2022-10-03

Why Genesis 1-3 is Different from Other Myths — [Biblical Creation Accounts/Plato’s Timaeus – 3b]

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by Neil Godfrey

With thanks to Routledge, Taylor & Francis Group, for the review copy.

(continuing the series on Russell Gmirkin’s Plato’s Timaeus and the Biblical Creation Accounts) ….

If the authors of Genesis were inspired by Plato’s discourse on the origins of the cosmos in Timaeus how can one explain the obvious contrast between Plato’s lengthy scientific and philosophical reasoning and the simple narrative in Genesis 1:1-2:3?

To answer this question Russell Gmirkin [RG] begins by explaining that there were “seven distinct modes of Greek discourse on cosmogony” and that authors adapted their rhetoric according to the particular audiences each had in view.

1. Scientific Discourse: Natural philosophers most often wrote for their elite, wealthy and educated peers. “Schools” or “universities” were established by prominent thinkers (e.g. Plato’s Academy, Aristotle’s Lyceum) and cosmogonies were written to share the extended philosophical reasoning underlying their cosmogonies.

2. Revealed Myth: Parmenides of Elea wrote cosmogonies addressed to two different audiences. In Way of Truth he wrote a detailed scientific discourse for his educated peers. In Way of Opinion he wrote a cosmogony in the form of a myth that was being taught by the goddess Justice or Necessity.

Bust of Parmenides discovered at Velia (Wikipedia)

In this mode of discourse, the aim was not to achieve knowledge but to induce belief in the theories being presented. Here Parmenides appears to have anticipated Plato, who advocated implanting beliefs in the citizenry as a necessary precursor to achieving true knowledge in a select few . . . . It appears that Parmenides (like Plato) saw a social utility in presenting theories of cosmogony to the general public under divine authority, since he named the appropriate goddess as Necessity or Justice, “who steers the course of all things,” suggesting that a mythical account on cosmogony that recognized a divine steering principle was needed to ensure a pious and just citizenry. It appears that the populace was induced to believe not only that this account of the origins of the universe was divine, but also had the endorsement of the scientific educated elites. The poetic form of the discourse may have been intended to enhance its appeal to the masses. (pp. 66f)

3. Myth as Discourse (Enchantment): Plato taught that in an ideal government philosophers should rule and oversee all aspects of education from infancy to adulthood. The curriculum for the young had to consist of myths that fostered “good” behaviour. These myths needed to be attractive to all ages, especially the young, and hence were to be relayed in songs, poems, theatrical performances and public readings at festivals. Existing myths that told of gods were useful but first had to be censored by the philosopher rulers to remove from them every negative and immoral act of the gods. Nothing bad about the gods was to enter the minds of the citizens. Education was to encompass the whole society, from mothers telling infants nursery rhymes to entertaining performances (singing, reading, acting) for the young and adults.

The aim and intended reception of discourse by myth was to induce belief, and thereby implement societal conformity to theological and ethical norms. Myth, whether in the form of song, story or theatrical performance, was chosen as the medium for inducing belief, due to the pleasant, entertaining, enchanting character of the myth . . . Myth was thus the chosen rhetorical tool to condition the emotions and convey theological and ethical truths on a pre-rational level to intellectually unsophisticated audiences. (p. 68)

Genesis 1 reads as an authoritative story. It was not entirely a myth like other creation myths. It presented a scientific account of the moving power over the primordial chaos bringing about a series of separations that led to day and night, earth and sea, the spontaneous generation of life forms from the ocean, and so forth.

A story format was highly suitable for instilling beliefs about God’s fashioning of the universe for audiences of all ages and was easily understood by school children and even the youngest children, important target audiences under Plato’s system of education. (p. 68)

The second creation account (Genesis 2:4ff) follows up the cosmogony with a mythical narrative about the origins of animals and humans, the reason humans dominate the animals, the introduction of sexual reproduction and clothing, etc. It is a story easily understood by all, from the very young to the old. The beginning of the account may be a subtle reminder of Greek myths:

These are the generations of the heavens and of the earth when they were created . . .  — see Gen 2:4 for the Hebrew text

Continue reading “Why Genesis 1-3 is Different from Other Myths — [Biblical Creation Accounts/Plato’s Timaeus – 3b]”


2022-10-02

Genesis = Science + Myth + Theology — [Biblical Creation Accounts/Plato’s Timaeus – 3a]

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by Neil Godfrey

Here is the thesis that Russell Gmirkin [RG] is buttressing in Plato’s Timaeus and the Biblical Creation Accounts:

Plato’s writings, including Plato’s Laws, envisioned theologically trained educated elites ruling the nation and creating a national literature to shape the beliefs and character of the ordinary citizenry, both youths and adults (Gmirkin 2017: 255-61). The creation of the cosmogony of Genesis 1 should be understood as part of just such a national literary enterprise under the direction of the ruling class elites. (p. 75)
With thanks to Routledge, Taylor & Francis Group, for sending me a review copy.

The thesis has been the subject of earlier books that have been discussed in detail on this blog. In support of that interpretation RG analyses the Genesis creation chapter to demonstrate its relationship to Greek “philosophical” ideas and in particular, Plato’s Timaeus.

Anyone familiar with Timaeus will be immediately thinking, But Timaeus contains a very lengthy explanation of the origins of our cosmos and Genesis 1 is, well, extremely short. Yes, but Plato also said something else that is most pertinent to this discussion that is alluded to in the above quotation.  Hear out RG. I will do my best to present his analysis and comparisons fairly and accurately.

The ancient Greek science context of Genesis

Ancient Greek science was a process of inferring how and why the observable world came about and worked the way it did but the idea of carrying out experiments to test ideas had to wait for a future time.

We have clear demarcations between the study of the origins of the universe and the study of the origins of societies. Not so ancient Greek thinkers. For them, the “history of nature” bracketed all in one course the question of the origins of the universe, of life, of humankind, of social institutions, of technologies, of political systems.

The questions they asked were:

  • What was the nature and origin of the “stuff” from which the cosmos came about?
  • What were the forces (e.g. floating and sinking, separation of matter by winnowing), and the origins of those forces, that acted on that “stuff” to cause it to behave the way it did?
  • How did those forces cause the cosmos to come into existence?

The thinkers were not called “scientists”. Aristotle called them “students of nature” or “writers on nature” (see the Loeb edition of Aristotle’s Physics). Later authors called them “philosophers” and that’s the common label attached to them today. RG addresses the problematic state of the evidence for our knowledge of what these natural philosophers theorized but we do have some general ideas, however provisional, and he provides an interesting set of entries for them to enable us to get some idea of the intellectual context RG is arguing for Genesis 1. (The links are my own, of course, and not RG’s) Continue reading “Genesis = Science + Myth + Theology — [Biblical Creation Accounts/Plato’s Timaeus – 3a]”


2022-09-30

Genesis 1 “Amazing” “Unique” — [Biblical Creation Accounts/Plato’s Timaeus – 2]

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by Neil Godfrey

With thanks to Routledge, Taylor & Francis Group, for sending me a review copy.

