Did Jesus Historically Predict the Fall of the Temple?

While Jesus was sitting opposite of the Temple on the Mount of Olives in Jerusalem with His closest disciples (Peter, James, and John) around him, He predicted that the Temple would fall.

Mark 13:1-2: As he came out of the temple, one of his disciples said to him, “Look, Teacher, what large stones and what large buildings!” Then Jesus asked him, “Do you see these great buildings? Not one stone will be left here upon another; all will be thrown down.”

I have a quick word to say here about the historicity of Jesus predicting the fall of the Temple. Sometimes, this prediction of Jesus mentioned in Mark 13:1-2, Luke 21:5-6, and Matthew 24:1-2 is used to date the earliest Gospel, the Gospel of Mark, to 70 AD or later. The reasoning goes is that “well, this text mentions the fall of the Temple which took place in during the Jewish-Roman War of 66-73 AD, so that’s when this Gospel and the later ones must have been at least written by”. This argument presupposes Jesus couldn’t have predicted the fall of the Temple (by presupposing He was just human and that’s that), and then uses this to date the Gospels to a specific period when the event took place. In a short note here, I’m simply pointing out that historically, this idea collapses. Jesus did not even need to be divine or a prophet in order to predict the destruction of the Temple, since the Book of Daniel had already prophesied such would happen centuries earlier (also see Daniel 8:9-14 and 12:11).

Daniel 11:31: Forces sent by him shall occupy and profane the temple and fortress. They shall abolish the regular burnt offering and set up the abomination that makes desolate.

This means that Jesus did not need to look anywhere else than the scripture He always quoted from in order to know that the days of the Temple were short. In other words, this argument against the historicity of the destruction of the Temple is untenable. Secondly, Jesus behavior of predicting the destruction of the Temple is consistent with one nearly certain aspect of His historical life: His incident at the Temple. As most people familiar with the Gospels know, Jesus entered into the Temple, overturned the tables and outcried about how it was being corrupted by the authorities, being turned into a place of gambling rather than its purpose and giving glory to God. This event is mentioned in all four Gospels (Mark 11:15-19; Matthew 21:12-16; Luke 19:45-48; John 2:13-22), and is therefore independently used by Mark and John, meaning it predates them both (at least before 70 AD). As the scholar Michael Vicko Zolondek writes, “That Jesus did, in fact, perform some such action in the temple is so widely accepted by scholars that in most works its historicity is hardly discussed for more than a few sentences, if at all” (pg. 135, We Have Found the Messiah, Wipf and Stock 2016). Zolondek explains this in a footnote, where Zolondek summarizes the massive evidence for the event in the same page (fn. 17):

It is plausible; it is likely multiply attested (cf. John 2:13-21); it does not appear to be consistent with post-Easter attitudes toward the temple; and it accounts for Jesus’ arrest with simplicity and ease (for all of this, see Snodgrass, “The Temple Incident,” (435-39). For attempts to deny its historicity, see Mack, Myth of Innocence, 291-2; Seeley, “Jesus Temple’ Act,” 268-83. For Snodgrass’s refutation, which makes ample reference to other scholarly literature also refuting this overly-skeptical view, see “The Temple Incident,” 435-39. For another recent and comprehensive discussion of the incident’s historicity, see Adna, “Jesus and the Temple,” 2638-54.

Therefore, there appears to be good reason to assume that Jesus really did predict the destruction of the Temple, and no comparatively good reason to doubt it.

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Did the Non-Religious Stop Growing?

I suppose that by all means, 2017 was a chaotic year in many (good and bad) ways. The political landscape has taken on many developments, especially the rapidly increasing growth of conservatism in the Western world. Anywho, I have just looked over the religious figures in America in the 2017 year, and it appears as though something very good is happening: the religious populations are stabilizing, including the cessation of non-religious growth. According to a report titled 2017 Update on Americans and Religion by Gallup, from 2016-2017, the total Christian population went from 71.9% to 71.2%, an overall decline of 0.7%, whereas the non-religious population grew from 20.8% to 21.3%, a 0.5% increase. While there is still decline in Christianity in America/growth in the non-religious, these declines are waaaaay lower than before. In 2015, Gallup reported that 75.2% of the population was Christian, meaning that in 2016 it hit 71.9%, which is therefore a decrease of over 3% in one year. This spiral downwards looks to have finally disappeared. What can be the cause of this?

Well, I happen to have realized that in the political climate of the 2017 year, the Christian/religious and conservative side of politics has become much more powerful. With the monumental rise of Jordan Peterson, a renowned psychologist who is a Christian with a Christian perspective (although not by any means the conventional one, not to mention the incredible Bible lecture series he has put out which have been viewed many millions of times in the last year), as well as the continued advance of other rising religious cultural stars (such as Ben Shapiro, whether or not you agree with all their views), it’s clear that atheism and the irreligious worldview has been subject to more and more criticism and its nihilistic flaws and incoherencies are becoming so blunt. I’d also like to point out that 2017 was one of the greatest years in biblical archaeology discoveries in recent decades. Seriously, even I’m flabbergasted over how good the year was.

