Monthly Archives: September 2009

The Bible’s “Historical” Writings: Histories or Historical Novels or . . .?

Comparing Modern and Biblical “Histories”

The idea of history as a scholarly attempt to explain “what really happened in the past” is a relatively young European invention. The “first modern historian” is said to be Edward Gibbon (his History of the Decline and Fall of the Roman Empire was published 1770’s-1780’s); the acknowledged founder of modern scholarly and “evidence-based” history is nineteenth century’s Leopold von Ranke, although many students of history today are influenced by E. H. Carr‘s revision of von Ranke’s idea of the objectivity of “facts” (1961).

Bible authors did not think of writing history in this modern European way. In The Canaanites and Their Land Niels Peter Lemche writes:

Rather than writing history, the Israelite historians composed a novel, the theme of which was the origin of Israel and its ancient history. (p. 158)

Lemche unpacks this a little: read more »

Bible’s characters in the wrong plays

Continuing from Little Known Questions . . .

A stone monument constructed by an Assyrian monarch around 850 b.c.e. makes mention of the biblical king of Israel, Ahab, and another king named in the Bible, Hadadezer of Syria. This is the famous Kurkh stele.

The Assyrian king, Shalmaneser III, uses this stone to boast of a victory at the Syrian city of Qarqar on the Orontes River. (See the Battle of Qarqar web page.) It is debatable whether the Assyrian victory was as resounding as the king boasts, but the most interesting detail about the inscription for many is, of course, its mention of Ahab, a Biblical king of Israel.

The stele lists about a dozen kings, led by the Syrian king Hadadezer, who were in alliance against Assyria. The inscription boasts that all these were smashed and routed by the Assyrian forces.

That is, Ahab, the king of Israel whose capital city was Samaria, was in alliance with the Syrian king against the expanding Assyrian empire, and that he suffered a terrible major defeat.

Shalmaneser claims to have destroyed 2,000 Israelite chariots and an army of 10,000 of Ahab’s Israelites fighting alongside Syrian allies.

The curious thing is, however, that in the first book of Kings in the Bible, from chapter 16 on when the story of Ahab begins, Syria is always an enemy of Ahab and Israel. Israel and Syria are at constant war with each other. The attempted Assyrian conquest that brought Ahab and the Syrian king together is simply not mentioned in the Bible at all. In fact, the Bible gives no indication that Assyria emerged on Israel’s horizon until the Second Book of Kings, chapter 15.

Furthermore, the biblical narrative claims that Ahab’s Syrian contemporary was not Hadadezer (or Adadidri in Assyrian) but Ben Hadad.

There are other Assyrian monuments, too, such as the Black Obelisk. They inform us that the Assyrian kings Shalmaneser and Adad-nirari III eventually did conquer all of Syria and Palestine. Joash, king of Israel, is said to have paid tribute to Assyria.

According to the plot of the Biblical history, however, there is no such conquest of Israel. It never happened. Assyria, as mentioned above, is a late entrant in the drama of the Bible’s Primary History of Israel. Assyria’s role is to punish and remove Israel from the map for her sin against Yahweh. Before then, Israel is said to have been periodically punished through intermittent warfare with neighbouring Syria. Key players in this drama are the prophets Elijah and Elisha. Elisha even oversees the blinding of a Syrian army and leads them into the capital city of Samaria.

Unless the Assyrian monuments are completely fabricating campaigns and victories they never fought or won, we are left to think that the author of Kings has taken historical names and re-written them into a theological drama that was the work of his own creative imagination.

Shakespeare did the same with Hamlet, Prince of Denmark, and with Lear, legendary king in Celtic Britain, names and settings he could draw on from historical chronicles and use as vehicles for his own dramatic themes.

hidden broken link

notice someone has been trying to access a broken link on this blog but i’m unable to locate the post or comment where that link is. — current site for all my notes on archaeology (davies and in search of ancient israel) is at, but do please let me know if come across anything broken here. many thanks.

Surely not ALL reports of alien adbuctions, haunted houses and miracles are erroneous?

Eddy and Boyd in a classic case of special pleading argue for the reality of demon-possession today:

We do not wish to dispute that some, if not the majority, of these reports [of “demonization”] may be explained in naturalistic terms. But what justification is there for assuming that all such reports of the supernatural can be reductively explained in naturalistic terms? (The Jesus Legend p.70)

Roy Williams uses the same special pleading to argue for the reality of miracles:

My own view is that the consistency of such reports through human history is suggestive that miracles do — rarely — occur. Has the Catholic Church always been wrong when, as a precondition to conferring sainthoods, it has accepted reports of miracles? I doubt it. (See earlier posts on God, Actually)

This is the same as saying:

We know that natural explanations have been found for most things that we observe in the world, but there are still a few things we have not yet explained. Therefore we can have confidence that anything as of today that is still not understood in terms of natural processes is the work of supernatural powers.

Or even

If there was a natural explanation for cancer we would have discovered a cure for it by now, so we can be assured that only prayer and exorcism have the power to cure cancer.