The creation account in Genesis 1 is unlike other creation myths from the ancient world.

There are little hints in the chapter that the author was aware of more dramatic myths of gods fighting monsters and in the process creating the cosmos, but unlike those myths Genesis 1:1-2:3 appears to be . . .

. . . a radical purification and distillation of all mythical and speculative elements, an amazing theological accomplishment!

This account of creation is unique in this respect among the cosmogonies of other religions. . . . But the atmosphere of Gen., ch. 1, is not primarily one of reverence, awe, or gratitude, but one of theological reflection. . . . But just this renunciation also mediates aesthetically the impression of restrained power and lapidary greatness. (Rad 1972, 64)

In an earlier edition of his commentary Gerhard von Rad skirted along the sides of Russell Gmirkin’s thesis:

Some terms:
Ionic refers to one of the four Greek tribes: Ionians, Dorians, Achaeans, Aeolians
Natural philosophy: theories about the natural world, nature
Cosmogony: theories on the origin of the universe
Theogony: Account of the origin of the gods
Theomachy: Account of war among gods

One can speak . . . only in a very limited sense of a dependence of this account of creation on extra-Israelite myths. Doubtless there are some terms which obviously were common to ancient Oriental, cosmological thought; but even they are so theologically filtered . . . that scarcely more than the word itself is left in common. Considering [the author’s] superior spiritual maturity, we may be certain that terms which did not correspond to his ideas of faith could be effortlessly avoided or recoined. What does the term “tehōm” (the “deep”) in v. 2, the word for the unformed abysmal element of creation, still have in common with the mythically objective world dragon, Tiamat, in the Babylonian creation epic? Genesis, ch. 1, does not know the struggle of two personified cosmic primordial principles; not even a trace of one hostile to God can be detected! The tehōm has no power of its own; one cannot speak of it at all as though it existed for itself alone, but it exists for faith only with reference to God’s creative will, which is superior to it. In our chapter this careful distillation of everything mythological (but only this) reminds one of the sober reflections of the Ionic natural philosophers. (Rad 1961, 63)

But Rad was writing from the conventional perspective that what we read in Genesis was the product of centuries of thought, writing and re-writing. Rad seemed to think that his 1961 reference to the Ionic natural philosophers was even a potential distraction so he dropped it in the revised edition. For Gmirkin [RG] the Ionic philosophers were indeed the key to understanding why the creation account of Genesis is, as Rad observed, “unique”. But that possibility, as we noted in the previous post, has not entered into the discussion as a possibility until now.

Before addressing those “sober reflections of the Ionic natural philosophers” RG explores the different types of cosmogonies that the people of Israel surely knew about from their neighbours. His text is packed with details and references. It is not a quick, light, read. Ideas set out in one place reappear in support of a more comprehensive view later in the chapter. Fortunately, I am the kind of reader who appreciates more detail rather than less and recontextualized repetitions rather than dangerous shortcuts. To address the key ideas here, though, I need to stand back and rethink and distil all that I have read. (That’s part of my excuse for not posting sooner. Another reason is that I have been sidetracked with other books that have newly arrived on loan and in the post.)

Creation Myths

RG begins his survey of ancient creation myths with theogonies. The famous Greek one is Hesiod’s Theogony. The first god was Chaos and from Chaos was “born” Gaia or Earth, and so forth. You can see how it goes from a diagram I have borrowed from Karen Sonik‘s publication:

From Hesiod’s Abyss to Ovid’s rudis indigestaque moles

RG discusses the comparable anthropomorphisms of Babylonian and Canaanite gods. Those cultures have left us no comparable theogonies, however. Of particular interest, of course, is that for the Greeks it all began with Chaos: we are aware of a similar origin in the opening words of Genesis.

Slaying Tiamat – Wikipedia

A better-known class of myths are the theomachies. The Titan Kronos (the Roman Saturn) castrates Ouranos and inaugurates a new (golden) age in which humankind was created; later Zeus led his supporters in a war against Kronos and the other Titans; each successive event introducing a new era. But these Greek “wars of the gods” were not related to the creation of the cosmos. For that we turn to the Babylonian story of Marduk killing the sea monster Tiamat, cutting her body apart and using it to form the sky and earth – and from her blood creating the first humans who also incorporated some divine element from the slain god. Tiamat reminds us of the Hebrew word for deep as we saw in Rad’s quotation above. RG also draws our attention to further instances of overlaps with Genesis – Marduk being interpreted as light and wind which he used as weapons against Tiamat.

All of the above is far from the kind of creation narrative we read in Genesis 1.

When we come closer to our home of special interest, Canaan, we finally encounter stories that have surfaced to some extent in the Bible, but not in Genesis. Continue reading “Genesis 1 “Amazing” “Unique” — [Biblical Creation Accounts/Plato’s Timaeus – 2]”


2022-09-25

Biblical Creation Accounts and Plato – 1

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by Neil Godfrey

With thanks to Routledge, Taylor & Francis Group, for sending me a review copy.

Similarities between the Pentateuch and Greek literature have long been noted and discussed in scholarly literature, but most of those discussions have assumed that the Greeks and the authors of the biblical books were independently drawing on Asiatic stories or even that some Greeks were exposed to translations of parts of the Pentateuch. (Evangelia Dafni is one such scholar who today argues for that latter position; Franz Dornseiff once argued for the former.) Others have flatly denied any serious or significant analogies between the Pentateuch and Greek works, relegating supposed parallels to coincidence or over-active imaginations. That dreaded fourteen letter word comes to mind: “parallelomania“.

Russell Gmirkin [RG] has a new book, Plato’s Timaeus and the Biblical Creation Accounts: Cosmic Monotheism and Terrestrial Polytheism in the Primordial History. My blog posts on his two earlier books are archived at Berossus and Genesis and Plato and the Creation of the Hebrew Bible. I anticipate doing a chapter by chapter review of his new work on Genesis 1-11.

Genesis 1-11 or the Primordial History covers the span of time from Creation and the misadventures of the first humans, through the Flood and up to the Tower of Babel story. It stops prior to the introduction of Abraham and the beginning of Israel’s story. The Primordial History stages characters with enormous life-spans, a talking snake, angels with flaming swords, a god walking the earth, “sons of god” mating with women to produce “men of renown”, a world-wide flood that reminds us of the Epic of Gilgamesh and a divine intervention to confound the languages of humanity and scatter them across the earth. Before all of that we read how God created heaven and earth, beginning with the creation of light days before he made the sun! These chapters are clearly a different type of unit from the rest of the Pentateuch. Where does it all come from?