A lot is changing. New religious blogs, well-informed ones in fact, are popping up left and right (I’ve been noticing the trend myself). Mines has made a lot of gains in 2017 as well. Our societies and literature are increasing. Just one example is BioLogos, which from my own tracking, has had their website visits increase from ~150,000-200,000 a month to ~400,000-500,000. Obviously, atheist literature remains in its eternal stagnation, considering it fundamentally has nothing to provide, and is thus the largest progenitor of nihilism in the world. Perhaps people aren’t so quick anymore to think that God does not exist, which is in my view very good progress indeed. What is coming next? We can only wait and see.

EDIT: To note, this good news doesn’t apply to Europe. While overall European numbers continue to decline, I have found a recent indication of what may eventually become a revival. These, however, are the early signs and we must wait to see fully. Things are not bleak, though.

The Sea of Chaos and the Biblical Masterpiece

As I was reading some books recently, I found out something quite important when it comes to the eschatology of the biblical narrative that also shows just how grand and incredible the biblical narrative is, a true masterpiece in what it says and in its entirety from beginning to end.

Eschatology is the study of the ‘end times’ to put it simply, and the sea of chaos has upmost symbolic significance for the end of the world. The ‘sea of chaos’ plays an important role in its symbolic representation of God coming to redeem the world from its sin. We are reminded that according to Genesis, God’s wind sweeps over the face of the waters in the very first day. In the days of the composition of Genesis, the sea was thought to entirely surround the world (which would be the land mass of what we would today call the world, encompassed by a dome which God had created to allow a space for the life of humanity to exist). This sea was thought to be chaotic, unrestrained and at any time could enter our world and crush us. Therefore, in Genesis 6-9, onlooking the sin of the world God lets loose the chaotic sea into the world and destroys all humanity besides Noah himself. After the flood took place, where God rose the seas to cover the mountains and cover the entire world, God promises to set a boundary over where the water can never cross again.

Psalm 104:6-9: You set the earth on its foundations, so that it shall never be shaken. You cover it with the deep as with a garment; the waters stood above the mountains.At your rebuke they flee; at the sound of your thunder they take to flight. They rose up to the mountains, ran down to the valleys to the place that you appointed for them.You set a boundary that they may not pass, so that they might not again cover the earth.

Therefore, the sea of chaos was always something that was a threat to the world restrained by God Himself. It always existed, and in the biblical eschatology, it would be a source where the beast would rise from.

Daniel 7:2-3: I, Daniel, saw in my vision by night the four winds of heaven stirring up the great sea, and four great beasts came up out of the sea, different from one another.

Revelation 13:1: And I saw a beast rising out of the sea, having ten horns and seven heads; and on its horns were ten diadems, and on its heads were blasphemous names.

Therefore, the sea of chaos was a symbolic marker of which the evil forces against God were associated with, since they, like the sea, are sources of destruction for humanity, from past to present. Now, according to the Bible, God will finally destroy all evil in the end of the world, and He will create a “new Earth” and “new heaven” at the end of time (whether or not this means physically annihilating the current heaven and Earth and replacing it with new ones in God’s creation, or simply the resuscitation/cleansing of this world from sin like in the story of Noah’s flood doesn’t matter), where we will eternally live in God’s glory and bliss for the end of time. Therefore, we find towards the end of Revelation something almost no one notices. God shows the author of Revelation, John of Patmos (‘of Patmos’ since he lived on the island of Patmos, see Rev. 1:9) how the new creation will be like.

Revelation 21:1: Then I saw a new heaven and a new earth; for the first heaven and the first earth had passed away, and the sea was no more.

The sea was no more. God has done away with all the evil and source of destruction in the past world, by making it new once again, and perfect this time forever more, He has made a new heaven, new Earth, and the sea, which is a symbolic representation of all the things that have gone wrong before, is now gone, as God’s confirmation for the good eternity of the coming age. This, I think, is another detail that again reveals the literary masterpiece and unification of the single story of the sixty-six books of the Bible, from Genesis to Revelation, and reminds us once again what God has in store for us very soon indeed.

What on Earth is the Book of Revelation?

“The church’s witness will be of value only if it knows truth worth dying for.” (pg. 160, The Theology of the Book of Revelation)

The Book of Revelation, written toward the end of the 1st century AD, is probably the most confusing book in the entire Bible, and given that it’s also at the end of our modern canon, someone who sequentially reads the all the books of the Bible might come out with an exhilarated yet confused feeling. As my own motto goes when trying to understand Christian ideas, especially ones as important as those in Revelation, you should read the text a lot and see what modern scholarship has to say. Here, I’m going to try to systemize some of what Revelation is.

