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”


2022-07-10

Creating Pseudo-History (and Comedy) from Scripture — a review of Writing with Scripture, part 4

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by Neil Godfrey

Nathanael Vette (NV) is demonstrating how authors of the Second Temple era drew upon Jewish Scriptures to create narratives through a wide range of literary genres, and once we are aware of the many ways they went about doing that, we can expect to find that much of the Gospel of Mark is likewise composed from Scripture not only explicitly but even implicitly, subtly, sometimes even barely noticeably.

Judith

Although Judith was most likely written around the turn of the second to first centuries BCE, the surviving evidence leads some scholars to suspect  there was little interest in the work until the late first or early second century CE. (Lawrence Wills: “By the turn of the first to second centuries CE, then, a textual tradition of Judith was already popular enough to be referenced.”) NV notes that Judith‘s “manifold historical blunders” are not necessarily the reason for its scarcity in the earliest records (making it “something of an outlier in the miscellanea of Second Temple literature”) since Daniel and Esther are also replete with “equal historical absurdity”. (You can read the story online at the Early Jewish Writings site.)

Jael and Judith (Wikimedia Commons)

Just as I was beginning to wonder how much relevance this narrative might have for an interpretation of the Gospel of Mark, a footnote by NV ripped my complacency from me the moment I followed up its references:

  1. For some, Judith’s absurdities are a sign the author intended it to be read as a kind of historical fiction; so André-Marie Dubarle, Judith: Formes et sens des diverses traditions. Tome I: Études, Analecta Biblica Investigationes Scientificae in Res Biblicas 24 (Rome: Institut Biblique Pontifical, 1966), 162-4; Enslin, The Book of Judith, 38; Moore, Judith, 76-85; Gera, Judith, 60; Lawrence Μ. Wills, Judith, Hermeneia (Minneapolis, MN: Fortress, 2019), 78-95; or as a ‘legend’ in Benedict Otzen, Tobit and Judith, Guides to Apocrypha and Pseudepigrapha (London: Sheffield Academic, 2002), 124-6. The label of historical fiction is also applied to the equally fabulous Daniel, Esther and Letter of Aristeas. There is, however, no evidence that these texts were read as fiction during the Second Temple period. A simpler explanation is that the authors merely suffered from a lack of adequate historical information. This surely lies behind the absurd detail in the Pirḳê de Rabbi Eliezer that ‘Pharaoh, king of Egypt [of Exod. 5-14] went and ruled in Nineveh [in the time of Jonah]’ (PRE 43:9). That this may also explain the historical inaccuracies in Judith is explored in an unjustly overlooked article by Alan Millard, ‘Judith, Tobit Ahiqar and History’, in New Heaven and New Earth: Prophecy and the Millenium [sic]. Essays in Honour of Anthony Gelston, eds. Peter J. Harland and Robert Hayward, VTSup 77 (Leiden: Brill, 1999), 195-203. There is less to commend Ernst Haag’s view (Studien zum Buche Judith: Seine theologische Bedeutung und literarische Eigenart, Trierer Theologische Studien 16 [Trier: Paulinus, 1963]) that Judith’s historical inaccuracies are simply part of its theological agenda. (p 86 — my bolding in all quotations)

If one cauterizes the Gospel of Mark from its historical theological status and reads it as literature alongside other early stories of Jesus, both canonical and extra-canonical, historical absurdities also emerge as they do in Judith: a Pilate cowered by a mob demanding the release of an insurrectionist and the execution of an innocent man, Pharisees touring and synagogues dotting the landscape of Galilee in the early first century, a Sanhedrin trial for a capital offence conducted at night on the eve of a holy day, Pharisees portrayed as vicious martinets, the Jerusalem temple so small a single man was capable of disrupting its traffic and business . Should we think the author of the Gospel of Mark “intended it to be read as a kind of historical or biographical fiction”?

Compare the Enslin reference: Continue reading “Creating Pseudo-History (and Comedy) from Scripture — a review of Writing with Scripture, part 4”


2022-07-08

To What Shall We Compare the Gospels? — a review of Writing with Scripture, part 3

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by Neil Godfrey

Seven years ago in an online forum I discovered that another person, Ben Smith, had come to a conclusion that I had till then only been toying with. Ben had delved into the question more thoroughly than I had and encapsulated his findings as follows:

What genre do the gospels belong to? I think that they belong to whatever genre the Jewish scriptural narratives belong to. I think that they are conscious continuations of that venerable tradition.

It is not merely that the gospels draw upon and quote the Jewish narrative scriptures; Ozymandias draws upon and paraphrases histories without itself being a history. The issue is that the gospels are, through and through, the same kind of texts as the Jewish narrative scriptures.

Nathanael Vette (NV) in Writing With Scripture likewise speaks of a “biblical style” and what this means for how the reader was expected to respond to the extra-canonical work. Speaking of 1 Maccabees, NV writes,

And as Rappaport and others have observed, the author adopts an evidently ‘biblical’ style of narration. . . .

The scriptural style of 1 Maccabees serves the propagandistic aims of the author. The Hasmonaean dynasty could not easily lay hold of the traditional means of validating their rule, in either Davidic or Zadokite descent. The author thus seeks to legitimize their rule using the Jewish scriptures. (NV, 76 – The link is to the referenced page in Brill.)

The multiple genres across three languages NV selects for discussion:
— Pseudo-Philo’s Biblical Antiquities (LAB) (Latin: Greek – Hebrew)
Genesis Apocryphon (Aramaic)
1 Maccabees (Greek – Hebrew vorlage)
Judith (Greek – Semitic vorlage?)
Testament of Abraham (Greek)

The second chapter of NV’s Writing With Scripture (WWS) demonstrates how multiple genres across three languages (Hebrew, Aramaic and Greek) use the Jewish Scriptures in various ways to create new narratives and literary characters. The point of the exercise is to determine whether one can discern a firm foundation on which to claim that the same techniques were used in the composition of the Gospel of Mark. If the Gospel of Mark reads like an extension of Jewish Scripture and is woven with scriptural allusions, then it is reasonable to conclude that its author was following some of the literary practices we find in other literature of the Second Temple era. Don’t misunderstand, though. NV is not suggesting that the Gospel is entirely fabricated. He will explain in a later section his reason for believing that historical events do lie behind the “scripturalized traditions”.

So let’s resume my discussion or review of WWS. The previous installments (with corrections since I first posted them) are at

Continue reading “To What Shall We Compare the Gospels? — a review of Writing with Scripture, part 3”


2022-07-06

Creating New Stories from Scripture — a review of Writing with Scripture, part 2

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by Neil Godfrey

This is the second post in my review of Nathanael Vette’s Writing With Scripture: Scripturalized Narrative in the Gospel of Mark. The series is being archived at Vette: Writing With Scripture. For a richer understanding of the creative literary world that gave rise to our Gospel I highly recommend reading these reviews of Vette’s work alongside an earlier series on Literary Imagination in Jewish Antiquity by Eva Mroczek: those posts are archived at Mroczek: Literary Imagination in Jewish Antiquity. While Mroczek explores the ways in which authors understood existing “scriptures” and the ways they felt justified in “rewriting” them, Nathanael Vette [NV] takes us into the close-up view of how authors of the era pieced together new stories from elements of existing ones. (Vette twice favourably cites the views of Eva Mroczek.)

Did the author of the Gospel of Mark create events in the life of Jesus by selecting and combining in new ways various passages and motifs from the Jewish Scriptures?

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)

And again,

That Mark composed new stories out of scriptural elements will thus appear all the more likely if the practice can be observed elsewhere, and it is to this question the study will now turn. (NV, 31)

Here I will cover just one of the five Second Temple works that NV studies.

It makes sense to begin with having a clear idea on how to identify a “scriptural allusion or echo” in a passage, keeping in mind that the study is about more than explicitly interpreted passages and stories from (Jewish) Scripture. NV relies upon Dale Allison’s list of criteria as set out in The New Moses. Instead of repeating them here, here is the link to where I set them out, with discussion, and in comparison with other criteria for the same purpose: 3 criteria lists for literary borrowing.

NV begins with Pseudo-Philo’s Liber Antiquitatum Biblicarum, or rather with three episodes from the LAB (its standard abbreviation). NV does not discuss the date of this work (Biblical Antiquities) but it is widely accepted as belonging to the Second Temple period. If you want to know why the LAB is dated to the first century see D. J. Harrington’s explanation in Old Testament Pseudepigrapha Volume 2 at archive.org, p. 299; further, a more recent discussion appears in the German language thesis of Eckart Reinmuth, Pseudo-Philo und Lukas, also at archive.org, pp 17-26. (Both Harrington and Reinmuth are referenced in NV’s work although Reinmuth has unfortunately been overlooked from the author index.)

