Category Archives: Special topic
This is essentially a topic only peripherally related to translating and commenting on the NT. It’s about etymologies. However, it is a great illustration, or perhaps cautionary tale, about thinking we know more than we do. It shows, pretty clearly, that conclusions are hard-won and victories are rarely more than partial. In short, it’s always best to err on the side of uncertainty. This is true when we’re tracing the origin of a word that has developed over several thousand years, or whether we’re making statements about a text whose age is measured in millennia.
This all began when a Facebook friend and author named Steve Seven, whom I recommend highly, sent me a link to one of his works. In it, he made statement that persona was etymologically Greek. This struck me as odd, so I checked the Liddell & Scott. Persona was not there, nor were there any words starting with pi-epsilon-rho-sigma. So I concluded it was not Greek. I checked Lewis & Short and there it was, with the primary definition of “mask”, as in the sort of dramatic masks so familiar from theatre decorations. Case closed. Right?
Well, maybe not. Steve sent me a link to etymologeek.
It showed that Latin persona was descended from the Greek prosōpon, meaning “face; appearance; mask”, and Etruscan 𐌘𐌄𐌓𐌔𐌖 (φersu). So being the pompous ass that I am, I launched into a lecture about people movements, when Greek- and Latin-speakers moved into their respective peninsulas, blah blah blah. What I said was correct; but was it relevant?
A cooler head then prevailed, and I started thinking about it. A word can enter a language in a couple of different ways. What the website seemed to imply was that persona entered Latin from Greek by affiliation; this is the way words entered French or Spanish from Latin, as directly affiliated to the original word. “Affiliation” means a parent/child relationship. The Latin word Deus is the mother of Dieu (F) and Dios (S), which are affiliated to Deus; that is, they are literally daughters. That was how I initially understood the etymology website. But there are also loan/borrow words, where a mature language swallows a word from another language wholesale, and the word becomes normalized to conform to the phonetic rules of the new language. French has le weekend for example. This frequently happens when a culture adopts a new technology from another culture. When chariot technology disseminated from north of the Black Sea, a lot the technical terms for the parts of the chariot, etc went with it, showing up in Greek and Chinese. Greek & Chinese are obviously not affiliated; rather, they borrowed the same word from the same source.
So let’s look at persona, a “mask”. The “mask” in question was a theatrical device. It could be described as being a technical term for the theatre. So let’s look at when authors were using either the Greek or Latin form of the word. Fortunately, Liddell & Scott and Lewis & Short both provide this sort of information. What you notice is that the Greek authors dated from the 3rd & 4th Centuries BCE, whereas the Latin authors were decidedly later. This should not surprise us, since theatre was well-established in Greece in the 5th Century BCE, whereas Latin didn’t develop a theatrical tradition until centuries later. As such, and given that Romans thoroughly absorbed Greek cultural aspects such as theatre, we should not be surprised that the Romans would have absorbed the technical vocabulary as well. And the existence of a very similar word with a very similar meaning in Etruscan provides great evidence that this is, indeed, what happened. So I was wrong. Right?
The other problem is that there is a legitimate etymology for persona that is wholly contained within Latin. A Roman writer named Gabius Bassus derived the word persona from the two Latin words per-sono, which mean to “sound-through”. The sense is blowing through something to make noise, as one would do with a trumpet. The interesting thing about this is the description of the masks. Apparently, the design was such that they were essentially megaphones, a conical shape that amplified the sounds made. This would be useful for making sure the folks in the nosebleed seats could hear what the actors were saying. As such, maybe I was correct after all?
Finally, if one compares the entire range of the Greek and Latin words as given in the two L&S lexicons, there is a huge amount of correlation and overlap. The one that struck me the most was that both the greek prosōpon and the Latin persona have a legal meaning; they are both used to designate a legal entity, the way a corporation is a legal “person” in America. And there’s more. The Greek form has a much longer history, stretching back to Homer. But the use of prosōpon as “mask” is very late in the tradition. Aristotle, in the Poetics, referred to the “embellishments” introduced on the stage, assuming masks to be one of them, but it is not until Cicero–a Roman who died 43 BCE–that the Greek term is used to refer specifically to drama, as in a character in a play. This means that it is entirely possible that the Greeks took over the term from the Romans. Remember, the Greeks were artists; the Romans were engineers. It would entirely make sense that the Romans were the ones to add the technological aspect–turning the mask into a megaphone–to what was an artistic endeavor.
That’s the evidence. What is your conclusion? Whatever you decide, this is a great example of the sort of sifting of evidence that is necessary to come to reasonable conclusions about stuff that happened 2,000 years ago. We can claim to know a few things; the rest is conjecture and inference. What is your case for your conclusion? That’s what matters.
There have been numerous instances when I’ve spoken rather skeptically about the prophesies Jesus utters. I’ve been on any number of websites where the author is rather critical of those who, like me, dismiss the possibility of actual predictions. That is to say that I assume, every prediction that Jesus makes is ex post facto. Authors with a more religious, or perhaps faith-based approach do take the idea of legitimate prophesy by Jesus as not only possible, but likely.
There is one point to be made about this. The main reason I’m skeptical about the prophesies of Jesus–or of Isaiah, or Jeremiah, or any other in the HS–is that, unfailingly, they come true. Now, this is not surprising for a divine individual; but if the individual is not divine, then it defies probability that all Jesus’ prophesies came to be. I bring this up because I’m currently reading a book about the Persian invasions of Greece in the period 490-479 BCE. In the telling of these invasions by Herodotus, there are a number of prophesies given by the oracle of Delphi. As it happens, the author of the book I’m reading (a secondary source, rather than Herodotus himself) just discussed these oracles. This is a topic of some debate among historians; are any of the oracles recorded by Herodotus or elsewhere, genuine. That is, were they actually uttered by the Pythia, recorded by the priests and set into hexameter verses before the event in question? Or were these also ex post facto creations? The author brings up an excellent point about the authenticity: a lot of the oracles were wrong. For example, when the Athenians asked if they should resist the Persian onslaught, the oracle told them to “fly, doomed ones”. Prior to the invasion, that sure woudl have seemed to be wise and excellent advice, predicting an outcome very likely to come to pass. How the Greeks actually managed to pull off the defeat of the enormous invasion force is one of the more unexpected events in history. Yet, defeat them the Greeks did.
IOW, the oracle was wrong. In fact, a lot of the oracles Herodotus records were wrong. If they weren’t they were so craftily worded that they would prove correct in either case. The most famous is the Lydian King Croesus, who asks if he should fight the Persians. The answer was, “if you fight the Persians, you will destroy a mighty empire”. Taking that as a positive response, Croesus fought and lost. The “mighty empire” he destroyed was his own. And the Spartans got a similar answer about whether they should attack the city of Tegea. The oracle predicted that the Spartans would measure the plain of Tegea with dancing steps. Thinking this prophesied success, the Spartans attacked, were defeated, and ended up as slaves working in the fields, thus measuring the plain. Anyway, the author of the book (Persia and the Greeks; The Defence of the West 560-479, by A.R. Burns) says that anyone making up an oracle after the fact should be expected to get the correct answer. That many of these oracles were wrong is a good prima facie case for their authenticity.
So yes, I am skeptical. A 100% accuracy rate is impossible. For a human, anyway. If you accept Jesus’ divinity, of course all standards of human measure go by the way. Since I am writing history and not religion, it is impossible to accept these predictions as anything other than after-the-fact.
This, of course, has implications for the Q debate. But then, what doesn’t? The point is that when Jesus makes a prediction that is only in Matthew and Luke, and so supposedly came from Q, there is almost a zero percent chance that the words recorded were spoken by Jesus. Much more likely, they were invented after the fact. But if there is material in Q that was not spoken by Jesus, then what do we have? A collection of stuff that was said by…someone. That could have been said by anyone. In which case, the whole definition of Q changes. And this is a big problem I see with Q: the content and definition is very malleable. As such, we have to ask whether Q has any meaning at all.