Revelation is a book that cannot be relegated to a single genre. It is an apocalyptic text, such as the Book of Daniel in the Old Testament. That is to say, it concerns God transferring heavenly information to a human being through an otherworldy mediator (an angel, in the case of Revelation) about the present world and temporal context of the author of the text and its recipients, and in many cases, specifically about how this will play out (alongside judgement) into the end of the world (as is also the case with Revelation). Revelation is also a prophetic text, which is made obvious in Rev. 22:7: “See, I am coming soon! Blessed is the one who keeps the words of the prophecy of this book.” Thirdly, it is a letter, like the letters of Paul. There is a difference, though, between the way in which Revelation is a letter compared to Paul. Paul’s letters are usually directed to a single church, such as Romans (which is directed to the church in Rome), Galatians (directed to the church in Galatia), 1 and 2 Corinthians (directed to the church in Corinth), and so on. However, Revelation is directed towards seven different churches in the Roman province of Asia: “saying, “Write in a book what you see and send it to the seven churches, to Ephesus, to Smyrna, to Pergamum, to Thyatira, to Sardis, to Philadelphia, and to Laodicea” (Rev. 1:11). Revelation was written as a circular letter, as it was to be sent to the first of these churches (written in the sequential order in the verse above), then to the second, then to the third, and so on. Why seven churches? Well, besides the enormous symbolic importance of the number seven in Revelation and other texts Christians used at the time, as Richard Bauckham points out, seven was the number of completeness in this time. “We shall observe quite often in this book the symbolic significance which attaches to numbers in Revelation. Seven is the number of completeness” (The Theology in the Book of Revelation, pg. 16). Now, it is not correct to think that Revelation was only directed to these seven churches (i.e. we’re not included), rather, as Bauckham points out, it is the case that these seven churches were representatives of all the churches as is signified by when Revelation continuously says “Let anyone who has an ear listen to what the Spirit is saying to the churches” (2:7, 11, 17, 29; 3:6, 13, 22).

Since it is addressed to these seven churches, chapters 2-3 of Revelation provide seven introductions, each directed towards a specific church. Here, we encounter another prophet in Asia named Jezebel who is part of the church at Thyatira, who John of Patmos, the author of Revelation, considers a false prophet. He warns the church of Thyatira to avoid this women who entices the church to commit sins of the eyes of God, and speaks vividly of the punishment that Jezebel will have for not listening to change her ways and repent:

Revelation 2:19-25:  “I know your works—your love, faith, service, and patient endurance. I know that your last works are greater than the first. 20 But I have this against you: you tolerate that woman Jezebel, who calls herself a prophet and is teaching and beguiling my servants to practice fornication and to eat food sacrificed to idols. 21 I gave her time to repent, but she refuses to repent of her fornication. 22 Beware, I am throwing her on a bed, and those who commit adultery with her I am throwing into great distress, unless they repent of her doings; 23 and I will strike her children dead. And all the churches will know that I am the one who searches minds and hearts, and I will give to each of you as your works deserve. 24 But to the rest of you in Thyatira, who do not hold this teaching, who have not learned what some call ‘the deep things of Satan,’ to you I say, I do not lay on you any other burden; 25 only hold fast to what you have until I come.

Revelation is a book that is heavily concerned with symbolic meaning and evocation, and it is laden with Old Testament meaning and significance (though it never explicitly quotes the Old Testament). Revelation must be properly understood in the historical context it was written in, just like all other books of the New Testament (and the entire Bible), and this is the only way to understanding its meaning correctly, in the way that it was meant to be taken by the seven churches it was directed to. Revelation was written in a time of Roman imperialistic power, where the Roman Empire had vast control over the known world of Revelation. In this time, and before, many Jews had come to become wary over that God had not come to end the world yet — they saw a world where they were unable to see God’s presence and righteousness, where the people of God were dominated under the great pagan empires, and they saw the evil that the world was ridden in. Thus, many apocalypses were written to engage with such views, and in one sense, Revelation also does this. Revelation, unlike the others however, instills its own context and way and world by which it hopes to instill upon the reader, to give them a new perspective of how to see things. In one way, it is meant to counter the Roman viewpoint, which always surrounded the readers of Revelation, with God’s world and perspective.

Several symbols are very important in the Book of Revelation. Something that Revelation does is play on, and amplify the fears of Rome. This includes, for example, the many earthquakes that the cities of Asia Minor were subjected to, the contemporary Roman fear of the invasion by the Parthian Empire to its east, the recent volcanic eruption of Mount Vesuvius in 79 AD that which sent shockwaves through the Roman Empire (and famously crushed the city of Pompeii), and more. Although none of these are explicitly mentioned, scholarship has undoubtedly shown the role they play in how Revelation props up its symbols and meaning (to mention Richard Bauckham again, see his 1977 paper The Eschatological Earthquake in the Apocalypse of John to see how this plays out in Revelation). All in all, in Revelation, John is brought to the heavenly throne room of God to see the world from a new understanding, which John hopes that the rest of us will also share. This all culminates in God’s creation of a new heaven, new earth, and a new Jerusalem (“Then I saw a new heaven and a new earth; for the first heaven and the first earth had passed away, and the sea was no more. And I saw the holy city, the new Jerusalem, coming down out of heaven from God, prepared as a bride adorned for her husband” (Rev. 21:1-2)), an idea which first appears in the Old Testament (such as Isaiah 65:17-19) and intertestamental texts at Qumran, and therefore was certainly familiar to the readers of Revelation. Revelation was originally meant to be read aloud to the churches it was sent to, and though it carries much of the meaning of earlier apocalyptic texts, it newly does so through the new understanding of the world and its coming end through the theology and belief in Jesus Christ.