We cannot pinpoint precise details of how Scriptures were used in the narrative constructions of LAB since the surviving texts are Latin translations that do no more than leave hints of Hebrew and Greek source texts. Nonetheless, the narratives we have clearly indicate two levels of scriptural sourcing:

  1. a narrative in the LAB can be based primarily on a story we read in, say, the Pentateuch: that is, a retelling of the career of Israel from the time of the twelve spies being sent into Canaan through Korah’s rebellion and Balaam’s prophecies and concluding with the death of Moses;
  2. that same narrative can be supplemented by events and speeches from other, usually comparable, episodes: so sayings and incidents from Genesis, Joshua and 1 Chronicles can be introduced into the main narrative to enrich it with new detail.

Hence, we read in LAB 17:

Then was the lineage of the priests of God declared by the choosing of a tribe, and it was said unto Moses: Take throughout every tribe one rod and put them in the tabernacle, and then shall the rod of him to whomsoever my glory shall speak, flourish, and I will take away the murmuring from my people. 2. And Moses did so and set 12 rods, and the rod of Aaron came out, and put forth blossom and yielded seed of almonds. 3. And this likeness which was born there was like unto the work which Israel wrought while he was in Mesopotamia with Laban the Syrian, when he took rods of almond, and put them at the gathering of waters, and the cattle came to drink and were divided among the peeled rods, and brought forth [kids] white and speckled and parti-coloured.

That’s quite straightforward. But what is of interest to us is when this author (who was once mistaken for Philo) creates new episodes from the raw materials of Scripture.

NV itemizes several examples. One that he does not elaborate on did catch my attention because it stood out from the others as the creation not only of a new event but of a new character.

The figure of Aod the Midianite magician (LAB 34) is based on Moses’ description of the false prophet (Deut. 13:1-4) among other passages. (NV, 37)

I followed up the references and present here a table to demonstrate how this new person is moulded from Scripture.

Deuteronomy 13:1-4 LAB 34
If a prophet, or one who foretells by dreams, appears among you and announces to you a sign or wonder, and if the sign or wonder spoken of takes place, and the prophet says, “Let us follow other gods” (gods you have not known) “and let us worship them,” you must not listen to the words of that prophet or dreamer. The Lord your God is testing you to find out whether you love him with all your heart and with all your soul. It is the Lord your God you must follow, and him you must revere. Keep his commands and obey him; serve him and hold fast to him. And in that time there arose a certain Aod from the sanctuaries of Midian, and this man was a magician, and he said to Israel, “Why do you pay attention to your Law? Come, I will show you something other than your Law.” And the people said, “What will you show us that our Law does not have?” And he said to the people, “Have you ever seen the sun by night?” And they said, “No.” And he said, “Whenever you wish, I will show it to you in order that you may know that our gods have power and do not deceive those who serve them.” And they said, “Show it. “And he went away and worked with his magic tricks and gave orders to the angels who were in charge of magicians, for he had been sacrificing to them for a long time. Because in that time before they were condemned, magic was revealed by angels and they would have destroyed the age without measure; and because they had transgressed, it happened that the angels did not have the power; and when they were judged, then the power was not given over to others. And they do these things by means of those men, the magicians who minister to men, until the age without measure comes. And then by the art of magic he showed to the people the sun by night. And the people were amazed and said, “Behold how much the gods of the Midianites can do, and we did not know it.” And God wished to test if Israel would remain in its wicked deeds, and he let them be, and their work was successful. And the people of Israel were deceived and began to serve the gods of the Midianites. And God said, “I will deliver them into the hands of the Midianites, because they have been deceived by them.” And he delivered them into their hands, and the Midianites began to reduce Israel to slavery.

Okay, maybe Aod doesn’t earn top marks for creative ingenuity but it is a sign of a new individual being “born”, is it not? Perhaps you will be more impressed with an angelic figure named Nathaniel when we come to the discussion of Jair below.

The Rescue of Abram from the Fiery Furnace

Continue reading “Creating New Stories from Scripture — a review of Writing with Scripture, part 2”


2022-06-28

How and Why the Gospel of Mark Used Scripture — a review of Writing with Scripture, part 1

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by Neil Godfrey

When I offered to post a comprehensive review of Writing With Scripture by Nathanael Vette the publisher sent me a copy and now I hope this first in a series of reviews will begin to do justice to all concerned and interested. I write primarily as a layman for interested lay readers.

Who is Nathanael Vette?

Nathanael Vette [NV] appears on the University of Edinburgh’s site as a Postdoctoral Research Assistant in the School of Divinity.

In the book’s Acknowledgements NV thanks Helen Bond for supervising the research that led to this book. Other names many readers of this blog will recognize and who are singled out for gratitude are Mark Goodacre (one of NV’s doctoral examiners), James McGrath (for feedback) and Chris Keith (editor of the series accepting Writing With Scripture for publication). There are other names, of course, but I have listed for context those I think to be most widely known among lay readers. NV also gives a special appreciation to the Issachar Fund “for their generous sponsorship”.

My postdoctoral fellowship at the School of Divinity is sponsored by the Issachar Fund for researching the themes of gratitude and loyalty in Christianity and Islam. My primary research is on the Gospel of Mark and how compositional practices in Second Temple Judaism can help explain the emergence of the Gospel form. (From NV’s profile)

Overview

Writing With Scripture: Scripturalized Narrative in the Gospel of Mark is divided into four chapters:

The Introduction sets out the two different ways in which Jewish Scriptures are found in the Gospel of Mark: some are explicitly quoted and interpreted or merely alluded to in order “to support an argument or interpret an event”; others we sense are somehow “hidden” insofar as they are “woven seamlessly into the narrative” and we are left wondering why the author wrote that way. Was the author attempting to indicate to readers that Jesus fulfilled the “prophecies” of the Jewish Scriptures? Were events fabricated from those Scriptures or were historical events interpreted through them? Or were the Scriptures borrowed for some other reason? The Introduction will be the focus of this post.

The second chapter sets out a literary context for the Gospel of Mark by examining how Jewish Scriptures are used, both explicitly and implicitly, in Second Temple literature: episodes in Pseudo-Philo’s Liber Antiquitatum Biblicarum (Book of Biblical Antiquities), the Genesis Apocryphon, 1 Maccabees, Judith and the Testament of Abraham. I found these to be some of the book’s most rewarding passages. Many readers have been made aware of scholarly studies comparing the Gospel of Mark with Greco-Roman literature (e.g. Homeric epics, Greek tragedy, Aesop, and others) so it is refreshing to be reminded of the Jewish literary context of the Gospel.

The third chapter zeroes in on several passages in the Gospel of Mark itself: those comparing Jesus with Elijah and then with Elisha, the resonances between the death of John the Baptist and the narrative of Esther, and of course the use of Scriptures throughout the Passion Narrative. How do the uses of the “Old Testament” compare in these passages with OT usages in the literature discussed in the preceding chapter? What can be reasonably concluded about the purpose of those usages as a result of the comparisons? NV argues that many of those Jewish scriptural allusions are found in the Gospel because they happened to be raw material the author found useful for fleshing out narrative scenes. In other words, we are in danger of reading too much into the Gospel if we seek to find a theological meaning behind many of the Scriptural allusions.

Finally, NV brings together the different ways in which we find Scripture used in the Gospel of Mark and what these can tell us about the influences and purposes of the narrative. The question that naturally arises is how much of what we read in the Gospel has been imaginatively invented by an author from OT passages and how much can qualify as historical reality? And how can we tell the difference? These questions are posed throughout the book in preparation for a final discussion and assessment at its end.