In going back over the opening verses of Luke, something struck me that I hadn’t noticed the first time around. At the very beginning of Chapter 1, in Verse 5, which initiates the story after the introduction to Theophilos,, Luke places the story of Zacharias in historical context. “In the days of Herod, king of Judea” is how he starts. Later, of course, we are told that Jesus’ birth occurred when Quirinius was governor of Syria. It has been noted that these two events, the days of King Herod and the days of Quirinius did not overlap. King Herod died in what we would deem 4 BCE, and Quirinius became governor of Syria in 6 CE. More, we apparently know that a census of Judea was taken in the years 6/7 CE.
My point is this: given the ten-year gap between Herod and Quirinius, it is hard to reconcile the chronology of the birth of John and the birth of Jesus. Elisabeth is pregnant when Mary goes to visit. Given the flow of the story, we are led to assume that this pregnancy occurred not too long after Zacharias had his encounter with the angel. And we know that Mary was told of her coming pregnancy before she went to visit Elisabeth, the implication being that Mary’s pregnancy occurred with only a relatively short interval between the Annunciation and the conception. So we have the sense that Zacharias encountered the messenger of the lord in the days of Herod, that soon after Elisabeth conceived, that Mary got annunciated (that’s actually a word?) and then conceived, John was born and Jesus was born all in the period of perhaps two years. We are not given that time frame; there is nothing in the narrative to indicate how much time passed in between events, except we know that that something less than nine months elapsed between Mary’s visit and John’s birth because that is human physiology. We are not told, but nowhere do we get the sense that some ten years elapsed between Zacharias’ encounter and the announcement of the census. Yet, this is what would be necessary for the chronology to work, wherein Zacharias was told of his wife’s impending conception in the days of Herod and the birth of Jesus in the census of 6-7 CE.
It is also worth noting that we are told it was in the days of King Herod. This is important because, although there was a succession of Herods, and sometimes more than one at a time, the last King Herod was Herod the Great, who died in 4 BCE. The others bore the title of ethnarch, or tetrarch, or something such. I just wanted to make that very clear, since Jesus was sent to see Herod Antipater. He was, IIRC, a son or grandson of King Herod, but Antipater was a tetrarch, one of four men among whom what had once been King Herod’s kingdom was divided.
Why is this important? Because I believe it very clearly indicates that Luke read Matthew’s version of the birth narrative. It’s entirely possible that Luke was simply confused on dates for King Herod. Now, I’ve heard it said that Luke is concerned with moving the center of gravity of the Christian world to Rome, which is why he ends with Paul heading to Rome as a prisoner. More, he is, and has been considered a pagan, and I would suggest he’s writing primarily for pagans; as such, why bother with trying to set this in the time of a Jewish king who’d been dead for close to a hundred years? Yes, there are reasons why he might have done this; I just can’t think of any that really compelling. Yes, it could be a sop to Jewish sensibility, an attempt to be exotic, or something such. But really, it’s such a throwaway line, right at the beginning of the story, before the reader is even fully engaged. We have the references to Jerusalem coming up which should, or at least could, satisfy that by stressing the connexions of Jesus to Judaism and all of that.
To my mind, the best reason to include this is because it’s in Matthew. In this way, Luke creates another connexion between him and Matthew. This is important for Luke, I think, because Luke realizes that he’s telling a completely different birth story than what Matthew told. So to assuage the concerns of those in the audience familiar with Matthew, Luke plants these little hooks throughout his own narrative, all of them designed to feel familiar, to make his very different narrative feel familiar to those who had heard Matthew’s version. So Luke starts us off with Herod, the Herod that had played such a prominent role in Matthew. Then Luke adds the angels coming and going and announcing miraculous births, and keeps the action in Bethlehem, throws in Joseph for good measure, all capped off with the virgin birth.
Herod provides one more link between the two evangelists. Based on the list just given, we’re up to almost half-a-dozen such links. That seems like a pretty good chain of ideas. It’s way too many to be coincidence. And this deliberate skirting of Matthew’s narrative, all the while simultaneously making sure that there are echoes of Matthew throughout may show itself again, later in the gospel.
It appears that I am hardly the first person to suggest that Matthew began life as a pagan. Apparently there was a school of thought that believed and argued this point back in the 1940s. This is not surprising. I have read some sniffy pieces from biblicists complaining about how Classicists have a tendency to see everything revolving around Greece. And this, in some degree, is what I am doing. In fact, the whole Jesus-as-Jew movement of the last several decades was, doubtless, somewhat in reaction to the Graeco-Roman bias that had existed. Let’s not forget that, for several centuries, an education meant a Classical education. I read once that English schoolboys, on the whole, were more familiar with the characters in Livy (Horatio at the bridge, e.g.) than with their Anglo-Saxon heritage. So the attempts to put Jesus into his Jewish context more or less coincided with the decline in Classical learning that took hold in the 1960s, when “relevant” was the buzzword for eduction.
So, I’m not breaking new ground in suggesting Matthew’s pagan background. Rather, it’s a matter of what goes around, comes around. The great cycle. Honestly, though, I think the over-emphasis on Jesus’ Jewish heritage leaves too many things unexplained. The Baptist was thoroughly Jewish; he was more popular than Jesus; but Western Civilisation became followers of Jesus, not John. Why? I suspect it’s because Jesus’ teaching was more amenable to being absorbed by Greek philosophy, perhaps because it was more steeped in Greek thought than the Baptist’s more simple message of repentance.
No, this isn’t close to the final word on Matthew.
The next destination on our voyage of discovery is the Gospel of Luke. This direction was not inevitable, but for many reasons it seems the best choice. The reason I chose Luke is because of sources. In Luke 1:1-3, he talks about the account handed down to him by the eyewitnesses and the servants. Note that the account is singular, but the eyewitnesses and servants are plural. This means that a single story line was created by multiple witnesses and transmitted by multiple recorders. There is no possibility to know the identity of the former; those who told the story from the time of Jesus are impossible to reconstruct. Two good guesses would be Peter and James, the brother of Jesus. These are the only two names that Paul mentions, and the only two that also occur in the NT. All the others, such as the sons of Zebedee and Andrew and all the rest disappear for several decades, if not forever. The rest are filler, side characters used to bring Jesus out in relief. Let’s face it: what did any of them actually do? Aside from Judas betraying Jesus, none of them are credited with any sort of independent activity, with one exception: the sons of Zebedee arguing about who would be the greatest in heaven. Other than than, basically nothing. Peter plays his role, and Paul attests to James, and a brother of Jesus named James is identified in Mark 6. So Peter and James are the only two eyewitnesses that we can hope to determine.
Do we have any better hope of identifying the “servants” who transmitted the account of the eyewitnesses? We can be reasonably certain of Mark. Luke’s or Matthew’s use of Mark is by no means proven, but there is no theory that explains the Synoptic situation better than that the latter two both knew and used Mark as a source. In a wrinkle, Luke is the first evangelist of whom we can be absolutely certain that he was aware of Paul; at least, we can be certain if the author of Luke is also the author of Acts, which I am going to take on faith. I will be better able to judge that when I actually translate Acts. Now, knowing about Paul’s career is not the same thing as knowing about and having read what Paul wrote. Luke could have known the former without ever having read a word of what Paul wrote. At this point, I’m completely undecided about whether Luke had ever read anything authored by Paul. Regardless, he had a source, or sources, to tell him about Paul’s missionary activities; I am too ignorant at this point to know whether Acts mentions any of the Communities to whom Paul wrote letters. Paul did spend time in Greece in Acts, and that is verified in Galatians and Corinthians. Acts also describes Paul’s time in Ephesus in some detail, but Paul’s Letter to the Ephesians is not considered authentically Paul. The overlap of Paul’s adventures in Acts, and the names of the places that received Paul’s letters will possibly provide clues about whether Luke had read any of these letters.
