2022-04-10

The Crucifixion of Jesus as Implicit History of the Jewish War

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by Neil Godfrey

The letters of Paul that are understood to have been written some twenty to ten years before the fall of Jerusalem in 70 CE speak about the crucifixion of Jesus as a simple fact. There is never any elaboration of when or where it happened (unless one treats 1 Thess 2:13-16 as genuine). The message of death and resurrection of the son of God by itself is sufficient to lead to conversion. For Mark, though (and for the sake of convenience and convention I’ll call the author of the second gospel Mark), this was not enough. A detailed story involving betrayal, abandonment, a trial, physical abuse and crucifixion with attendant miracles had to be told. I side with those critical scholars who conclude that all of those details are fabrications since the narrative was created out of various passages in the “Old Testament” and none of Jesus’ followers could have witnessed anything that happened once he was in the hands of the Jewish priests and Roman guards. But even if we concede for the sake of argument that the Passion account of Jesus did hold some “historical core” at its base, there can be no denying that the way Mark has shaped the story with its many allusions to OT scriptures is his own creative work.

Why? Why did he write that narrative and why did he write it the way he did?

Some years back I wrote a series about Son of Yahweh: The Gospels as Novels, by Clarke Owens. Clarke Owens was analysing the Gospel of Mark from the perspective of a literary critic and argued that it was necessary to see the gospel as a product of its time, and that time was in the wake of the Jewish War that condemned untold numbers of Jewish victims to crucifixion around the city of Jerusalem.

In the past few months I have caught up with another work, or two of them, by a German New Testament scholar who makes much the same argument from his perspective:

  • Bedenbender, Andreas. Frohe Botschaft am Abgrund: Das Markusevangelium und der Jüdische Krieg [= Good News at/from the Abyss: The Gospel of Mark and the Jewish War]. Leipzig: Evangelische Verlagsanstalt, 2013.
  • Bedenbender, Andreas. Der Gescheiterte Messias [= The Failed Messiah]. Leipzig: Evangelische Verlagsanstalt, 2019.

Andreas Bedenbender’s view is that the author of the earliest gospel was writing from a place of trauma and was struggling to come to terms with the fate of his people that he had just witnessed. Had not the gospel being preached about Jesus promised the soon-to-arrive Kingdom of God? Now this!? By a “failed messiah” he means a messiah who failed in the same sense that the OT prophets had failed when they preached their warnings about Assyrian and Babylonian captivity if the people of the northern and southern kingdoms did not mend their ways. This position of trauma, Bedenbender believes, explains the dark and confronting features and outright contradictions in the gospel: a messiah who now does, now does not, seem to care for his people, such as when he heals them at one moment but deserts them when they are trying to find him; who terrifies rather than comforts others by wielding his power over demons and the elements; who like a ghost is seen walking on water past his disciples instead of rushing to help them in their distress; who condemns his disciples for an unnatural blindness that they cannot help; who orders silence when a crowd has just heard and witnessed all; and whose story closes with the only witnesses to news of his resurrection fleeing dumb with fear (the earliest manuscripts of the gospel conclude at Mark 16:8).

For Bedenbender the crucifixion of Jesus is a kind of allegory of the fate of Jerusalem. The messiah is made to share in the fate of the Jewish people. From the Jewish historian Josephus we learn that those who did not die from starvation or factional violence or the slaughter of the advancing Roman soldiers or who were not enslaved were crucified:

Scourged and subjected before death to every torture, they were finally crucified in view of the wall. . . . The soldiers themselves through rage and bitterness nailed up their victims in various attitudes as a grim joke, till owing to the vast numbers there was no room for the crosses, and no crosses for the bodies. (Josephus, Jewish War, Book 6: 449-451 – G.A. Williamson translation)

We saw a similar argument in the series on Nanine Charbonnel’s Jésus-Christ, sublime figure de papier. The Gospels created the figure of Jesus in part as a personification of the people of Israel.

Bedenbender goes beyond the events of the crucifixion, though. Right from the beginning of the gospel, we read of “a wilderness place” that is the frequent abode of Jesus. It is easy enough to relate the “wilderness” image to other wilderness scenes in the OT, most especially the “wilderness” through which Moses led the Israelites for 40 years. But Mark repeatedly refers to a “wilderness place” — έρημος τόπος = erēmos topos — and that brings to the minds of readers of the Greek translation (the Septuagint) of Jeremiah, Daniel and the Psalms the desolate ruin of God’s “place”, Zion and where the Temple had once stood. This is one of the ways in which the Jewish War is woven into the Gospel of Mark from its opening chapter.