Introduction

Continue reading “How and Why the Gospel of Mark Used Scripture — a review of Writing with Scripture, part 1”


2022-06-08

Isaiah Sawn in Two — Origin of the Story

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by Neil Godfrey

In the Lives of the Prophets, a Jewish work from as early as the first century that has been supplemented with Christian additions, we read of the death of Isaiah:

The image captured the imaginations of medieval manuscript decorators:

 

http://ica.themorgan.org/manuscript/page/29/77048
http://ica.themorgan.org/manuscript/page/48/77328

Bible Walking
Ancient Jew Review

There remains the problem, of which the reader must by now be thoroughly aware, of how a saint and, for that matter, a Jewish prophet, came to be imagined as having died by the extraordinary process of being sawed in two. Even granted that the Middle Ages liked its tales of martyrdom gory and sensational, one cannot help but feel that to saw a man in two is not only cruel, but also unusual and impractical. Other motives besides a preference for the excessive seem required to explain the choice of an instrument of torture which is almost without parallel in the long catalogue of Christian and Jewish suffering. — Bernheimer, 21

Continue reading “Isaiah Sawn in Two — Origin of the Story”


2022-04-12

Christ Before Christianity, 3: Revealer of Wisdom

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by Neil Godfrey

Someone reminded me that I have yet to complete a series I began in 2013!

Never let it be said I cannot be relied upon to keep my word, so here goes  . . . .

* I use the term Judean for the same reason Steve Mason uses the term in A History of the Jewish War, A.D. 66-74), p. 90. Mason explained that his reason was

not because I have any quarrel with the use of Jews. . . . But our aim is to understand ancient ways of thinking, and in my view Judeans better represents what ancients heard in the ethnos-polis-cult paradigm. That is, just as Egypt (Greek Aegyptos) was understood to be the home of Egyptians (Aegyptioi), Syria of Syrians, and Idumaea of ldumaeans, so also Judaea (Ioudaia) was the home of Judeans (loudaioi) — the only place where their laws and customs were followed.

(Mason, Steve. A History of the Jewish War, A.D. 66-74. Cambridge: Cambridge University Press, 2016. p. 90)

The aim of this series is to explore the ideas “in the air” among Judeans* at the time Christianity was born. In other words, we are looking at the matrix from which Christianity emerged. The guiding text we are focussing on is The Messiah: A Comparative Study of the Enochic Son of Man and the Pauline Kyrios by James Waddell.

In what we generally hold to be the earliest texts addressing the nature of wisdom — Job and Proverbs — Wisdom is presented as a goddess or divine attribute. But those ideas were only part of the picture.

Sirach and Baruch

In the second century before the Christian era a work known as Sirach taught for the first time that Wisdom (unlike the goddess or divine attribute of earlier traditions) was a heavenly being who lived in heaven with the angels and who asked God for a place to live on earth. The real estate chosen for Wisdom was the Temple in Jerusalem; as an annexe Wisdom was also to be found abiding “in the Torah”. That is, Wisdom showed herself in the priestly cult and in the commandments of the Torah. (Not that Torah and Wisdom were identical, though. The two remain separate: the Torah does not become one with Wisdom as a pre-existent and heavenly being.) Similar ideas about Wisdom were repeated in the Book of Baruch soon afterwards.

Sirach and Baruch (from Pre-Roman era) — Wisdom showed herself living in the Temple cult and the Torah.

Daniel and early Enoch

A quite different view of wisdom was portrayed in the Book of Daniel and early works of Enoch (before the Parables of Enoch). As if in direct rebuttal of Sirach and Baruch, Enoch declared that Wisdom will never depart from God or his throne in heaven.

Yes, Enoch and Daniel are wise men who teach wisdom, but their wisdom is a secret, something hidden, and only revealed to a small chosen elect group. Hence Daniel and Enoch are mediators of God’s wisdom but they do not make that wisdom available to everyone.

Wisdom in these texts is not for all of Judea and most certainly not for all of humanity. Rather, wisdom has existed from the beginning of time (Enoch was given to know it in the days before the Flood) and it will be revealed universally in the end time. Until that time of revelation (“apocalyptic” time) Wisdom remains secret except for the chosen few.

A wisdom-filled messiah is not found in these texts. The Son of Man of Daniel and the “snow-white cow” in the Dream Visions of Enoch may be understood as quasi-messianic figures at best but they are certainly not Davidic messiahs. Power and dominion belong to them but not “Wisdom”. Wisdom, as we have seen, is given to the mediators Daniel and Enoch who pass on the secret knowledge of the times to come.

Enoch and Daniel: mediators of secret heavenly wisdom

Psalms of Solomon

In the first century B.C.E. the Psalms of Solomon mention a Davidic messiah to appear in the “last days”. The seventeenth psalm pictures this messiah Son of David wiping out sinners and ruling the survivors with “Wisdom and Righteousness” and “Wisdom and Happiness”.

Here, Wisdom resides neither in the Torah nor in the Law. Nor is it found in a mediator between God and humankind. The Psalms of Solomon drew upon the scriptural Isaiah 11:2

1 A shoot will come up from the stump of Jesse;
from his roots a Branch will bear fruit.
The Spirit of the Lord will rest on him—
the Spirit of wisdom and of understanding,

The “shoot” from the stump of Jesse is, of course, David, but given that Isaiah is a prophecy we must read it as a Davidic figure destined to make an appearance in the future.

The relevant passages from the Psalms of Solomon 17 and 18:

According to PsSol 17, the Messiah will drive out the sinners “in wisdom and righteousness” (17:23), “will rule peoples and nations in the wisdom of his righteousness” (17:29), and “will bless the Lord’s people with wisdom and happiness” (17:35). , , ,  “God made him … wise in the counsel of understanding with strength and righteousness” (17:37); “those born in these days… (will live) in wisdom of spirit and of righteousness and of strength” (18:7).

(Boccaccini, 274)

So the hope is in the advent of a Davidic Messiah to rule with wisdom. The point to take away from all of this is:

Both wisdom and power are given to the future Messiah, the Son of David.

Psalms of Solomon: Wisdom will appear in the last days with Davidic king. (Image: David as Byzantine emperor with Wisdom)

The Wisdom of Solomon

Righteous Zacharias Killed Between the Temple and the Altar

But there were other viewpoints alongside the above among the Judeans in the years preceding the eruption of Christianity. The Wisdom of Solomon, like the Psalms of Solomon, was composed during the early Roman period but it contained a very different understanding of the place of wisdom. Here wisdom belonged to every righteous suffering person in this world. (And by definition, the righteous always suffer.) There was nothing “end-time” about it. It was not hidden in heaven. It was with every righteous person who asked God to grant it.

Unlike the Psalms of Solomon, the Davidic traditions are not associated with a future Messiah, the Son of David, but are used to describe “a typical figure who is persecuted and put to death by rich and powerful opponents but vindicated in the heavenly court”29 — a symbol in the chain of the children of Wisdom on earth. This is the way Wisdom reveals herself — not secretly, not indirectly, but acting in the first person, directly, in human history. There is not one particular mediator, not even Solomon, but a series of mediators. “In every generation she passes into holy souls and makes them friends of God and prophets” (7:27). Wisdom is not remote but easily accessible to humankind: “she is easily discerned by those who love her, and is found by those who seek her” (6:12).

(Boccaccini, 275)

Contrast Sirach and Baruch above. In those texts Wisdom had an indirect salvific role, “realized through observance of the priestly law”. In the Wisdom of Solomon Wisdom has a direct salvific role.

The Parables of Enoch

If perchance you have forgotten what you read back in 2013 about the Parables of Enoch you can refresh your memory at Christ Before Christianity, 1: Dating the Parables of Enoch

Not so, according to the Parables of Enoch. For the Parables, Wisdom could not find any place to dwell on earth. She did go out looking for somewhere to live among the people of Israel but failed. Result: she was obliged to return to heaven.

There is no room in this world for the salvific role of Wisdom, both directly (as for the Wisdom of Solomon) or indirectly through the priestly Law (as in Sirach or Baruch). (Boccaccini, 276)

For the first time we find wisdom clearly and unambiguously associated with the Son of Man Messiah. (In the Parables of Enoch there is no doubt that the pre-existent Son of Man figure is also the Messiah.)