Note: if this were a proper research paper, which it assuredly and vehemently is not, I would have answered some or all of these questions already. But the entire exercise of this blog represents the preliminary research. Reading the works in Greek and translating them provides a much more intimate knowledge of the texts than I would garner from reading them in English, no matter how closely I annotated the texts. So I hope that this explanation of the thought process I use is useful as a how-to for further historical inquiry.
The sources for Paul that Luke encountered may have been written, or they may have been oral. Either way, the question is to what level of detail did they record and relate Paul’s adventures? And “adventures” is a proper description for what Paul experiences in Acts: shipwrecks, angry mobs, last-minute escapes, arrests, these are the stuff of an Indiana Jones movie. In fact, I have come across more than one modern scholar who referred to the similarity between Acts and Hellenistic novels. If you take these adventures and add some of the material that only Luke contains, in particular the material leading up to the public ministry– like the birth narrative–I think that an overall picture of how Luke approaches his gospel and its sequel emerges. When I think about the four evangelists and their different approaches to the narrative of Jesus’ life, I categorize them as such: Mark is a journalist, Matthew is a rabbi (albeit one who converted), John is a theologian, and Luke is a novelist.
Because one serious fault (there are more) I find in biblical scholarship is the failure to ask why each of these evangelists decided to write a gospel. What would possess someone to sit down and write out an account of Jesus’ life? But that’s just a variation on the question of why does anyone write anything? Why am I writing this blog? We write because we believe we have something to say. In the treatment of Mark we discussed some of his motivations: that the Temple had been destroyed, the generation that knew him had died, that there were a number of different interpretations of Jesus’ life and it was necessary to record a story of Jesus in order to preserve the stories and create a single narrative that wove the various traditions–in particular the Wonder-Worker and the Christ traditions–into a unified whole. Matthew’s intent, it seems to me, was to take Mark a step further, to submerge the Wonder-Worker tradition more firmly into the Christ tradition, especially to emphasize Jesus’ divinity and his status as the son of (a) g/God. Why did Luke write? It may seem that, to some degree at least, the answer to this might depend on whether or not Luke knew about Matthew; that knowledge of Matthew might have changed Luke’s motivation, but I don’t think this is true. Because I think Luke approached the topic as one needing to be filled out; and, in a sense, I think this is more true if we assume Luke knew about Matthew. In fact, it may make more sense if Luke knew about Matthew.
Here is where we have to talk about Q. It must always be remembered that there is no argument for Q. No one has ever made a case for its existence. The entirety of the case for Q is that Luke butchered the “masterful” arrangement of the Q material that Matthew created. Thus, the “argument” goes, shows that Luke did not know about Matthew, or the former would never have violated the latter’s organization of the Q material. Please note that this is not an argument. It’s an expression of aesthetic preferences. It’s akin to saying, “I can’t believe Dali butchered Da Vinci’s treatment of the Last Supper so badly”. Or, “I can’t believe Picasso butchered the arrangement of nature by putting both of that woman’s eyes on the same side of her nose”. So Dali obviously never saw Da Vinci’s Last Supper, and Picasso obviously never saw a normal person with only one eye on each side of her nose. That’s ridiculous, but that is the entire gist of the Q argument, and it has been for over a century. The biggest point the Q people make is that Luke always–always!–changes the placement of the material from Mark relative to Matthew. This alteration, I would suggest, is because Luke deliberately set out to tell the story differently from Matthew. Otherwise, why not just copy Matthew, stick in the Good Samaritan and Prodigal Son and call it a day? That seems to be what the Q people think should have done. Now, there is no real “argument” for this supposition of mine, but there is no argument for Q, either. At least I’m honest enough to admit what I lack.
This is all very important because it ties in with the “servants” to which Luke alludes in 1:1-3. A combination of Mark and Paul–or sources about Paul, whether written or oral–puts us into plural territory; with just these two we can talk about “servants” who handed over the tradition of the eyewitnesses. So right off the bat, we know that Luke had some kind of source material that was not available to either Mark or Matthew. What about Q? One of my problems with the idea of Q is that it seems very odd that so much of what Jesus taught should have completely bypassed Mark. The early Church put Matthew first and contemporary scholars still value Matthew over the other Synoptics because Matthew seems to have the complete story. It has the Sermon on the Mount, for heavens’ sake! Try to imagine a Christianity based solely on Mark, and what you get is something very different from what we have received. As such, is it possible to imagine a Jesus who did not say, “blessed are the poor in spirit…”? Most of us could not; ergo, Q. But can we imagine a Jesus who did not tell the story of the Prodigal Son? Or the Good Samaritan? Aren’t those such quintessentially Christian stories that the religion would be very different if they were not part of the corpus? If the Sermon on the Mount came from Q, where did the Good Samaritan and the Prodigal Son originate? Were these part of source material that bypassed both Mark and Matthew? I find it difficult to believe that a written source like Q completely bypassed Mark; I find it impossible to believe something bypassed both Mark and Matthew.
So did Luke invent these magnificent stories? The Q researchers talk about M and L material–stuff that’s unique to Matthew and Luke respectively–and insinuate, if they don’t blatantly claim that this new material is drawn from an earlier source. Never (as far as I know, anyway) is it suggested that maybe Matthew and or Luke wrote the new material themselves. They can’t do this, because that would be to admit that maybe there was no Q, because the Q material was pretty much all composed by Matthew. And that would, in turn, pretty much scuttle the idea of Q, because Matthew was Q. And that would mean that Matthew and Luke are not independent of each other. As I see it, and from the point of view of historical development, it is pretty much impossible to conceive that any of the new material in Luke and John traces back any further than, perhaps the time of Matthew. It is possible that each Luke and John came across a story here or there, or a detail that belonged to a source from an undisturbed community that had maintained something handed down for several generations. It’s possible. But these would be no more than snippets; certainly there would have been nothing like the Prodigal Son nor the Wedding Feast at Cana. Those are later inventions, much later.
To be clear, I do believe that Luke had more than two, or even three sources available to him. Aside from the Paul source and Mark, there was Matthew/Q–which I believe are the same thing. That brings us to three. I believe it highly likely that he had more. We know that new voices of witness continued to be created for several hundred years after the death of Jesus, so there is little reason to think that the time between Matthew and Luke was any exception. Likely the impetus to new creation picked up steam as time passed: witness the number of letters attributed to the “apostles” that came about in the decade either side of the turn of the century, as well as works like the Didache. Most of these sources would have proved ephemeral; or perhaps “preliminary” is a better word. These are the traditions that coalesced into the Didache or the Epistle to the Colossians and later, much later, into the Gospel of Thomas. If I’m willing to concede the existence of other sources available to Luke, why am I so adamantly opposed to Q? That is a legitimate question. The problem with Q is that it is much too important a source to have come into being as a written document, influenced half of the canonical gospels, and then disappear without a trace, a ripple, or the vaguest, most off-hand allusion to its existence. If it was important enough for Matthew and Luke to use it the way they did, it was important enough for someone else to preserve, or at least remember a decade or two later, when the later epistles or the pieces that ended up being non-canonical were being written. But there is absolutely nothing. I’m not sure of the context I read this, but someone raised the question of “Why did Mark survive?” If all, or the vast majority of his material was absorbed by Matthew, as the Q material supposedly was, why did Mark not vanish along with Q? This question is conveniently not asked, so I have no idea what the “correct” responses would be. Based on what happened with Q, Mark should have disappeared without a trace as well.
We are not finished with Q. It will be a source of discussion throughout Luke. It’s a huge topic, but it’s also something of the elephant in the room: no one really wants to discuss it; everyone does want to repeat reassuring phrases that, Yes, Virginia, there is a Q.