Place names and names of persons are related to scenes and leaders that became well-known in the Jewish War of 66 to 70/73 CE. In the OT women are very often personifications of nations and cities and Bedenbender identifies the same figurative tradition in the names of Salome, Jairus’ daughter, Mary Magdalene (Magdala is another name for Tarichea, the scene of one of the bloodiest slaughters of Jews described by Josephus) and the others. Simon, of course, is probably the most prominent name in the gospel and here Bedenbender suggests that we see in this figure an encapsulation of the Jewish rebel movement from its beginning with Simon Maccabee through to Simon bar Giora. Simon Maccabee’s son Alexander became famous for his enforced Judaizations and mass crucifixions of his Jewish enemies, and the names of Tiberius Alexander and Rufus are readily associated with the Roman military confronting Jerusalem. (I can’t help wondering — I know this must seem outlandish to many who have more conservative views of Simon of Cyrene, father of Alexander and Rufus, who carried Jesus’ cross — that the Gospel of Mark could have been written as late as the second century in the wake of horrendous Jewish rebellions in Cyrene and when yet another Simon, with the support of a rabbi “James”, defied Rome. The result of that rebellion in the days of Hadrian really was the ultimate end to Jerusalem and any hopes for a rebuilt temple. Would not that timeline place the author far closer to catastrophic events with a greater likelihood of writing in a pall of trauma than if he had been writing a few years after the events of 70?)

Andreas Bedenbender begins with a study of the meaning of allegory and related literary devices and examines why we should think of the entire narrative, and not merely isolated scenes, as containing a reference to the fate of Judea and what that meant for those who believed in Jesus as their messiah. He analyses the narrative to demonstrate, I think successfully, that not only the parable sayings but the miracles themselves are symbolic and take on a special depth of meaning when read in the context of the war. I believe we can go beyond the miracles and understand other narrative features (beginning with the baptism and call of the first disciples) as rich in “allegorical” references. Bedenbender has an interesting interpretation of Jesus’ debating confrontations with the Pharisees, Herodians, Sadducees and scribes after his entry into Jerusalem that focuses on Jesus’ attempt to disabuse them (and readers) of any notion of a messiah who was destined to wage a physical war against earthly opponents.

I look forward to posting more details about these works. In the meantime, I cannot ignore my resolution to address Witulski’s case for a Hadrian-era date for the Book of Revelation; and someone else has recently reminded me that I have yet to finish a series I was doing back in 2018 on the Parables of Enoch and the Jewish concept of a heavenly messiah.

And as Tim pointed out in his latest post, more needs to be said about “the insidious nature of agnotology” that poses a potential threat to our futures. We have to remain optimistic if we are to take the necessary actions and I think there are many reasons to be optimistic: look at what these ninthgraders can do! — this and this!

 


2021-08-11

Another prophecy that Vespasian would become the next emperor

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by Neil Godfrey

Vespasian

We know the account Josephus gives of his telling Vespasian that he would be the next emperor. Less well known is a rabbinic tradition that another prominent rabbi delivered the same prophecy to Vespasian.

When Vespasian came to destroy Jerusalem . . . . Vespasian learned that R. Johanan b. Zakkai was friendly to Cæsar (and so he really was, and confessed it frankly to the leaders of Jerusalem).

When R. Johanan b. Zakkai saw that his efforts during several days in succession to win the leaders for peace proved futile, for the leaders did not listen to him, he sent for his disciples, R. Eliezer and R. Joshua, and said:

“My sons, try to take me out of here. Make me a coffin, and I will sleep in it.”

They did so, and R. Eliezer held the coffin by one end, and R. Joshua held it by the other, and thus carried him at sunset to the gates of Jerusalem. When the gate-keepers asked them whom they had there, they answered:

“A corpse; and you know that a corpse cannot remain in Jerusalem over night.”

They were allowed to go, and they carried him till they came to Vespasian.

There they opened the coffin, and he arose and introduced himself to Vespasian, who said:

“Since thou art the Rabban Johanan b. Zakkai, I give thee the privilege to ask a favor of me.”

He answered: “I request nothing but that the city of Jamnia shall be free to me to instruct there my disciples. I will build there a prayer-house, and will perform all the commandments of the Lord.”

Hereupon Vespasian said: “It is well. Thou mayest go thither, and undisturbed carry out the object of thy desire.”

R. Johanan b. Zakkai then asked permission to say something to Vespasian. This having been granted, he said:

“I can assure you that you will become a king.”

“How dost thou know it?”

He answered: “We have a tradition that the Temple will not be delivered to a common man (in the name of the king), but to the king himself.”

