from the Magi: as expensive luxury items the gifts befit the dignity of the role for which this child is born. An allusion to Is. 60:6 is possible: Israel being glorified in the person of the messiah by the wealth of the nations. (Nolland, 2005, p. 117)

According to this view, Matthew intended no deeper meaning. And yet we still have that nagging suspicion that something more is going on here. After all, as Nolland himself notes more than a thousand pages later, Mark wrote that Jesus, while hanging on the cross, had refused wine mixed with myrrh. But Matthew changes the story so that the wine contains gall instead of myrrh, and rather than simply refusing it, Jesus tastes the mixture before turning it down. Did Matthew consciously move the myrrh from Jesus’ death scene to his nativity?

Myrrh oil for anointing

Margaret Barker, in Christmas, The Original Story, reminds us that myrrh was originally a vital component in the oil of the temple, however: read more »

Christ among the Messiahs — Part 2

What “Messiah” meant at the time of Paul and the earliest Christians

Continuing with notes from Christ among the Messiahs: Christ Language in Paul and Messiah Language in Ancient Judaism

by Matthew V. Novenson


christamongmessiahsThe messianic idea

We saw in Part 1 that interpreters of Paul have confidently concluded that whatever Paul meant by χριστός he did not mean “messiah”, but modern studies of messianism have shown that the meaning of “messiah” remains an open question.

Understanding what was meant by “messiah” was much simpler throughout the nineteenth and early twentieth centuries. Jewish and Christian scholars alike took for granted the existence of “the messianic idea” that was widely understood throughout the period of ancient Judaism. The evidence for this idea was not found in every text that made mention of a messiah, but it could be cobbled together by combining motifs from different documents.

So the Christian scholar, Emil Schürer, on the basis of the Apocalypse of Baruch and the fourth Book of Esdras, showed that this messianic idea entailed the following:

  1. The final ordeal and confusion
  2. Elijah as precursor
  3. The coming of the messiah
  4. The last assault of the hostile powers
  5. Destruction of hostile powers
  6. The renewal of Jerusalem
  7. The gathering of the dispersed
  8. The kingdom of glory in the holy land
  9. The renewal of the world
  10. A general resurrection
  11. The last judgment, eternal bliss and damnation

Jewish scholarship did not substantially differ, as seen from Joseph Klausner’s list of ingredients that make up the messianic idea:

  1. The signs of the Messiah
  2. The birth pangs of the Messiah
  3. The coming of Elijah
  4. The trumpet of Messiah
  5. The ingathering of the exiles
  6. The reception of proselytes
  7. The war with Gog and Magog
  8. The Day of the Messiah
  9. The renovation of the World to Come

Klausner conceded that no single text sets out this complex of ideas in full, but these points nonetheless are what the disparate texts mean when put together.

In other words, if a literary text lacks some of the pieces, that is the fault of the text, not of the messianic idea. The idea exists prior to and independently of the texts. (p. 37)

The messianic idea psychologized

What is more, in most modern accounts the messianic idea is described in specifically psychological terms: It is the force that animates the pious Jewish hope for redemption, either throughout Jewish history (in Jewish treatments) or at the time of Christ (in Christian treatments).

In this train we find discussions of the messianic idea arising out of a tenacious belief in a better future despite overwhelming troubles facing the present. Some authors have seen this as one of Judaism’s special gifts to the world alongside monotheism and ethical codes. Scholarly study has accordingly been less about the messiah figure than about the religious attitude and ideology that was the backdrop to various beliefs in such a figure.

The messianological vacuum

The concept of the “messianic idea” in Judaism started to unravel at the end of the Second World War with the discovery of the Dead Sea Scrolls. Scholars increasingly argued that the words for “messiah” and “christ” in the Second Temple period “had no fixed content” (De Jonge) and may even have had no special significance or meaning at all (James Charlesworth, Jacob Neusner, William Scott Green). They were labels that could be, and were, applied to a wide variety of persons and things. read more »

The (Literary) Servant in Isaiah and (the Literary) Jesus in the Gospels

Some thoughts that occurred to me after reading Ulrich Berges’ article that I outlined in the previous post – – –

One sees in Isaiah an overlap between the Servant as Israel and the Servant who is the personal prophet, or more strictly the personification representing a prophetic community.

Such a literary technique — constructing or attributing to a literary persona the issues and experiences being grappled with by the authorial community — is not unique to Isaiah. It is found in relation to David, Jeremiah, Judith, Daniel, Ezra, the mourner in Lamentations.

One sees an overlap between Jesus as an epitome of Israel at the opening of the Gospel of Mark (going along with the majority view of this Gospel being the first written of the canonical Gospels) and Jesus as a unique person, too. read more »

The diverse Jewish religious environment of Paul outmatches the imagination of Borg and Crossan

Following on from this previous post . . . . .