Even within chapters 1-11 exegetes have long noted a sudden break between the seven-day creation (1:1 to 2:3) on the one hand and the detailed account of the creation of Adam and Eve, the Garden of Eden, (2:4ff) on the other. How did two accounts, one seeming to contradict the other, come to be placed side by side? And what are we to make of the different names of God: Elohim and Yahweh Elohim?

Forgive me, but I have an aversion to the term “Near East” given its imperialist Eurocentric origin and perspective. Besides, from where I live in Australia the regions of the Levant and Mesopotamia are “Far West”.

The ideas explored in RG’s new book will be a challenge-too-far for some readers who have been immersed in the Documentary Hypothesis and its assumption that the writings of the Bible evolved over centuries from the time of the biblical kingdoms of Israel-Judah (from 900 BCE) and were more or less completed by the end of the Persian era in the fifth century, that is, before the conquests of Alexander and the onset of the Hellenistic period. This traditional view holds that the first five books of the Bible grew out of the literary matrix of Mesopotamia and Syria-Canaan. Possible Greek influence is not even considered.

In his earlier books RG explored the case for a Hellenistic date for the Pentateuch and this new volume is a continuation of those earlier works. His aim is to see what happens when we compare a wider range of possible influences — adding Greek data into the mix — on the Primordial History. I hasten to point out that RG by no means denies influence from the Levantine-Mesopotamian region. But the devils are in the details when identifying the most likely sources of transmission. It is not an either-or discussion but a modified form of both-and, albeit with some adjustments concerning what the evidence indicates about who was responsible for the transmission and when.

In his opening chapter RG explains

  • how he will go about identifying the sources behind the Primordial History

and

  • an overview of the history of the scholarly views of Genesis 1-11 and where his own research fits.

To what shall we compare thee?

Continue reading “Biblical Creation Accounts and Plato – 1”


2022-09-15

List of Vridar Posts on the Book of Revelation

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by Neil Godfrey

I have added a new page in the right column under Archives By Topic to allow easy access to the complete list of recent posts on Revelation presenting Thomas Witulski’s second century date for the work. The page also includes all other posts that have discussed Revelation from various perspectives.

But since we’re here right now, here is a copy of that page:

Annotated list of Vridar posts on the Book of Revelation

Continue reading “List of Vridar Posts on the Book of Revelation”


2022-09-12

Revelation 11: Measuring the Temple and Two Witnesses – A Contemporary Interpretation

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by Neil Godfrey

Thomas Witulski

This post concludes my reading of Thomas Witulski’s three works proposing that the Book of Revelation was written at the time of Hadrian and the outbreak of the Bar Kochba War.

  • The first series, taken from Die Johannesoffenbarung und Kaiser Hadrian, covered Hadrian’s identification with Zeus, his popularity as a Nero Redivivus, and his propagandist Polemon’s activities in Asia Minor and their impact on Christians there;
  • the second series with Die Vier Apokalyptischen Reiter Apk 6,1-8 surveyed the years of Trajan’s conquests, the widespread Jewish rebellions and the consequences of their savage suppression, represented by “the four horsemen of the apocalypse”;
  • this third round has dipped into Apk 11 und der Bar Kokhba-Aufstand to see how W understands the measuring of the temple and the two witnesses of Revelation 11.

I prefer to read works cited for myself to gain a fuller knowledge and understanding of the evidence and interpretations being raised. This has been especially helpful since I rely on machine translations of the German works and sometimes it has been a struggle to be sure I have grasped the exact idea W has sought to convey. The wider reading has led me sometimes to go beyond W’s specific content but I hope I have made it clear whenever I have done so. With this final series some of the works I have wanted to read have still not reached me so I may later return to expand on one or two parts of the discussion. I do appreciate critical comments that some readers have added. It may take me a few days to catch up with them but they are always important to help keep us honest and thorough in our explorations of this text and what it can tell us about early Christian history.

W’s final chapter brings together his analyses of the text and examination of the primary evidence for the events of the early second century.

A Contemporary Interpretation of the Measuring of the Temple (Rev 11:1-2)

I was given a reed like a measuring rod and was told, “Go and measure the temple of God and the altar, with its worshipers. But exclude the outer court; do not measure it, because it has been given to the Gentiles. They will trample on the holy city for 42 months.

If read against contemporary history, W concludes, this passage can be interpreted as an allusion to Hadrian’s visit to the province of Judea in 130 CE and his efforts to embed a Hellenistic-Roman culture that was opposed to “Old Testament” Jewish thinking. The rebels’ program to rebuild the Yahweh sanctuary in Jerusalem and to reinstall a temple priest cult should also be understood in this context.

For W, the measuring presupposes that the buildings are not yet constructed (or have been destroyed) at the time of the writing of the Apocalypse. This corresponds to the conditions in Jerusalem on the eve of the Bar Kochba revolt as Cassius Dio describes them.

W cites the many works that have discussed the thesis that Hadrian’s decision to rebuild Jerusalem as the Roman colony of Aelia Capitolina. The question in part focuses on the contradictory ancient sources. We only have an epitome of Cassius Dio’s History and that condenses the original words to:

At Jerusalem he founded a city in place of the one which had been razed to the ground, naming it Aelia Capitolina, and on the site of the temple of the god he raised a new temple to Jupiter. This brought on a war of no slight importance nor of brief duration, for the Jews deemed it intolerable that foreign races should be settled in their city and foreign religious rites planted there. (LXIX, 12, 1f)

Eusebius, however, informs us that Cassius Dio’s “cause” was rather the “result” of the war:

The climax of the war came in Hadrian’s eighteenth year, in Betthera, an almost impregnable little town not very far from Jerusalem. The blockade from without lasted so long that hunger and thirst brought the revolutionaries to complete destruction, and the instigator of their crazy folly paid the penalty he deserved. From that time on, the entire race has been forbidden to set foot anywhere in the neighbourhood of Jerusalem, under the terms and ordinances of a law of Hadrian which ensured that not even from a distance might Jews have a view of their ancestral soil. Aristo of Pella tells the whole story. When in this way the city was closed to the Jewish race and suffered the total destruction of its former inhabitants, it was colonized by an alien race, and the Roman city which subsequently arose changed its name, so that now, in honour of the emperor then reigning, Aelius Hadrianus, it is known as Aelia. Furthermore, as the church in the city was now composed of Gentiles, the first after the bishops of the Circumcision to be put in charge of the Christians there was Mark. (Church History, 1.6)

It is in theory possible to harmonize the two accounts and hypothesize that Hadrian’s declaration of his plan to build the new capital led to the outbreak of the war and that he completed that task after the war’s end. The critical question of what exactly Hadrian accomplished prior to hostilities remains. In the words of one of the scholars W references,

The contradiction can easily be understood if we examine it from a historical perspective. Hadrian declared his will to rebuild the famous and sacred city of the past around 130 CE, on the occasion of his voyage to the east. He may even have accomplished some practical steps toward the actual foundation, including the pomerium. At that stage, the Jews, who could not bear the idea of a new Greek-Roman city being built in place of their historical and sacred capital, decided to rebel. Only after the suppression of the revolt, in 135 CE, was the city actually built.

