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.

Wikimedia Commons

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.

Wikimedia Commons

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″


2022-08-05

How (and Why) Jewish Scriptures are used in Mark’s Passion Narrative — a review of Writing with Scripture, part 9

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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.

Having “settled” again (this time Thailand) I can resume my discussion of Nathanael Vette’s [NV] Writing With Scripture. We come now to the Passion Narrative in the Gospel of Mark, the culmination of Mark’s narrative and the part most intertwined with Scriptural references and allusions. The point of NV’s discussion is to demonstrate that here our Markan author uses Scripture in the same way as we find it used in other extra-canonical Second Temple literature, sometimes explicitly but very often as implicit allusions. The former method is generally expositional (containing a commentary on the meaning of the Scripture), the latter compositional (repeating motifs and images to flesh out a story.) And the question that inevitably arises:

  • Are the scenes of the Passion Narrative created from Scripture?

NV zeroes in on five echoes of Scripture in the Passion Narrative:

  1. Mark 14:21 where Jesus cites Scripture to announce that one of the disciples eating with him would betray him;
  2. Mark 14:24 where Jesus speaks of his blood (represented by the wine) being poured out for many;
  3. Mark 14:27 where Jesus quotes Zechariah to predict his disciples would desert him;
  4. Mark 14:34 where we read of Jesus’ sorrow in Gethsemane;
  5. Mark 15:21-41 where the crucifixion reminds readers of Psalm 22.

NV studies each case by comparing how the other evangelists wrote the parallel scenes and how other Jewish texts also treated the Scripture Mark appears to have used. NV is also alert to the possibility that Mark is “scripturalizing” a pre-existing tradition or narrative — as per Mark Goodacre’s attempt to find a mid-way point between “prophecy historicized” and “history remembered” (Crossan). I think Crossan has the upper hand, though, insofar as he bases his analyses on the sources available. If there is no evidence for an existing tradition or source behind Mark then it is undoubtedly unnecessary to speculate on Mark’s adaptation of such a tradition or source.

The following notes focus only on key conclusions NV draws from in-depth discussions of each:

  1. Re Mark 14:21 — When NV notes that Matthew and Luke do not follow the details of Mark’s account of the betrayal with its apparent references to Psalm 41:9 (e.g. Judas eating bread with Jesus) he suggests the possibility that they did not recognize what we take to be Mark’s source in the Psalms. Perhaps. Yet the variants surely demonstrate that the simplest conclusion to draw and one that goes no farther than interpreting the evidence at hand rather than the mind of the author or hypothetical sources, is that the variations of the other Gospels indicate nothing more than that the authors were at liberty to rewrite Mark according to their own theological and literary interests and each felt free to use Scriptures as their source according to their narrative plans.
  2. Re Mark 14:24 — NV is unable to decide if the words “this is my blood of the covenant” (taken from Exodus 24:8) are combined with Isaiah’s suffering servant who is “poured out to death” and concludes with Howard Clark Kee, “There are no sure references to Isa 53.” (No mention is made of Leviticus 9:9 where Aaron’s sin offering involves blood being “poured out” (ἐξέχεεν) at the altar in preparation for making atonement for the people or the possibility that Mark was combining sacrificial terms from Exodus and Leviticus. We know from the opening verses of Mark that the author was quite capable of combining passages from different books to make a new “scripturalized” saying.)
  3. Re Mark 14:27 — While Zech 13:7 is quoted by Jesus to predict what his followers would do when he was handed over, the ensuing scene is not composed with the same words we find in Zechariah. Zechariah’s words for striking, fleeing, and the sword are replaced by effective synonyms in Mark’s description of the action: “It would appear then the words of Zech. 13:7 serve to interpret the flight of the disciples, not to describe the act of desertion itself.” (NV, p. 175) The words may not be the same but the actions described can surely be explained as being inspired by Zechariah as the narrative’s source. 
  4. Re Mark 14:34 — The echo of Psalm 42 is surely real given the regularity with which that Psalm is used in other Jewish literature in connection with the suffering of the righteous one.
  5. Re Mark 15:21-41 — There is little doubt that Psalm 22 was the source for many of the details of the crucifixion, just as the same Psalm is found as a source for narrative details for stories of Esther, in Qumran literature and in the story of Joseph and Aseneth. But it is not the only source since one finds sporadic details from other Scriptures in the mix, too. All this is one with other Jewish literature and its use of Scripture, as earlier posts have indicated.