This is certainly a strong indicator of a will to believe despite all first hand evidence to the contrary. The grounds for one’s belief are removed to hearsay, to the word of a friend of someone who knows someone who read about someone of impeccable honesty who said they saw someone who . . . . and so forth.  Or simply, my devoutly religious granny says she experienced an angel visiting her and she wouldn’t lie.

Or if we do experience something unexplained or mysterious first hand, how often are we willing to investigate alternative explanations or simply hold an opinion in abeyance until the answer does emerge.

I used to experience sleep paralysis, but since I had no idea what it was at the time, and being very religious, and comparing the experience with other reports I heard from fundamentalist friends, I did fear I was being visited by demons. One can begin to see all sorts of shapes and movements in the dark in that condition.

The Nightmare
Image via Wikipedia

Later when I read about some people’s experiences of alien abductions I recognized much of what they described as nothing more than that very mundane (admittedly scary) “sleep” condition. How one interprets or explains it depends on one’s cultural environment. Even though those alien abduction or visitation accounts added a few details that did not exactly fit sleep paralysis, I could recognize a tendency to somewhat exaggerate or mix one’s interpretations with the actual experience itself and so present something that was just a wee bit beyond the actual experience, even if personally believed to be part of it.

In a pre-scientific age there is really no way of arriving at a “scientific” explanation for such experiences, of course. So when Eddy and Boyd, and with them Roy Williams, suggest that there is no justification for believing that ALL prescientific (or current nonscientific) reports of unusual experiences have a natural explanation, they are sort of arguing in a closed box.

A passage in Mark’s gospel reminds me of The X-Files: I Want to Believe. Many people today still want to believe there is something to magic after all, that there is or was an Atlantis, that aliens do regularly visit us, that BigFoot/Yeti/Yowie really does exist, that King Arthur’s or the Bible’s adventures really happened, and that angels do exist and miracles happen today just as they always did, as we read about in the New Testament.

I seem to recall that as a child there were some stories I read that I agonizingly wished were true.

I once even had a dream in which I was playing with a toy truck, and so in love was I with this toy truck that as I felt I was coming out of a dream, my dream state told me that if I held on to the truck as tightly as I could in my dream, that when I woke I would find the truck in bed beside me. Well, I did wake up, and was disappointed, but not surprised, to find my clenched fists were holding absolutely nothing! 🙁

Viewing Luke’s “Great Omission” in a context of Marcionite controversy

The Gospel of Luke relied heavily on the Gospel of Mark but omits everything in Mark that lies between the miracle of feeding the 5000 to Peter’s acknowledgment that Jesus was the Christ. That is, after following much of Mark closely, Luke omits:

  1. Jesus walking on the sea of Galilee
  2. Healing many at Gennesarat
  3. Controversy with Pharisees over eating with unwashed hands
  4. Exorcising the daughter of the woman from Tyre/Sidon
  5. Healing (with saliva) the deaf-mute in region of Decapolis
  6. Feeding the 4000 in the wilderness
  7. Controversy with Pharisees over a sign and warning of leaven of Pharisees and Herod
  8. Healing the blind man (after two attempts)

I have in the past discussed the Gospel of Luke and Book of Acts within the context of the second century Marcionite controversy (e.g. Tyson’s Marcion and Luke-Acts) and it recently struck me that there are some features in this Great Omission that anyone editing an anti-Marcionite version of a gospel would want to ensure do not get a mention.

Firstly, Mark had written that the disciples thought they were seeing a spirit when they saw Jesus walking past them on water. If Marcion’s Jesus came down directly from heaven and had more the appearance of a man than the reality, this episode might well have lent itself to supporting a view of Jesus more ethereal than fleshy and boney.

Secondly, the events and miracles of this section are in gentile areas. If Marcion emphasized the foundational role of Paul in establishing the truth that the Jewish disciples of Jesus had failed to grasp, and that Paul’s role was directed among gentiles as a result of Jewish rejection of Christ, then Mark’s themes of Jesus working among both Jews and gentiles had to be revised.

Thirdly, the controversy with the Pharisees over eating with unwashed hands contained a message from Jesus condemning certain Jewish laws. It is not impossible that an anti-Marcionite propagandist would easily be persuaded to omit such an episode for its potential to be manipulated by Marcionites who were “anti-Jewish” to the extent that they regarded all Jewish laws as derived from either humans or the Demiurge.

Fourthly, the two-fold attempt to heal a blind man strikes most readers as having a symbolic relationship with the two-fold blindness of the disciples over the two mass feeding miracles (of 5000 and 4000). Once the second of these miracles was removed, being in a gentile area (see “Secondly” above), the Markan miracle lost its significance and merely made Jesus looked like Superman fast fading in the presence of kryptonite. And no-one wanted to advance Mark’s very human Jesus, one possessed by the spirit and who used spit to heal. There were more “spiritual” ways to counter Marcionism’s view of Jesus.

The arguments for canonical Luke-Acts being an anti-Marcionite product of the second century rest on degrees of probability and plausibility. Maybe if the “Great Omission” can indeed by explained in anti-Marcionite terms then we can add one more degree at least to the plausibility of the argument.