As is well known, Hadrian accompanied the foundation of Aelia Ca­pitolina by two symbolic anti-Jewish acts. The name of the Provincia Iudaea was changed to Provincia Syria Palaestina, and the Jews were expelled from the city and its region. There is no reason to believe that Hadrian would have contemplated such symbolic acts were it not for the Bar Kokhba revolt. It seems likely that the Emperor intended to enhance his reputation as a builder and restorer of ruined and unfinished monuments and as a benefactor of cities. It also seems likely that the Emperor expected to be embraced and admired by the citizens of Iudaea, and particularly by the Jews, for rebuilding the famous city of Jerusalem, as did the citizens of many other cities, including Gerasa (Jerash) of Ara­bia.

Though such an interpretation cannot be proved, it seems to me very reasonable. The conclusion that Hadrian had in mind the restoration of a city named Hierosolyma is more likely than the conclusion that he had decided on a completely new name already as early as 130. It should be remembered that although Jerusalem was indeed ruinous at that time, it was not totally deserted, and life had begun to be revive[d]. The replace­ment of the famous historical name Jerusalem by Aelia Capitolina was a very severe and symbolic act, analogous to the changing of the name Iudaea into Syria Palaestina, or in short, Palestine. In both cases the Imperial administration intentionally suppressed Jewish national feel­ings. (Tsafrir, 32f — recall that coins personified Judea in Greco-Roman dress)

In trying to make the most of Cassius Dio’s words through his epitomizer, Xiphilinus, Eliav concludes,

67 Such a characterization of the writer’s intensions (sic) may be the reason that, as Isaac has already pointed out . . . this passage, unlike other descrip­tions found in Dio, focuses wholly on the temple built by Hadrian without mentioning any other urban actions (of the kind mentioned later in the Chronicon Paschale).

To summarize, the clause describing Hadrian’s actions on the Temple Mount bears the stamp of a Christian writer such as Xiphilinus (or any­ one before him). This conclusion is derived from content gaps in the structural design of the passage, from its vocabulary, and from the theo­logical tendencies it reflects. Dio’s original version has been lost, but it might be possible to reconstruct it using the clues in the second segment. Describing the events from the Jewish perspective, Dio tells of the Jews’ dissatisfaction with the foreign shrines placed in their city (ίuερά άλλότρια έν αύτή ίδρυθήναι). It may be that the first segment described the same situation, that is, Hadrian’s founding of a foreign city and building a pagan shrine (or shrines) there. In the course of paraphrasing this passage, a later writer turned the situation into a theological confronta­tion between Hadrian and the Jewish God. This writer re-situated the pagan shrine, shifting it from the city in general to the Temple Mount in particular. Moreover, he painted a neutral act customary in the estab­lishment of a new colony in the harsh colors of a religious confrontation by using a “loaded” verb and referring to the temple by a name familiar to both Jewish and Christian readers.67

This conclusion extracts the historical barb from the story of the pagan shrine on the Temple Mount, and shows it to have been planted by a religiously motivated writer. (Eliav, 142f)

W’s view is that hopes for a rebuilt temple were dashed and that the author feared the war would end in defeat. If the fate of Jewish rebellions in the time of Trajan had not been warning enough, it appears that the fate of the Jewish rebels was sealed when Hadrian called Severus from Britain to suppress the uprising.

The historical reference of Rev 11:1-2a to the first phase of the Bar Kokhba revolt becomes even more conclusive if it is assumed that the decision to (re)found Jerusalem as the Roman colony of Aelia Capitolina and, in connection with this, the decision to erect a pagan sanctuary there can be dated to the time immediately before the military escalation, i.e. around 130 AD. Then the statements of Rev 11:1-2a could be referred to these decisions of Hadrian without any problems: The apocalyptist is supposed to measure the temple, the θυσιαστήριον [= altar] and the people worshipping there for the purpose of rebuilding or reconstruction. (W, 306 – translation)

The prophecy of 11:2b that the nations will trample the city of Jerusalem underfoot, robbing it of its religious identity,

. . . corresponds entirely to the Hellenistic-imperial ideology propagated by Hadrian in the context of his visit to the province of Judea, which will ultimately win the day and leave no room for the continued existence of a more or less independent Judean state with a decidedly Old Testament Jewish religiosity inherent in and shaping it. (ibid)

The author wrote the Apocalypse soon after the outbreak of the Bar Kochba war. He used the future tense because he felt its doomed outcome to be inevitable.

A Contemporary Interpretation of the Two Witnesses (Rev 11:3-13)

If we read 11:3-13 against the events of the Second Jewish War the following scenario emerges: Continue reading “Revelation 11: Measuring the Temple and Two Witnesses – A Contemporary Interpretation”


2022-09-11

The Simon Bar Kochba Rebellion

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by Neil Godfrey

The types of the Bar Kokhba tetradrachms are eloquent: the Temple facade with the slogan “Jerusalem” is meant to replace the portrait and name of the Emperor (fig. 1, 1-2). On the reverse the palm branch and citrus fruit used during the Feast of the Tabernacles together with date and era are meant to replace the Roman pagan deity and accompanying Latin or Greek inscription. (Mildenberg, 325)

(Continuing the series outlining key points of Thomas Witulski’s case for a contemporary interpretation of the Book of Revelation: the two witnesses being Bar Kochba and Eleazar.)

Back to Josephus. Year 70 CE. The siege of Jerusalem.

Josephus writes that he had pleaded with his countrymen to give themselves up to the Romans and save their Temple. The zealots, led by John, despised his words. But many, including those of the upper classes, did choose to side with the Romans.

(111) As Josephus spoke thus, with groans and tears, his voice broke down with sobs. (112) Even the Romans were moved by his distress and admired his determination; but John’s men were the more incensed with the Romans and eager to get hold of Josephus. (113) However, many citizens of the upper class were moved by this address. Some of them were too frightened of the partisan guards to move, though they had given up themselves and the city for lost; but there were others who, watching their opportunity to escape, sought asylum with the Romans. (114) Among them were the high priests Joseph and Jesus and several sons of high priests, namely three sons of Ishmael who was beheaded in Cyrene, four of Mat­thias and one of another Matthias. This man had run away after the death of his father who had been murdered with three sons by Simon son of Giora, as explained above. Many other citizens of good family went over with the high priests. (115) Caesar received them with all possible kindness and, realizing that foreign customs would make life distasteful for them, he sent them to Gophna and ordered them to remain there for the time being; he even promised to return every man’s possessions as soon as he could after the war. (116) So they retired willingly and with complete confidence to the little town that was allotted to them . . .  (Jewish War, VI – Cornfeld edition)

If the above account can be trusted, it appears that many religious leaders and landowners sided with the Romans and retained or had their status and possessions returned to them at the end of the war.