There is one final issue to be discussed. Let’s go back to the whole idea of Luke being a novelist. That is a very bold claim on my part, made in the security of knowing that I will never be seriously challenged on it. My point is this: we noted that Paul’s description of his conversion is very different from the more famous version that we all know from Acts; the one that is so famous that the term “Road to Damascus moment” is a cliché in the English language. What I would ask, however, is if they are really so different? Paul tells us he received the gospel through a revelation (Greek: apocalypsos) directly from God. And what happened on the Road to Damascus? Paul was struck from his horse and converted, as through a revelation from God. In short, the version in Acts is a more dramatic, more highly dramatized moment, but the underlying principle is the same: God/Jesus intervened directly in Paul’s life, changing its course forever, turning him into a follower and a missionary and an apostle, as he calls himself. If Luke can transform Paul’s description like that, what other term than “novelist” would fit? Poet? Sure, the story is told in prose. So this is a description that, I think, is not wholly ridiculous.
We shall see.
On to Luke.
During the course of the two gospels, we’ve touched on the book by Reza Aslan, Zealot: The Life And Times Of Jesus Of Nazareth. In that book, Aslan claims that Jesus was indeed a zealot, and that he was crucified for his rebellious activities. Two key props for his argument are that crucifixion was reserved for rebels, and that the word used to describe the two men crucified with Jesus << lestes >> specifically meant rebel.
At this point I have not done a summary view of all records of crucifixion, and have not performed a statistical analysis on the reasons why the Romans crucified these people. A famous example is the mass crucifixion of thousands of rebels following the suppression of the rebellion of Spartacus. Certainly, these men were rebels, and they were crucified in punishment. But saying only rebels were crucified is a bit of a black swan argument: no number of examples of white swans can prove that black swans don’t exist; one black swan, however, proves that they do. So, no number of crucified rebels will prove that only rebels were crucified, but even a handful of non-rebels will prove that this punishment was not reserved for this class of individuals.
The other argument he uses is that the word “lestes” specifically means ‘rebel’. Liddell and Scott, who have to be considered THE authoritative source for Greek vocabulary, disagree. So do Lewis and Short, who hold the same position for Latin vocabulary. In the Vulgate translation of this section, St Jerome translated “lestes” as “latro, latronis“*. As I have mentioned before, given that the sample size of Latin texts is much larger than that of Greek texts, seeing how the Vulgate renders a specific word can give us some clues to the meaning of the underlying Greek word, especially if the latter is rarely used. Now, the Greek word “lestes” is not terribly unusual, but I think it is still useful to see how it gets translated into Latin by St Jerome. Bear in mind that Jerome was bilingual; he was adept in Greek, even if Latin was his primary language. What word does he use?
First, I also want to point out that we have the episode of the Cleansing of the Temple to consider. Recall the “den of thieves” declamation used by Jesus? Well, the word there is “lestes“, the same word as is used of the two men crucified with Jesus. To the best of my knowledge, this passage has never been translated as “den of insurrectionists”. So this alone is almost a mortal wound to Aslan’s argument. And again, the Vulgate renders the Greek with the Latin word “latro, latronis”.
The final nail in the coffin is provided by the Latin author Apuleius. He wrote, among other things, a work called Metamorphoses, a Greek word that got taken wholesale into Latin via transliteration. It means pretty much what it does in English: a change in shape. In the Penguin edition that I have, the title is rendered as The Golden Ass, because the main action of the book involves the adventures of the main character after he has been magically, and mistakenly, transformed from a person into a donkey. In any case, shortly after his transformation, he is stolen by some bandits, who use him to haul away stolen goods. The word used? Latro, latronis. This example is even more useful than the Vulgate because it was written in the Second Century, much closer to Matthew than it was to the Vulgate. So we can have a substantial level of certainty that the word had not changed, had not undergone a metamorphosis, coming to mean simply “bandit/thief” whereas in NT times it had meant rebel.
As of this writing, I have no idea how Aslan’s book has been received in circles of biblical scholarship. I don’t know if it has been thoroughly refuted and rejected by most biblical academics. I do know, however, that it has seeped into popular consciousness. I recently had a Facebook debate with someone who put Aslan’s thesis forward as accepted fact. This is truly unfortunate. It’s also pretty much dead wrong. If this thesis has been absorbed into biblical scholarship, I despair of it even more than I did before.
* The base meaning of “latro, latronis” is “mercenary soldier”. From there it turned into “freebooter”; unpaid mercenaries had a tendency to extract their arrears of wages by plundering whomever was unfortunate enough to be at hand. This tradition was alive and well during the Thirty Years War. From there, it came to be “robber”. “bandit”, “thief”. These words are not completely interchangeable, but close enough. In particular, “bandit” has the sense of a group of outlaws living in desolate places where they’re hard to find, preying on unsuspecting travelers. Aslan tries to suggest that such bandits were actually insurrectionists, but that is simply stretching the word past its breaking point,
A few weeks ago, I picked up a copy of the book Who Killed Jesus?, by prominent NT scholar JD Crossan. Professor Crossan (emeritus) is an eminent figure in biblical scholarship, with a number of highly-regarded books to his credit. I’ve read a couple of others by him, but exactly which ones I no longer recall. Since the book currently under discussion deals with the subject of, and comes at exactly the point in the narrative where we are–the Passion Narrative–I’ve held off forging ahead with my translation and comment while I read the book, the idea being to see if there were interesting and useful points that could inform and enlighten my understanding and the discussion of the topic. But first, this is not a review of the book in any standard sense, for several reasons. First, the book is twenty years old, so a review is rather beside the point at this time. Second, the purpose of reading the book was to see if the scholarly argument provided further insight into the topic, not whether the book is worth reading. Finally, part–a large part–of the purpose of the book is set out in the subtitle: Exposing the Roots of Anti-Semitism in the Gospel Story of The Death Of Jesus. This is a worthy and necessary goal, but not one that is fundamental to our purposes here. This topic does overlap with our research, since it helps to provide possible motivation for why the authors of the gospels wrote what they did and in the way they did.
Having glanced at the Amazon review section for the work, it seems that “John D. Crossan is generally acknowledged to be the premier historical Jesus scholar in the world”. That is a very weighty designation. Given this title, one should approach a confrontation with Crossan as one would approach the possibility of fisticuffs with the UFC champion of the world: she is the best; who the heck are you? Would you challenge LeBron James to a game of one-on-one? Personally, I would not challenge Rhonda Rousey, even though she’s no longer the champion, nor would I be so rash as to take on King James. Crossan? Absolutely. And why? Because he is/was a professor of Religious Studies, but he is writing history. That is to say, he’s on my turf; a pro athlete is great at whatever game he or she plays, but that does not mean they can play another game equally well, or even competently. Some pro athletes are also good golfers; most are not. (I am certainly not, but that’s irrelevant.)
One problem with this book, and pretty much every book I’ve ever read on the subject of the Historical Jesus is that these books are not written by historians. They are written by biblical, or religious studies people. They may know their NT textual analyses, but can they play golf? The other problem is that most of these books were written by people who, if not practicing Christians, were raised as such, and they approach the topic of historicity based on study of the Bible, and not study of history. Oh, they’ve read Tacitus and Josephus–at least, I’m sure, the relevant sections–but they’ve never studied Tacitus, or history in general, as an historian would study the text. These two problems–or, perhaps they are really only different facets of the same problem–is that their perspective is off; they never truly engage the topic as historians should. This is why all the books I’ve read by religious studies people sort of blur together. They have all come at the subject with the same approach, and so they, ultimately, make the same case. Oh, they may regard different stories as historical or non-historical for sound and valid and good reasons, but they never get themselves out of that single approach that largely predetermines their outcome: much of the NT is historically accurate.