How Luke possibly increased the doubts of Theophilus

Luke opened his gospel with a solid reassurance to Theophilus:

Forasmuch as many have taken in hand to set forth in order a declaration of those things which are most surely believed among us, even as they delivered them unto us, which from the beginning were eyewitnesses, and ministers of the word; it seemed good to me also, having had perfect understanding of all things from the very first, to write unto thee in order, most excellent Theophilus, that thou mightest know the certainty of those things, wherein thou hast been instructed.

One major source of Luke’s, without any doubt, is the Gospel of Mark. If Theophilus had heard stories of Jesus from the Gospel of Mark he would surely have had many questions. Mark’s gospel is less a testimony of what happened than a discourse with readers to prompt them to examine their own status in the faith and understanding of Jesus and the Kingdom of God. Mark left hanging many questions such as whether or not Jesus met Peter and the disciples again in Galilee, whether Jesus was or was not the Son of David, the nature of Jesus and Christ before the baptism, the significance of his miracles and relationships with crowds, and many more.

We may speculate that Theophilus had many of these questions all sorted out from other sources now lost to us.

But let’s assume for a moment the questions were left hanging and he was waiting for Luke to do the thorough research to sort things out for him. Theophilus may have hired Luke on the understanding that he “had a perfect understanding of all things from the very first” and that he could write up a clear orderly account of exactly what happened.

If so, what would have been the results when Theophilus eventually read Luke’s final product?

The baptism of John

If Theophilus had any questions relating to Jesus being baptized by John then they were left hanging from miles high after he read Luke’s narrative. Luke simply avoided the scene completely and did not even state that Jesus had been baptized by John — merely that he had been baptized.

Anger in response to the leper’s plea

Since the earliest manuscripts of Mark’s gospel tell us that Jesus was angry when a leper approached him for healing (Mark 1:41), it is more than likely that Theophilus had heard of this strange rumour too. He would have been disappointed had he hoped for Luke to have set this detail in order for him, since Luke, even though he knew and used the Gospel of Mark, chose to omit altogether Mark’s (or anyone’s) comment on Jesus’ emotional response at this time (Luke 5:12-16).

Some of the best miracles

Theophilus probably had heard of not one, but two versions of Jesus miraculously feeding crowds of thousands in the wilderness, and wondered if they were one and the same event. He might especially have been curious to learn more about one version that held that the feeding was in gentile territory and specifically meant for gentiles (Mark 8:1-10). If so, then he probably felt a bit cheated by his commissioned researcher opting to simplify his story by omitting any reference to the latter. Not even a clue as to how the reports of the distinctive features of the second feeding miracle arose in the first place.

Theophilus must also have been wanting to know more about Jesus’ miracle of walking on the water. Was it true that Peter likewise walked on water with Jesus? Or were all the disciples totally cowed at seeing what they thought was a ghost? And what of the story coming with a narrator’s explanation that the disciples’ reaction was related to their not understanding the miracle of the loaves? Luke’s gospel gave him no satisfaction here, either. In fact, Luke did not even include the water-walking scene at all! Was it because Luke was unable to find out the facts of the matter despite his claims for full knowledge in his prologue?

Some have suggested that Luke’s copy of Mark was incomplete. Not only was the ending missing, but also the middle chapters covering events in Jesus’ life between his feeding the 5000 and the Peter-confession and Transfiguration scenes were for some reason also missing. But Luke’s prologue claims he had much more at his disposal than a single defective copy of one gospel. If we accept the claims of his prologue then we can only conclude that he deliberately omitted certain events and miracles that must have been widely known.

How did Jesus heal?

Theophilus must also have wondered about the methods of Jesus’ healing miracles. Did he sometimes use his spit? Did he sometimes need two attempts to fully restore someone? But Luke simply omits any reference to any such miracles without any explanation.

Attitude to gentiles?

Did Jesus really refer to gentiles as dogs (Mark 7:27)? Luke does not give the satisfaction of an answer. He simply ignores the scene known to contain these words of Jesus.

When Jesus returned from his transfiguration

Some reports Theophilus had heard probably implied something strange about the appearance of Jesus when he returned to the crowds after he had been with three of his disciples on the mountain and transfigured there before them (Mark 9:15). If his hopes were raised after reading Luke’s prologue that he would finally have that clarified they were dashed again when he found Luke ignored this detail altogether.

Various accounts about a certain blind man, and Son of David claims

Various reports reached Theophilus about Jesus healing a man referred to as a son of “timaeus” or of a man named Timaeus (with so many associations that raised), others spoke of a man named Bartimaeus. Moreover, they all said that this blind man had called Jesus the Son of David, contrary to other reports that Jesus had denied this claim. One might imagine Theophilus beginning to lose patience to find that his commissioned writer simply failed to use the name of this blind man, or give any clue as to how the various opinions arose in the first place.

Further, Luke still included that confusing report of Jesus apparently denying he was the Son of David, contrary to other passages in his gospel (Luke 20:41-44). Theophilus must have suspected Luke did a rush job to finish his gospel the night before he was due to present it.

Why did Jesus curse the fig tree?