. . . it does not seem unlikely that many of these “new settlers”, so useful and acceptable to the Romans, remained rooted in their new locations, becoming masters of properties whose original owners had either been slain, or taken prisoner, or had fled the country. (Alon, 63)

Others were not so fortunate:

Naturally, there were Jews whose land was confiscated outright by the Roman government itself. This was the treatment meted out to anyone suspected of anti-Roman activity. The process continued even after the fighting was over. After Vespasian had taken Beth Aris and Kfar Taba in “Idumaea”, having killed ten thousand in the process and captured one thousand Jews whom he sold as slaves, “he expelled the remainder and stationed in the district a large division of his own troops, who overran and devastated the whole of the hill country.” (Alon, 62)

and

The war thus brought in its train major changes in the distribution of land ownership through: 1) the loss of ownership-title by those who remained on the land, and who could thus be thrown off their property at a moment’s notice; 2) total confiscation from resisters and political undesirables; 3) government lease or grant to non-Jews . . . ; but occasionally as out-right grantees), who would then clear the Jewish inhabitants right off the land; and 4) simple transfer of title from Jewish to non-Jewish owners. (Alon, 63)

In a later rabbinic account we read a memory of those days:

One of the wealthiest men of Jerusalem before its destruction, Nakdimon b. Gorjon, most probably perished during the siege of the capital. After the catastrophe his daughter is found by R. Johanan b. Zakkai and his disciples starving and picking grains of barley from horses’ dung, and, when questioned by the rabbi, explained that the money of her father and her father-in-law was all gone. Such cases of utter impoverishment may have been numerous, while such as continued on their property may also have been many. (Büchler, 30)

But many Judeans were not opposed to Rome and only wanted peace. We have accounts of some of them attempting to undo the marks of circumcision — as well as some being re-circumcised when the rebellion broke out. A Sibylline oracle from Egypt’s Judeans praised Hadrian in quasi-Messianic language. Even rabbinic literature documents memories of Hadrian in positive terms. After 70 CE many Judeans did re-establish a religious life that can be interpreted as the formal beginning of rabbinical Judaism. See articles on Johanan ben Zakkai and related links. (Each of these points could be extended to a post of its own but I am trying to just skim along the highlights of W’s discussion.)

Still, Hadrian’s program ran into a diametrically opposing religious outlook of many other Judeans: Ezekiel 37 promised Israel would be freed from the gentile nations and submit only to God; God would be the one to protect and save them, not Hadrian.

For Thomas Witulski (Apk 11 und der Bar Kokhba-Aufstand : eine zeitgeschichtliche Interpretation) it is important to see the visit (adventus) of Hadrian in the above context. The character of such a visit could quite conceivably have provoked an uprising of nationalist-religious Jews who were disadvantaged as a result of the impoverishing situation following the war with Vespasian and Titus. One can imagine the bitterness of these Judeans not only against the Romans but particularly against their compatriots who profited from Roman rule.

The Bar Kochba Rebellion

The coins and letters of Bar Kochba make it clear that Bar Kochba’s aim was the liberation of Judea from Rome. Coins were dated accordingly: Continue reading “The Simon Bar Kochba Rebellion”


2022-09-10

The Bar Kochba War – Background and Hadrian’s Visit to Judea

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by Neil Godfrey

Over 6 pages Thomas Witulski discusses the evidence for the dates of the Bar Kochba war and over 120 pages the evidence for its causes. I will distill that down to a few key points and conclusions.

Dates:

It is probable that the Bar Kokhba rebellion broke out openly in the spring or summer of 132 AD and that by the autumn of 135 AD it was, if not completely over, at least largely decided. (p. 184 — all quotations of Witulski are translations)

Causes:

W is not satisfied with many accounts that merely list a grab-bag of events from around that time with little effort to assess the evidence for them or submit them to methodical analysis to determine their likely role as “causes”. The grab-bag includes:

  • Hadrian decided to re-found Jerusalem as a Roman colony, Aelia Capitolina
  • Hadrian issued a ban on circumcision against the Jews
  • Hadrian had permitted the rebuilding of the Jerusalem temple but then changed his mind and forbade it, leading to a violent reaction from disappointed Jews
  • Peasants in Palestine suffered severely from an oppressive tenancy system
  • The destruction of the temple in 70 CE had created a “nationalist” mood ready to respond violently against Rome
  • Jews were divided between those sympathetic to Hellenization and Roman rule and those opposed to it: the tensions between these parties led to the outbreak
  • Hadrian’s promotion of the religious-cultic worship of his boy-lover Antinous.

But how does one decide if any of the above (1) really existed or (2) actually sparked a violent response?

W thinks there must have been something else involved: Continue reading “The Bar Kochba War – Background and Hadrian’s Visit to Judea”


2022-09-02

The Two Witnesses of Revelation 11 – part D

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by Neil Godfrey

Ms. 28/1378 fol.69v The Resurrection of the Two Witnesses and the Earthquake, from ‘Histoire Extraite de la Bible et Apocalypse’ (vellum) by French School, (15th century). From bridgemanimages

This post concludes Thomas Witulski’s analysis of the text of Revelation 11:3-13.

On the verses describing the resurrection and ascension of the two witnesses, W judges that they are inserted by a later hand for the following reasons.

The narrative of the two witnesses up to the moment of their deaths is told in the present and future tenses but there is an abrupt change in tense in the account of their resurrection and ascension. Up until the deaths of the two witnesses we are reading a prophecy: after their deaths, suddenly we are in the “past tense” and what reads like a vision:

The next segment of the narrative (vv 11–13) centers on the unexpected event of the resurrection and ascension of the two witnesses as well as the punishment of their enemies. Somewhat surprisingly, this section is dominated by verbs in the past tense, as if it were a narrative of a past sequence of events.

(Aune, 587)

This abrupt change of tense comes with a change of genre, a change to a visionary report:

in vv. 11-13 he changes to the [aorist], as narrating what he had already seen and heard in vision.

(Beckwith, 603)

The imagery of the spirit of God entering them so that they come to life and stand on their feet comes from Ezekiel 37:10, another visionary account.

W discusses various attempts to explain this change of tense: it cannot be a simple Hebraism because the question relates to change of tense, not merely using a past tense to stress the certainty of future events; other proposals fail to explain why a single author would have failed to have reworked his source material to be more consistent with the tense here as he is when reworking material from Zechariah.

His own view, translated, is as follows.

Within the framework of literary criticism, the verses Rev 11:11-13 are to be regarded as not having been written by the apocalyptist, but as having been secondarily inserted into the already existing context by a later hand, without this interpolator having taken into account that Rev 11:3-10 are formulated as a prophecy and not as a visionary report; the insertion was then possibly made in order to align the account of Rev 11 with that tradition which describes the appearance of Elijah and Enoch, offering both their death and their subsequent resurrection, or else in order to present the orientation of the message through the two μάρτυρες as an ultimately successful engagement. Whether the interpolator, who would then have added Rev 11:11-13, would still have been aware of the original reference of the depiction Rev 11:3-10 and its original historical-temporal background, would, however, have to remain extremely questionable.