Part of this Messiah’s job description is to reveal wisdom to humanity. Here is the opening of the Parables:

The vision of wisdom that Enoch saw. . . . This is the beginning of the words of wisdom, which I took up to recount to those who dwell on the earth. . . .  let us not withhold the beginning of wisdom. Until now there had not been given from the presence of the Lord of Spirits such wisdom as I have received according to my insight . . . . (1 Enoch 37:1-5)

The Son of Man figure in the Parables is a revealer of hidden treasures:

This is the son of man who has righteousness, and righteousness dwells with him. And all the treasuries of what is hidden he will reveal; for the Lord of Spirits has chosen him . . . . (1 Enoch 46:3)

The Son of Man is not only destined to reveal wisdom; he himself will be revealed by wisdom: 

And in that hour that son of man was named in the presence of the Lord of Spirits, . . . And the wisdom of the Lord of Spirits has revealed him to the holy and the righteous; (1 Enoch 48:2, 7)

The Son of Man will have all the secrets of wisdom and will reveal wisdom to the truly devout:

For the Chosen One has taken his stand in the presence of the Lord of Spirits; and his glory is forever and ever, and his might, to all generations. 3 And in him dwell the spirit of wisdom and the spirit of insight, and the spirit of instruction (1 Enoch 49:2-3)

And the Chosen One, in those days, will sit upon my throne, and all the secrets of wisdom will go forth from the counsel of his mouth, for the Lord of Spirits has given (them) to him (1 Enoch 51:3)

The Parables of Enoch draws us in to witness a remarkable scene. Enoch is presented as its author. That is, Enoch is the one to whom angels are granting heavenly visions. But something mysterious happens as we read on: Enoch himself becomes gradually transformed into the pre-existent Son of Man figure that he sees in vision, and as the pre-existent Son of Man Enoch is at the same time the Messiah, too.

This is not an incarnation of the Son of Man and Messiah, however. As James Waddell notes pointedly: “This is the opposite of ‘incarnation.’” (p. 87) The earthly Enoch is changed into the spirit Messiah Son of Man figure.

And out of that house came Michael and Raphael and Gabriel and Phanuel and many holy angels without number. And with them was the Head of Days, and his head was white and pure as wool, and his apparel was indescribable. And I fell on my face, and all my flesh melted, and my spirit was transformed.

And that angel came to me and greeted me with his voice and said to me, “You are that son of man . . . . (1 Enoch 71:9-11, 14)

As the Messiah Son of Man, the heavenly Enoch becomes the destined revealer of divine wisdom.

. . .

Such were some of the ideas talked about in the world from which Christianity was born.

Next post (hopefully before nine years from now) we’ll look at pre-Christian Judean ideas about the Messiah’s relationship with Salvation.


Boccaccini, Gabriele, ed. Enoch and the Messiah Son of Man: Revisiting the Book of Parables. Grand Rapids, Mich: William B. Eerdmans, 2007.

Nickelsburg, George W. E. 1 Enoch: A New Translation; Based on the Hermeneia Commentary. Minneapolis: Fortress Press, 2004.

Waddell, James A. The Messiah: A Comparative Study of the Enochic Son of Man and the Pauline Kyrios. London; New Delhi: Bloomsbury T&T Clark, 2013.



2022-02-28

Hadrian as Nero Redivivus

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by Neil Godfrey

Key points in this post:

  • Both Nero and Hadrian waged war with the Jews.
  • Both Nero and Hadrian had a special devotion to enriching and reviving the culture of the Greek world
  • Nero pursued the cultic-religious worship of his own person, Hadrian that of Antinous (and more to be covered in upcoming posts)
  • The travel coins minted by Hadrian mirror the Corinthian local coinage reflecting Nero’s visit there.
  • The rule of Hadrian witnessed a flourishing of Jewish apocalyptic writings, including the identification of Hadrian with Nero redivivus.
Hadrian brought the Temple of Olympian Zeus to completion after it had languished for 600 years. He had four more-than-life-size statues of himself at its entrance and was worshipped along with Zeus. Hadrian also displayed here a giant serpent from India.

–o–

The Nero redivivus myth is a standard interpretative feature in most commentaries on Revelation. Virtually every major commentary on Revelation mentions the myth . . .  Kreitzer (1988)

But there is little agreement on exactly how Revelation fits with the history of the Roman empire. Kreitzer lists four scenarios to demonstrate those difficulties:

Rev 11:8 The beast, which you saw, once was, now is not, and yet will come up out of the Abyss and go to its destruction. The inhabitants of the earth whose names have not been written in the book of life from the creation of the world will be astonished when they see the beast, because it once was, now is not, and yet will come.

9 “This calls for a mind with wisdom. The seven heads are seven hills on which the woman sits. 10 They are also seven kings. Five have fallen, one is, the other has not yet come; but when he does come, he must remain for only a little while. 11 The beast who once was, and now is not, is an eighth king. He belongs to the seven and is going to his destruction.

Scenario one:

  • The five fallen emperors are Nero, Galba, Otho, Vitellius, Vespasian
  • The “one who is” (at time of writing), Titus
  • Domitian is the one “to appear” (foreseen by the author) as Nero redivivus.

Scenario two (omitting those who reigned for very short times):

  • The five fallen emperors are Caligula, Claudius, Nero, Vespasian, Titus.
  • The “one who is”, Domitian
  • The seventh and eighth are yet to come

Scenario three:

  • The five fallen emperors are the Julio-Claudians (Augustus, Tiberius, Caligula, Claudius, Nero)
  • The “one who is” is then Galba
  • The one to come and to reign but a short time is then Otho — to be followed by Nero’s return

Scenario four is proposed by the same person who actually proposed scenario three above:

(The author) was writing in the early second century, a refugee, from a later wave of persecutions, and using the events of 64 to 69 in Rome as a cloak for his views of his own times. … To the author of Revelation the cheap and nasty legend of the risen Nero would seem the perfect legend for the anti-Christ, ever opposed to the truly and gloriously Risen Lord of his own faith. (John Bishop, Nero: The Man and Legend, p. 174)

The Nero myth was itself a variable quantity. It is as Kreitzer observes

The fact that ancient Jewish and Christian authors were able to find new and creative means of applying the Nero redivivus mythology to their own situations is particularly interesting. (1988, 95)

Indeed. And as we shall see, the emperor Hadrian who crushed the second Jewish rebellion led by Bar Kochba was also identified as the “Nero returned”.

Before we take on the details, let’s get some context.

Origin and Development of the Nero Redivivus Myth

We might say that there are three conditions necessary for a belief in someone’s return:

1.) A widespread popular affection for the figure by people who regarded the deceased as their benefactor or defender

2.) A general feeling that the figure concerned died leaving his work incomplete

3.) Mysterious or suspicious circumstances surrounding the figure’s death. 

(And we might thank M. P. Charlesworth for helping us out with that list.)

All three conditions apply to Nero. But as time went on and Nero didn’t return the hopes took a new twist: Nero was going to come back from the dead and return! As history and reality faded, myth took their place.

Non-Jews had hoped for Nero’s return. Jews, on the other hand, not so much. The idea of his return was good fodder for end-time prophecies such as those in the Sibylline Oracles, however. The Jewish oracles accordingly turned Nero into an end-time enemy of God.

How are these oracles dated? They refer to the destruction of the Jewish temple (70CE); they also refer to Hadrian in favourable terms so we presume that they were written before his war against Judea.

One set of these oracles (book 5) has been dated between 70 and 132 CE.

The oracles identify Nero by the following descriptions:

  • He initiated the war that led to the destruction of Jerusalem
  • He murdered his mother Agrippina
  • He claimed to be God
  • He loved the Greeks and those in the “east” (including Parthia) and they all loved him.
  • He cut through the isthmus of Corinth to create a canal joining two seas

Sibylline oracles identified Nero by means of known historical facts about him. And he was depicted there as an evil ruler. So where does Hadrian enter the story?

Hadrian as Nero redivivus

Curiously, Hadrian, though presented in a favourable light, is surrounded by descriptions of the unpleasant Nero. Not only is Hadrian nested within portrayals of Nero, but he also shares some of Nero’s historical identifiers. Given that the author here believes Hadrian is on the side of good and Nero on that of evil, we cannot imagine that Hadrian was understood to be Nero redivivus.

But the oracle was fearful. What of the future?

After all, Nero had brought savage punishment upon the Jews; so had the Flavians (Vespasian and Titus) who succeeded him. The oracle laments the existence of all these rulers. Then came the aged Nerva followed by Trajan. The oracle does not totally condemn those rulers: they had not caused trouble. And Hadrian, at least for now, seemed benign enough, but the past record of emperors still cast its shadow of traumatic memories. So the oracle wrote of Hadrian (5:46-50),

After him another will reign,
a silver-headed man. He will have the name of a sea.
He will also be a most excellent man and he will consider everything.
And in your time, most excellent, outstanding, dark-haired one,
and in the days of your descendants, all these days will come to pass.

Hadrian might be a fine man, but when he dies the end-of-time calamity will come — that was the message.

Still, why was Hadrian associated with Nero at all in these oracles?