A story like this surely went the rounds and Theophilus must have been anticipating Luke’s explanation. If Theophilus had paid Luke in full for his efforts he must have felt cheated to find Luke again opting to not make a single reference to this controversial rumour.

A mystery for a reader to understand

One very spare anonymous narrative about Jesus that raised more questions than answers (known subsequently as the Gospel of Mark) that Theophilus may have read implied a certain enigma in the expression, “abomination of desolation standing where it ought not” as a mystery for readers to decode (Mark 13:14). He would be interested in knowing what Luke had to uncover about this. But when he read Luke he found that, once again, the passage of most interest had simply gone totally AWOL.

Anointing where and by whom?

Theophilus undoubtedly craved to know more about the famous episode of Jesus’ anointing and how this act, performed with very expensive spices, prompted the disciples to turn against Jesus, and for one of them to even betray him. But after reading Luke’s gospel he reflected and realized he had not read of this at all. All he could recollect was that Luke, without explanation, did include another scene, in fact a very sensuous one, where a sinful woman with very expensive perfume wiped Jesus’ feet with her tears and hair. Was Luke really denying everything he had heard till now about that momentous event?

Theophilus no doubt made a note to call Luke in the next day to ask him to explain all he had written — and had not written!

Who were Alexander and Rufus?

No doubt Theophilus had heard or even read of a certain Simon carrying the cross of Jesus, and that this Simon was identified as the father of Alexander and Rufus. How could he fail to not be curious and want to know who these individuals were and what became of them?

Luke failed his curiosity once again. He wrote as if they had never existed.

Mysterious young men at the end of Jesus’ life

Gossip flies, especially about people reportedly going naked in public after dark, and no doubt everyone far and wide had heard of one of Jesus’ followers fleeing naked on the night of his arrest.

Maybe Theophilus was kind and suspected Luke was doing his best to stop malicious rumours by not repeating them.

But then what of that young man in the tomb he had heard about? Why did Luke not give any idea where that story came from? Why did he baldly speak of two angels in the tomb without any clarification to explain the account everyone knew till then?

Did Jesus ever meet up with the disciples again in Galilee?

One thing Theophilus had long wondered about was the facts of what happened to the disciples and Jesus after the resurrection. Everyone who seemed to know spoke of Jesus appearing, or at least promising to appear, to the disciples again in Galilee. But Theophilus was at a loss to find any clear report of the details. So he hired Luke to research and write up the full story.

The least he had expected from Luke was some reconciliation of any new information (that Jesus only appeared to his disciples around Jerusalem and forbade them from going to Galilee till much later) with the incomplete and confusing accounts about a Galilee appearance everyone had heard about before Luke wrote.

Result: Theophilus sent Luke packing to look for a new patron.

On the question of Bible reliability: Trust, good; Doubt, bad

It is nice to see Philip R. Davies (Memories of Ancient Israel) hit this one head on, page 134:

. . . verdicts of reliability or unreliability are morally equal.

Those in favor of the reliability approach sometimes imply that belief and trust are virtuous, while doubt and mistrust are bad.

Analogies . . .

. . . it is a legal principle in most countries that an accused person is deemed innocent until or unless proven guilty. However, “historically unreliable” should not be equated with “guilty” unless one assumes that the biblical narratives are legally obliged to be historically accurate.

. . . in law a single uncorroborated testimony may be accepted (if on oath), though ironically enough biblical and Jewish law requires two witnesses, implying a single witness should not be trusted.

. . . in investigative . . .  journalism . . . checking sources for corroboration is a matter of procedure, and doubting what one is being old (especially by politicians and public relations staff) is a standard attitude.

. . . the sensationalist press is generally unconcerned about these things and likes good stories.

First printing of Bible in English for Catholics. 1582, Rheims. Translator, Gregory Martin. On display at Arts House, Singapore, 2009.

Little known questions about the archaeological evidence for the Bible: The “Israel Stele”

I have just purchased Philip R. Davies’ Memories of Ancient Israel and got a bit of a shock when I read this about the Merneptah Stele:

After mentioning Canaan, and three Canaanite cities of Ashkelon, Gezer, and Yanoam, it runs, “Israel (?) is wasted, its seed is not.” Assuming we have Merneptah’s dates correctly as 1213-1203, and that the reading “Israel” is correct, the reference places an Israel in Palestine in the thirteenth century. The word read (probably correctly) as “Israel” also has a sign indicating a people and not a place. That makes the alternative reading “Jezreel” less likely — though Hebrew “s” and “z” could both be represented by the same Egyptian letter; also, since “Jezreel” is partly made up of the word for “seed,” the inscription could be a pun by a Semitic speaking scribe. It might also be considered that Merneptah would find it easier to fight in the plain of Jezreel than in the highlands. (pp. 90-91)

Why, after so many years of interest in the bible and archaeology, did I not know till now that there was an alternative possible reading to Israel in the Merneptah stele? Other questions have been raised commonly enough, but not that particular one — at least not widely in readily accessible public literature.