(translated from Witulski, 128f)

The interpolator was not aware of the original account’s reference to certain historical persons. Such a conclusion begins to make sense of the questions raised in the previous post:

It is also odd that we read nothing further here about the beast from the abyss that had just killed the two “witnesses” or “martyrs”. It is as if he is no longer at the scene to witness the sudden turn of events and the ascension to heaven.

One more oddity: only in this passage in Revelation do enemies of God give glory to God as a result of witnessing or experiencing calamitous events like an earthquake or plague or other catastrophe. In every other such scenario they respond with intensified anger.

The significance of that last point is emphasized again in further discussion below — see text f.

After this analysis of what, exactly, the passage is saying and what appears to be its provenance, W is in a position to demonstrate the historical circumstances that informed details of the account of the two witnesses. But those historical references will have to wait for a future post. At this point we are laying the groundwork for that historical interpretation. Continue reading “The Two Witnesses of Revelation 11 – part D”


2022-08-29

The Two Witnesses of Revelation 11 – part C

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by Neil Godfrey

But after three days and a half, the Spirit of life from God entered into them, and they stood upon their feet; and great fear fell upon them that saw them. And they heard a great voice from Heaven, saying unto them, “Come up hither!” And they ascended up to Heaven in a cloud, and their enemies beheld them. And that same hour there was a great earthquake, and a tenth part of the city fell; and in the earthquake were slain seven thousand men, and the remnant were seized with fear, and gave glory to the God of Heaven. — Revelation 11:11-13 (KJ21)
For newcomers to this series, we are discussing Thomas Witulski’s work, Apk 11 und der Bar Kokhba-Aufstand : eine zeitgeschichtliche Interpretation, in which he sets out an argument for Revelation 11 (the command to measure the temple and the two witnesses) being references to the events of the Bar Kochba war of 130-135 CE. All posts are archived at Revelation and Witulski – Revelation 11 and the Bar Kochba Revolt Other posts on Witulski’s views are archived at Witulski – Revelation of John and Emperor Hadrian and Witulski – The Four Horsemen of Revelation 6 See also Book of Revelation

Here we come to a dramatic turning point in the narrative (including a change of tense). Whose is the “great voice from Heaven” that calls out “Come up here”? We are not told. Even the phrase “spirit of life from God” does not mean that God raised up the two martyrs but only that it was God’s spirit that entered into them: the author uses a different expression when he wants to convey the idea of God directly acting. Who, exactly,  “saw them” and reacted in fear is also left vague.

Readers who think the two witnesses are a kind of latter-day Moses figure run into the problem that there was no Jewish tradition — neither biblical nor in Josephus nor Philo — that Moses was bodily resurrected.

One would presume that the voice from heaven was God speaking but that interpretation is not certain. Revelation refers to other heavenly voices that do not belong to God.

It is also odd that we read nothing further here about the beast from the abyss that had just killed the two “witnesses” or “martyrs”. It is as if he is no longer at the scene to witness the sudden turn of events and the ascension to heaven.

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One more oddity: only in this passage in Revelation do enemies of God give glory to God as a result of witnessing or experiencing calamitous events like an earthquake or plague or other catastrophe. In every other such scenario they respond with intensified anger.

Such are the difficulties that concern us but we must ask if they would also have troubled the original readers. Would the first audiences have understood exactly who and what was being described?

Sit back (or forward if you prefer to concentrate) and observe the following case for Revelation‘s two witnesses being an adaptation of another Jewish source document. And prepare to meet a new character in one of the stories, the virgin Tabitha who gruesomely has her blood sucked from her.

After this journey we will return to the above resurrection and ascension passage and examine it afresh.

Analysis of Revelation 11:3-13

The first question Thomas Witulski [W] explores is whether the author was creating a new narrative entirely from his imagination or whether he was re-working a “tradition” known to him. To answer that question W compares 11:3-13 with two similar accounts: the Apocalypse of Elijah and a chapter by the church father Lactantius in Divine Institutes. Can these works be shown to depend on Revelation 11 or do they indicate the existence of an earlier account that we can say was also available to the author of Revelation?

Apocalypse of Elijah (see the earlywritings site for views on date and provenance: W notes it belongs to the second half of the third century CE)

The relevant passage:

My blood [that is the blood of an earlier mentioned virgin named Tabitha] you have thrown on the temple has become the salvation of the people.

Then, when Elijah and Enoch hear that the Shameless One has appeared in the holy place, they will come down to fight against him, saying,

The Shameless One will hear and be furious, and he will fight with them in the market-place of the great city; and he will spend seven days fighting with them. And they will lie dead in the market-place for three and a half days; and all the people will see them. But on the fourth day they will arise and reproach him, saying

The Shameless One will hear and be furious and fight with them; and the whole city will gather round them. On that day they will shout aloud to heaven, shining like the stars, and all the people and the whole world will see them. The Son of Lawlessness will not prevail over them. 

He will vent his fury on the land

(From The Apocryphal Old Testament edited by H.F.D. Sparks)

In both accounts: Continue reading “The Two Witnesses of Revelation 11 – part C”


2022-08-21

The Two Witnesses of Revelation 11 – part B

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by Neil Godfrey

These are the two olive trees and the two candlesticks, standing before the Lord of the earth. (Rev 11:4)

The above identification of the two witnesses draws upon the imagery in Zechariah 4:

1 And the angel who talked with me came again and waked me, as a man who is wakened out of his sleep,

2 and said unto me, “What seest thou?” And I said, “I have looked and behold, a candlestick all of gold with a bowl upon the top of it, and his seven lamps thereon, and seven pipes to the seven lamps which are upon the top thereof;

3 and two olive trees by it, one upon the right side of the bowl, and the other upon the left side thereof.”

4 So I answered and spoke to the angel who talked with me, saying, “What are these, my lord?”

5 Then the angel who talked with me answered and said unto me, “Knowest thou not what these be?” And I said, “No, my lord.”

6 Then he answered and spoke unto me, saying, “This is the word of the Lord unto Zerubbabel, saying, ‘Not by might nor by power, but by My Spirit,’ saith the Lord of hosts.

7 Who art thou, O great mountain? Before Zerubbabel thou shalt become a plain; and he shall bring forth the headstone thereof with shoutings, crying, ‘Grace, grace unto it!’”

8 Moreover the word of the Lord came unto me, saying,

9 “The hands of Zerubbabel have laid the foundation of this house; his hands shall also finish it. And thou shalt know that the Lord of hosts hath sent me unto you.

