13th Annual Davis Lectures Tonight: Last Days of Jesus

I am giving the 13th Annual Davis Lectures at Grace Baptist Church in Statesville, NC tonight and tomorrow night–Sun & Mon at 7:00pm. My topic is “The Last Days of Jesus: How Texts and Archaeological Discoveries Shed New Light on our Understanding.” Grace Baptist is an exceptional group in their desire to explore new questions and engage in serious dialogue on matters of faith. My lectures will include the very latest discoveries, including new evaluations of our understanding of Roman crucifixion, excavations at Mt Zion and their relationship to Jesus’ enemies, and Jewish burial customs.

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The program is free, and open to the public. 719 Club Drive (off Salisbury Rd, exit 49B from I-77)

I hope to see some of you there.

Two Hairy Goats and Yom Kippur

One of the strangest ceremonies of ancient Judaism was that carried out on Yom Kippur with the “two hairy goats.” The ritual is described in Leviticus 16 in full detail.


Two male goats were selected for Yom Kippur, one is “for YHVH” and the other “for removal,” (or “for Azazel–see below). Both are said to be “for a sin offering” and both make “atonement” or covering for transgressions (v. 5).

One is slain and the other is sent away into the wilderness. What has been confusing to many is that both goats are spoken of as somehow providing “atonement,” or better translated “covering.” So why the difference? Why two goats, essentially identical, rather than one?

One common interpretation makes the two goats positive and negative, and it is the case that Azazel in ancient Jewish texts (1 Enoch, etc.) is the name for an “angel” who opposes YHVH. But if one is negative and one positive, how can both provide “covering”? But the literal reading of designation of the “live goat” is that it is for “removal,” which is what the LXX/Septuagint (3rd century BCE Greek translation of Hebrew) has.

In looking more closely at the text one notices that the first goat, the one that is “for YHVH,” that is slain, makes “covering for the Holy Place because of the uncleanness of the people and because of their transgressions, all their sins” (v. 16). In other word, the blood of that goat is to cleanse the Tabernacle that has become unclean because of the sins of the people, NOT to remove the sins of the people per se.

In contrast, the sins of the people themselves are put on the head of the live goat. That goat is not killed, yet that goat too is spoken as a “sin offering” (v.5), ,making atonement/covering (v. 10), and that goat “bears all their iniquities” into a remote area.

This distinction might be an important one in trying to understand the meanings intended in this ancient ceremony. Early Christians were able to find in the slain goat, given Paul’s interpretation of the death of Jesus by crucifixion, a symbol of “Christ” dying for the forgiveness of the sins of the people. The writer of the New Testament book of Hebrews elaborates this point in great detail (Hebrews 9). But there seems to be no reference in the text to the blood of the slain goat related to the forgiveness of the sins of the people. The second goat, the one sent away into the desert, is not dealt with at all in the interpretation given in Hebrews, and yet in the biblical text of Leviticus that goat is clearly the “sin bearer.”

The Christian overlay to this text is perhaps an obstacle to reading it with new eyes. One often hears a quotation from the New Testament book of Hebrews that asserts: “without the shedding of blood there is no remission of sins.” Clearly such is not the case as this example of the “live goat” makes clear.

The goat that really “bears the sins” is the one sent away, into the desert (v. 22). All the sins and iniquities and transgressions are put on the head of this live goat and he is send away to Azazel. The sending away of this living goat effects the removal of the sins of the people. What this implies then is that in this ancient ceremony the ultimate “covering” of sins that comes on Yom Kippur is not by shedding of blood but by casting far away, away from the camp of the living to the desert places where Azazel and the demons dwell.

This means that the main image of “atonement” or covering on this day is not that of an animal slain for the forgiveness of sins, but the removal of sins from the land of the living. The rabbis seem to pick up on this in arranging the Haftarah readings for Yom Kippur. There are the special supplementary readings from the Prophets. First, the story of Jonah is read, which is a story of an entire city being saved from destruction because of repentance from sin. Then Micah 7:18-20 is read, where sins are cast away into the depths of the sea.

Being “washed in the blood of the lamb” has become a more appealing cultural image to our minds than “washed in the blood of the hairy goat,” but it seems that neither image, in connection to the removal or “atonement” of sins, is related to the Day of Atonement or Covering.

Who Was Gedaliah and Why Remember His Murder after 2500 Years?

Ross Nichols has a fascinating article on Gedaliah–a biblical figure whose name would register with very few people today outside of observant Jewish circles. Today marks one of the four “minor” fast days of Judaism, called “the fast of Gedaliah,” commemorating the murder of Gedaliah in the days of Jeremiah following the Babylonian invasion of Judah and the destruction of the city of Jerusalem and the Temple in the 6th century BCE. These four fast days (sunrise to sunset) are all associated with the disasters before, during, and after the great Destruction, and they are alluded to in Zechariah 8:18-19. What is particularly fascinating about Gedaliah, which Ross explores in his article, is the connection between him and his family (especially his father and grandfather) with Jeremiah and his priestly family–reaching back to the days of King Josiah when the “book of the Torah” was discovered. Nice Sunday afternoon reading…here is the link to Ross’s article.

Destroying Jerusalem

Spanking Children: The Bible Tells Me So?

