Let’s continue looking at Rivka Nir’s proposal that the John the Baptist passage in Antiquities of the Jews was not part of Josephus’s original work. We continue from John the Baptist’s Place in Josephus’s Antiquities. But be warned. I get sidetracked and explore the broader evidence for both Christian and Jewish views on divine retribution for killing prophets and especially focus on the story that appears to have been the paradigm for all such accounts — the murder of Zechariah in 2 Chronicles.
In my previous post the point was made that the John the Baptist passage appears to have been dislocated from where it would more naturally fit. That is, we have this flow of thought ….
Josephus informs readers that Herod and the king of Nabatean Arabia, Aretas, had a quarrel.
This quarrel, Josephus relates, was over Herod plotting to divorce Aretas’s daughter.
Aretas went to war against Herod and defeated him.
Herod then appealed to Tiberius, the Roman emperor, to punish Aretas. Tiberius ordered his general Vitellius to invade Aretas’s kingdom and bring Aretas back to Rome dead or alive.
The John the Baptist passage appears here as the explanation, according to some Jews, for why Herod’s army had been defeated
Vitellius is said to obey Tiberius’s order and his march towards Aretas’s kingdom is described, along with how he pulled back from his venture on learning of the death of emperor Tiberius.
Rivka Nir suggests that the more natural place for Josephus to give the supposed reason for Herod’s defeat would be between #3 and #4 above.
Rivka Nir also points to the discrepancy between the gospel’s dating the death of John to the time of Jesus (presumably about 30 CE or a little before) and the Josephan account that is set at 36 CE. “How could Josephus claim that the Jews credited Herod’s defeat to John’s death, which preceded it by six years?” (p. 44) But I wonder why the gospel timing of JB’s death should be taken as any more authoritative than Josephus’.
Further, the idea that Herod was defeated in war as divine punishment for unjustly killing a figure prominent in the Christian tradition reminds us of later Christian authors — Hegesippus, Origen and Eusebius — blaming the fall of Jerusalem on the unjust execution of James the brother of Jesus. Nir sees both accounts — the unjust murders of John the Baptist and James the Lord’s brother — as “presumably based on the causal relationship created by Christian theology between the Jewish rejection and crucifixion of Jesus and the temple’s destruction.”(pp. 44f)
For more detailed discussions of how Jewish ideas of the sacrifice/binding of Isaac were a template for the sacrifice of Jesus Christ for Paul and the evangelists refer to the posts in the archives for Akedah and Levenson: Death and Resurrection of the Beloved Son. This post looks specifically at how the Servant of Isaiah 53 came to be associated with Isaac.
Before the origins of Christianity the idea that Isaac was a willing volunteer to be sacrificed at his father Abraham’s hand was part of the smorgasbord of Jewish theological understandings. How did this notion arise? The answer to that question brings us to another Jewish idea that became the raw material from which Paul or other earliest Christian exegetes, including the authors of the gospels, drew inspiration for their teachings about Jesus Christ.
In the Genesis 22 narrative Isaac is a passive figure. The focus is entirely on Abraham’s faith and pious actions. Yet in the writings of Josephus, 4 Maccabees, and Pseudo-Philo’s Liber Antiquitatum Biblicarum (Biblical Antiquities) and the subsequent Palestinian Targum focus turns to Isaac as knowing what God requires of him and willingly, even enthusiastically, seeking to be sacrificed. Where did that idea come from?
In 4 Maccabees the blood of the (Maccabean) martyrs of the mid-second century BCE is said to atone for the sins of Israel, and by offering to die they imitate Isaac.
In the Palestinian Targum we finally see clues that explain how this interpretation of Isaac came about: Isaiah 53, the famous passage about the Suffering Servant, was linked to two just men who were prepared to die to save Israel.
There exist at least two midrashic passages in which the self-offering of a just man mentioned in the Torah is interpreted by quoting Isaiah liii. The first relates to Moses’ intercession for Israel after the worship of the golden calf. He implores God either to pardon his people, or else to blot his own name from the Book of Life (cf. Ex. xxxii. 32). According to Sotah 14a, Isaiah liii. 12 refers to this event:
He delivered his soul to death… and he took away the sins of many.
The second text, Sifre on Numbers xxv. 13, §131, applies the same verse of Isaiah to Phinehas, who was considered to have endangered his life by his zeal for God. His self-sacrifice and atonement are given a permanent value, and will continue to expiate Israel’s sins until the time of the Resurrection.
Vermes adds a third reference, one that applies Isaiah 53’s Servant directly to Isaac.