Revelation 1:1-2: The revelation of Jesus Christ, which God gave him to show his servants what must soon take place; he made it known by sending his angel to his servant John, who testified to the word of God and to the testimony of Jesus Christ, even to all that he saw.

Have we found the Messiah?

Another important question in the quest for the historical Jesus is the Davidic messianic question, that is to say, whether or not Jesus believed that He was the coming Messiah prophesied in the scriptures of Israel. Christ, though we say the word “Jesus Christ”, was not Jesus’ last name, rather it is a title that derives from the Hebrew word for ‘Messiah’: Mashiach. So, when we say “Jesus Christ“, we also affirm that Jesus is the Messiah, a point central to the teachings of Christianity. So, did the historical Jesus consider Himself the Messiah? This has been the subject of critical debate in academia, and recently I’ve read a monograph titled We Have Found the Messiah: How the Disciples Help us Answer the Davidic Messianic Question (Wipf and Stock 2016) by the scholar Michael Vicko Zolondek that I think not only comes to the right answer but provides an incredible, and new approach in scholarship to answering this question. As Larry Hurtado, a renowned New Testament scholar and textual critic says, “Zolondek succeeds in the improbable objective of making a fresh contribution to studies of ‘the historical Jesus.'” Here, I’ll follow Zolondek’s approach to seeing how we can answer that yes, Jesus considered Himself to be the Davidic Messiah.

Zolondek’s approach is pretty straight forward. In a short, and tightly argued book, Zolondek first 1) reviews previous scholarship on the studies of the Davidic messianic question, namely whether or not Jesus thought of Himself as the Messiah and identifies problems he sees in this research that is problematic, 2) establishes the methodology he will use to answer the question himself, and 3) investigates the ancient records, draws information and finally 4) comes to his conclusion.

Firstly, Zolondek begins reviewing previous literature of scholarship and how they have answered the messianic question themselves. He goes through the work of scholars including Geza Vermes, E.P. Sanders, Marcus Borg, James Charlesworth, Otfried Hofius, James D.G. Dunn, and some others. Most of these scholars have actually concluded that Jesus either did not consider himself to be the Davidic Messiah, or that there is not enough information to draw any conclusions. However, Zolondek demonstrates three problems in this work: it treats Jesus as if he was an individual personality, rather than looking at him in the dynamical context between him and his followers as a ‘group personality’ (since indeed, as anthropological studies have shown, ones self-views are often shaped by the people around you, and for Zolondek that is the understanding of Jesus that the disciples had of him and how they treated him). Secondly, previous scholarship places far too great emphasis on what Jesus personally said and how he exalted himself. Indeed, as Zolondek shows, other messiah figures of the time of Jesus (and the first kings of Israel, including David) never exalted themselves or proclaimed themselves to be the Messiah, rather, they exalted God and were established and proclaimed as the Messiah by their followers. So, we must look elsewhere to answer the Davidic messianic question. Thirdly, scholars unjustly attribute importance to Jesus’ lack of military earthly ambitions. Although other messiah figures of the time had high military ambitions, and there were expectations that the Messiah would have such ambitions (in order to recapture Israel from the Romans and declare God’s eternal kingdom on Earth), this was hardly the only expectation the messiah had. Indeed, as Zolondek shows, the Messiah was a ‘multifaceted’ figure who had many expectations on top of them, of which Jesus could have taken up if He considered Himself to be the Messiah. As Zolondek says and later shows, “There were various other things that one might do or say, apart from or in addition to harboring earthly military ambitions, if one were taking up the Davidic messianic role” (pg. 53).

Having shown flaws in previous scholarship, Zolondek lays out three propositions what I consider to be a valid approach to demonstrating how we can answer whether or not Jesus considered himself to be the Messiah. They are that “(1) that Jesus behaved in a manner which suggested to the disciples that he might be the Davidic Messiah; (2) that he was viewed and treated as the Davidic Messiah by the disciples; and (3) that in the context of this view and treatment, Jesus behaved in a manner consistent with that role” (pg. 138). Zolondek then examines and establishes a number of points about the historical Jesus in good and highly convincing detail, that among other things, Jesus enacted a number of potentially Davidic messianic acts including that he appointed twelve disciples in His ministry (many messianic figures regularly appointed figures that would have been gauranteed important positions in their future kingdoms), his entry into Jerusalem on a donkey (which would have had royal connotations in both the Roman and Jewish context of His day), the confession of Peter in Mark 8:27-30 and in its parallels (where Jesus asks the disciples who they think He is, and Peter eventually says that He thinks Jesus is the Messiah, and Jesus warns Peter and the others not to tell anyone about it), and the request of James and John in Mark 10:35-40 and in its parallels (where James and John go for a power grab by asking Jesus for the highest positions in His future kingdom, demonstrating again that the disciples considered Jesus like a royal and messianic figure). All this information (and more), which Zolondek establishes as plausibly historical, is much more consistent and logical under the framework that Jesus considered Himself to be the Messiah rather than a prophet or simply eschatological figure, especially since the disciples themselves surely understood Jesus to be the Messiah.