As it is written [Is. x. 34]: “And he will cut down the thickets of the forest with iron, and the Lebanon shall fall by (means of) a mighty one.” [Elsewhere the Talmud explains that Lebanon means the Temple, and “mighty one” a king.]

It was said that scarcely had a few days elapsed when a messenger came from the city of Rome with the tidings that Cæsar was dead, and the resolution was adopted that Vespasian be his successor.

From Chapters of the Fathers

Vespasian, coming from a non-aristocratic family, made much of the prophecy “from the east” that he was divinely destined to become emperor in his massive propaganda campaign after taking that position. Josephus is not mentioned in the rabbinic writings. Was Josephus the only one to deliver the prophecy to Vespasian? Is the above story true? Did Josephus claim credit for the sayings of another? No answers here.

 

 


2020-11-19

What Caused the Jewish War of 66-74 CE?

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by Neil Godfrey

Forget any notion of an anti-Roman “nationalism” yearning to be free from Rome. Forget messianic hopes and a desire to be ruled by God alone. . Steve Mason proposes in A History of the Jewish War, A.D. 66-74 causes much more common to wars more generally:

The Judaean-Roman conflict broke out … not from anti-Roman ideas or dreams among the uniquely favoured Judaean population, but from the sort of thing that more commonly drives nations to arms: injury, threats of more injury, perceived helplessness, the closure of avenues of redress, and ultimately the concern for survival.

(Mason, 584)

Further, there was no massive Judean wide uprising against Rome. Most Judeans either quickly demonstrated their loyalty to Rome or fled for their lives as Nero’s general Vespasian approached. Prior to the siege of Jerusalem, Vespasian’s army “faced little or nothing in the way of combat” (412). [Some readers will immediately be wondering about Joseph Atwill’s account and in particular the “battle of Gadara” will come to mind. At the end of this post I add Steve Mason’s description of that massacre and its context in the “wider war”.]

I’ll attempt a very general overview of what Mason proposes were the steps that led to the war. Doing so means I necessarily gloss over the detailed reasons for each point he makes and for his setting aside the conventional view that Judean resentment against Rome was on the boil until it reached a point where open rebellion was inevitable. So take the following as an invitation to read the book or follow up with further discussion wherever appropriate.

The theme to look out for running through each of the following stages is the tense relationship between Judeans and their neighbours.

Before Rome

Before the Roman period Judea was a regional hegemon. This had been the work of the Hasmonean dynasty that cowered neighbours — Samaria, the Mount Gerizim temple, cities of the Decapolis — into submission by conforming to Jewish ways or destroyed them.

Rome Enters

The Roman Pompey was thus greeted as a liberator from Judean domination. Pompey reduced Judea to little more than its pre-Hasmonean extent.

Not long afterwards, however, Herod was made a client king of Rome and Judea once again became the regional hegemon. (Mason argues that Judea was not a Roman province at this time but was an ethnic region of southern Syria. Syria itself was a Roman province. Judea did not become a Roman province until after the Jewish War.)

So Herod’s Kingdom of Judea was permitted to extend even beyond what it had been during Hasmonean times. Unlike the Hasmoneans, though, Herod did not attempt to Judaize his neighbours. Samarians and Idumeans were permitted their own institutions, cultures and cults.

Herod Dies

Herod died and the Roman emperor Augustus respected his will that his kingdom be divided among his three sons:

Blue: to Archelaus. — Purple: to Antipas. — Brown: to Philip (Map from Wikipedia)

Archelaus turned out to be the black sheep of the family and soon lost the support of key groups among his subjects. Pleas to Augustus for his removal succeeded.

(IN)SIgnificance of Judas the Galilean

Josephus informs us that after the removal of Archelaus there arose (6 C.E.) “a certain Galilean fellow by the name of Judas” who attempted to instigate a rebellion and calling for no ruler but God alone! Mason challenges the common view that this Judas marked the beginning of Judea’s “nationalist” movement for freedom from Rome:

Solomon Zeitlin put the standard view succinctly: “The Sicarii were the followers of the Fourth Philosophy which was founded by Judas of Galilee in the year 6 CE.”170 To untangle the knot of assumptions behind this, we must reconsider the evidence. Fortunately, there is little. (Mason, 245)

Mason focuses on the timing of the protests. That a protest movement began soon after the removal of Archelaus and the incorporation of Judea into the province of Syria (an event that would have entailed a census on Judea) is not likely coincidence. It is not likely that anti-Roman feeling suddenly flared up at this point after having been in effect for seventy years by this time. The other regions where there was no change, those that continued under Antipas and Philip, saw no uprising.