10 For who hath despised the day of small things? For they shall rejoice and shall see the plummet in the hand of Zerubbabel with those seven. They are the eyes of the Lord, which run to and fro through the whole earth.”

11 Then answered I and said unto him, “What are these two olive trees upon the right side of the candlestick and upon the left side thereof?”

12 And I answered again and said unto him, “What be these two olive branches, which through the two golden pipes empty the golden oil out of themselves?”

13 And he answered me and said, “Knowest thou not what these be?” And I said, “No, my lord.”

14 Then said he, “These are the two anointed ones, who stand by the Lord of the whole earth.”

The two anointed ones in Zechariah are the political leader, Zerubbabel, and the high priest, Joshua.

Thomas Witulski addresses the various interpretations of the two olive trees and two candlesticks in Revelation that are found in the commentaries and concludes that the author meant to depict two historical persons (as opposed, for example, to representatives of Christianity), but that he also did not want them to be understood as spiritual heirs of Zerubbabel and Joshua.

“Witnesses” is possibly a misleading translation in the context of Revelation 11. It suggests persons who offer a testimony, or carry a message. But the one thing lacking in Rev 11 is any indication of a message proclaimed by these two μάρτυσίν. A better translation might be “martyrs”.

Zerubbabel and Joshua were symbolized by two branches of the olive tree and were not represented in any way by the candlestick. The two witnesses [μάρτυσίν], in contrast, were symbolized by both two candlesticks and two olive trees (not branches). In Zechariah, there is a clear distinction between the candlestick and the olive trees but in Revelation 11 the two images are united as the two μάρτυσίν.

Of particular significance is that Revelation notably avoids using the title of “anointed ones” that is assigned to Zerubbabel and Joshua. Even though in Revelation we read a partial quotation of Zechariah 4:14, we see that the two μάρτυσίν are not allowed a title of special anointing. For Christians, after all, there was only one anointed one, Jesus Christ. The two μάρτυσίν have no such spiritual title. Further, from what we know of early Christianity, it is unlikely that outstanding status would have been given to any members since in a sense all Christians were “priests and kings”, and there were many prophets among them.

Nor does the apocalyptist of Revelation link the two μάρτυσίν with plans to rebuild the temple in Jerusalem. One might have expected such an association given that Revelation 11 begins with a commission to measure a temple and Zechariah has a strong focus on the role of Zerubbabel and Joshua in the building of the second temple.

So why does Revelation cast the two μάρτυσίν as two olive trees and two candlesticks if they are not “anointed ones” and are not engaged in a rebuilding of the temple — and, as we saw in the previous post (part A), are apparently commissioned by a heavenly being of a lesser status than the one commissioning the author John? Witulski’s view is that the author of Revelation was working very freely with a prophetic tradition based on Zechariah where the two leaders of Israel, the political and priestly heads, were represented by two candlesticks and two olive trees.

Moses and Elijah?

The powers attributed to the two μάρτυσίν bring to mind the miracles of Moses and Elijah. However, both of the μάρτυσίν are said to wield these powers so it is unlikely that they are meant to represent the two OT heroes. Elsewhere in both the OT and Jewish writings some of these powers are described quite independently of associations with Moses and Elijah (e.g. 1 Kings 8:35; 1 Sam 4:8). 

Confrontation with political enemies

Continue reading “The Two Witnesses of Revelation 11 – part B”


2022-08-20

The Two Witnesses of Revelation 11 – part A

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by Neil Godfrey

http://www.metmuseum.org/art/collection/search/471869

We continue following Thomas Witulski’s case for dating the book of Revelation in the time of emperor Hadrian and the Bar Kochba war. Before attempting to place the events of chapter 11 (the measuring of the temple and the two witnesses) in a historical context W undertakes to closely examine the text in order to be clear about what it does and does not say.

Revelation 11:3 And I will give power unto my two witnesses, and they shall prophesy a thousand two hundred and threescore days, clothed in sackcloth.”

4 These are the two olive trees and the two candlesticks, standing before the God of the earth.

5 And if any man will hurt them, fire proceedeth out of their mouth and devoureth their enemies; and if any man will hurt them, he must in this manner be killed.

6 These have power to shut heaven, that it rain not in the days of their prophecy, and have power over waters to turn them to blood, and to smite the earth with all plagues, as often as they will.

7 And when they shall have finished their testimony, the beast that ascendeth out of the bottomless pit shall make war against them, and shall overcome them and kill them.

8 And their dead bodies shall lie in the street of the great city, which spiritually is called Sodom and Egypt, where also our Lord was crucified.

9 And they of the people and kindreds, and tongues and nations shall see their dead bodies three days and a half, and shall not suffer their dead bodies to be put in graves.

10 And they that dwell upon the earth shall rejoice over them and make merry, and shall send gifts one to another, because these two prophets tormented them that dwelt on the earth.

11 But after three days and a half, the Spirit of life from God entered into them, and they stood upon their feet; and great fear fellupon them that saw them.

12 And they heard a great voice from Heaven, saying unto them, “Come up hither!” And they ascended up to Heaven in a cloud, and their enemies beheld them.

13 And that same hour there was a great earthquake, and a tenth part of the city fell; and in the earthquake were slain seven thousand men, and the remnant were seized with fear, and gave glory to the God of Heaven. (KJ21)

The time allotted to the two witnesses is the same as the time the gentiles are to tread down the holy city. (Recall the previous post.) It seems reasonable to conclude that the two witnesses are active during the time of Jerusalem being fully occupied (including the temple area) by the gentiles.

Well known to the readers

The two witnesses are introduced with the definite article τοῖς “which suggests that they were known as eschatological figures or ciphers to both the apocalyptist and his audience or readers” (W, 45, translation):

As well-known figures (the article τοῖς is not missing in any manuscript) the two witnesses are introduced here without any mention of them in the Apok so far. (Haugg, 13f – translation)

The time specification of verse 2 “for forty-two months” corresponds to that of verse 3 “1260 days”. The two witnesses are introduced as a definite quantity with a definite article. Apparently, the author presupposes that the reader understands him, which means that he alludes to a familiar idea. (Müller, 208f – translation)

However, the apocalyptist does not name them even though it appears they are well-known to his readers. By avoiding a clear identification the author appears to be allowing himself room to reinterpret their role. The references to Jerusalem in the opening verses of this chapter and again in verse 8 (W will make his case that “where also our Lord was crucified” is original to the text and not an interpolation) indicate that the two witnesses will appear in the area around Jerusalem, certainly in Palestine. Continue reading “The Two Witnesses of Revelation 11 – part A”


Revelation 11 and the meaning of Measuring the Temple

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by Neil Godfrey

And there was given me a reed like unto a rod; and the angel stood, saying, “Rise, and measure the temple of God and the altar, and them that worship therein. But the court which is outside the temple, leave out, and measure it not, for it is given unto the Gentiles; and the Holy City shall they tread under foot for forty and two months. — Revelation 11:1-2 (21st C KJV)

Immediately following the above verses comes the account of the “Two Witnesses”. In Thomas Witulski’s view Revelation was composed in the time of Hadrian and the years of the Bar Kochba revolt, that is between 130 and 135 CE.  Previous posts have covered how he explains the trials of the seven churches, the four horsemen of the apocalypse, the emergence of two beasts, one of them identified by the number 666, in the context of major events in the eastern Mediterranean world during the times of Trajan and Hadrian. It’s time I covered Witulski’s analysis of Revelation 11.