Zolondek then asks objectors to the framework that he’s has built some several questions that need to be answered if Jesus really did not consider Himself to be the Messiah in light of the several pieces of historical information about him that can be established, such as: why did the disciples misunderstand who Jesus was? Are modern scholars really in a better position to understand who Jesus was than the disciples themselves? Why didn’t Jesus discourage their misguided views about Him? Finally, to deal another blow to the opposition, Zolondek points out that any serious answer to these questions are necessarily conjecture, and seem to be made in the attempt to explain away data rather than to explain data. Therefore, it is the most historically plausible to conclude that Jesus acted in the Davidic Messiah role, Jesus was a Davidic messianic figure, therefore answering the Davidic messianic question.

 

The Divergence of Christianity and Judaism

The religion of Judaism had been well established within the first millennium BC, and in Israel, prior to the rise of Christianity, Judaism remained the dominant religion of the people. Thus, Jesus was also Jewish, and all His earliest followers were Jewish. And yet, less than a century after Jesus was crucified in the early 30’s AD, the early Christian and bishop Ignatius of Antioch had written that “It is monstrous to talk of Jesus Christ and to practice Judaism” (Magnesians 10:3). So what happened?

The process of the divergence of Christianity from Judaism I think is best articulated by the renowned scholar Daniel Boyarin, in his book Border Lines: The Partition of Judaeo-Christianity. Boyarin, who is himself a Jew, reveals several important factors regarding how the two religions diverged, and as Boyarin shows, this must be done in the context of the study of the history of heresiology, or the history of heresy. Christianity and Judaism did not diverge as a result of the two views becoming more and more gradually dissimilar but as a result of the ‘leaders’ of each view defining the borders of their own worldviews over many centuries in order to exclude theological concepts they considered heretical, and these concepts usually belonged to the opposing view. The centerpiece theology of this debate was Logos theology, or the view that the one God was more than one person, so that, for the Christians, Jesus could also have been a part of the godhead, the view of binitarianism which stated that God was one being, but two persons. Of course, as Boyarin demonstrates at length, numerous Jews during the first century and earlier had already believed that God could have a multiplicity of the persons (as is reflected by the Wisdom traditions, Memra (Memra is the Hebrew word for ‘Logos’, and ‘Logos’ is the Greek word for ‘Word’, see John 1:1-18; “In the beginning was the Word, and the Word was with God, and the Word was God”) traditions, Second Temple exegesis indebted to Daniel 7 (‘Ancient of Days’ and ‘Son of Man’ discussions) and the discussion in the rabbinic texts regarding the idea of many Jews known as the ‘Two Powers in Heaven’.

Even though many Jews had held this view, by the time of the second century, the Rabbis began to view this idea as a heresy, as is first reflected in the Mishna (c. 200 AD) and then the Tosefta (c. 250 AD). From the first to the second century AD, however, the concept of heresy itself underwent a change in definition. The word heresy comes from the Greek haireseis, and by at least the time that the Book of Acts was written, this word only meant a choice of belief or adherence, belonging to a sect (of Judaism here, such as the other sects of Judaism from the first century like that of the Pharisees and Saudacees). This is clearly reflected in, for example, Acts 26:5, where we read “They have known for a long time, if they are willing to testify, that I have belonged to the strictest sect (haireseis) of our religion and lived as a Pharisee.” This passage undoubtedly reveals the early meaning of this phrase had no implications of what we would now identify with the concept of heresy — that is, a wrong, or contrary (heterodox rather than orthodox) belief. The change in definition came, at the latest, by the time of the writings of Justin Martyr c. 150 AD where Justin writes in his Dialogue with Trypho:

I will again relate words spoken by Moses, from which we can recognize without any question that He conversed with one different in numbers from Himself and possessed of reason. Now these are the words: And God said: Behold, Adam has become as one of Us, to know good and evil. Therefore by saying as one of Us He has indicated also number in those that were present together, two at least. For I cannot consider that assertion true which is affirmed by what you call an heretical (haireseis) party among you, and cannot be proved by the teachers of that heresy, that He was speaking to the angels, or that the human body was the work of angels. (Dialogue 62:2)

The pejorative use of the phrase “what you call”, combined with Justin’s other uses of the word haireseis, as Boyarin notes on pp. 40-41 of his monograph, demonstrate that by the time of Justin, the term ‘heresy’ had shifted from referring to a sectarian view to describing a wrong belief. A close cognate word to heresy was the Hebrew word minut, which was the term that the Rabbis after Justin used to describe a heretical view. Thus, now that there was a word and concept available from distinguishing between a simple viewpoint within a religion, to an incorrect and ungodly view of a religion, the leaders of Christianity and Judaism could define what constituted heresy and thus pave the borderlines around their ideologies that no one could cross, lest they reveal they were a heretic rather than a genuine believer.