No, according to Mason, any form of revolt at this time is best understood as a change in the status of the Judeans as they were incorporated into the province of Syria and their centre of administration moved to Caesarea. That involved a major shift in relations with neighbouring ethnic groups as we see in the next section.

turning point — Caesarea and a samarian force dominate

With the removal of Archelaus the centre of administration shifted from Jerusalem to Caesarea.

Herod’s army had been a “multi-ethnic” organization but with the removal of Archelaus the armed forces that were the means of maintaining order lost their large Jewish component and became predominantly Samarian.

In other words, with Caesarea now the administrative centre, a Samarian force was set over the Judean population. Continue reading “What Caused the Jewish War of 66-74 CE?”


2018-12-04

Debunking myths of Judas the Galilean, the Zealots, and causes of the war with Rome

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by Neil Godfrey

Jewish zeal for both liberty from foreign rule and a passion to be ruled “by God alone” are generally thought to be the causes of Judaea’s war with Rome that ended with the destruction of Jerusalem and its Temple in 70 CE. Hence, goes the common view, the many Jews who were influenced by this politico-religious liberation movement loathed not only the Roman rulers but also the corrupt priesthood whom they considered to be in league with their foreign oppressors. Add a pinch of messianic hopes to this mix and we have a powder-keg situation with the mass of restive Judaeans set against the Romans. It was only a matter of time before it all blew up in all-out rebellion and war, as it did in 66 CE.

And is not Galilee a hotbed of these messianic and nationalist rebels? We think of Jesus’ disciple, Simon “the Zealot” or “Canaanite”, and of Josephus’s account of Judas the Galilean in 6 CE apparently responsible for what became the Zealot party and a widespread “nationalist” movement against Roman rule.

This popular view of Judaea is born rather of “theological romanticism”, a “glorification of Jewish heroes who fought ‘freedom alone'”, “enthusiastic Zionism anxious to represent opposition to Rome as a spontaneous movement of united Jewish people” (Smith, 3f), than it is of a sober evaluation of the evidence.

I was reading Steve Mason’s history of the Jewish war of 66-74 CE and paused to follow up a citation of his, Smith 1971, which he portrayed as “a learned and entertaining review of key scholars” attempting to explain the origins of the war. I can’t claim to have shared the entertaining tone of Morton Smith’s article in what follows but I have attempted to extract key points.

Before we start, though, here is a reminder of what Josephus tells us in his first book (on the Jewish War) about Judas the Galilean:

Under his administration it was that a certain Galilean, whose name was Judas, prevailed with his countrymen to revolt, and said they were cowards if they would endure to pay a tax to the Romans and would after God submit to mortal men as their lords. This man was a teacher of a peculiar sect of his own, and was not at all like the rest of those their leaders.

On Judas the Galilean, Zeal and Zealots

Continue reading “Debunking myths of Judas the Galilean, the Zealots, and causes of the war with Rome”


2014-02-22

Constructing Jesus and the Gospels: Messianism and Survival post 70 CE

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by Neil Godfrey

Black Elk Speaks
Black Elk Speaks (Photo credit: Wikipedia)

In the previous post we saw how Clarke W. Owens (Son of Yahweh: The Gospels as Novels) drew the inference that the evangelists created the type of Jesus they did because of the impact of the Jewish War.

Just as the Jewish people and their centre of worship had been destroyed through fire and mass crucifixions, and just as many were subsequently finding new hope and a new life in Christianity, so Jesus, the suffering servant who was resurrected, was a personification of the ideal Israel. That would explain why Jesus was depicted as the Temple, destroyed physically but restored spiritually; why he was depicted as an antitype of Israel thrust into the wilderness for forty days; and why hosts of other such allusions were attached to him.

There are additional supports for Owens’ inference.

One of these is the nature of messianism “as a cultural survival tactic”. He writes

Messianism as a cultural survival tactic is attested to as recently as 1889, when the Lakota people . . . were threatened with extinction.

The Jewish people were being threatened with “cultural extinction” with the destruction of the physical and ideological centre of their cult along with the rest of the bloodshed. Owens quotes the 8th, 9th and 10th paragraphs of the Messiah chapter from Black Elk Speaks to

[demonstrate] the same sort of collective, cultural need and motivation described by Spong, Josephus, and other writers who describe or acknowledge the effect on the Jewish War on the First Century Jews.

A book I read many years ago reflects similar social responses to distress, although at a class level rather than a cultural survival one. The Pursuit of the Millennium by Norman Cohn is a fascinating study of millennial movements among distressed peasantry of Europe through the Middle Ages.

Continue reading “Constructing Jesus and the Gospels: Messianism and Survival post 70 CE”