NV notes the way Mark has woven the Passion Narrative with reminders of the “Little Apocalypse” of Mark 13 (the command to Watch, the supernatural darkness, the prophecy of seeing the Son of Man coming, etc) in order to drive home the cosmic significance of the crucifixion. Mark links both directly and through symbolism the crucifixion to the war of 66-70 which was seen as God’s judgment on his people for their rejection of Jesus.

Something different about Mark

This brings me back to an important difference between Mark’s use of Scripture and how the other evangelists deployed it.

As NV writes, Mark does not

. . . introduce a schema of prophetic-fulfilment for the Passion Narrative as a whole. Elsewhere in the Gospel, there are isolated instances where certain events correspond to, or happen in fulfilment of, the Jewish scriptures. [Mk 1:2-3; 7:6-7; 9:12-13]. But Mark lacks the explicit interpretive schema one finds in the editorial comments of Matthew (1:22; 2:17,23:4:14; 8:17; 12:17; 13:35; 21:4; 27:9) and John (12:16, 38; 15:25; 18:9; 19:24, 36). For the most part, the concept of prophetic-fulfilment is undeveloped in Mark. (NV, 165. My bolding in all quotations)

Other aspects (e.g. motivation of actions and words, explanatory background) of Mark’s narrative also appear undeveloped and the best reason I have found to explain such characteristics in Mark is given by Nicole Duran in Power of Disorder: Ritual Elements in Mark’s Passion Narrative. Mark is writing not only a “scripturalized narrative” but, unlike the other evangelists, he is also writing a “ritualized narrative”. Continue reading “How (and Why) Jewish Scriptures are used in Mark’s Passion Narrative — a review of Writing with Scripture, part 9”


2022-07-21

Clarification of the Thesis — a review of Writing with Scripture, part 8

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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.

I have come to a turning point in my reading and review of Nathanael Vette’s Writing With Scripture. I first learned of the book on the Biblical Criticism & History Forum where a member described it as “amazing. A real game changer” — How could I not read it! What I was expecting was a theoretical analysis of how the author of the Gospel of Mark used Scripture to construct his narrative. It was with that optimism that I approached the book. After my first reading I thought I might have read too quickly and that I would see more with a slower re-reading as I wrote about it for this blog. But after having now arrived at what I think can be described as the beginning of the work’s most critical section, subtitled The Jewish scriptures in the Passion Narrative, and having re-read it several times, marking it, following up the footnotes, and trying to digest it as best I can, I have to conclude several things that fall within four categories:

1. I am not part of the reading audience the author had in mind;

2. The work is written primarily for New Testament scholars and informed lay “liberal” believers in the Bible;

3. The thesis advanced affirms that scripturally allusive passages in the Gospel of Mark “seem to have been triggered by some genuine aspect of Jesus’ career” and similar types of passages in the Passion Narrative likewise have some “traditional or historical sources” behind them – however uncertain we inevitably remain about the exact nature and extent of those sources.

4. The work conforms to the assumptions and methods embedded within mainstream biblical studies, a point I have difficulty with because, as I have demonstrated repeatedly by reference to other historians and philosophers of history, these assumptions and methods are at odds with much of the way historical work outside biblical studies is undertaken. Despite that difference, and when not engaged in apologetics disguised as scholarship, New Testament scholars do often produce works of informative insight and value.

I have also said that Nathanael Vette [NV] raises many issues that invite discussion and debate. And who can complain about that! So let’s continue. Continue reading “Clarification of the Thesis — a review of Writing with Scripture, part 8”


2022-07-18

How Queen Esther Influenced the Fate of John the Baptist — a review of Writing with Scripture, part 7

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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.

I was fascinated by Nathanael Vette’s (NV) discussion of the highly probable influence of the story of Esther on the Gospel of Mark‘s account of the death of John the Baptist. It’s not a new theory that the biblical Book of Esther inspired some of the details in Mark’s account but NV takes us back to a version of the story that preceded its Hebrew or common Septuagint rendering.