Here is one translation with, as per Davies, “Israel (?)” in context:

Tjehenu is vanquished, Khatti at peace,
Canaan is captive with all woe.
Ashkelon is conquered, Gezer seized,
Yanoam made nonexistent;
Israel is wasted, bare of seed,
Khor is become a widow for Egypt.
All who roamed have been subdued.

So well known and “secure” is this monument’s reference to “Israel” that it is even widely known as, simply, the “Israel stele”. The wikipedia article will cast not a shred of doubt on this reading. A cited webpage from that article with a full text and translation is just as dogmatic in its assurance of this reading.

Merenptah Stele (Israel Stele): the photograph...
Image via Wikipedia

This possibility of an alternative reading, even if the majority of scholars and others take the translation “Israel” for granted, is significant and worth drawing to everyone’s attention given the other anomalies associated with the stele and that are well known:

  1. If the monument speaks the truth, that Israel is annihilated, then biblical Israel never got started as a nation. But, of course, exaggeration is common enough in political propaganda — in any age. Alternatively, another people may have taken the name Israel after the demise of those mentioned by Mernepteh.
  2. There is little indication in the stele to inform us about the nature of the reference “Israel”, or the location to which it refers. See my notes on the Mernepteh Stele from Davies’ earlier book, In Search of Ancient Israel.
  3. There is no biblical reference to any event involving a clash between Israel and Pharaoh Mernepteh (or any Pharaoh of Egypt) in the thirteenth century. This is, presumably, the time of the biblical “Judges”, or even of the period of Joshua’s conquest.

I have seen so many references to this Mernepteh stele over the years and not once, till this week, did any of them give me the slightest indication that there was simply no room for debate about its reference to “Israel”.

I don’t think I would be the only one who is attracted to the possibility of the original reference being Jezreel, with a pun on the “without seed” beside it — and would be open to suggestions that such a personification in the pun could explain its reference to being a people, not a place.

But this is not the only stele with “issues”. Davies also surfaces many questions over the Shalmaneser (Kurkh) stele, the Sennacherib inscriptions, and even the Hezekiah “Siloam” tunnel supposed-inscription — and others. Will discuss one by one in future posts.

Is it valid to be reminded of religious scholars continuing a proud tradition, that can be traced back to the middle ages, of keeping the lay masses in ignorance?

Making Sense of the Cursing of the Seasonal Fig Tree

Obviously I don’t know what the author had in mind when he wrote about the cursing of the fig tree, but it’s interesting to think about the possibilities.

It is easy, even necessary, for readers to interpret Jesus’ cursing of the fig tree as a symbolic act. Unless we do, we are left with a narrative that depicts Jesus acting petulantly, irrationally, bizarrely. The narrative says he cursed the tree because it had no figs on it — even though it was not the season for figs (Mark 11:12-14).

But even after we do interpret this act as a symbolic gesture pointing to the destruction of Jerusalem, along with its temple and people, we are still left with the gospel narrative that treats the curse as a literal event in the life of Jesus and the apostles. A symbolic reader interpretation cannot erase that fact. And that fact is, on the face of it, nonsensical. The outrageousness of the act is then underscored by Jesus instructing his disciples, and by the narrator instructing his readers, that mere faith is enough to remove a mountain and toss it into the sea. Again, metaphor notwithstanding, the saying is calculated to astonish disciples in both the story and reading audience alike.

Starting from here and working our way back through the gospel it is worth noting that the fig tree curse is the last in a chain of miracles that defy the sense and order of nature.

The wilderness miracles

The gospel opens with John the Baptist struggling to survive in the wilderness on locusts and wild honey (Mark 1:6). The wilderness, we are reminded, by its nature is a place where people normally die for lack of food. Survival is possible only by resorting to extremities to find food. Jesus does not have this problem, nor is he troubled by the dangers of wild animals in the wilderness, since he is cared for (including, presumably, being fed by) angels the whole time. (In the Gospel of Mark Jesus does not even fast in the wilderness. Angels see that he has no need for that — Mark 1:13.)

Food (in particular grain and bread) is found in and around settled areas (Mark 1:31; 2:15-16; 5:43; 6:8-10; 6:36; 7:2, 27; . . .).  But the kingdom of God is like new wine that breaks old wineskins. Sometimes the fruits of Jesus’ preaching are so great that he and his disciples are unable to eat even in these places (Mark 3:19-20; 6:31). Contrary to nature and common sense, on one famous occasion when they had been unable to eat, they went into the wilderness (6:31). And we know the miraculous outcome — baskets and baskets of leftovers. But what was the point of this miracle? The disciples — and surely most readers — are not told. The narrator says the disciples did not understand this miracle, and that if they had, implies that they would have reacted completely differently when they saw Jesus subsequently walking on the water (Mark 6:51-52).

The sea miracles

The reader of Mark’s gospel learns that the disciples had been “sore amazed” when they encountered Jesus walking on water because, in their hard-heartedness, they had not understand the miracle of the loaves (Mark 6:51-52).

Now that explanation hits the reader with something of a shock. At this stage there is no obvious way for the reader to understand what it is about the miracle of the loaves that would enlighten the disciples about walking on water. The author appears to be playing with his readers as much as his literary characters at this point. Both are blind. The reader worries that he, too, fails to understand because of his own hard-heartedness. The natural response is, of course, to earnestly think about and look for the explanation.