Larry Kreitzer has an explanation:

It seems clear that Hadrian consciously adopted many of Nero’s benevolent policies toward the Eastern half of the Empire, deliberately modelling himself on his predecessor in this regard.

One of the important secondary sources of evidence for Hadrian’s preoccupation with the Emperor Nero is the numismatic evidence of the Imperial Roman mints. The fact that Hadrian borrowed some of Nero’s coin types for his official imperial mint issues, and used them as a means of popular propaganda, is indisputable. (1989, 69)

I’ll return to the numismatic evidence soon. For now, though, let’s look into K’s first point about Hadrian consciously adopting Nero’s policies: Continue reading “Hadrian as Nero Redivivus”


2021-03-12

When the Messiah Became the Son of God in Early Jewish Thought

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by Neil Godfrey

How or from where did Christianity get the idea that the Messiah was also the Son of God? It is easy to get the idea that the standard belief among scholars is that there was a gradual evolution of Christological concepts, that over time Jesus became ever more exalted in the minds of worshipers. But the evidence of early Jewish writings points us to another explanation, one that leads us to think that the idea that the Davidic Messiah was also a Son of God was part of the same idea from the beginning.

As I prepared to write the next instalment on Nanine Charbonnel’s Jésus-Christ, Sublime Figure de Papier I found myself burrowing down into more citations than I could hope to fit into such a post. So here I address just one detail as a stand-alone composition.

This post has a narrow focus. It zeroes in on the early evidence, from before the Christian era up to the first century CE, that among Jewish sectarian ideas there was one that explicitly identified the Davidic Messiah with the Son of God. I do not address questions of the actual meaning of “son of God” — except insofar as the label is applied to a pre-existent and heavenly being as well as an earthly king. The two become fused.

The fusion of the heavenly ‘son of man’ figure envisaged in Daniel, with the traditional hope for a Davidic Messiah was of fundamental importance for early Christianity. The ‘Son of God’ text from Qumran shows that this fusion did not originate in Christianity, but was already at home in sectarian Jewish circles at the turn of the era. (Collins, 82)

The term Son of God in Jewish writings has many different applications: angels, the king of Israel, the people of Israel, righteous Israelites (Jubilees 1:24-25) — and the royal messiah. This post looks at the instances where Son of God is directly applied to that messiah king.

The Davidic branch is identified as the Son of God in Qumran texts.

The branch of David is explicitly identified with the Messiah in 4Q252: . . . there shall not fail to be a descendant of David upon the throne . . . until the Messiah of Righteousness comes, the Branch of David . . . 

I will establish the throne of his kingdom f[orever] (2 Sam 7:13). I wi[ll be] a father to him and he shall be a son to me (2 Sam 7:14). He is the branch of David who shall arise . . . in Zi[on in the la]st days . . . (4Q174)

. . . when God has fa[th]ered the Messiah . . . (1QSa/1Q28a)

Similarly in the Jewish apocryphal work 4 Ezra:

For my son the Messiah shall be revealed with those who are with him, and those who remain shall rejoice four hundred years.

And after these years my son the Messiah shall die, and all who draw human breath. (4 Ezra 7:28f)

4 Ezra 13 is dependent on Psalm 2: the messianic figure stands on a mountain and repulses the attack of the nations; God sets his anointed king on his holy mountain, terrifies the nations, and tells the king “you are my son…”
Daniel 7 also inspires 4 Ezra 13: vision of a man emerging from the sea and flying with the clouds, preceded by war among the nations. (Collins p. 76f)

And when these things come to pass and the signs occur which I showed you before, then my Son will be revealed, whom you saw as a man coming up from the sea. (4 Ezra 13:32)

And he, my Son, will reprove the assembled nations for their ungodliness (this was symbolized by the storm) (4 Ezra 13:37)

He said to me, “Just as no one can explore or know what is in the depths of the sea, so no one on earth can see my Son or those who are with him, except in the time of his day. (4 Ezra 13:52)

for you shall be taken up from among men, and henceforth you shall live with my Son and with those who are like you, until the times are ended. (4 Ezra 14:9)

The Book of Enoch

More specifically, the Epistle of Enoch in the Book of Enoch, dated between 170 BCE and the first-century BCE. . . .

In Enoch 105:1-2 (mistakenly cited as 55:2 in Charbonnel’s source)

1. In those days the Lord bade (them) to summon and testify to the children of earth concerning their wisdom: Show it unto them; for ye are their guides, and a recompense over the whole earth. 2. For I and My Son will be united with them for ever in the paths of uprightness in their lives; and ye shall have peace: rejoice, ye children of uprightness. Amen.

There is debate over the identities of “I and my son” in Enoch. Some scholars have suggested it might refer to Enoch and his son Methuselah. George W. E. Nickelsburg in his commentary writes

In the context of chaps. 81 and 91, “I and my son” here could mean Enoch and Methuselah rather than God and the Messiah, as Charles suggested.11

11 Charles, Enoch, 262-63.

(1 Enoch 1, p. 535)

His note 11 is a problem, at least it is for me. There are four titles in his bibliography that it could refer to.

  • Charles, R. H. The Book of Enoch: Translated from Dillmann’s Ethiopic Text, emended and revised in accordance with hitherto uncollated Ethiopie MSS. and with the Gizeh and other Greek and Latin fragments (Oxford: Clarendon, 1893).
  • Charles, R. H. The Book of Enoch, or 1 Enoch: Translated from the Editor’s Ethiopic Text, and edited with the introduction notes and indexes of the first edition wholly recast enlarged and rewritten; together with a reprint from the editor’s text of the Greek fragments (Oxford: Clarendon, 1912).
  • Idem “Book of Enoch,” in idem, ed., The Apocrypha and Pseudepigrapha of the Old Testament, volume 2, Pseudepigrapha (Oxford: Clarendon, 1913) 163-281.
  • Idem The Book of Enoch (Translations of Early Documents, Series 1; London: SPCK, 1917).

Wanting to read what Charles had to say I consulted the third title listed above (1913) and found Charles identifying the Messiah with God’s Son:

105:2. I and My Son, i.e. the Messiah. Cf. 4 Ezra vii. 28, 29, xiii. 32, 37, 52, xiv. 9. The righteous are God’s children, and pre-eminently so the Messiah. Cf. the early Messianic interpretation of Ps. ii, also I En. lxii. 14 ; John xiv. 23. (Charles 1913, p. 277)

In the first title (1893) I found the same identification:

The Messiah is introduced in cv. 2, to whom there is not the faintest allusion throughout xci-civ. . . . To My Son. There is no difficulty about the phrase ‘My Son’ as applied to the Messiah by the Jews : cf. 17 Ezra vii. 28, 29 ; xiv. 9. If the righteous are called ‘God’s children’ in lxii. 11, the Messiah was pre-eminently the Son of God. Moreover, the early Messianic interpretation of Ps. ii would naturally lead to such an expression. (Charles, 1893, p. 301)

Charles does say that the reference to the Messiah seems out of place in the context of the preceding chapters but for that reason thinks a different author is responsible for the passage being inserted. Michael A. Knibb has this to say:

[T]he possibility that there are Christian elements within the Ethiopic version of 1 Enoch — beyond, that is, the presence of occasional Christian glosses — needs to be considered, as has been suggested in relation to 105:2a and chapter 108. Chapter 105 comes at the end of Enoch’s admonition to his children, and the Aramaic evidence (4QEnc 5 i 21–25) showed that the material in this chapter . . . did form part of the original. But 105:2a (“For I and my son will join ourselves with them for ever in the paths of uprightness during their lives”) was apparently not in the Aramaic. It may well represent a Christian addition, but such a statement is not impossible in a Jewish context.63 . . . and it is possible that . . . 105:2a [is not] Christian. 

63 Cf. 4Q246 ii 1; Knibb, “Messianism in the Pseudepigrapha in the Light of the Scrolls,” DSD 2 (1995): 165–84 (here 174–77).

The Son of God Text

 

4Q246:
— Opening verse of column 1: someone falls before the throne;
following verses seem addressed to a king and refer to “your vision“;
— then, “affliction will come on earth … and great carnage among the cities“;
— a reference to kings of Asshur and Egypt;
— verse 7 reads “will be great on earth” (does this refer to the great affliction of preceding verses or the great figure of the following verses?);
— line 8 says “all will serve” and then, “by his name he will be named“.
— Then column 2 opens with our famous line quoted in the post (ii 1)

So we come to 4Q246, “better known as the ‘Son of God’ text” (Collins). See the side box for an overview, but the key line of interest to us:

He will be called the Son of God, they will call him the son of the Most High (ii 1)

Following this line we read about a kingdom destined to rule the earth, trampling all, until the people of God rise up and “all rest from the sword“. His kingdom is an everlasting kingdom and righteous; the sword will cease; all cities will pay homage; God will be its/his strength and make war on its/his behalf, giving the prostrate nations to him/it; its rule is everlasting. (I have relied on Collins for this summary.)