Jacob, called the young one, and Abraham, called the old one, are there, and Isaac, the Servant of the Lord (‘abda de YHWH) who was delivered from bonds by his Master. (Targum of Job 3)
Isaac is identified as the Servant of the Lord because of the midrashic interpretation of Isaac being “bound” by Abraham and then freed from those bonds.
It is precisely on account of his having been bound, i.e. because of his self-sacrifice, that Isaac appears to have been given the title, “Servant of the Lord”.
It would seem, therefore, safe to assume that the targumic haggadah on the Akedah resulted from the association of Genesis xxii and Isaiah liii. In addition, it is almost certain that this association was due to reflections on the significance of martyrdom. If the blood of martyrs is viewed by God as an expiatory sacrifice, a fortiori, the self-offering of Isaac atoned for the sins of his descendants.
From that point, from the association of “binding” and “unbinding” in Genesis 22 with the Servant of the Lord in Isaiah 52:13-53:12, the figure of Isaac was delineated with other characteristics of that Isaiah 53 passage:
Isaiah’s servant, like Isaac, is compared to a sacrificial lamb
Isaiah’s servant, like Isaac, was ordained by God to be sacrificed
Isaiah’s Servant was cut off from the land of the living yet was promised to see his descendants. (Refer above to the links to archives where Levenson shows that some Jewish interpreters even believed Isaac’s blood had been spilled but that God restored him to life again.) Most significantly, the Servant is the just man who offers himself, in submitting to God’s will, for the sake of cleansing the sins of Israel.
In a recent post we saw how Paul was able to find “Christ crucified” “on a tree” in the Scriptures. Geza Vermes as early as 1961 elaborated on the above explanation for how Jewish interpreters were constructing concepts that were picked up and applied by Paul and other pioneering Christian authors.
(Another interesting point brought out in Vermes’ discussion is that the Jewish interpreters also viewed the daily sacrifices as serving the purpose of reminding God of the sacrifice of Isaac, the truly valuable sacrifice because it was that of a righteous man, not a mere animal. But that’s another discussion. )
The next time I hear someone say that no-one would make up a saviour who suffers and dies I will be able to point them to the table in this post. I think we can conclude that a suffering and dying messiah is exactly what we should expect to emerge from a world where all seemed lost and there was no hope for real deliverance in this life. Note, for example, #13. The table is taken from Ethelbert Stauffer’s New Testament Theology, to which I was directed by Morna Hooker in her book, Jesus and the Servant.
The Principal Elements of the Old Biblical Theology of Martyrdom
(Chief passages and proof texts)
A. The shape of martyrdom
1. The people of God is the martyr nation among the Gentiles.
Psa. 73.3 ff.; 78.1 ff.; 79.9 ff.; 82.3 ff.; Jdth. 9.8; Isa. 42.1 LXX; AEn. 85 if.; 89.59 if.; IV Ezra 3.27 ff.; MEx. on 20.23; SB, II, 284
2. Those people of God who are loyal to the Torah are persecuted by the Gentiles and their accomplices
DaG, 3; 9; 11 f.; I Mac. 2.27 if.; II Mac. 5.27; 7.2, 30; IV Mac. 5.16 f; PsSol. 17.19; AssMos. 8.6; Martls. 2.8 ff.; PsPhil. 6.9, 16; San. 49a; Cantr. 8.6 f.
3. Those people of God who are loyal to the Torah are persecuted by their apostate fellows
Psa. 21; 40.9 f.; 68; II Chron. 24.1; Wisd. 2 f.; 5; PsSol. 4; 12; Dam. 1.20; IV Ezra 7
4. The people of God persecute the messengers of God
5. The blood of Abel cries to heaven till the end of time
AEn. 22.7; TestAbr. 11
6. Even the picture of Messiah has traces of the martyr in it
SB, II, 273 ff.; IV Ezra 7.29; 10.1, 16, etc., in Jeremias, Deutsche Theologie, II, 1929, 106 ff.
7. Even the picture of the Son of Man has traces of the martyr in it
Joachim, Jeremias, briefly: Motifs from the Servant Songs in the texts about the Son of Man in AEn. 37 ff; Traditions about the past earthly life, the present heavenly existence and the future return of the Son of Man in AEn. 39.4 ff; 71.14 ff.; 90.31, etc.