The disciples were just as puzzled when earlier they had experienced Jesus commanding a storm at sea to cease. At that time, however, the reader knew what the disciples did not about the identity of Jesus. This time, however, the reader seems to be being confronted with smugness. He has much to learn and understand, too.

A common theme weaving together the miracles of the wilderness, the sea and the seasonal fig tree

I don’t know what the author had in mind when he wrote about the miracles of the loaves or the cursing of the fig tree, but I do wonder about the possibilities.

For Jesus, the fact of a wilderness is irrelevant when it comes to food supplies. Jesus came to preach in towns and villages, but on the few occasions when he was either forced into the wilderness, or when crowds followed him into the wilderness, they clearly did so without difficulty or hardship of any kind. No one apart from John the Baptist had to try to catch locusts to survive. Jesus and his disciples could not always eat in the civilized areas anyway because of the work of preaching the gospel. But Jesus later, on the night before his death, explained that he himself was the bread they ate. The author is clearly merging narrative and symbolism throughout his gospel.

For Jesus, wilderness, storm and sea are as irrelevant as death, and death is as irrelevant as sleep (Mark 5:39). Jesus can awaken one from death as easily as if from sleep. Even the physical condition of the world is irrelevant before the power and desires of Jesus. If he desires a leper to be cleansed, the leper is cleansed. If he desires food, then being in a wilderness means nothing. If he desires to get to a place on the other side of a sea, then contrary winds and an expanse of water mean nothing.

The world’s wilderness and sea areas, and its seasons too, are all subordinate to Jesus, his desires, and the kingdom of God. But why curse the seasonal fig tree? Why not have it miraculously shoot forth fruits out of season instead? That would just as surely have demonstrated contempt for the tree’s seasonal nature. The answer is, of course, bound up with the second half of the gospel being the time for Jesus to deny himself and suffer.

The miracles related to the elements — wilderness, sea and the seasons — demonstrate the meaninglessness of this world, even the physical world, to Jesus and the kingdom of God.

If the demons, the rulers of this world, are subject to Jesus, how much more the physical world itself. There surely is a symbolic meaning to Jesus cursing the fig tree that has not yet reached the season to produce figs and that symbolism is not hard to fathom. But at the same time there is the natural meaning of the narrative to consider.

Mark’s Jesus is far more radical than the Jesus portrayed in the gospels of Matthew and Luke. Matthew’s Jesus teaches his followers to conform to seasons, which are, after all, the foundation of God’s holy days:

Pray, too, that your flight may not take place in winter, nor on a Sabbath (Matthew 24:20)

Matthew also erases the reference in Mark to the fact that it was not the season for figs. Luke omits the fig tree episode altogether. In his second volume, Acts, he recounts the adventures of Paul being tied up with seasonal storms and observances of seasonal Jewish festivals.

Mark, on the other hand, portrays a Jesus who has come to demonstrate that even the natural physical world cannot satisfy Jesus and is doomed to be cursed and pass away. The kingdom of God renders irrelevant the natural cycles of this world, whether its seasons or the inevitability of death.

A young Palestinian boy helps pick zuccini in the Abu Toama family’s fields east of Khan Younis, where a solitary fig tree has survived repeated Israeli incursions November 4, 2008 in El Faokhari in the southern Gaza Strip. From


A silly argument encountered so often in biblical studies

A silly argument I encounter surprisingly often in biblical studies literature and discussion groups goes like this:

Perhaps the most fundamental methodological problem with MacDonald’s approach is that he has set things up so that not only do supposedly positive parallels and allusions support his theory, but so also do contrasts between Homer and Mark. These contrasts are counted as evidence of Mark’s conscious “transvaluation” of Homer. Thus both similarities and differences are taken as evidence of Mark’s use of Homer, which means, of course, that his thesis is rendered virtually unfalsifiable. (The Jesus Legend, p. 340)

Eddy and Boyd point to the widespread propensity to use this sort of reasoning by adding M. M. Mitchell and S. Dowd to those who have argued the same point in relation to MacDonald’s thesis. The same sophistic reasoning is encountered often enough in other contexts, too.

Comparisons can only exist where there are both similarities and differences. That’s a basic concept of nature one learns on Sesame Street or Play School. Without differences or contrasts we are left with nothing but “same, same”, reproduction, identity.

Eddy’s, Boyd’s, Mitchell’s and Dowd’s sophism would lead them to conclude that George Orwell’s Animal Farm has nothing to say about Soviet Russia, there are no spoofs of Cinderella or Red Riding Hood, the apostle Peter could never be compared with a contemporary well-meaning backslider, and there is no basis for comparing Jesus with Moses or Elisha or Superman.

No one doubts that Aeneas, the heroic refugee who sailed from Troy to establish a new home in Italy for those who became the progenitors of the Romans, was modelled in epic literature after Homer’s Odysseus. The similarities draw attention to the differences. Romans can take pride in their ancestor being more favoured by the gods than his Greek counterpart. The differences are at least half the point of the comparisons.