The indictment of NFL player Adrian Peterson by a Texas grand jury for reckless or negligent injury to a child has generated an extensive discussion in the media on the topic of disciplining children by “spanking,” or corporeal punishment, as commonly practiced in our society. Recent polls indicate that up to 70% of Americans, both Black and White, approve of some form of corporeal punishment of children–with Evangelical Christians coming in at over 85%. 19 States in the USA allow some form of “paddling” in public schools, see a listing here–with Texas leading the pack, having recorded a total of 49,000 incidents in a recent report–and a new kind of “red State” map here.

Max Ernst Virgin Spanking

Max Ernst, Virgin Spanking the Christ Child with three Witnesses 1926

The Peterson case is, of course, extreme–but not necessarily uncommon. He used a “switch,” a slim, leafless tree branch, to beat his 4-year-old son, raising welts on the youngster’s legs, buttocks and scrotum, but millions of Americans–by far the majority of the over-40 generations–can testify to being “spanked,” or in some cases “beaten,” with belts, switches, cords, and other objects that left their markings on legs and buttocks.

Spanking in one form or another is as American as apple pie–and the practice is deeply rooted in, and most often defended by, a reading of traditional translations of the English Bible. The oft-quoted quip “Spare the rod and spoil the child” never appears in the Bible but in the book of Proverbs one finds a string of passages that seem not only to condone spanking, but also direly warn parents that unless they use the “rod” on their children they will utterly fail in their upbringing. Here are the quotations in the traditional King James Version translation:

Prov 13:24: “He that spareth his rod hateth his son: but he that loveth him chasteneth him often.” Prov 19:18: “Chasten thy son while there is hope, and let not thy soul spare for his crying.” Prov 22:15: “Foolishness is bound in the heart of a child; but the rod of correction shall drive it far from him.” Prov 23:13-14: “Withhold not correction from the child: for if thou beatest him with the rod, he shall not die. Thou shalt beat him with the rod, and shalt deliver his soul from hell (i.e. death).” Prov 29:15: “The rod and reproof give wisdom: but a child left to himself bringeth his mother to shame.”

These six verses in the Old Testament or Hebrew Bible, as well as a single passage in the New Testament, that speaks of God’s disciplining of us as a father disciplines his son (Hebrew 12:6-7), have become the flimsy foundation for justifying a world of harm and abuse to children over our 300 year cultural history–often with lifelong detrimental consequences, see for example here. Sincere parents, who love their children, but are stuck with a literal reading of badly translated verses taken out of context, are utterly convinced they are doing the right thing.

On the one hand we have testimonials from the majority of us who were “spanked” or disciplined with corporeal punishment growing up, with seemingly no psychological damage, and on the other hand Christian Evangelical preachers and teachers regularly assure parents that spanking will not harm a child, it is positively commanded by God! This Christian reinforcement of “spanking,” based on a misreading of these verses of the Bible, is undoubtedly what continues to convince parents of the younger generations, who might have more of a cultural aversion to such practices, that they are carrying out God’s will. Here are the cautious instructions on the popular the Focus on the Family web site:

When you spank, use a wooden spoon or some other appropri­ately sized paddle and flick your wrist. That’s all the force you need. It ought to hurt — an especially difficult goal for mothers to accept —  and it’s okay if it produces a few tears and sniffles. If it doesn’t hurt, it isn’t really discipline, and ultimately it isn’t very loving because it will not be effective in modifying the child’s behavior. Have the child lean over his bed and make sure you apply the discipline with a quick flick of the wrist to the fatty tissue of the buttocks, where a sting can occur without doing any damage to the body. You want to be calm, in control, and focused as you firmly spank your child, being very careful to respect his body.

spanking_1-620x320Presumably this “calm” and “loving” beating of a child is to be administered to the naked buttocks of a child–which surely raises some other issues in terms of shame, dignity, and personal respect. Accordingly parents are told that such a practice should not be carried into the pre-teen-aged years!

The fact is these very verses in Proverbs have not only been poorly translated but they have been irresponsibly read out of their historical context and misapplied. For example, the word translated “rod,” that might have inspired an Adrian Peterson, or perhaps my grandmother, to go outside and “cut a switch” off a tree in the backyard, is used by King David in an entirely different way in Psalm 23–The LORD is my Shepherd–where we have the line: “Thy rod and thy staff they comfort me…” (v. 4). The Hebrew word translated “rod” (Shevet) clearly does not have to refer to physical beating but can be a metaphor for general discipline and “leading,” as with sheep and a shepherd. It is also the word that refers to a tribal leader–who carries a staff or sceptre of leadership–not to beat his fellow clan members, but to lead and direct them. It is used over 180 times in the Hebrew Bible–never with the connotation of beating. These and other verses, as well as the overall teaching about disciplining children in the Bible is ably discussed by Jerusalem-based Christian biblical scholar Samuel Martin, who has produced a wonderful book, Thy Rod and Thy Staff They Comfort Me: Christians and the Spanking Controversy, available as a free PDF download here with no cost or obligation. Martin has been joined by a significant number of other informed Christian scholars and commentators who are questioning the both the traditional translation and interpretation of these overly quoted verses from the book of Proverbs, see for example, here. I recommend Martin’s work for those biblically oriented folk out there who have wondered about what the Bible really says regarding using corporeal punishment of any kind to discipline children–or for that matter anyone who wants to be more informed on this controversial topic.