B. The fate of martyrdom
8. The confessors live in the desert, far from the wickedness and pursuits of the world
A few weeks ago in the course of explaining why I called this blog “Vridar” I posted a few remarks about American author Vardis Fisher. The name “Vridar” was Vardis Fisher’s fictionalized autobiographical name in the last novel of his Testament of Man series, Orphans of Gethsemane. I was pleased to read last evening that I am not alone in my interpretation of some key aspects of Vardis Fisher’s life and interests . . . and I wonder if I even share some of his reasons for taking a special interest in the violence and trauma arising from the politics of the Middle East. The bolding in the critic’s quotation is, of course, my own.
In a period of the resurgence of fundamentalist religions in many parts of the world, Vardis Fisher’s Testament of Man may be a text of some significance.
Fisher, raised by a strict Mormon mother on a solitary Idaho homestead, commanded a more sympathetic view of zeal than could most American intellectuals of his time. Possessed of a dual consciousness, Fisher rejected the rule-bound exclusivity of any self-appointed “chosen” people, but was all the same drawn to the passion of the prophet. In Testament of Man, he carried out his own arduous quest — to understand the moral development of western humanity. He donned the prophet’s mantle to warn against the dangers of fanaticism. Chronicling the spiritual development of his forebears, Fisher created a prophetic work [i.e. the Testament of Man series of novels] mourning the lost opportunities of Judeo-Christian tradition. He identified those points at which, in his opinion, a wrong turn was taken, a wrong road chosen.
In dishonoring the Mother, demonizing the “other,” [in privileging law over ethics, and failing to synthesize love of wisdom with love of God, humanity set a course that has led to Inquisition and Holocaust. At the beginning of the twenty-first century, that course has yet to be adequately altered. Religion and reason have yet to be reconciled, and Reuben’s passionate appeal in The Island of the Innocent has yet to be answered: “But there’s a job to be done or there’ll be no Alexandrias. We’ll have a world of Jerusalems”(63).
Zahlan, Anne R. 2000. “A World of Jerusalems”: The Middle East as Contested Space in Vardis Fisher’s Testament of Man.” In Rediscovering Vardis Fisher: Centennial Essays, edited by Joseph M. Flora, 191-207. Moscow, Idaho; University of Idaho Press.
The four novels set in historical Palestine that Anne Zahlan discusses are
The Divine Passion (1948)
The Valley of Vision (1951) — set in the kingdom of Solomon
The Island of the Innocent (1952) — set in the time of the Maccabean revolt
Jesus Came Again (1956)
The anthropology and sociology that informed Fisher’s views have been superseded in the academic world but read as human dramas they have not lost their relevance for today. Of The Island of the Innocent Zahlan writes,
The Island of the Innocent is a daring book. Perhaps only someone raised among Mormons withdrawn from a world of “Gentiles” could, in the last 1940s and early 1950s, have written such a work. In the years after World War II when the horrors of the Nazi Holocaust were being exposed, Vardis Fisher had the courage and clear-sightedness to maintain an adamant opposition to exclusivist religion and politics. Having been exposed as a boy to theocratic-fortress mentality, he could insist on the need to resist the powerful temptation of a tribalist response to even the most extreme persecution. (p. 201)
The tribalism permeating so much of Israeli society and politics is no less problematic today.
Rejecting or misunderstanding teachers such as Joshua [Jesus], the people of Vardis Fisher’s Holy Land continue in the erroneous ways of their ancestors and base three major religions on rejection of the Mother and deification of the Word.
Fisher’s Middle East focuses on Jews and centers on Jerusalem. . . . His concentrating of theological, ethical, and political struggle on the Jews does not, however, unreasonably privilege Jewish perspectives. In fact, he dwells on dissensions among Jewish believers as, in later volumes of the Testament, he emphasizes divisions among Christians: Hasidim contend with Letzim, and Essenes with Pharisees, as do the factions of the early church among themselves. A onetime citizen of the Mormon Zion, Fisher no more endorses ways of thinking such as those that underlie right-wing movements in contemporary Israel than he does any other exclusivist ideology. To the degree that he deals with the historic relationship of the Jews with other peoples, Fisher foregrounds tensions similar to those that plague the Middle East today.
Interestingly Anne Zahlan introduces another scholar who has also influenced my views, Edward Said, and as I have done in posts here singled out a tragically ironical point that Said makes about antisemitism:
In the second half of the twentieth century, Said explains, the “myth of the arrested development of the Semites” underwent a curious bifurcation: “[O]ne Semite went the way of Orientalism, the other, the Arab, was forced to go the way of the Oriental.”15 In the aftermath of World War II, anti-Semitic hostility has been redirected to Arabs; Israelis now serve the western imagination as new colonial heroes who stand in for “white men” in a depraved Orient. Some of Fisher’s depictions of “the Syrians” and “Antiochus of Corinth” fit an updated Orientalist model of cruel barbarians besieging devout Hebrews, but the author of the Testament of Man takes no stand above or distant from the Semitic peoples he describes. . . .