A closer look at the passage, however, reveals a much greater resemblance to another Greek text of Esther: the so-called Alpha-text. (NV, 149)

A translation of the Alpha text can be read online at https://www.scribd.com/read/439782177/Septuagint-Esther-Alpha-Version. In the “Forward” (sic) of that online text we read of the Alpha text:

There are two versions of the Book of Esther in the various copies of the Septuagint, however, neither originated at the Library of Alexandria. The common version of Esther is found in almost all copies, while the rare version is only found in four known manuscripts, numbered as 19, 93, 108, and 319. This version follows the rare version, also known as the Alpha version, using the oldest surviving copy as a source text, the Septuagint manuscript 319, while also comparing the other surviving manuscripts: 19, 93, and 108. . . . .

The Alpha Texts version only survives in a few copies of the Septuagint, and based on its dialect, it was translated somewhere in the Seleucid Empire. The Alpha version is probably the oldest of the four translations, as it includes several unique elements that appear to have disappeared in later translations.

NV observes the following Alpha text matches in Mark’s scene of the death of John the Baptist:

  • a young girl (κοράσιον)
  • pleases (ἤρεσεν)
  • at a banquet (συμπόσιον)
  • a king vows (ώμοσεν)
  • with an oath (ὅρκος)
  • “up to half of my kingdom” (ως [τοũ] ήμίσους τῆς βασιλείας μου). — although the expression is common, the Alpha text of Esther and the Gospel of Mark alone “omit the genitive article” found in other manuscript lines of Esther)

The author thereby composed a banquet scene in which a king offers half of his kingdom to a young girl who instead requests the death of one man. (NV, 150)

Rabbinic literature of late antiquity refers to other variations of the Esther narrative and since details from these are also found in the Gospel of Mark it is reasonable to believe that Mark knew of and used versions of Esther now lost to us. NV refers to Roger Aus’s “meticulous” study of the parallels between Mark’s scene of the death of the Baptist and details found in the rabbinic and other versions of Esther. (Some of Aus’s study is outlined in another Vridar post, The Death of John the Baptist — Sources and Less Obvious Contexts.) The most significant point in common is that the one whom the young girl requests to be executed is decapitated and his head is brought into the scene of feasting for display “on a platter”. Continue reading “How Queen Esther Influenced the Fate of John the Baptist — a review of Writing with Scripture, part 7”


2022-07-16

The Message of the Feeding Miracles of Jesus — a review of Writing with Scripture, part 6

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by Neil Godfrey

Nathanael Vette (NV) establishes in detail how the miraculous feeding stories of Jesus borrow from the miracle of Elisha’s feeding of 100 men with twenty loaves. Many readers would no doubt assume that Mark’s source in 2 Kings 4 was obvious but NV takes the reader through each detail to leave nothing to assumption. Even though a reader of Mark’s gospel who is familiar with the Jewish Scriptures would inevitably recognize the relationship between the miracles of Elisha and Jesus, NV suggests that it was not Mark’s intention to demonstrate the superiority of Jesus over Elisha because Mark does not mention Elisha’s name. Interestingly, NV notes that,

More generally, scripturalized narratives tend to inflate the numbers of their scriptural source: whilst only a few guards are burnt in Dan. 3:22, Pseudo-Philo has 83,500 (LAB 6:17) and one thousand (LAB 38:4) burnt bystanders; whilst only Achan is uncovered in the lot of sin (Josh. 7:16-26), Kenaz uncovers 6,110 sinners (LAB 25:4). (NV, 141)

NV uses the two different occasions of Jesus’ miracle of feeding large numbers, each distinguished by differences in geographical setting, numbers of persons, loaves and baskets of leftover remains, to make a point that few readers would disagree with:

. . . the narrative setting of Mk 6:35-44 and 8:1-9 takes precedence over the scriptural model. In this way, the distinctive elements of the episodes – the circumstances leading to the miracles (6:35-37; 8:1-3), the geographical setting (6:35; 8:4). the inclusion of fish (6:38, 41; 8:7) and even the number of baskets (6:43; 8:8) – each reflect their respective Markan contexts. (NV, 142)

Marten van Valckenborch – Feeding the Five Thousand. Wikimedia Commons

NV’s main focus is on the particular ways Mark makes use of Scripture so when he refers to the common interpretation that the twin miracles events represent ministries to the Jews (5000 and twelve baskets leftover) and to the gentiles (4000 and seven baskets) he does so to make points about Mark adapting his use of Scripture to fit his narrative aims.