The remainder of this post follows selected points from an article by John Collins, “The Son of God Text from Qumran”, in From Jesus to John: Essays on Jesus and New Testament Christology in Honour of Marinus de Jonge, with a few glances at Knibb’s work.

The correspondences with the infancy narrative in Luke are astonishing. — Collins, p.66

Three phrases correspond exactly: 

will be great, (Luke 1:32)

he will be called the son of the Most High (Luke 1:32)

he will be called the Son of God (Luke 1:35)

Luke also speaks of an unending reign. It is difficult to avoid the conclusion that Luke is dependent in some way, whether directly or indirectly, on this long lost text from Qumran. 

(Collins, 66, my formatting and highlighting)

Continue reading “When the Messiah Became the Son of God in Early Jewish Thought”


2020-12-20

The Death of John the Baptist — Sources and Less Obvious Contexts

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by Neil Godfrey

Here’s another contribution to our quest for the origins of John the Baptist as found in the synoptic gospels. Recent discussions have centred on the account found in Josephus — see

We have also seen Dennis MacDonald’s suggestion of a Homeric influence in the death of John the Baptist and in his wilderness setting.

So now it’s time to see how other texts, in particular the biblical narratives about Esther and Jezebel, shaped the Gospel accounts.

But first let me interrupt myself with this note: The idea of John the Baptist as an Elijah figure who has to come before the Messiah is not a staple of early Christian beliefs. The Gospels of Luke and John do not present John the Baptist as another Elijah. Rather, they both strongly indicate that they want readers to think of Jesus himself as the newly arrived Elijah. In the Gospel of John, John the Baptist is made to explicitly declare he is not the Elijah to come. In that gospel Jesus himself has been interpreted as an Elijah figure, that is, both as the Elijah at his first coming and the conquering messiah when he comes in glory (even if that means from the time of his crucifixion and resurrection). I suspect that this Elijah motif being applied to Jesus in the fourth gospel is the reason the author moved the cleansing of the temple scene to the beginning of his ministry — to make more sense of the prophecy of Malachi that Elijah would come suddenly to the temple. For a detailed discussion of the Gospel of Luke’s Jesus as Elijah see Jesus the New Elijah.

So the Gospels of Mark and Matthew stand alone in the canon with their interpretation of John the Baptist as Elijah.

Gustave Moreau, L’apparition 1876

The Influence of the Book of Esther

The daughter of Herodias pleased (ἤρεσεν) Herod and he said,

Whatever you ask of me, I will give it to you, up to half of my kingdom! (Mk 6:23)

Here is a widely acknowledged loan from Esther where the Persian king Ahasuerus promises Esther three times. In Esther 2:9 (LXX) we read that “the young girl pleased (ἤρεσεν)” the king who responded:

Then said the king unto her, What wilt thou, queen Esther? and what is thy request? it shall be even given thee to the half of the kingdom. (Esther 5:3; 5:6; 7:2)

Even the head on a platter is found in later versions of Esther:

It is interesting, moreover, that the late Esther Rabbah, perhaps reflecting earlier traditions, describes the head of the former queen being brought in to the king on a platter (4.9, 11) and is thus parallel to the gory conclusion of our story.

From the sefaria.org site:

“If it please Your Majesty, let a royal edict be issued by you (Esther 1:19)”: He said to him: “My lord king, you bring forth the word from your mouth and I will gather her head on a plate“. . . .

“The proposal was approved by the king and the ministers (Esther 1:21)”: He decreed and he brought her head on a plate. (Esther Rabbah 4:9, 11)

At this point we should ask why the evangelist calls Herod Antipas a king even though historically he was not a king but a tetrarch, “a ruler of a fourth part” of the divided kingdom of Herod the Great.

The title “ king” is technically inaccurate …, but its repeated usage here is probably not just a Markan mistake. It is, rather, an example of the evangelist’s irony, for it is prominent in a passage in which Herod is outwitted and manipulated by two women and hamstrung by his own oath and his fear of losing face before his courtiers (cf. J. Anderson, “Dancing Daughter,” 127). Throughout the passage, moreover, we see that this supposed “king” is not even in control of himself, much less of his subjects; he is, rather, overmastered by his emotions, which swing wildly from superstitious dread (6:14, 16) to awe, fascination, and confusion (6:20), to a sexual arousal that seems to border on insanity (6:22-23), to extreme depression (6:26). In this context his pretensions to royal authority (6:16, 27) appear almost farcical; Herod is one who merely appears to rule (cf. 10:42), whereas actually his strings are pulled by others. This ironic portrait of “King” Herod is Mark’s version of a common antityrannical theme, the germ of which is present in the Old Testament (e.g. Pharaoh, Ahasuerus in Esther, the king in Daniel) but that is more explicitly developed in the Greco-Roman sphere from Plato to the Cynics and Stoics: the tyrant is not a true king but a slave to his own passions (Plato Republic 9.573b-580a, 587b-e), and his claim to sovereignty is belied by his inability ׳ to enforce his will and avoid what he hates (Arrian, Discourses of Epictetus 1.19.2-3; cf. 1.24.15-18 and Schlier, “Eleutheros,” 493). (Marcus, 398 f. My bolded highlighting in all quotations)

(Incidentally, I think the same argument applies to Pilate in the mock “trial of Jesus”. The author is not attempting to exonerate Rome at the expense of the Jews but is deploring the failures of both, making an utter mockery of Roman power. See also: Mark’s and Matthew’s Sub Rosa Message in the Scene of Pilate and the Crowd by Andrew Simmons; or at https://www.jstor.org/stable/23488265)

So Herod and Ahasuerus match each other.

Yet doubts must arise. How can a tale so totally unlike the one we read in the Gospel of Mark come to the author’s mind as source material? How can the virtuous Esther possibly be used for an account of the seductive dancer?

Maurice Mergui offers an answer to that question in Comprendre Les Origines Du Christianisme: De L’eschatologie Juive Au Midrash Chrétien.

A Jezebel-Esther syzygy Continue reading “The Death of John the Baptist — Sources and Less Obvious Contexts”


2020-10-03

Origins of the Jacob-Esau Narrative

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by Neil Godfrey

Part 2 on Łukasz Niesiolowski-Spanò‘s chapter, “The Abraham and Esau-Jacob Stories in the Context of the Maccabean Period”, in Biblical Narratives, Archaeology and Historicity: Essays In Honour of Thomas L. Thompson.

The title of this and the previous post may read as declarative but my intent is to share thought-provoking explorations rather than state dogmatic conclusions.

. . .

The Genesis portrayal of Jacob is unlike other biblical narratives in which a heroic figure chosen by God momentarily falls from favour among his peers only to rise again to a more highly exalted status (e.g. Joseph, Gideon, David). In Genesis, Jacob is the second born and cheats his way to take the position of the older sibling.The second part of Łukasz Niesiolowski-Spanò’s [NS] chapter focuses on the Jacob-Esau narrative in Genesis. It does so by comparison with the parallel account in the Book of Jubilees, a book generally dated to the late second century BCE. The Genesis story of the two brothers, we well know, ends with their unexpected reconciliation. In Jubilees (chapters 3738), though, Jacob kills Esau. Jacob’s sons then attack and subdue Esau’s people making the Edomites tribute-paying subjects of Israel “until this day”. How could such opposite narratives come about?

Jacob depicted in Genesis is not the hero who falls, and loses, to rise to a triumphal victory. He is rather described as the lucky dodger. The stories about Jacob struggling with an angel, staying at Laban’s house and especially competing with his brother do not represent the typical plot of the falling-and-rising hero. (p. 55)

NS suggests that the author of this Genesis tale was inviting his audience to appreciate Esau and not to think poorly of him even though they identify with Jacob.