The key aspect of this approach, this method that is unsound, is that they believe that all of the writers of the NT, and of at least some of they apocryphal texts, are writing to illumine and preserve a single, unitary, and ultimately factual account of the life and death of Jesus. That is, the scholars all assume that, ultimately, all of the evangelists and the authors of Thomas and the Gospel of Peter, are telling exactly the same story. And they never, ever challenge, even in their own minds, this assumption. I would hazard to guess that most–if not quite all–are fundamentally unaware that they are making this assumption. It’s the classic “buried assumption”: something that affects nearly everything, but is never acknowledged because almost no one realizes it’s there. This assumption, I would argue, is the direct result of coming into the topic from a background of biblical or textual or literary analysis, and not from a background in history.
There is a corollary to this assumption: it leads to positing the existence of shadowy texts for which there is not a shred of evidence, and then taking it as a given that these hypothetical texts did, in fact, exist. Of course, Q is the most famous, and the most pernicious, example of this. In Crossan’s book, we come across another, called The Cross Gospel. This is a text of the Passion Narrative that was put to paper in the 50s, or about the time that Q was. This narrative them became the basis for the four canonical gospels and, according to Crossan, the Gospel of Peter. The evidence for these texts is completely literary, and completely dependent on being able to get into the mind of the evangelist whose work is considered. This leads to a lot of, “well Mark really means”, and “Luke would never mess with a masterpiece like the Sermon on the Mount”, and “the Matthew changed Mark because it’s consistent with Matthew’s overall intention”, and other such things. This is what happens, I suspect, when living in a world of textual and literary analysis. I’ve studied enough literature qua literature to know how the process works, even if I was never very good at it.
With those two–or one-point-five–points, perhaps we can encapsulate the whole of Crossan’s case, just as one can deduce Hercules from just his foot*. The fatal flaw in Crossan’s case comes very early in the work, within the first 30 pages, as he’s setting out the evidence. He admits that the Synoptics are all dependent on Mark for their passion narrative. Indeed, he concedes that John’s passion narrative is based, largely, on Mark. As such, Matthew, Luke, & John are dependent sources; they cannot be assessed historically as anything but an appendage to Mark. More or less. That’s a bit strong, but in historical research, and “dependent” has a fairly specific, perhaps technical meaning. The most significant aspect of this is that one cannot take a variation in the dependent source as more historical than what the original source said. This simply means that if Matthew contradicts Mark on a point of fact, we should take Mark’s words as more likely to be accurate. Unless there is strong indication that Matthew also had access to a second source that was not Mark. Hence, Q becomes very, very handy, and the willingness to jettison Q turns into obstinance .
But, Crossan is not content to let John rest there. Noticing how different John’s treatment of the miracles of Jesus are, he goes on to posit that John is independent of Mark on these miracle stories. Since much of my case depends (pun?) on this assumption, or assertion, of Crossan, we need to be very clear on why this is a problem. To be blunt, I do not know, exactly, what Crossan means by “for me, (John) is independent of the Synoptics for the miracles and sayings of Jesus”. As mentioned, for historical studies, “in/dependent” has a fairly specific–almost to the point of technical– meaning. I do not know if Crossan understands and uses the word in this historian’s sense. If he simply means that John has a different take on the miracles and sayings, I don’t have a problem with that–in fact I’d agree with that–but I would not, could not accept the description of this as an “independent” source. From the historian’s perspective, an source that is truly independent is one that has access to knowledge that the first source does not. Given Q, Matthew becomes an independent source for the sayings of Jesus. So the question becomes, is Crossan saying that John had access to a second, now lost, collection of the sayings of Jesus that dated back prior to Mark, and that represented a tradition that was unaware of Mark, and of which Mark was unaware?
That is the essence of Q: the author(s) of Q were unaware of Mark, and Mark was unaware of Q. Is Crossan saying that John also had his own source? Reading this from the perspective of an historian, that is what I understand by him saying “John was independent of the Synoptics”. Is that what he means? If so, then the entire case becomes untenable because he provides no evidence that such a source existed, that it was independent of Mark, and that John was the sole evangelist (or epistle writer) aware of this source. Contrariwise, if that is not what Crossan means, then what he’s saying is that John (or someone) made stuff up. In which case, there is no historical validity in taking John as in any way independent of the Synoptics. People have been making stuff up about Ronald Reagan for a couple of decades now; that doesn’t mean that they can be used as historical arguments. Amity Shlaes argues that FDR had a time machine because the policies he implemented were able to cause the Great Depression after he took office in 1933, when, in fact, it started in 1930 (or thereabouts; the point is, it was several years before FDR took office). They’ve made this stuff up; it is not necessary to present an argument against these positions in an argument about history because they are not based on fact. In the same way, I don’t have to account for unicorns in the evolution of the modern horse.
Crossan then compounds this error, and then magnifies it. He freely admits that Gospel Peter (GPtr) is an independent source for the Passion Narrative. He claims that GPtr influenced the Synoptic gospel writers by influencing Mark. What’s more interesting is that he asserts this after admitting that there is no evidence for the GPtr before the end of the Second Century, at least a century after Mark wrote. How is this possible? It’s possible because GPtr retained traces, or even sections of something called the Cross Gospel. Apparently, he realized that the idea of arguing that this independent tradition survived, uninfluenced by the mainstream traditions for 150 (approx) years was a fool’s errand, so he credited it with being incorporated into Mark, and so the other three canonical gospels. I am not sure, exactly, what this encompasses or implies, or what purpose it serves. Yes, it pushes the beginning of the Passion Narrative back into the 50s, but so what? That’s still a generation after Jesus’ death. So late a date is more apt to produce legend than it is to record fact. It’s enough of a time lapse that real memories have been supplemented–or supplanted–by what people want to remember. But it remains that, if it influenced Mark, and so the other gospels, it’s no longer an independent source. Or rather, Mark is no longer independent. The net result is that we still have only one real source for the Passion Narrative, whether it started with Mark, or with GPtr. Crossan is trying to have it both ways, but the math just doesn’t work out. It’s still 1 + 0 = 1, whether the 1 is the Cross Gospel (so-called) or Mark.
Now, of course Mark–probably–had earlier material available to him. It seems like he must have. But we have no evidence that Paul was aware of any such available evidence, that he had any knowledge of a Passion Narrative. As such, there is no reason to believe that such a narrative existed. It’s certainly possible, and maybe there’s a 25% probability that such a story existed, but neither of those are proof. This, of course, is the argument from silence, and that is a dangerous bit of reasoning when applied to the ancient world, when there is so much evidence that is missing because it never existed. But the fact remains that our only written source from the 50s and into the 60s is Paul, and he provides no hints about the causes of Jesus’ death, no explanation of who ordered the execution–because it was no doubt carried out by the Romans–or why this happened.
Crossan is fully convinced that something like the cleansing of the Temple really did happen, and tries to tie Jesus into John’s programme of individual repentance divorced from the Temple structure, which in turn threatened the Temple structure, which is what caused the Jewish authorities to get nervous and connive for Jesus’ execution in the same way that Herod Antipas executed the Baptist. That is one serious causal chain of events. But we have no evidence for any of this. Josephus supposedly talks about Jesus, but he never, ever connects him to John. Really, Josephus short paragraph on Jesus does no more than repeat the gospel story: that the best men of the Jews had Jesus put to death. But this was written in the 9os, long after the orthodox story of the gospels had become The Gospel account. Josephus seems completely unaware of who these “best men” among the Jews were, even though he is well aware of Caiaphas and mentions him in other contexts. It’s this sort of selective use of Josephus that makes me say that biblical scholars, no doubt, have read Tacitus or Josephus, but they’ve never studied it and they may have only read the few paragraphs in question without understanding Josephus as an historian.
What are we left with? A bunch of stories that probably don’t date back before the 60s, if they are that early. There were, without doubt, a number of traditions about Jesus. While discussing Mark, I used the analogy of a weaver, taking many individual threads and weaving them into a whole cloth. Most of these threads were probably oral, stories and traditions. Most likely after that, what was recorded by Mark became dominant, what was not faded into the background and then faded away. In the meantime, other traditions sprang up, ones that resulted in the Sermon on the Mount; the social consciousness of many of these teachings may point to an origin with James the Just and the Jerusalem Assembly, but that is still a suspicion, or a perhaps a working hypothesis. It has not been solidified with a real argument.