Borg and Crossan (B and C) (The First Paul) attempt to argue that despite Paul’s clear assertions that he sought to preach only “Christ crucified” and that “Jesus is Lord”, that this could not possibly have been true:

[W]e think the notion that Paul’s message was primarily or exclusively about the death of Jesus and not his life is highly unlikely. Indeed, we find it impossible to imagine. As an illustration, imagine a conversation between Paul and someone he sought to convert. Imagine, for example, Paul’s conversation with Lydia (Acts 16:13-15). (p. 126)

Borg and Crossan then portray Lydia as a very capable and intelligent woman (she was a seller of a luxury item) who was a gentile “God seeker”.

Now imagine Paul telling Lydia about Jesus. Imagine, also, that he focuses on “Christ crucified” (and also, of course, on “Jesus Christ is Lord”). One cannot imagine the conversation going very far before Lydia asks, “Well, this Jesus you talk about who was crucified and then raised from the dead, what was he like?” Paul says, “Never mind what he was like — what really matters is that he was the Son of God who was crucified and died for your sins.” Such an answer would have had no meaning for her. It would have been a conversation stopper.

For Paul to have told her about Jesus’s death would have had no meaning unless he also told her about what Jesus was like, about the kind of person he was. What was this person like who got crucified? What did he stand for that led to his execution by the powers that ruled his world and then his resurrection by God? Who was the Jesus who is now Lord? Proclaiming “Christ crucified” could not (and still cannot) exclude talking about what Jesus was like, what he taught, and what he stood for.” (pp.126-127)

It simply does not occur to many bible scholars (Borg and Crossan are not alone) who are, to a large extent, essentially supported  by various Christian communities, to re-examine their historicist assumptions that force them into the position of having to make up imaginary scenarios like the one above to support their arguments. There is simply no evidence that Paul was ever obliged to, or ever did, discuss the pre-crucifixion life and character of an historical Jesus. The evidence that we do have actually speaks against any idea that he did do this. But the assumptions from which Borg and Crossan are working force them to imagine that Paul must necessarily have preached something akin to one of our four narrative gospels, Matthew, Mark, Luke or John.

I’m a bit embarrassed to admit now that I once thanked Crossan for helping me appreciate the importance of “historical methodology”. Well, his Historical Jesus did take me a long way forward from where I had been until that time. But boy have I learned so much more since. Mostly what I’ve learned since is not that hard, really. Simply study the historians and classicists of nonbiblical ancient history and literature topics and apply their methods consistently to the biblical topics too. No favourites or disciplines with special rules to make them somehow exceptional cases. (Okay, I had several years studying ancient history as an undergraduate so I guess it’s a bit easier for me than some others. But I’m trying to share on this blog.)

What else could Paul possibly have preached?

Just what he said he preached. Christ crucified, for starters. Why is this a problem for most? Because, I suspect, we start out with assumptions of Jesus’ historicity. The gospel crucifixion scene consists of only the last few chapters of each of the gospels. It is not enough of a narrative on its own. It needs all the earlier bits like the healings, the miracles, the teachings, the crowds and conflicts, to mean anything much. But all of these are generally acknowledged as having been written long after Paul.

All this starts to make more sense when we understand that first century c.e. Judaism was not the rigidly “monotheistic” cult that we associate with later rabbinism and today’s Jews. Whether we follow Margaret Barker and her The Great Angel : a Study of Israel’s Second God (which proposes that Judaism before the fall of the Temple in 70 c.e. contained factions that effectively still retained memories of El, Yawheh, Asherah as distinct yet all divine beings) or James F. McGrath and his The Only True God : Early Christian

Monotheism in Its Jewish Context (which argues that what passed for “monotheism” in the first century was a broader definition than we allow today), one soon learns that Judaism before the fall of the Temple was not the same as what it became in the second century.

Just a few drops to indicate the incredible diversity of Second Temple religious beliefs among Jews, which later rabbinic Judaism attempted to deny:

  1. For some Jews, individuals such as Jacob existed in heaven before they appeared on earth, as we learn from The Prayer of Joseph.
  2. And some wrote of subordinate heavenly beings with names like Yaoel, a contraction of Yahweh and El, as in The Apocalypse of Abraham, a text with remarkable echoes of the Gospel of John.
  3. Some factions also dedicated themselves to the study of “hidden wisdom” and roles of angels, as we learn from apocalyptic texts like the Book of Enoch.
  4. Even the New Testament cannot avoid reference to these narratives of great powers in heaven, including their Enochian source, as we see in Jude.
  5. For others, such practices had to be denounced and expunged, as we see from the survival of the texts that have since become the Jewish Bible and Christianity‘s Old Testament.
  6. I have also discussed in depth Levenson’s exploration of how the Isaac story among some Jews apparently became transformed into a death and resurrection narrative by the Second Temple period.Apocalyptic literarature of Second Temple Judaism
  7. And first century Jewish philosopher Philo also speaks of the Logos as a second god.
  8. Recall also the varied myths of Jacob’s Ladder,
  9. and speculations that changed the original Aramaic meaning of Son of Man in Daniel.
  10. and the “two powers in heaven” “heresy” with Metatron being found in the place of God in heaven according to visionary narratives.
  11. and those strange references in the New Testament and other unorthodox Jewish literature to Melchizedek
  12. and how seriously should we read take the description of a woman in Revelation being clothed with the sun — surely an obvious allusion to her divinity — who bore a child who was not crucified on earth but whisked immediately to heaven?
  13. and the survival of the Ugaritic divinities in various forms in the apocalyptic literature, and Margaret Barker’s discussions of the distinctions between El and Yahweh even in the OT.
  14. and the cosmic-spiritual meanings attributed to astronomical data, including within Mithraism of the same era.
  15. and the Qumran community with texts discussing unorthodox messiahs
  16. and Samaritan traditions, some involving John the Baptist,
  17. and some scholars suggesting a link between Simon the Sorcerer in Acts and Paul, and Damscus traditions
  18. and what do the above suggest about Paul’s reference to “the god of this world” who is responsible for the blindness of mankind and “the rulers of this age” or “the princes of this world“. In what sort of theological framework was he immersed?
  19. and what did he discuss among converts about the meaning of his vision of Jesus, and the times he felt himself taken up to the different levels of heavens, and the meanings of the “marks of Jesus” in his hands, as he also mentions in his letters, and the power of angels from heaven to preach, and what he meant by Christ being revealed “in him”, and being “set forth crucified” before the very eyes of the Galatians?
  20. To answer, these contents of Paul’s letters ought not to be overlooked as embarrassing oddities. We need to seriously consider how Christianity could have been so overwhelmingly dominated by Marcionites and Valentinians in the early second century, and that it was only as that century wore on that current orthodoxy began to gain the upper hand. Recall how the orthodox (Tertullian?) could even say that Paul was “the apostle of the heretics”.

Paul’s letters need to be read against this three dimensional context of Jewish religious speculation and writings, not just through the two dimensional OT and modern Christianity perspective.

Once we leave behind the monochrome Judaism of our OT and begin to enter the far richer and more complex world that was first century c.e. Judaism then Paul’s letters begin to need less creative imagination from Borg and Crossan to explain. Lydia was a capable and articulate woman who may well have been engaged by a theological-cum-philosophical discussion about powers and beings of heaven and what they offered anew for people like her on earth. Or maybe there was much allegorizing, as we find in the first gospel of Mark.

The Gospel of Mark, seen by many as reflecting the theology of Paul, allegorizes the crucifixion to indicate the overthrow of the demonic powers of this earth and the opening of the gateway (cross/ecliptic . . .) between heaven and earth, an event privatized for Jesus at his baptism, but made available to believers with the tearing of the veil (representing heaven with its pattern of stars) that had hitherto separated the place of God from the place of humankind. Paul’s cross fits in well with theologies of the overthrow of demonic or “lesser god” powers, and declaring just and saved all who believe in their “oneness with God” through the cross, symbol of giving up all their earthly desires, and symbol of the gateway between heaven and earth.

I suspect Paul taught the sorts of things he wrote about. He discussed why and how circumcision was no longer valid because of the complex meaning — hitherto a mystery, as he says — of the crucifixion of Jesus. He taught about how a new way of relating to God could be based on faith in a crucified Messiah, much as Stoics could teach of a new way of living and relating to the cosmos through the denial of the flesh (see Engberg-Pedersen — will do some posts on his work some time). In both, new communities arose out of such teachings. All of this is lost to modern readers who are fixated on an historical interpretation of a narrative that in its original form was clearly allegorical — see my notes on Gospel of Mark on my vridar.info site.

By no means am I claiming that the above points as presented like this are proof or even linking evidence that Paul did teach something more esoteric than a biographical narrative. I can do no more in this post than point out the religious environment and suggest alternatives. There is certainly no evidence for B’s and C’s imaginative scenario — quite the contrary.


A capable, intelligent, “God-seeker” like Lydia was also immersed in this world of theological diversity, and no doubt would have been wrapped in any such discussion. The original narrator of the tale, the author of Acts and Luke, however, was a proto-orthodox Christian opposed to such speculations. For him, the literal interpretation of the narrative of Jesus was destined to replace the heretical speculations the original devotees of Paul clung to.

The crucifixion has no meaning without resurrection?

This is certainly true according to B and C. But if that was really true for Paul then one must remain at least somewhat perplexed by his frequent separate treatment of them – even sometimes discussing the meaning of the crucifixion without any reference to resurrection at all. When Paul does discuss resurrection, it is to affirm life after death and the ongoing Lordship of Jesus. These are not, contra B and C, presented as “answers” to the crucifixion. The death of Jesus has its own salvific value for Paul quite apart from any discussion of a resurrection. But this is another topic if I need to pull out the citations etc to make the point. Later. Enough blogging for one weekend.

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