Readers obviously sympathise with Jacob, yet it might have been Esau who was intended to be the central figure of this part of the story. Therefore, the story allows the interplay of the protagonists’ successes and failures. In this way, the narrative’s attractiveness and the intellectual value of the story are proportionally higher since the story is less straightforward. The demanding reader needed more sophisticated accounts. (p. 55)

But what are we to make of the Jubilees’ version with its conclusion so opposing the drama in Genesis? In Genesis we are reading an adventure that presumably explains a friendly relationship between peoples, the Jews and the Edomites, while in Jubilees we find an etiological explanation for Jewish conquest of Edom. Genesis dialogue leaves no question that the story is etiological: God explains to Rebekah at the moment she was giving birth to the twins,

The LORD said to her, ‘Two nations are in your womb . . .  one people will be stronger than the other, and the older will serve the younger.’ – Genesis 25:23

The Reconciliation of Jacob and Esau, c. 1624, Peter Paul Rubens (https://institutopoimenica.com/2012/07/28/a-reconciliao-de-jac-e-esa-rubens/)

In NS’s view, the Jubilees story with its violent conclusion has a simpler and “more natural” coherence. In Genesis, Jacob’s fear for the safety of his family and his placing his most loved ones in the farthermost positions for their comparative safety,

The version in Jubilees seems to be better-constructed in regard to the narrative’s dynamics: Jacob’s fears, leading him to protect the most beloved ones by placing them at the end of the caravan (Gen. 33:1-3), does not find a logical culmination in Genesis. The canonical version, in which two brothers hug one another (Gen. 33:4), is dramaturgically less natural than the version in Jubilees, where the tension ends with war as the narrative climax . . . (p. 56)

Perhaps. I do like the sophistication of the literary structure here and see in it a masterful buildup of suspense and fear that makes the reconciliation all the more dramatically overwhelming. NS had already spoken of the sophistication of the Genesis narrative in the context of the complex position and character of Jacob and his fall from grace.

One thing is surely evident, as NS points out: At the time of the writing of Jubilees, apparently in the late second century BCE, the status of the Genesis stories had not had time to become canonical. There was still room for debate. Continue reading “Origins of the Jacob-Esau Narrative”


2020-06-23

Tinker Tailor Soldier Forger (A Fresh Look at Secret Mark)

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by Neil Godfrey

A document I have not posted about yet is Secret Mark [link to earlychristianwritings.com] or the Secret Gospel of Mark [link to Wikipedia]. (The most controversial aspect of the passage and the letter accompanying it is the possible hint of a homoerotic Jesus.) The briefest introduction to the fragment is at the Gnostic Society Library, and a more detailed discussion is available at Westar Institute. If the fragment is genuine, it would appear that our canonical version of the Gospel of Mark is a shortened version for “lower grade” converts and that there was once a more complete version for those to whom higher secret doctrines were permitted.

A fresh approach to the document was posted on the Biblical History & Criticism Forum by Ken Olson and with his permission I am sharing it here with Vridar readers. Enjoy!

Tinker Tailor Soldier Forger

or What George Smiley Taught Me About Secret Mark: Lessons From John Le Carre’s Tinker Tailor Soldier Spy.

Tinker Tailor Soldier Spy is a classic 1974 espionage novel by John Le Carre (the pen name of David Cornwell), which has been made into a good movie starring Gary Oldman (2011) and an excellent miniseries starring Alec Guinness (1979). Cornwell is a former agent of the British Secret Intelligence Service (MI-6) himself and his novels are far more realistic (or, if you prefer, have more verisimilitude), than Ian Fleming’s James Bond novels, let alone the Bond movies. Anyway, if you haven’t read or watched it, you should.

The plot was inspired by the historical Cambridge Five spy ring, which included a top level MI-6 agent who was a mole passing secrets to the Russians. In the novel, a forcibly retired former agent named George Smiley is brought in by a government minister to try to uncover who among the top level agents of the Service (who are given the code names Tinker, Tailor, Soldier, etc.) is a mole working for the Russians.

There a number of gems in the book.

In one place, Smiley is asked for his opinion on a file containing a Soviet internal review of their naval capabilities, which is something the Service has been after, and has now come into their hands from a mysterious source. Smiley comments (in the TV version):

Its topicality makes it suspect

In another place, Smiley muses on why it’s so difficult to convince his fellows that some of the intelligence they’ve been receiving from the same source is actually being fed to them by the Russians:

Have you ever bought a fake picture? … The more you pay for it, the less inclined you are to doubt it. Silly, but there we are.

In a long passage, Smiley is reading over a personnel file concerning two of the Service’s agents, Bill Haydon and Jim Prideaux. The file contains an old letter from Haydon to a man named Fanshawe (addressing him as “Fan,” which suggests they had a warm relationship), who was his tutor (i.e., the talent spotter from the Service who had recruited him), recommending that he also recruit his new friend Prideaux. In the course of praising Prideaux, Haydon says a few things that could perhaps be taken to suggest the two were more than just friends:

he’s only just noticed that there is a World Beyond the Touchline, and that world is me.

He’s my other half, between us we’d make one marvelous man … you know that feeling when you just have to go out and find someone new or the world will die on you?

he asks nothing better than to be in my company and that of my wicked, divine friends.

Nothing explicit, but as Smiley turns the pages in the file he finds:

The tutors of the two men aver (twenty years later) that it is inconceivable that the relationship between the two was ‘more than purely friendly’ …

Why does John Le Carre, the author, add the note from the two men’s tutors that it was *inconceivable* that their relationship was ‘more than purely friendly’ immediately after the text of Haydon’s letter about Prideaux? Was Le Carre concerned that his readers might take some of Haydon’s fulsome praise of Prideaux as suggesting there was a homosexual attraction between the two, and wished to allay that suspicion? If so, it backfires spectacularly.

Readers are much more likely to wonder why it was necessary for the tutors to report that the relationship between Haydon and Prideaux was definitely not homosexual in nature. The report gives the readers a context in which to understand the contents of the letter. If they had suspected there was something homoerotic in the contents of Haydon’s letter before, their suspicions are only going to be heightened by the denial in the report, and if they hadn’t picked that up from the contents of the letter, they probably will after seeing the appended note.

It seems more likely that Le Carre, a gifted writer, knew perfectly well what effect the appended note from the men’s tutors would have on his readers and included it for that reason. It’s a literary device. (Well, Okay, Le Carre has talked about how he conceived the homosexual relationship between Haydon and Prideaux in interviews, so that part is not really in dispute. What I’m discussing is the literary technique he used to reveal it to his readers).

Inception: How to Put an Idea in Someone’s Head

Continue reading “Tinker Tailor Soldier Forger (A Fresh Look at Secret Mark)”


2020-06-17

How to Read a Sacred Text (a lesson from Psalms and Ascension of Isaiah)

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This work is licensed under a Creative Commons Attribution 4.0 International License.

by Neil Godfrey

In a recently published volume on the Ascension of Isaiah is a chapter with these arresting words:

It is the thesis of this paper that readers and authors of ancient oracular literature did not assume that meaning lies in the text, that the meaning is what the text says. Rather ancient revelatory authors wrote to open windows on meaning that lay beyond what their texts say, and ancient readers read to look through those windows to the meaning beyond. Perhaps an ancient way of reading can explain ancient translators’ decisions and can lead modem readers to appreciate them – and can open a door through which modern readers can understand the Ascls as its authors and earliest readers may have wished. 

(Hall, 146-47. my bolding)

That reminded me of a conflicted time in my own past life trying to make sense of my church’s teachings against the reality of what the Bible itself said. “Here a little, there a little” (Isaiah 28:10), was the phrase that our church leaders had taught to us: scripture, we were taught, could only be understood by the guidance of the Holy Spirit, and it was written so that only the spiritually guided ones could truly understand it. One passage was to be interpreted by another passage in some other book. You wonder what Hosea meant when he wrote,

When Israel was a child, I loved him, and out of Egypt I called my son. (Hosea 11:1) ?

Why, turn to Matthew and you will read the answer:

So he got up, took the child and his mother during the night and left for Egypt, where he stayed until the death of Herod. And so was fulfilled what the Lord had said through the prophet: “Out of Egypt I called my son.” (Matthew 2:14-15)

Matthew explains the meaning of Hosea, you see. That’s how the Bible works, we were taught.

My difficulties began one day quite some years ago when I decided study each book in isolation from the other books just to try to get a firm handle on exactly what each book really was saying — in its “own write” — in its own context, without any input from any other book in the Bible. That was an eye-opener. I fairly quickly found myself in a position where I knew more about what the Bible itself says than what our pastors and evangelists and ministers who were teaching us. There begins another tale for another day.