Notice what I said up there: other traditions sprang up. We–and perhaps Professor Crossan in particular–need to bear constantly in mind that revelation did not end with John’s Apocalypse (which was probably not even the latest of the books of the NT). Revelation continued. We have an array of Gospels and Acts and stories attributed to all sorts of people: Peter, Pilate, and even Judas Iscariot. Elaine Pagels documented this decades ago in her Gnostic Gospels. This was why the Church eventually had to set which works were canonical, and which weren’t. The Gospel of Peter falls into this latter category. In a sense, all of these apocryphal sources present evidence that is “independent” of the canonical scripture, at least by Crossan’s use–or misuse–of the term “independent source”. No doubt you can see where this is going, even if Crossan can’t, or more likely, doesn’t want to see it. Making stuff up doesn’t make it evidence, or a viable source, or anything really useful, except to see the very broad range of interpretations that were attached to Jesus. This failure–perhaps willful–to see much of this as creative writing, couple with the way Crossan manipulates the word “independent”, dooms any argument that he can put forth.
Which takes us back to the first point I made above: that there is an assumption that all writers of Gospels and Acts that deal with Jesus or his close companions, whether they were determined to be canonical or apocryphal, set out to tell exactly the same story has had been told before, but using different evidence. This simply cannot be true. We have already seen the very significant differences between Mark and Matthew, and between the evangelists and Paul. They are telling significantly different stories. The biggest part of this goes back to the question of “Why did anyone after Mark sit down to write a new gospel?” Why indeed? The answer is simple, but, nevertheless, is often overlooked. New authors write new gospels because they believe that they have something new to say. That is, they either have new or different evidence or traditions to draw upon, or they have a different understanding of Jesus or the time after his death. In other words, they are writing to correct some aspect that they feel is missing, incomplete, or just plain wrong. We have to keep going back to the Arthur legend for our analogy: new characters were added as time passed, so that, by the time of Malory, there were dozens of new faces sitting around the Round Table. Even the Greek myths are disconcertingly unstable. The details and they understanding changed. Euripides did not tell the same stories as Hesiod had, half a millennium earlier. The difference is that we understand Arthur and Greek myth as literary creations, but we treat the NT as essentially fixed and singular and unitary. In fact, the variation in Greek myth can disconcert a modern neophyte reader because modern Christian neophyte readers approaches Greek myth as they approach the Bible and NT: as a single, unitary, and fixed account of Jesus. The author of the Gospel of Peter is not necessarily, or at all, interested in telling the same story as Mark or Matthew. If he had been, why did he even bother to write at all?
Just to be clear, Crossan believes that GPtr is early and has an elaborate argument for the date. In fact, it is so elaborate that he believes he can date it to a range of less than five years. If this were a proper scholarly paper, I would set out his case and then demolish it. But this is a blog post. Suffice it to say that he insists that the progression towards anti-Judaism indicates a later date. John is the most anti-Judaic, so his gospel is the latest. In Crossan’s judgement, GPtr is the least anti-Judaic, so it must be the earliest. Q.E.D. Case closed. To put it mildly, this assumed progression is hardly an indicator set in stone. Yes, there does seem to be a progression to John, except that Luke is somehow less anti-Judaic than Matthew. So maybe this doesn’t work like Carbon-14 dating, where the progress is steady and inexorable. Bear in mind that the fragment that we have of GPtr is fairly small, so it’s impossible to assess the overall attitude of the author to Jews. Even if it were possible, there could be a myriad of reasons why someone in the late Second Century chose to depict the villains as the Jewish authorities while exonerating the Jewish people. The most obvious is that the author wanted to explain why there were still Jews. Well, it was all the fault of the rascally high priests and Herod (!) This limits the damage to Jesus’ reputation by keeping the number of doubters as small as possible. It’s pretty simple, after all, since by the end of the Second Century, the Jews were no longer the primary enemy; the Church was more concerned with explaining itself to pagans than it was to Jews. The Jews were no longer much of a threat, so it was easy to pull back on the vitriol against them. Oh, and yes, Herod. In the GPtr, the trial is conducted before Herod, and Herod and the high priests and Pilate and a bunch of Romans all witness the Resurrection. Really, that says all we need to say about the author’s understanding of the situation in the mid-First Century.
And really, from the historical point of view, I believe that nothing written after Luke, or even Matthew, can be expected to contain previously unreleased material. Luke was aware of Paul, which indicates a coalescence of Christian thinking. After that point it’s hard to credit that any Christian anywhere, sixty years after the fact, could have possessed knowledge of things that dated back to Jesus. Indeed, it seem unlikely enough with Matthew. By the time of Luke, the story of Jesus was well-enough known that Josephus takes it as true. So we have entered into the age where the basic story was set, even if it was still possible to tinker around the edges. I suspect that very little of Acts can be taken seriously as history. That it uses the names of actual Roman officials and titles and events does not mean that the rest of it is true. A Tale of Two Cities takes place during the French Revolution, which certainly happened; however, the events of the novel are just that: events in a novel. So looking for new historical information–aside from the incidentals that all writing includes–is probably not a terribly wise or effective thing to do.
As an aside, Crossan distinguishes between anti-Judaism and anti-Semitism, and rightly so, I think. Anti-Judaism is more of a conflict with, and denigration of, the religion qua religion. Anti-Semitism blatant racism. So they are not exactly the same thing, but anti-Judaism did eventually lead to full-blown anti-Semitism.
There are a few other useful bits to be gleaned from the book. They will be presented in the appropriate context since this has gone on way too long!
* “Ex pede, Herculem“, see: https://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Ex_pede_Herculem
By delightful happenstance, my completion of reading On The Jewish War coincides very nicely with the completion of Matthew 24, which is the latter’s version of Mark 13. Both of these are apocalyptic writings; they talk about a period of enormous tribulation, followed by the coming of the son of man, and the establishment of the kingdom of God. For the most part, the chapters describe the end of human history. Maybe. Like so many other things in the NT and elsewhere, there is a wonderful miasma of ambiguity about what exactly is to happen, leaving many things open to interpretation. And this interpretation has been going on for the past 2,000 years.
Why is the happenstance so fortuitous? De Bello Judaico is the only surviving account of the revolt and war that ended with the destruction of Jerusalem and the Temple. The latter was complete; the absolute destruction of Jerusalem would not occur until 132, when it was razed to the ground, a polis, a city on the Greek model, was planted there, and the name was changed. However, the destruction of both Jerusalem and the Temple that occurred in 70 CE was total enough. It was a cataclysmic event in Jewish history, but one not quite on the scale of the destruction of the first Temple, which resulted in the Babylonian captivity. That was the event that forged the national identity of the Jews, and saw the revision of any of the existing texts in the Hebrew Scriptures, and the writing of most of the rest of that book. The destruction in 70 was more dire than the final destruction in 132; the latter merely finished the job, as the Third Punic War removed Carthage from the map, but Carthage had been thoroughly destroyed, and had ceased to matter, at the conclusion of the Second Punic War in 202 BCE. Carthago delenda est.
Note the date: 70 CE. The destruction of the Temple, and the dispersal of the Assembly of Jesus in Jerusalem were the direct causes, I would argue, of Mark deciding to write a gospel. We have discussed Paul’s evidence that the proto-church was run by James, brother of Jesus. There is, IMO, no good reason, no reason with historical validity, to doubt this evidence. There is no reason for Paul to have invented this, and the method in which he conveys the information–in a letter to another assembly–is too casual to be the result of an effort to alter the record. This is not to say that Paul didn’t put his own slant on the events described; of course he did. Rather, it’s to say that the events described actually did happen, albeit perhaps not exactly as Paul tells us. All primary historical documents from the ancient world are like this.