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Questions arising:

  • Is the passage about the temple at the time Jerusalem was under siege in 69/70 CE?
  • Is the passage a depiction of a heavenly temple?
  • Is it an allegory of the church?
  • Is the measuring for the destruction or for the preservation of an existing temple or for plans for a future temple?

Before attempting to decide how a passage fits events around the time of writing, W takes a close look at what, exactly, the text appears to be saying.

A significant point that stands out in W’s discussion is the notice that the author who is given the command is never said to carry it out. He does not measure anything.

He is told not to measure the outer court because it is given to the gentiles. He is then told that the Holy City shall they tread under foot for forty and two months.

The treading down of the holy city is introduced as a future event. The measuring of the temple and the instruction to leave out the outer court is all present tense. The outer court is given to the gentiles — now, at the time of the instruction; but the news that the holy city is to be trodden down is introduced as something that is yet to happen. W concludes that the 42 months duration of the treading down of the holy city is not part of the present time in which the measurement is expected to take place and in which the outer court (only, not the entire temple or city) is given to the gentiles. Here is an adapted version of W’s explanatory table:

We do not read that all of the city except for the temple will be trampled underfoot by the gentiles for 42 months but that the city — implying the whole city — will be trodden under. The “holy city” is holy because the temple stands there. Without the temple it is not holy. W cites Dulk:

This sentence is unintelligible if the first part of the text is construed to mean that the temple will be preserved. If the holy city is trampled, that includes the temple. The text does not state that the rest of the city will be trampled, but simply that the city (without exception) will be trampled. Moreover, the city at issue is the ‘holy city’. What makes the ‘holy city’ holy is precisely the presence of the temple. It is hard to see how this sentence could be otherwise construed than with the implication that the whole city, with as its central element the temple, will be trampled. (Dulk, 441). — (in part cited by W, 26)

The reference is to the Septuagint (Greek) of Zechariah 12:3

And it shall come to pass in that day [that] I will make Jerusalem a trodden stone to all the nations: every one that tramples on it shall utterly mock at [it], and all the nations of the earth shall be gathered together against it.

By replacing “Jerusalem” with “holy city” the author of Revelation is reminding readers of the temple and emphasizing that the temple itself will be included in the destruction (W, 27). Compare Joel 3:17 (4:17 in LXX)

. . . ye know that I am the Lord your God dwelling in Zion, My holy mountain. Then shall Jerusalem be holy . . . 

W concludes that the measurement that is announced and whatever is implied by it will be overtaken by the fact that everything about it will be destroyed.

Further, . . . Continue reading “Revelation 11 and the meaning of Measuring the Temple”


2022-08-06

“Some Underlying Tradition” — a review of Writing With Scripture, part 10

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by Neil Godfrey

All posts reviewing Nathanael Vette’s Writing With Scripture are archived at Vette : Writing With Scripture

With thanks to T&T Clark who forwarded me a review copy.

The claim that the scriptural character of early Christian narrative illustrates its non-historical character is one conservative exegetes have been anxious to dismiss and radical exegetes have been eager to embrace. For conservative exegetes, the scriptural language of the Gospel narratives always has its basis in ‘fact’.

. . . .

Radical exegetes, on the other hand, begin by assuming the non-historical character of the Gospels. On this basis, anything and everything can be seen to have a scriptural origin.

. . . .

Both are remarkably confident about the ability of scholarship to uncover the historical details behind the Gospels, in their presence or their absence. Both affirm that the scriptural character of the Gospels has its basis in either ‘fact’ or ‘fabrication’ . . . . . Given the choice between ‘history remembered’ and ‘prophecy historicized’, the exegete will inevitably choose whichever confirms their presuppositions. (NV, 199f)

Those words, extracted from the opening pages of the concluding chapter of Nathanael Vette’s Writing With Scripture, indicate to me, an outsider, that the study of Christian origins through the Gospels is fundamentally about faith, belief, or challenges to faith and belief than about historical research as it is understood and practised in History Departments and Faculties. Note the words “anxious”, “eager”, and “remarkably confident”. Those words describe an emotional commitment. Note the terms “begin by assuming” and “confirms their presuppositions”. Those words point toward a flawed methodology that I will address below.

Mark Goodacre’s mid-way position between conservatives and radicals, as I understand it through NV’s discussion, posits that each “story unit” (or pericope) in the Gospels should be assessed in its own right for whether or not we might reasonably conclude that it derives from a prior source of some kind, whether that source be historical memory or some kind of legendary tale. So when we read an episode in the Gospels that borrows terminology from Scriptures, instead of concluding that we are reading either history that happened to coincide with words of Scripture or fiction composed entirely out of Scripture, we would do better to infer that we are reading “tradition scripturalized”. But this is the same flawed methodology simply working from different assumptions.

NV goes “one step further” than Goodacre:

But this analysis can go one step further: scripturalization can also describe the literary process by which Mark as an author used scriptural elements to compose and model episodes in their life of Jesus, creating scripturalized narrative. That Mark used the Jewish scriptures in this way depends in large part on whether this practice can be identified in other works from the period. If it can be shown across a diverse group of texts that the Jewish scriptures were regularly used to compose new narrative, then it would be appropriate to speak of scripturalized narrative as a stylistic feature of Second Temple literature. (NV, 29)

At the end of his study NV concludes:

We found that scripturalized narratives usually have their basis in some underlying tradition. This is seen most clearly in those episodes which relate to a scriptural figure or episode. At one end, scripturalized narratives can result from a close and profound exegetical engagement with their source: by narrating Gen. 9:1-7 in the language of Genesis 13 and 15, the Genesis Apocryphon ties the Abrahamic covenant to the Noachide covenant (part 3). At the other end, long and complicated narratives can be triggered by a single word – i.e. the two fiery furnaces of Pseudo-Philo or simply reflect the similarity of one figure with another – i.e. Abraham with Job in the Testament of Abraham (part 4)Whilst it is possible for a figure to be pieced together entirely out of scriptural material for no perceptible reason – i.e. Pseudo-Philo’s Kenaz and Zebul (part 2)this is the exception not the norm. In most cases, the compositional use of scriptural elements in scripturalized narratives has been triggered by some aspect of the source text or tradition. (NV, 201)

The Methodological Flaw

Continue reading ““Some Underlying Tradition” — a review of Writing With Scripture, part 10″

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