Secondary Scriptures are mingled with details from the primary source of 2 Kings so we find traces of Israel in the wilderness as well (e.g. “sheep without a shepherd”, “groups of hundreds and fifties”, the wilderness setting and the miracle of food being sent at evening time) and subsequent evangelists demonstrate their awareness of Mark’s primary and secondary sources.

One cannot make a consistent point-by-point comparison between Jesus and other figures from a single Scripture narrative, NV clarifies, simply because Jesus is modeled on multiple persons: not only Elisha but also Elijah, for example.

But once again NV speculates a “historical source” behind the scripturalized narrative:

The multiplication of food was a common feature of miracle-working traditions in antiquity and, at least in Jewish tradition, none was better known than the multiplication of loaves by Elisha.”’ In this sense, the author may have been led to the well-known miracle in 2 Kgs 4:42-44 by the reputation of Jesus as a miracle-worker. (NV, 146f)

I would rather think that it is more economical to speculate that the author was led to the Elisha miracle by the theological interest he had in demonstrating a particular role Jesus has in the gospel. NV includes another interesting set of citations and I’ll quote extracts from there that come to similar theological rationales for the presence of these feeding miracles. Again, as in an earlier post, I will go beyond what NV himself discusses and make a detour with a closer look at two of the works he cites and another work cited in one of those two. (And again, I am responsible for the bolded highlighting in all quotations.)

Analogous stories among other peoples

Outside Biblical and Jewish literature, too, we find many stories of food said to have been acquired or displayed in wonderful fashion. Origen quotes a pronouncement by Celsus in which this great opponent of the Christian faith ranks the miracles of Jesus with the works of the magicians: “and with those which are performed by them that have learned them from the Egyptians, who in the midst of the market places, for a few obols, disclose the venerable teachings, expel demons from men, blow away diseases, summon the souls of heroes, and display choice meals and tables and pastries and desserts which do not exist……..”  Gods and saints were credited with the power to produce or increase food. Bultmann points to Indian stories and the food miracles in the Mohammedan Hadith. A Finnish legend tells of a girl who prepared food for a whole army from three barleycorns. A German fairy-tale has for its subject a marvellous bread which filled an army. There is a wide selection of stories about goblets, bottles, baskets and tables that never empty. It is related that King Alexander had a goblet out of which his whole army could drink without the goblet having to be refilled.  A Celtic legend tells of the basket of Gwydnen Garanhir, in which nine men three times found the foods which they desired.  Ethiopia has a Sun Table which, according to the natives, is always supplied with food by the wish of the gods.  In Africa they tell of the wondrous speaking pot, which fills itself with the food desired. Many feeding miracles are attributed to saints: Francis of Assisi provided food for his fellow-passengers; André Corsini saw his bread increase in his bag; the basket full of fine cherries which the venerable Cottolengo, the “Intendant of Providence,” distributed to a large crowd of poor persons in Turin in 1883, did not become empty, and the abbess of Kildare caused cow’s milk to increase copiously. St. Nicholas fed 83 workmen who were building a new church on one loaf, and yet a large number of pieces were left, etc., etc. Saintyves, who collected a large number of stories and relates them with great verve, points to the literary dependence in the legends of the saints. He recalls the horn of plenty, the attribute of many old gods, and sees in it, as in the bottles, tables, etc., which never become empty, the idea of fertility and initiation rites. According to Saintyves we must therefore regard the loaves in the Gospels as “seasonal loaves the Biblical stories must be interpreted in the light of the pagan ones.

With such a wide variety of stories, it may be asked whether the New Testament accounts perhaps form part of this “pattern.” Did nothing happen? Or did something happen, and if so, what? (pp 625-627)

So what does the Markan scholar who wrote the above think is the motivation for the feeding miracles in the Gospel of Mark? Continue reading “The Message of the Feeding Miracles of Jesus — a review of Writing with Scripture, part 6”

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