Thus, in the second century, the Christians begun to claim that if you do not accept the multiplicity of God’s person (i.e. Logos theology), then you are not a Christian but a Jew, and the Jews said that if you do accept the multiplicity of God’s person, then you are not a Jew but a Christian. Thus, the borderlines of correct and orthodox Christianity had been paved, and the borderlines of correct and orthodox Judaism had been paved. There were some early ideologies, such as the Ebionites and Nazoreans, who claimed to be both Jewish and Christian. In other words, this was a hybrid worldview of the two religions. While these two views flourished most around c. 400 AD, it quickly becomes no surprise that Epiphanius (4th century) and Jerome (5th century) claimed that while they claimed to be hybrids, both Christians and Jews, they were actually “neither”. Thus, all middle ground was eliminated, and furthermore, the existence of these hybrid religions implied the existence of a pure version of the religion, not tainted by heresy (see pp. 207-210 and 212-4 in Boyarin’s book).

Other changes in definition also occurred during the 4th-5th centuries AD, as Boyarin also goes on to demonstrate. Religio (religion) for example, went from meaning ethnicities, populations and geographies, to referring to and characterizing belief systems. Superstitio (superstition) went from meaning excessive worship and obeisance to the divine, to simply becoming a word that refers to an actually incorrect practice or religion. Quickly, the available tools for the entire and complete divergence between Christianity and Judaism had started to become established. During the Second Temple Period, the Jews considered the world outside of Israel to be Gentiles. By the times of the composition of the final layers of the Palestinian and Babylonian Talmuds, the Christians and pagans themselves took on the role, in the Jewish perspective, of the Gentiles that had existed in the Second Temple Period. At the various councils of the 3rd-5th centuries, Christians began laying down their orthodoxies and correct beliefs, such as famously during the Council of Nicaea in c. 325 AD, whereas the Jews, inundated by the differing beliefs and interpretations, concluded that all views of the Rabbis come from God, and that in God’s understanding, all contradictions are resolved — and the only interpretations that could stop one from being a Jew was either Logos theology itself or the view that there can be one correct interpretation and that some Rabbis had gotten it wrong. This had concluded with the Jewish view that “an Israelite, even though he sins, is still an Israelite”, and thus defined the conceptual transition of Judaism from a religion to an ethnicity as is what we see today.

All this, collectively, explains and allows us to understand how the various sects of Judaism in the first century, including one so termed to be held by a small group known as ‘Christians’, paved the borders around what is acceptable Judaism in a way that starkly contrasted it with the world of the Christians who, themselves, began paving the borders around their own acceptable beliefs as they begun to rise and conquer the Roman Empire. The centrality of this division was Logos theology, the view that God could have more than one person alongside the Father (and that would be Jesus for the Christians, this is otherwise known as binitarianism), which, although was a common Jewish belief before Christianity, become unacceptable during the 2nd century. The rabbis tried to equate binitarianism with ditheism (the belief that there are two gods) and condemned the entire concept as a heresy, or minut. This is how, as Boyarin shows, Christianity and Judaism had diverged. Boyarin’s case goes much more in depth than this, and I cannot do it justice here, analyzing all sectors and developments of the evidence, and is a highly recommended read and is certainly one of the most influential scholarly works since the beginning of the 21st century. Alas!

Reading the Scholarship

Anyone who has been trying to read and access the important scholarly monographs regarding early Christianity, the biblical texts, etc, has realized that it can be quite expensive, with many single volumes revolving around $50. Getting only 20 of such important books could cost a thousand dollars, and so for the laymen, getting access to the works of scholarship is always a long and arduous process that can be difficult without aid.

In fact, I have just found out that it is much easier than I’ve previously thought. Some scholars who have very successful books are able to publish their books online for free for anyone to read. Over the last week, I’ve searched the depths of important scholarly monographs and now I am building a collection of scholarly books that are available online that you can read online without paying a dime, for the most part with the click of a button. I have amassed a collection of scholarly books that would otherwise be worth about $1,000 if each book is bought separately, which is surely an amazing amount of money to save especially for the regular laymen who does not have as much access to finances to help them understand the ancient historical world.

Larry Hurtado is one of the worlds most important living scholars when it comes to early Christology (which is the study of the nature and role Jesus played in Christian circles, i.e. such as if He was considered God or not by the earliest Christians). One of his (Hurtado’s) most important books on the subject is Lord Jesus Christ: Devotion to Jesus in Earliest Christianity. It’s over 700 pages long and costs about $45 on the publisher’s website. Unless you click here, a link that takes you directly to a PDF of the entire book. While we’re still discussing Hurtado, you can also read his 2006 The Earliest Christian Artifacts: Manuscripts and Christian Origins here. Or the 2nd edition of his One God, One Lord here.

What about N.T. Wright? Well, his huge and widely important The Resurrection of the Son of God can be read here, and his book What Saint Paul Really Said can be read here. Bart Ehrman has like 5 of his books (at least the relevant ones here that I’m aware of) online and available. Richard Bauckham, Martin Hengel, Elaine Pagels, Alan Segal and others have important monographs that they’ve written freely available to the public online. If you want to see the full collection I have compiled so far of freely available academic monographs, go to this page here and scroll down until you get to the final section, or click on the page on the top of the blog ‘History for Atheists‘ and similarly scroll down. Hopefully we can all benefit from the tireless works of academics!

