Tag Archives: Margaret Barker

Why Did Matthew’s Nativity Story Have References to Gold, Frankincense, and Myrrh?

Whenever I hear the word “myrrh,” I can’t help but remember a comedy bit by Cathy Ladman (note: you may not be able to view that video in your region; if so, see http://jokes.cc.com/funny-god/9xm00l/cathy-ladman–gold–frankincense-and-myrrh). She tells us:

My best friend is Lutheran and she told me when Jesus was born, the Three Wise Men visited him and they brought as gifts: gold, frankincense and myrrh. Myrrh? To a baby shower?

So in my head, “myrrh” is always pronounced with a New York/Brooklyn accent.

But seriously, why did those mysterious men from the East bring those three particular gifts to Bethlehem?

St. Albans Psalter, The Three Magi following t...
St. Albans Psalter, The Three Magi following the star (Photo credit: Wikipedia)

Gifts fit for a king of kings

In general, modern scholars have explained Matthew’s choice of the three gifts as simply items fit for a VIP. We shouldn’t worry too much, they argue, over their specificity. For example, in his commentary on Matthew, John Nolland says:

No particular symbolism should be attributed to the individual items making up the present from the Magi: as expensive luxury items the gifts befit the dignity of the role for which this child is born. An allusion to Is. 60:6 is possible: Israel being glorified in the person of the messiah by the wealth of the nations. (Nolland, 2005, p. 117)

According to this view, Matthew intended no deeper meaning. And yet we still have that nagging suspicion that something more is going on here. After all, as Nolland himself notes more than a thousand pages later, Mark wrote that Jesus, while hanging on the cross, had refused wine mixed with myrrh. But Matthew changes the story so that the wine contains gall instead of myrrh, and rather than simply refusing it, Jesus tastes the mixture before turning it down. Did Matthew consciously move the myrrh from Jesus’ death scene to his nativity?

Myrrh oil for anointing

Margaret Barker, in Christmas, The Original Story, reminds us that myrrh was originally a vital component in the oil of the temple, however: read more »

How John Used Mark: Investigating the Methods of the Fourth Evangelist (Part 1)

Part 1: Turning Mark Inside Out

In a comment to Neil’s post, Discovering the Sources for the First Gospel, 3 — Criteria, from way back in May of 2012, I introduced a way to explain how the Fourth Evangelist may have used the Gospel of Mark. It might not be a novel approach — there is no new thing under the sun — and I certainly don’t have access to all the commentaries and exegeses on John. However, it’s new to me.

English: John the Evangelist, miniature, Gospe...
English: John the Evangelist, miniature, Gospel Book, Vatopedi monastery, cod. 16 (Photo credit: Wikipedia)

For simplicity’s sake, here’s my comment, with some minor edits:

In Mark 15:37, Jesus “breathes his last.” In the following verse the temple curtain is torn from top to bottom. And in verse 39, the centurion declares him to be the Son of God.

Key words to notice in verse 15:36 are (1) ἐσχίσθη (eschisthē) — “was torn” and (2) ἄνωθεν (anōthen) — “from [the] top.” A close, literal translation of the verse might be: “And the veil of the temple was torn in two from the top to the bottom.”

In John, conversely, at the beginning of the crucifixion (19:23) the soldiers take Jesus’ belongings and split them among themselves. They divide his garments into four equal piles, but they notice that Jesus’ tunic is formed of a single piece of woven fabric without seams. John says that the tunic was “seamless from the top (anōthen), woven throughout all.” And in the next verse, they decide not to tear (σχίσωμεν (schisōmen)) the tunic, but cast lots for it instead. It was not torn.

The garment John describes has reminded several commentators of the priestly vestment described by Josephus: “Now this vesture was not composed of two pieces, nor was it sewed together upon the shoulders and the sides, but it was one long vestment so woven as to have an aperture for the neck; not an oblique one, but parted all along the breast and the back.” (http://www.ccel.org/j/josephus/works/ant-3.htm)

read more »

Pre-Christian Foundations of Christianity (Couchoud)

Having traced Couchoud’s argument for the development of the New Testament it’s time I returned to the beginning of his two volume work, The Creation of Christ, and outline his views on the development of Christianity itself. (The entire series is archived here.)

I once posted links to pdf version of Couchoud’s opening chapters:

Foreword (approx 2.2 MB pdf)

Apocalypses (168 b.c. – a.d. 40)

I. Preliminary (approx 1.8 MB pdf)

II. Profaned Temple (approx 2.2 MB pdf)

III. The Dream of Daniel (approx 3.3 MB pdf)

IV. Revelations of Enoch (approx 6.7 MB pdf)

V. Revelations of Moses (approx 2.8 MB pdf)

[Since posting the above I have removed each of the above links. Thanks to Frank Zindler the full first volume of Couchoud’s Creation of Christ is now accessible on my Vridar.info site. The second volume is also available. Both links are direct to downloading PDF files. — Neil Godfrey, 22nd July, 2019]

I will comment on only a few aspects of some of these chapters. Read them — they are not long — to understand Couchoud’s argument for the background to Christianity and the references to much of what is below. I will only address a few points here.