James, the leader of the Jerusalem Assembly, reportedly died in the mid-60s CE. In another work of Josephus, The Antiquities of the Jews, we are told that James was executed ca 64 CE. There is reason not to take this completely at the word of the author. Unlike Galatians, there is reason to believe that the text of Josephus may have been doctored by later Christian copyists or editors. Regardless, by the mid-60s, most of the generation that had known Jesus personally would not have been young any longer. Even if Jesus were the older brother, there’s no reason James had to be much younger; a series of children a year or two apart was the norm for the time and place. So James would likely have been 60 at the very least, especially if Jesus had been born in the time of Herod the Great (d. 4 BCE) as Matthew tells us. Regardless, the historical record of the bulk of the NT gives the impression that the shift in emphasis from being a sect of Judaism to being a separate entity was more or less complete by the mid-60s. The sense is that the Assembly of Jerusalem was largely a moribund institution, and that the torch had been passed, perhaps to Rome. The death of James could easily have been a factor in this transition; the likelihood is that the various assemblies of former pagans–such as, but not limited to–those founded by Paul had shifted the weight of the movement out of Judea and Galilee. Thinking about it, I suspect that the transfer from Jerusalem had happened by the the time Mark wrote, but that Rome would be the eventual centre of the Church may not have become obvious until Luke wrote; and that may very well have been why Luke wrote his gospel, but more particularly Acts.
None of this, however, explains the connection between The Jewish War and Mark 13/Matthew 24. The Penguin edition I read was first published in 1959. In the Introduction, the translator goes out of his way to comment on whether Mk13/Mt24 recorded an actual prophecy, or if it were an after the fact description of what would happen based on what did happen. The translator favors the former; he is sure that it was a genuine prediction, contra what scholars of “the previous generation”–as he puts it–believed. For it has become standard scholarship to accept the predictions of Mk13/Mt24 as after the fact descriptions. I believe that, firmly. Some of that, of course, is the approach taken here: that, in historical writing, miracles and prophecies cannot be taken at face value; the former is a certainty, but the latter can bend because there are times when people predict things that do happen. Jeanne Dixon, the astrologer, made her name and fortune by correctly predicting the assassination of JFK. Whether the stars accurately told her this, or whether it was a lucky guess, or inference, doesn’t matter. She did it.
There are many aspects of standard scholarship that I do not accept. The existence of Q is believed by most people, most scholars, but I certainly don’t accept that. Why do I accept this and not that? It’s largely a matter of the detail involved. The words of Mk13/Mt24 are very specific, and very detailed. They do not sound like a prophecy. And now that I’ve read The Jewish War, I’m even more convinced of this than I was before. The horrors that Josephus describes are very similar to much of the content of the two chapters of the NT in question. In fact, some of the details are so close that I’m toying with a theory that Josephus read Mark. TJW was published in 75, so it’s not out of the question based on chronology. This would require that I posit the chain by which I explain how Josephus got the copy of Mark, and within the few years between the “publication” of Mark and the publication of TJW.
And honestly, just as it is not necessary for Q to exist, there is no reason to require that the similarities between Mark and TJW be based on direct textual dependency. Both Mark and Josephus wrote within a few years of the destruction of the Temple. This was an event of world-renowned proportions, something like the events of 9/11, but increased by several orders of magnitude. And Josephus did not need Mark; he was a direct participant in the events described, first on the side of the Jews, then, after turning traitor, on the side of the Romans. If there is any textual dependency, I would suspect it ran in the other direction: that Mark was aware of Josephus. However, that would push the writing of Mark after 75, and that just seems to be too late. It is possible, however, that Mark was revised after the publication of TJW, but that is creating bodies unnecessarily.
Rather, I suspect that the basic outline of the events of the War were simply very well known in the Eastern Mediterranean–or even beyond–within a very short period. The war lasted 3-4 years; the Jews held out for a good long time, much longer than the Gauls or Buodica. So there had been time enough for the situation to sink in to the consciousness of the Empire as a whole. By the time of the Destruction, knowledge, perhaps lacking in detail, of the war probably extended throughout the Western Empire as well. The point is that there would have been many people aware of the events, and from direct experience. Four legions participated, plus numerous Arab and Syrian auxiliaries, plus slaves, camp-followers, those who sold provisions, and so on; there were easily 10,000, if not 15,000 individuals who had first-hand accounts to tell. The general outline, as a result, was likely to be widely known by many, many people. And Mark could have been one of them. Tradition has him writing in Rome as an associate of Peter, but I doubt Peter made it to Rome, so it seems more likely that Mark was likely writing in the Eastern Mediterranean.
The descriptions of Josephus are horrible. They describe, sometimes in very graphic detail, the horrors of faction and famine that the Jews suffered, and they apparently suffered terribly. There is likely a degree of exaggeration in the descriptions, but even cutting by half would still provide an experience that was extremely horrific. (I can’t stop using variations of “horror” because nothing else seems close to adequate. Conrad put that particular word in Kurtz’ mouth for a reason.) I’ve used this before, but it bears repeating: the descriptions of Mk13/Mt24 truly seem to be blurbs written for the cover of TJW.
Perhaps the most devastating aspect of the war wasn’t what the Romans did to the Jews. Rather, it was what the Jews did to themselves. While the Romans were outside the walls, there were three factions inside that were fighting it out amongst themselves. Or, rather, there were two bandit groups duking it out between themselves, and the mass of the townspeople were victims of both. Again, if half of what Josephus is even anywhere close to true, the levels of murder and plunder and rapine inflicted on the townspeople were staggering. This is where, I suspect, some of the dire warnings were born: that there would be betrayal, and families set against each other, and lawlessness. These all happened, according to Josephus. Jesus warns of love growing cold; Josephus describes how the effects of hunger within the walls led to families turning on each other for scraps of food, not caring when a loved one died. And this could easily be what is meant by the one standing at the end will be saved; if you were able to weather all these tribulations, and only if, would your life be saved. This is not about eternal salvation in this use of “save”, but of simple physical survival. The verb “to save” in the NT, perhaps more often than not, refers to physical, rather than spiritual or eternal salvation. It’s all been spiritualized over the millennia, but erroneously so IMO.
Another interesting find in TJW is an echo of Jesus’ lamentation over Jerusalem. When the bandit leader John enters the city, exhorting all to put up resistance to Rome, the older, more sensible men begin to mourn the passing of Jerusalem as if it had already happened. This is an exact correlation to what we are told Jesus did. What this would indicate is that the theme of the lamentation entered popular consciousness to be picked up independently by Mark and by Josephus at different times. We also have the story of Niger, one of the respectable Jewish leaders. When the bandits took control of the city, they began to execute the reputable, the respected, the solid leaders of society. Niger had been more than a competent leader in the war so far, so he was targeted by the bandits. As he was being dragged off to execution, he laid a curse on the city of Jerusalem that included battle and slaughter and famine and disease and, ultimately the fight to the death among the Jews themselves. All of these, of course, happened, as Josephus points out. This is very similar in theme and content to Jesus’ prophecies.
So, in short, reading Josephus has left me more convinced than ever that the warnings of Jesus are descriptions of past events. The similarities are too clear.
Aside from that, there are several other aspects of the book that are worth noting. First and foremost, this is one of the most extreme examples of blaming the victim I have ever encountered. Especially after he changes sides, Josephus twists himself into very complex knots to paint the Jews as the real villains of this affair. In particular, Titus, the son of the new emperor Vespasian who had begun the war as the Roman general, is the model of perfection. Brave, effective, an unstoppable fighter, but above all compassionate, he and the bulk of the Roman army are disgusted by the fighting inside the walls, at the butchery of innocent people by the two groups of bandits, despairing that these bandits will not allow the city to surrender, thereby allowing the Romans to spare the mass of the citizenry. It’s those darn bandits! Compared to this, the way Mark was able to excuse the Romans and blame the Jews for the death of Jesus is the work of an amateur. Josephus was such an effective traitor that he was given an imperial pension and lived out his days in the good graces of the successive emperors.