But now I’m studying Christian origins and the more I learn the more I realize that my old church was right — the sacred texts were not meant to be read for literal meaning but as gateways into other texts and visions of the mysteries. At least, that’s how they were read so very often. Such a method is the fundamental assumption of midrashic readings, too. That is how Matthew read Hosea, after all. (Of course, there remains one serious difference between church readings “here a little, there a little”: church authorities have had a habit of cementing their jig-saw readings of the Bible as set doctrine, the departure from which amounts to the crime of heresy; the early explorers of midrashic interpretations of text were apparently free to explore and discover new “insights”, at least for a time.)

The author of the Gospel of John understood the principle well. He even had Jesus propound it:

Robert G. Hall

Nicodemus respectfully offers a careful, precisely consistent interpretation of what Jesus said, and Jesus berates him for it, ‘Are you a leader of the Jews and you do not know these things’? (John 3.10). Jesus refuses to define his statements. Instead, Jesus stokes Nicodemus’ bewilderment by piling on puzzle after puzzle. Jesus had said, ‘Unless one be born άνωθεν, one cannot see the kingdom of God’. Does Jesus mean ‘born again’? or ‘born from above’ or ‘born from the beginning’ or ‘born anew’? When Nicodemus tries ‘born again’ and asks Jesus to explain what he means, Jesus simply replies with another puzzle: ‘Unless one is bom from water and πνεύμα, one cannot enter the Kingdom of God’ (3.5). Jesus’ words do not refute Nicodemus; Nicodemus’ interpretation works as well as ever. Furthermore, Jesus’ second puzzle does not define the meaning of the first; rather it multiplies meaning: Is Jesus speaking of resurrection? ‘Unless one is born again, born from water (death, Lam 3.53; Ps 69.14-15] and breath [Ezek 37.9] one cannot enter the kingdom of God’. Is Jesus speaking of life in the Spirit? ‘Unless one is born from above, born from water [water of life flowing from Jesus who comes from above, John 4.10-15] and Spirit [water from Jesus is the Spirit, John 7.38-39], one cannot enter the Kingdom of God’. Is Jesus speaking of a new creation? ‘Unless one is born from the beginning, born from water and wind [think Gen 1.2], one cannot enter the Kingdom of God’. Jesus’ subsequent statements solve nothing; they simply add depth to the ambiguity. Nicodemus tries to understand the words as propositions, as statements containing meaning. Jesus refuses to fix the meaning: the statements are not propositions; they are windows to meaning that goes beyond what they say. Only by interpreting windows by windows can the statements remain windows; to fix the meaning is to kill them. Jesus refuses to do so.Authors of ancient revelatory literature wrote not to fix meaning but to open windows. Their goal is not a well- expressed message but the readers’ enlightened mind. They expect a reader who will join the inquiry, who will try to see through the text into the realities beyond.

(149-50. italics original, bolding mine)

To add to the “windows of opportunities” for various meanings Hall reminds us that books were far more often heard performed than silently read. And each reading performance was surely different in some way given that Hebrew manuscripts lacked vowels and Greek manuscripts lacked word divisions.

Readers had to decide what to pronounce. Every performance might be different; each would beget its own insight. (150)

Take the most central conundrum of the Jewish Scriptures, the very name of God:

I AM WHO I AM, אֶֽהְיֶ֖ה אֲשֶׁ֣ר אֶֽהְיֶ֑ה (Ex 3.14) is complex. The imperfects denote continual action in the present, the past, the future, continual action always. The Septuagint translates έγώ είμι ό ών. ’Εγώ είμι denotes present continual action; ό ών is timeless, denoting the act of being simply, έγώ είμι ό ών pretty well captures continual action always – much better than έγώ είμι ός είμι έγώ. This last is elegant, but captures only continual present action. Of course, the divine name is carefully composed; readers meditating on it will see much more than ‘continual action always’ and the Greek repays meditation, too. Translators of the Septuagint have tried to open a window rather than simply to translate what the text says. (152)

Recall that the Psalms have those curious musical terms popping up here and there:

The Psalm titles are difficult to understand because they contain musical terms the significance of which is lost. Even the Septuagint offers little help because it prefers to translate the titles as windows for insight rather than as notes to musicians. For instance, the NRSV translates the title to Psalm 45 (LXX 44) as ‘To the leader: according to Lilies. Of the Korahites. A Maskil. A love song’. The LXX has delved for insight: εις τό τέλος ύπέρ των άλλοιωθησομένων τοΐς υίοΐς Κορε εις σύνεσιν φδή ύπέρ του αγαπητού, ‘For the end concerning the things that shall be changed a song by the sons of Korah for insight concerning the Beloved’. The Septuagint translates the title to urge readers and hearers to penetrate to what the song is really about: it is not simply the marriage song of the king, but it opens insight into the transformations at the end for the sake of the Beloved, for David. In the Septuagint the Psalm title offers Psalm 45 as transparent to insight that is behind and beyond its words. (152-53)

The Descent and Ascent of Jesus in the Psalms?

Continue reading “How to Read a Sacred Text (a lesson from Psalms and Ascension of Isaiah)”


2020-06-11

The Ascension of Isaiah: Another Set of Questions

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This work is licensed under a Creative Commons Attribution 4.0 International License.

by Neil Godfrey

Continuing from Ascension of Isaiah: Continuing Questions. . . .

. . .

In points 6, 7 and 8 of section III of James Barlow’s Commentary on the Vision of Isaiah we enter into detailed discussions of how to assess the priority of different manuscript lines based on comparing particular differences of wording across the manuscripts. Barlow is challenging Charles’s conclusions: Charles argues that the manuscript line that leads to the Ethiopic text with the full pocket gospel is closer, overall, to the original Greek Asc. Isa. that is now lost; Barlow argues the reverse, that the manuscript line closer overall to the original Asc. Isa. is the one without the pocket gospel. The details are available in the linked article.

My thought on the entire debate may be considered dismissive or unfairly biased by some, but I suspect that no conclusion on the originality of the pocket gospel can be derived from the detailed discussions addressed by either Charles or Barlow. Charles at one point writes that it is “no doubt true in a few cases” that there are more original passages in the manuscript without the pocket gospel. That is, a lot of corruption in both manuscript lines has crept in since the original Greek Asc. Isa.

In other words, even if the shorter manuscripts without the pocket gospel contain a good number of passages that may be assessed as closer to the original Greek Asc. Isa. than the manuscripts containing the pocket gospel, it is not valid to conclude on that basis that the pocket gospel or much else in the manuscripts containing the pocket gospel is all a later development and that the pocket gospel is also a late interpolation.

To make sense of the abbreviations like SL2, G2, etc. see the larger table here.

Obviously there is room for disagreement with that viewpoint.  In response to Charles’ words (p. xxii),

If SL2, in other words G2, represent faithfully the text as it stood in the archetype G, then it is clear that in such passages the fuller text of E or G1 is the work of the editor of G1. This is no doubt true in a few cases. 

Barlow responds,

But if this logic is insurmountable, only wouldn’t it be true in ‘every’ case?

To which I would respond, No.

Longer or shorter?

On the other hand, some sections of the longer Ethiopic text look more original according to Charles. In the following text columns I have set out Charles says the longer text found in E is closer to what was in the original Asc. Isa. while the shorter L2/S manuscripts are abridgements of an original. Which column looks more original to you?

E

10:25-28

L2/S

10:25-28

25. And again I saw when He descended into the second heaven, and again He gave the password there ; those who kept the gate proceeded to demand and the Lord to give. 25 . . . into the second heaven,
26. And I saw when He made Himself like unto the form of the angels in the second heaven, and they saw Him and they did not praise Him ; for His form was like unto their form. 26.
27. And again I saw when He descended into the first heaven, and there also He gave the password to those who kept the gate, and He made- Himself like unto the form of the angels who were on the left of that throne, and they neither praised nor lauded Him ; for His form was like unto their form. 27.  . . . into the first heaven, . . . and they neither praised nor lauded Him ; for His form was like unto their form.
28. But as for me no one asked me on account of the angel who conducted me. 28.
29. And again He descended into the firmament where dwelleth the ruler of this world, and He gave the password to those on the left, and His form was like theirs, and they did not praise Him there ; but they were envying one another and fighting ; for here there is a power of evil and envying about trifles. 29. And again He descended into the firmament . . . , and He gave the password . . . and His form was like theirs, and they did not praise Him there ; . . . 

. . . Continue reading “The Ascension of Isaiah: Another Set of Questions”