New Dead Sea Scroll Decoded

Up until now, all Dead Sea Scroll fragments but two have been deciphered since the initial series of discoveries of the Qumran caves and their scrolls in the 1940’s and 1950’s. Now, a year after the twelfth Qumran cave was discovered, one of the last two Dead Sea Scroll not-yet-deciphered fragments have been deciphered by researchers Dr. Eshbal Ratson and Professor Jonathan Ben-Dov of the Department of Bible Studies at the University of Haifa. These two men spent over a year of painstaking effort to put together and assemble the 62 tiny fragments that compose this manuscript. The findings were published in a paper titled A Newly Reconstructed Calendrical Scroll from Qumran in Cryptic Script into the Journal of Biblical Literature.

This advancement was announced a little earlier this year by researchers at the University of Haifa. The scroll dates from the 3rd century BC to the 1st century AD, and contains a not-before-seen 364-day Jewish calendar. This will be important for researchers regarding Jewish festivities in the Second Temple Period. For example, the researchers write:

“The lunar calendar, which Judaism follows to this day, requires a large number of human decisions. People must look at the stars and moon and report on their observations, and someone must be empowered to decide on the new month and the application of leap years. By contrast, the 364-day calendar was perfect. Because this number can be divided into four and seven, special occasions always fall on the same day. This avoids the need to decide, for example, what happens when a particular occasion falls on the Sabbath, as often happens in the lunar calendar. The Qumran calendar is unchanging, and it appears to have embodied the beliefs of the members of this community regarding perfection and holiness”.

Accordingly, the two researchers are now on a mission to decipher the final Dead Sea Scroll manuscript that is not yet understood. Hopefully, that will bring about another increase in our knowledge of the ancient world. This finding has already attracted tons of attention. To my knowledge, this finding marks the first serious advancement this year regarding the world of the Bible.

The Date of Christmas and Paganism

A good question to ask and to be knowledgeable about is the origin of the common date of December 25th for the celebration of Christmas by (most) Christians, a day honoring the birth of Jesus. Where does this Christmas date come from? Most people would say it is of pagan derivative, although this narrative is not as sweeping among historians as it is in the popular world, as demonstrated by C.P.E. Nothaft’s analysis on recent trends of historical approaches to the origins of this date in his paper titled The Origins of the Christmas Date: Some Recent Trends in Historical Research.

To begin with, it will be useful to establish where the December 25th date did not come from. It did not come from Saturnalia, a week-long pagan festival lasting between December 17th-23rd (=not the 25th), nor the Winter Solstice which takes place on the 22nd (=not the 25th, and it’s also important to note that there is actually variance on the date of the Winter Solstice in ancient accounts, some placing it on the 20th of December, see Hijmans’ article pg. 384, n. 24). There is one theory regarding pagan festivals that plays a role in academic discussion regarding the origins of the December 25th date, and that is the birth of Sol Invictus which, according to a calendrical document dating to the year 354 AD, took place on December 25th (this calendar also places the birth of Jesus on December 25th). The earliest record of Jesus’ birthday being celebrated on the December 25th, however, predate this account and go to the year 336 (and was likely known by at least 312). Thus, Steven Hijmans in an influential 2003 study has pointed to a serious possibility that the December 25th date in paganism was borrowed from Christmas, not the other way around:

Iis therefore unwarranted to takfor granted that the actual festival celebrating the Natalis Invicti with 30 chariot races mentioned in the Calendar of 354 was itself older than thChristian feast honoring Christ’s birthday on that day. On the evidence currently available we cannot exclude the possibility that, for instance, the 30 chariot races held in honor of Solon December 25 were instituted in reaction to the Christian claim of December 25 as the birthday of Christ. This is purely conjectural, of course, but by no means unlikely. (Sol Invictus, The Winter Solstice, And The Origins Of Christmaspg. 384-5, n. 24)
Hijmans also notes elsewhere that there is “no firm evidence for a festival for Sol on December 25th until Julian wrote his hymn to Helios in December of 362” (Steven E Hijmans, “Usener’s Christmas: A Contribution to the Modern Construct of Late Antique Solar Syncretism”, in M. Espagne & P. Rabault-Feuerhahn (eds.)). We must, therefore, understand the serious critical problems pertaining to this theory and consider alternatives. Another explanation for the origins of the December 25th date has attained considerable command in scholarly circles; that is, the idea that the December 25th date arose through speculative calculations by early Christians to construct overarching chronologies from the beginning of creation to the advent of Christ, which would have necessarily included calculating the dates of Jesus’ birth and death. In the early days of Christianity, these types of ‘calculations’ to pinpoint certain dates for special events was rather widespread, as demonstrated by the work of Venance Grumel, August Strobel, Alden A. Mosshammer, and C.P.E. Nothaft. Furthermore, this calculation theory has support in our extant sources dating to the 4th century AD regarding a December 25th date.
To begin with, in the early 3rd century, there was no uniform date for the birth of Jesus, rather all the accounts varied significantly. Andrew McGowan, a historian, priest, and President and Dean of Berkely Divinity School writes the following;
Finally, in about 200 C.E., a Christian teacher in Egypt makes reference to the date Jesus was born. According to Clement of Alexandria, several different days had been proposed by various Christian groups. Surprising as it may seem, Clement doesn’t mention December 25 at all. Clement writes: “There are those who have determined not only the year of our Lord’s birth, but also the day; and they say that it took place in the 28th year of Augustus, and in the 25th day of [the Egyptian month] Pachon [May 20 in our calendar] … And treating of His Passion, with very great accuracy, some say that it took place in the 16th year of Tiberius, on the 25th of Phamenoth [March 21]; and others on the 25th of Pharmuthi [April 21] and others say that on the 19th of Pharmuthi [April 15] the Savior suffered. Further, others say that He was born on the 24th or 25th of Pharmuthi [April 20 or 21].”
Clement of Alexandria is an excellent source for documenting the early widespread ideas and dates regarding the birth of Christ (Clement dismisses them all as speculation, though). Origen of Alexandria writing in the 250’s AD even dismisses celebrations of births as pagan. Of even more interest is the fact that Clement of Alexandria tells us that various Christians had “determined” the years of the birth of Christ, i.e. they used some sort of methodology (calculation) to arrive at these dates. Thus, by the early 3rd century, Christians were already calculating the birth of Jesus. A prime example of a Christian attempting to calculate the chronology of the world, including the birth of Christ, is found in the early 3rd century Christian writer Julius Africanus in his work entitled Chronography (extant fragments 16 and 18) dating to perhaps the 220’s AD. Thus, calculation was a ready method of understanding the origins and important times in the early Christian community. There also happens to be, in fact, a very simple and easy method that one of the ancient Christians may have used to conclude that Jesus was born on December 25th.
The key to dating the birth of Jesus, for many ancients, may have been the date of his death. It was believed in the period that the date of the death of many holy men coincided with the date of their conception in the womb. As early as 200 AD, Tertullian had said that Jesus had died on March 25th, equivalent to the Jewish calendrical date of Nisan 14. Thus, Jesus must have been conceived on March 25th (which happens to be the date of the Roman vernal equinox, which might be a connection), and exactly nine months later would have been born on December 25th (the ancients were aware of the general period of remaining in the womb before being born). Although Tertullian only mentions Jesus death during March 25th, the connection between March 25th and December 25th is explicitly stated in later Christian authors. In an anonymous treatise dated to the 4th century AD titled On Solstices and Equinoxes, we read:
Therefore our Lord was conceived on the eighth of the kalends of April in the month of March [March 25], which is the day of the passion of the Lord and of his conception. For on that day he was conceived on the same he suffered.
The treatise then uses this date to date the birth of Jesus to December 25th. Augustine of Hippo also writes, c. 400 AD in his On the Trinity:
For he [Jesus] is believed to have been conceived on the 25th of March, upon which day also he suffered; so the womb of the Virgin, in which he was conceived, where no one of mortals was begotten, corresponds to the new grave in which he was buried, wherein was never man laid, neither before him nor since. But he was born, according to tradition, upon December the 25th.
Other early Eastern Orthodox Christians in this period believed that Jesus was born on January 6th because they thought Jesus died on April 6th (and January 6th remains the date of Christmas in the modern Armenian churches today). In contrast, the earliest writing mentioning a connection between paganism and the December 25th date dates to the 12th century AD. Therefore, the evidence may demonstrate that the December 25th date originates, not from pagan conception, but from the speculative calculations of early Christian writers on the date of Jesus. Even though we don’t know when Jesus was actually born, there is no reason that we cannot celebrate the birth of Jesus on December 25th anyways when our trees are out! I’d recommend reading Andrew McGowan’s full in-depth article on the date of December 25th which provides even more detail for all the aforementioned history.

Governor of the City Archaeology Find Made, Bible Corroborated Again

Right before the 2018 year on 31 December 2017, another archaeological finding was made corroborating yet another account of the Bible. Throughout the biblical records describing events of the First Temple Period (930 – 586 BC), we’re told that there was a political position maintained in Israel known as the ‘governor of the city’. In much of today’s world, someone who presides over a city is known as a mayor. According to several accounts in the Bible, this position was known as the governor of the city.

2 Kings 23:8: He brought all the priests out of the towns of Judah, and defiled the high places where the priests had made offerings, from Geba to Beer-sheba; he broke down the high places of the gates that were at the entrance of the gate of Joshua the governor of the city, which were on the left at the gate of the city.

2 Chronicles 34:8: In the eighteenth year of his reign, when he had purged the land and the house, he sent Shaphan son of Azaliah, Maaseiah the governor of the city, and Joah son of Joahaz, the recorder, to repair the house of the Lord his God.

The Israel Antiquities Authority announced a discovery of a seal (also known as a bulla) found in an archaeological dig in Jerusalem dating to the 7th century BC during the First Temple Period bearing an inscription that says ‘belonging to the governor of the city’. With that and to begin our year, yet another minor detail in the corpus of the Bible has been historically affirmed (including that there was a governor in Jerusalem when the Bible describes such). Here is the official, fantastic video released by the Israel Antiquities Authority itself regarding this discovery.