These chapters are an overview of the pre-Christian development of the Jewish concept of the heavenly Son of Man figure. Daniel begins the process with a clearly symbolic figure, but later apocalypses turned that symbol into a more literal Heavenly Man. read more »

The Second God among Ancient Jewish Philosophers and Commoners

Angel of the Revelation
Image via Wikipedia

The Jewish philosopher Philo lived in Alexandria, Egypt, around the time of Jesus and Paul were said to have lived, and wrote many works arguing that the Bible stories were allegories of higher truths that had counterparts in Greek philosophy. One of the more striking features of Philo’s work is his concept of the Logos (or “Word”) of God. His discussions of the Logos find parallels in Gospel of John that begins with the Logos or Word of God existing with God, but also as God, and it was this Logos that created everything on God’s behalf. Philo’s discussion of the Logos or Word of God shares the same understanding as we find in John’s Gospel. Philo even calls the Logos “a Second God”.

Philo’s views are often considered esoteric and probably alien to the normal beliefs of the common Jews in Palestine and elsewhere (e.g. Casey). Some scholars (e.g. McGrath) go to great lengths to argue that when Philo spoke of a “second God” he was not really deviating from Jewish monotheism, and that modern readers simply need to adjust their definition of “monotheism” as it existed in early Judaism in order not to compromise the conventional wisdom about Judaism.

Margaret Barker, on the other hand, in The Great Angel: A Study of Israel’s Second God, has tackled these beliefs of Philo and compared them popular Aramaic translations of the Hebrew scriptures that in some cases date back to pre-Christian times. read more »

Did a Davidic Messiah have to be a descendant of David?

No. At least not in the time of Bar Kochba‘s revolt against Rome, 132-136 ce.

That’s if we can trust the later rabbinic evidence that attributed certain beliefs to famous Rabbi Akiba who supported Bar Kochba’s claim to be the messiah.

(The relevance of this discussion to Christian origins lies in the context of arguments that Jesus being said, at various places, to have been of the seed of David or of Davidic descent. For starters, given modern scholarly (archaeological) understanding of the reality of “King David”, and even the “Davidic dynasty”, there was evidently no such thing as a “family of David” existing in Palestine at the time of Jesus, before and later, anyway.)

Bar Kochba’s original name was Simeon ben Kosiba. It was subsequently changed to Bar Kochba, which was Aramaic for “Son of a Star”, an allusion to the prophecy of Numbers 24:17. (This sort of name change based on a pun on the original name in order to fit a biblical prophecy is worth keeping in mind when one compares other apparent puns in names found within the gospels.)

The rabbinic passage is discussing this bible’s reference to the plural “thrones” in heaven, one for the Ancient of Days, and another, presumably, for the Son of Man (Daniel 7:9, 13-14). The passage follows on from references to a biblical contradiction where God is described as an old man (with white hair) in Daniel 7, but as a young black-headed man according to their interpretation of Song of Solomon 5:11.

One passage says: His throne was fiery flames; and another Passage says: Till thrones were placed, and One that was ancient of days did sit!

— There is no contradiction: one [throne] for Him, and one for David; this is the view of R. Akiba.

Said R. Jose the Galilean to him: Akiba, how long wilt thou treat the Divine Presence as profane! Rather, [it must mean], one for justice and one for grace.

Did he accept [this explanation from him, or did he not accept it?

— Come and hear: One for justice and one for grace; this is the view of R. Akiba. (Hagigah, 14a) read more »

How Philo might have understood Christ in the NT epistles

Philo was a Jewish philosopher in Egypt who died around 50 ce. Much of his literary work was an attempt to explain Jewish beliefs in the language of Greek (or Hellenistic) philosophers.

Curiously (for us at least) he spoke of “a second God” who was a manifestation of “the High God”. This second God was the Logos.

Why is it that he speaks as if of some other god, saying that he made man after the image of God, and not that he made him after his own image? (Genesis 9:6). Very appropriately and without any falsehood was this oracular sentence uttered by God, for no mortal thing could have been formed on the similitude of the supreme Father of the universe, but only after the pattern of the second deity, who is the Word [Logos] of the supreme Being (Questions on Genesis II.62)

On the face of it, this suggests that at least a significant number of Jews at the time Christianity was apparently emerging believed in “a second deity” — and if so, this would throw interesting light on the origins of Christianity with its belief in God the Father and his Son, also a deity, Jesus Christ.

The Christian belief, ever since rabbinic Judaism (after the fall of Jerusalem in 70 ce), has stood in stark contrast to a supposedly monolithic monotheism of Jewish belief that permits no other God being apart from the One God. Jewish beliefs before 70 ce, on the contrary, are not so clear cut. Some scholars have gone to great pains to define what precisely was meant by “monotheism” when ancient Jews appeared to simultaneously recognize companion deities or at least very high angelic powers of some sort.

One scholar, Alan F. Segal, in a famous work, Two Powers in Heaven, attempts to explain Philo’s passage by suggesting he his following the Greek philosophers who found it inconceivable that a highest and purest deity could directly interact with the mundane creatures of this world, and so required some sort of mediating manifestation of himself to do this “dirty work”.

Another scholar, Margaret Barker (The Great Angel) is not persuaded by Segal’s explanation. She believes it is far more likely that Philo took the ideas of a mediating divinity from existing Jewish beliefs and adapted or described them in terms of Greek philosophy. That is, he did not attempt to play with the facts of Jewish beliefs to make them sound palatable to Greek philosophers. He merely used philosophical language to describe Jewish beliefs.

Barker cites H. Wolfson’s 1948 two volume study on Philo as one of her supports: read more »