To be able to point to differences presupposes that there is a common type being compared. No common type, no differences can be observed. By taking both similarities and differences as evidence of a relationship between texts does not render a thesis unfalsifiable at all. It would only be unfalsifiable if one attempted to argue for contrasts in the absence of common types. But in that case (as in my illustration below) the whole idea of comparison simply does not exist in any meaningful way.

It is sheer sophistry, and illogical nonsense, to suggest that valid comparisons mean that only similarities ought be in evidence.


Spot the difference:

Homer Simpson
Image via Wikipedia

No common type, no basis for either similarities or comparative contrasts.

40 years ago: Denis Rohan and the Road to the Apocalypse


Some of my old friends in what was the Radio Church of God, which was later renamed the Worldwide Church of God, will remember well enough

Denis Michael Rohan who in 1969 brought their cult religion (and Australia) into international notoriety when he started a fire in the Al Aqsa mosque in order to hurry up apocalyptic end-time events.

Australian Radio National has what looks like a fairly comprehensive archive of interviews, videos, images, literature, court proceedings about Denis Rohan and what can lead a person to do such a thing. See their Background Briefing archive Rohan and the Road to the Apocalypse.

I suspect members of the Herbert Armstrong cult (Radio Church of God) at the time were more focussed on what the publicity meant for them — cultic fear of persecution and all that — to have noticed that this one time one person crazy event had a profound significance on Arab politics vis a vis the State of Israel. This is discussed in the Background Briefing archive. It appears that the threat of the destruction of this mosque actually catalyzed a united front on the part of the Arab states that not even the 1967 war only two years earlier had failed to accomplish.

One interesting point that emerged (new to me at any rate) was the notion of the Jerusalem Syndrome. Apparently (unsurprisingly) there is something about just being in the vicinity of Jerusalem that can activate unstable mental tendencies in some.

There’s an interesting comment by Tel Aviv Professor of Religion and expert on the Jerusalem Syndrome, Alexander Van Der Haven, at the end of a program interview:

You can either use religious language to make people more extreme, make people jihadists, or you can try to in the case of Islam, you can try to emphasise more moderate beliefs in the Qu’ran, more moderate traditions. So this is the very interesting thing of religion, that people tend to regard religious beliefs as very absolute, they mean one specific thing. But in reality you can do many different things with it. Somebody might have been able to convince Denis Rohan that you shouldn’t act upon your beliefs, this is something allegorical, instead you should pick flowers in this and this garden, and one might have been able to convince him. I think what you can learn from these cases, religion is very flexible, it can lead to the most aggressive destructive behaviour and it can also lead to more quietistic behaviour. The Jerusalem Syndrome is an instance of people who act in a very strange way on certain religious discourses and stories, which of course religion has, especially in Christianity, you have the Book of Revelation, in Judaism you have this emphasis on the Temple and the hope for the restoration of the Temple. So our religious scriptures offer these extreme possibilities. I think basically you can manipulate these for the good and for the worst.

It appears Rohan was converted to the beliefs of the Radio Church of God by well-meaning members while he was in a mental institution. Rohan came to see himself as The Branch prophesied to become king over Jerusalem — partly as a result of a message given from the “Rowan tree” outside the window of his mental institution room.

I seem to recall a rumour that he also found his name in the Bible as Nahor, which of course was the Hebrew right to left reading of Rohan.

The interesting potentials that can arise from our propensity to look for and find patterns around us!

Background Briefing also includes an interesting article by Scott Lupo, University of Nevada, describing one of the processes by which Armstrong persuaded many to join his church.

Download (PDF, 53KB)

No doubt Rohan found religion helped him become an outwardly healthy person in many ways, giving him a sense of purpose in life. But like so many things dear to humans, it is also a two-edged sword.

The Tel Dan Inscription — Setting the Record Straight

Note 09/09/2009 — Plan to re-write much of this post in a future update — have finally caught up with some of my library and now see some misleading generalizations and possible (minor) errors in this post.

George Athas, author of “the first comprehensive, systematic, and complete treatment of the Tel Dan Inscription as a whole” (Aufrecht, 2007), responded in 2006 to a confused critic who mistook him for a “minimalist”. Athas’s response, Setting the Record Straight: What Are We Making of the Tel Dan Inscription?, is unfortunately without cost only to those who belong to institutions subscribing to the Journal of Semitic Studies.

First some background:

The Tel Dan Inscription refers to a stele discovered in northern Palestine and originally erected, around 800 b.c.e., by a Syrian king with a message boasting of victories over kings. Its special significance is that it contains the word widely transliterated as “byt dwd”, and translated as “House of David”, meaning a royal dynasty of David, and by extension, the Kingdom of Judah. This is generally accepted as archaeological evidence for the existence of the biblical David. In this way the inscription has been interpreted through the biblical references to the House, or royal dynasty, of David.

A few other scholars who attempt to interpret archaeological finds independently of biblical references interpret the inscription as making a reference to a place. They compare, for example, place-names like Beth-lehem or Beth-el (literally “house of bread” and “house of god”), and suggest Beth-dwd/david is likewise a place-name, literally meaning “house of blessing”. Some of these scholars also present the case that even if the words did refer to the dynasty of David, that that would not prove the historical existence of David himself. Many ancient (and modern) royal dynasties claim mythical ancestors.