Portraying the Middle East as he does, Fisher looks not only back but also “ahead” to . . . his own [world]. He depicts the birthplace of western civilisation was a battleground, painting a picture colored by pained awareness of the failings of his own culture. (pp. 205f)
So I’m not alone in my dual interest of religion and politics, in particular seeking to understand the roots of religion and the violence of religiously minded people today — all the while idealistic enough to do my little bit for a world of Alexandrias competing with the Jerusalems.
One piece of evidence is the sub-narrative about Quintus, a clear foil for the true martyr, Polycarp. Of Quintus we read:
Now one named Quintus, a Phrygian, who was but lately come from Phrygia, when he saw the wild beasts, became afraid. This was the man who forced himself and some others to come forward voluntarily [for trial]. Him the proconsul, after many entreaties, persuaded to swear and to offer sacrifice. Wherefore, brethren, we do not commend those who give themselves up [to suffering], seeing the Gospel does not teach so to do.
Quintus was one who rushed to martyrdom. He believed Christians should actively seek out martyrdom. Yet his position is shown to be a complete sham once he confronts reality, and he departs the faith instead.
Candida Moss comments:
Some years after the death of Polycarp, around the turn of the third century, voluntary martyrdom became an issue in the early church. Clement of Alexandria, for instance, a Christian philosopher and teacher in Egypt, argued that those who rushed forward to martyrdom were not really Christians at all, but merely shared the name. (p. 101)
It may be significant, too, that Quintus is singled out as a Phyrgian. It was in Phrygia that the anarchic Montanist movement began from around 168 CE. The Montanists were notorious for their wild prophetic utterances and zealous seeking of martyrdom.
IN MY PREVIOUS POST I argued that the Asian delegates to Antioch mentioned in the letters to Philadelphia and to Smyrna should be identified as being part of the Asian delegations that, according to Lucian, were sent to encourage Peregrinus when he was imprisoned by the governor of Syria.
The author of the letters was Peregrinus, I maintain, and when he wrote them he himself was being led in chains to Antioch for imprisonment and— he hoped—martyrdom.
And having heard that the recent factional turmoil in the church of Antioch had ceased, he wanted the churches in Philadelphia, Smyrna and other cities in Asia to appoint delegates to go Antioch for his martyrdom.
THIS POST will inspect the other letter that he wrote after learning that peace had been restored in the Antiochene church.
That letter is the letter to Polycarp, and although it was written at the same time as the letters to Philadelphia and Smyrna, it differs from them in several significant particulars. As will be seen, these differences are the clue to its true character.
Solving the many puzzles of this letter will confirm that the would-be martyr was indeed being led to Antioch, not Rome.
The Letter to Polycarp
Polycarp is identified as the bishop of Smyrna in the letter addressed to him but, strangely, not in the letter to the Smyrneans that was written at practically the same time.
. . . one would never guess that the two men had just parted.
The prisoner wrote the two letters just a short while after his departure from Smyrna, having visited with Polycarp and his church during his stop there. Yet, from the kind of advice contained in the first five chapters of the letter to Polycarp, one would never guess that the two men had just parted. One could legitimately wonder why they didn’t discuss the material in those chapters when they talked face-to-face presumably just days before. And the advice to Polycarp regarding his responsibilities to the members of his church who are widows, or married, or slaves (IgnPoly 4 & 5) looks like advice for a newly installed bishop.
It looks like most blessed Polycarp has been forced into a text where he was not originally present.
While one sometimes hears it said that the gospel message when first heard in the early Roman empire was “shocking” and “turned the world upside down”, it is in fact more correct to say that the gospel message was a product of its age.
In the century or so leading up to the common era and beyond, the idea of winning by losing, of conquering and gaining life through death, and the virtues of patient endurance and self-denial when faced with tyrannical powers and losses in this world, were emerging as a “new morality”. The Christian message of finding one’s life by losing it was the product of its age.
The Christian saviour who is a king who conquers by dying was the kind of hero that resonated with the popular figures of both serious and light literature of the day.
If in another time heroic figures were great conquerors of cities and slayers of giants — Agamemnon bringing down Troy, Dionysus and Alexander conquering Asia, Odysseus outwitting and slaying Cyclops, David felling and decapitating Goliath — there was another value emerging in those generations preceding the time of Christ that came to stand as an alternative virtue for the powerless.