One thing worth noting is that there is not a single reference to Christians, to Jesus or James, or anything vaguely related to the followers of Jesus. And recall that this was at a time when the Christian community in Rome was large enough, and well-known enough, for Nero to blame them for the fire in 64. It is easy enough to dismiss this; after all, that was not Josephus’ purpose. Such a dismissal, however, neglects to note that Josephus mentions other groups within Judaism; in particular, he goes on for several pages about the Essenes. Of course, he tells us in the later Antiquities, that he was member of this sect for two or three years, so of course it held a special place in his affections.
So yes, it is possible that he ignored the Assembly because it didn’t serve his purpose to do so. It just didn’t come up. But it’s also possible to read this as an indication that the Jerusalem Assembly had indeed drifted into insignificance at this point. If so, then this should, or could indicate that my supposition that the tipping point between Jews and pagans had already arrived by the time of the war. It’s hardly proof, but it doesn’t contradict the notion.
As for the title, it was pointed out in the Introduction that it very much fit in with other such books, especially in Latin. For example, the De Bello Gallico of Julius Caesar. The purpose is to emphasize that the book is to be taken from the Roman, and not the Jewish perspective. IOW, it’s another way Josephus sought to curry favor with, and show his sympathies towards the Romans rather than those pesky Jews.
That being said, I have to say that the Romans do not necessarily come off all that well in some ways. At one point, Josephus goes to great lengths to tell us about the famous discipline of Rome’s army; but, during the final siege, before the city is taken, the Romans fall for a half-dozen ruses (at least; I lost count) perpetrated by the Jews. These are effective in getting a lot of Romans killed or wounded exactly because the Jews lure the Romans into breaking that discipline. One means of capturing a city was to build siege towers that allowed the attackers to overtop the walls. Since they were made of wood, the defenders tried to set them on fire. In one incident, after making these enormous towers, it appears that three Jews are able, on their own, to sally out of the walls with torches in hand and set the towers on fire without any real trouble. It seems hard to credit that the Romans were quite this stupid, but perhaps they were. Jerusalem was a strongly fortified city; it should have been difficult to capture. But this story makes the Romans look more or less incompetent.
The final topic I want to mention is the belief in the soul, or perhaps beliefs about the soul. These come twice. The first is during the discussion of the Essenes. According to Josephus, the Essenes held that, while the body was corruptible and temporary, the soul was immortal. In addition, they believed in the differential treatment of the souls of the good and the souls of the wicked. After death, the souls of the good are rewarded, going either to a place beyond the ocean, or perhaps taking their place among the stars. In contrast, souls of the wicked are consigned to a dark, stormy pit, a place of eternal punishment. Both of these, he explicitly tells us, are the same doctrine as the Greeks. This provenance is reinforced later when Titus exhorts his men into the danger of battle. The brave, he says, will be rewarded with a pleasant afterlife.
The significance of this is to demonstrate two things. First, that the idea of the immortal soul, and by extension, an afterlife, were not of Jewish origin, but pagan, specifically Greek. The second is that the idea of a soul and an afterlife were now fairly well entrenched in the cultures of the Eastern Mediterranean. It was becoming, or had become, a common heritage for peoples of many different backgrounds. The Jews, some of them anyway, had assimilated the idea and accepted it as part of their religious beliefs. As such, assuming Jesus taught such a doctrine, this teaching did not originate with Jesus. He may have helped spread it among Jews, but it found particular resonance among pagans. And this may have been one of the major pivot points that separated who converted and who didn’t. Even today, Jews are decidedly ambivalent about the idea of an immortal soul, as I understand their beliefs. Again, as I understand it, they may not deny the immortal soul, but it is not a central tenet in their belief system. This is quite in contrast to Christians, for whom it’s pretty much the starting point.
There are numerous other points in TJW that offer the opportunity for compare & contrast with the NT. The other night at Evensong I heard about Joseph of Arimathea, of how he risked his status, and perhaps his life, by taking down the body of Jesus. Well, Josephus says that Jewish custom was to remove the bodies from the crosses before sundown. So maybe that wasn’t so daring after all? We’ll revisit this at the appropriate point in the narrative,
Here is an interesting tidbit. Per Josephus, the Jews were given leave by the Romans to execute anyone, including Romans, who went too far into the Temple. There were inscriptions–in Greek–warning folk to come no nearer. Could this possibly have been the reason Jesus was executed? Food for thought, anyway.
During the hiatus, I’m doing a couple of things to keep occupied. First, I’m reading the Penguin translation of Josephus’ The Jewish War. Technically, I’m re-reading it, but the first time was so long ago that I don’t think it counts. At the outset, I must note that the translation is pretty bad; it’s sort of like watching a movie from the 40s, with all the out-of-date colloquialisms. One of my profs once described the Penguin of Herodotus as “slap-happy”; I get that now. The content is good; sort of. One point in its favour is that it’s not the Antiquities of the Jews. This latter is a much-longer reworking of the same period of history. Much longer. Much of this added length comes from long speeches by the principle characters. These speeches are bad enough here, but they can be very tedious in the Antiquities. I’ve just gotten through the reign of Herod the Great (died 4 BCE). According to Matthew, Jesus was born during Herod’s reign; Luke says it was while Quirinius was governor. The problem is that these two did not overlap. Quirinius held the position he did largely as the result of what happened after Herod died. Matthew also says Herod perpetrated the Massacre of the Innocents; Josephus does not mention this heinous act, nor does any other source. The upshot is that we do not know when Jesus was born, exactly. Maybe if you split the difference between the time of Herod’s death and that of Quirinius’ accession, the Year 1 may not be that far off. Regardless, this inconsistency is a pretty good indication that Jesus’ followers didn’t know when he was born either; it also presents a pretty good argument that the birth narratives were created later.
But back to Josephus. It’s interesting to note that the two works sometimes contradict each other. And when you stop to ask “how could Josephus have known some of this stuff?”, it starts to make a sharp historian wonder about Josephus’ overall reliability. Now, he lived through and participated in the events of the Jewish War, so some of that goes away. Perhaps more unsettling, if more subtle, is his penchant for the lurid details. Anyway, I’m finding it a bit of a slog.
The other thing I’m doing is reading Aristotle’s On The Soul in Greek. I started to just read the English, but it’s gotten to the point that I don’t trust translations. For history, it doesn’t matter so much. For theology and philosophy, it matters a lot. And funny thing about that: I bought the Loeb, so there is a built-in translation. But I was having such a hard time reconciling what I was getting with what the Loeb translation said that I found another translation on-line, this one from MIT. That was better, but both really stretched things regarding the Greek. And this is what made me realize why reading Aristotle in English can be so strained. The Greek allows grammatical connexions that require verbal gymnastics to get across in English. This usually means nested subordinate clauses. I won’t go so far as to say it’s easier to understand in Greek–at least, not yet. But I will say that, once you get past the Greek, the concepts are probably easier to grasp in the original. And the Greek isn’t that hard; however, there are a number of words that Aristotle uses in a technical sense. Once I found that list, (helps to read the Introduction sometimes), the sailing got a lot smoother. But, I’m not very far in, so I haven’t gotten to the meat of the argument yet. The purpose of reading this is to get some insight on what Paul, Mark, and Matthew may mean when they use the word “psyche”. For the title of the work in Greek (transliterated) is “Peri Psyche”. That becomes “De Anima” in Latin. And the standard translation of “psyche” in the Vulgate is “anima”. Once you notice that this is the root of “animal”, perhaps you begin to see the problem. After all, most Western Christian theology is based on Latin translations. And just to confuse matters even more, “soul” is a German root, coming in with its own linguistic field.
Still typing with one finger, so this took a lot longer to write than anticipated. It was supposed to be much shorter, but I do tend to run on.