George Athas is not a “minimalist”. He writes of the united kingdom (of Israel-Judah under David and Solomon) that the Tel Dan Inscription “suggests that it was a reality.” So Athas takes a position about the biblical literature, in particular its Primary History, that considers it at some level a historical record about the past, and he also interprets the inscription through the bible narrative. He differs from the mainstream, however, in seeing it as a reference to “the city of David” (Jerusalem). (A so-called “minimalist” would accept that the biblical literature contains some details from past records but that whether its contents are historical or theological or other or from what era is another question entirely. Any particular nature of a literature’s relationship with artefacts needs to be demonstrated, not assumed.)

George Athas “setting the record straight”:

Athas argues strongly that the famous word on the stele, “Bayt-Dawid”, “is not a dynastic label for Judah, but rather a toponym referring to Jerusalem as a city-state. It is the Aramaic parallel to . . . ‘City of David’).”

His reasons for this conclusion are both simple and complex.

The simplest reason is that the inscription reads, “king of b-tdwd”. Athas points out that we would not expect the expression, “King of the House of David”. A king is not a king “of” their dynastic name. “[A] king does not rule a dynasty — he rules a kingdom, a specific area of land.”

The comparison with the Assyrian inscription of “The House of Omri” (applying to the dynasty of the northern kingdom of Israel) is beside the point. The Assryian inscription is a direct reference to the dynasty ruling Israel. The Tel Dan inscription is different because the expression is preceded by the word(s) “king of”.

The complex reason I will leave to reviewer Walter E. Aufrecht to sum up:

The suggestion that bytdwd is a toponym rests on the following: the noun ‘îr (‘city’ as in the Hebrew ‘îr dawîd, i.e., Jerusalem) is unattested in Old Aramaic. It is likely that the writer used the Old Aramaic word bayt to render the Hebrew ‘îr of ‘îr dawîd. Furthermore, the interchange of ‘îr and bêt “is certainly not unheard of ”: Athas cites Josh. 19:41, where the town of Beth Shemesh is referred to as ‘îr sms (p. 280). So the inscription is talking about a place which the Aramaic author knew as the “city of David.” I think this is a brilliant notion, though I confess it took me two close readings of Athas’s sometimes dense exposition to convince me. (p.67)

There is much more to Athas’s article since he is addressing the major points of a critical review of his book. I’ve zeroed in on the bits of most general interest here. Aufrecht concludes:

As far as I am concerned, Athas has solved the crucial and most contentious issue in the debate over the Tel Dan Inscription, the meaning of the letter sequence bytdwd. And he has done it, by and large, on sound epistemological grounds.

Athas does see this toponym as “evidence”, but not “proof”, that David was an historical figure.

Ninth century Jerusalem as a city-state?

This interpretation means that the city Bytdwd was originally understood by the Syrian author to be a city-state.

(Interestingly, this interpretation (based in a significant part on the context in which it appears) supports Thomas L. Thompson’s argument — see my previous post/s — that Jerusalem was principally a city-state as opposed to being the central administration centre of a larger political unit or state (Judah).)

But “city-state” sounds very grandiose for a site that archaeologists have established was really quite small at this time.

Athas addresses this notion. He explains, citing Gabriel Barkay:

We tend to define cities as large sites, well fortified, where the building density is greater than in sites termed villages. In biblical times, however, any place built by royal initiative or housing a representative of the central authority, even a small site or isolated fort, was called a city (‘ir).

My own thoughts:

My own thoughts are that it is worth remembering that the name of the capital cities of Italy, Greece and Assyria do not mean that Romulus, Athena and Asshur had any role in their founding. The land of Canaan does not, by its name, prove that Canaan was a literal son of Noah and progenitor of the peoples who settled there. The name of Europe is certainly not evidence for the historical reality of the Phoenician woman of that name who was abducted by Zeus disguised as a fine white bull. The city name Tarentum does not legitimize Taras as an historical figure. The city of Eryx does not establish the existence of Eryx the host of Hercules. Besides, before the emergence of biblical literature and its themes it may well be that “dwd” or “david” was a circumlocution for a deity (“the Blessed One”).

It is worth keeping in mind that in other circumstances, especially where there is less pressing need to find evidence to support biblical accounts, scholars are quick to explain that legends so often emerge to explain places, names and customs after the fact.

In the cases of Saul, David and Solomon, I am persuaded (partly through some of Thomas L. Thompson’s discussions) that these characters are depicted as three theological “types”: Saul the epitome of all that is outstanding in human righteousness and appearances, David the flawed and rejected one whose heart is in the right place and who is for this reason is especially loved by God, and Solomon who lets “having  it all” lead to his demise. These themes appear regularly throughout the Primary History (Genesis – 2 Kings) and through them all God’s highest, non-human righteousness and wisdom rules. They are all presented to us as theological exemplars. Without corroborating evidence it is rash to see any of these three as historical figures.