There is a very intriguing story, unique to the Gospel of John, about a wedding attended by Jesus and his disciples at the Galilean village of Cana (John 2:1–11). Within the Gospel of John the story functions in a theological and even allegorical manner—it is the “first” of seven signs, the “water into wine” story, but that is not to say it lacks any historical foundation.1
The story is part of an earlier written narrative that scholars call the “Signs Source,” now embedded in the Gospel of John much like the Q source is embedded in Matthew and Luke. Many scholars consider the Signs Source to be our most primitive gospel narrative, earlier than, and independent from, the Gospel of Mark. Most readers of John’s gospel concentrate on the long “red letter” speeches and dialogues of Jesus with the lofty language about him as the “Son” sent from heaven, in cosmic struggle with “the Jews” who are cast in a pejorative light. Such elements are apparently a much later theological overlay, as they are absent from this primitive narrative source. The work, at least according to this “Signs Source,” was originally written to promote the simple affirmation that Jesus was the Messiah, the anointed King of the line of David, and to explain how his death was part of the plan of God. This narrative source is written in a completely different style from the later material now in John’s gospel. It moves along from scene to scene with vivid details and in gripping narrative flow. This Cana wedding story is called the “the first of his signs” (John 2:11; cf. 4:54)
The elements of the Cana story are fascinating. Jesus and his disciples, who have been down in the Jordan valley with John the Baptizer, return to the area to join the wedding celebration. Jesus’ mother Mary (though unnamed in John) and his brothers are already there (2:12), so it seems to be some kind of “family affair.” Indeed, Mary appears to be officially involved in the celebration as a hostess since she takes charge of things when the wine planned for the occasion, unexpectedly runs out. Perhaps the crowd was larger than expected or the affair became quite festive. Mary turns to Jesus and the rest of the story is well known to everyone–he miraculously turns six stone vessels, filled initially with water, into the finest wine. But beyond the “miracle” or the “sign,” a number of other quite interesting questions arise.
First, one has to ask why the lack of wine would be a concern of Mary, Jesus’ mother? And what do we know about Cana? And most interesting, whose wedding was this and why was Jesus and his family present in the first place?
Let’s begin with Cana itself. What do we know about it? Most tourists are taken to the traditional site of Cana (Kefr Kenna) near Nazareth on the road to Tiberius that the Franciscans maintain. The problem is this location has no Roman period ruins and most certainly is not the place mentioned in the New Testament. Its veneration began sometime in the Middle Ages. An alternative site, Khirbet Qana, is 8 miles northwest of Nazareth and 12 miles west of the Sea of Galilee. It is high on a hill overlooking the Bet Netofa valley. This location has much more evidence in its favor. My colleague and friend, the late Professor Doug Edwards, began excavating there in 1998, and Tom McCollough, has carried on his work as time has allowed. What they have found seems fairly decisive, including 2nd Temple period tombs, houses, and possibly a beth midrash or synagogue. Evidence of Christian veneration at this site dates back to the 6th century CE. You can see photos and a summary of the finds and here.2
Right after the wedding, according to John 2:12, Jesus went to Capernaum and with him are his disciples, but also his mother and his brothers. I think that implies the whole family, including the brothers (and thus the sisters) were not only at the wedding but are now traveling with him–though in John they only stay there “a few days.” In contrast, Mark pinpoints Capernaum as the house of Peter and there Jesus sets up a kind “residence” or operational HQ, (see Mark 2:1; 3:19; 9:33 and the references to the house and being “at home.”). Mark knows nothing of Cana whereas John never presents Capernaum as any kind of base or operational HQ for Jesus. John mentions Cana again when Jesus returns from a trip to Judea where he stirred up a considerable amount of trouble and needs someplace to “lay low.” He and his disciples go back to Cana (John 4:46). Why go back there if the first visit was just for a wedding and had no connection to him? I think this is important in that it seems to become for Jesus a kind of “safe house” or place of operations when he needs to retreat to Galilee.
There is definitely a “Jesus connection” to Cana, parallel to the one that Mark reports regarding Capernaum. Peter Richardson, of the University of Toronto, has written a significant academic article on this point titled “What Has Cana to Do with Capernaum?” (New Testament Studies 2002:48: 314-331) that I highly recommend. He argues that the significant differences on geographical matters between the Synoptics with their sources and John with its sources–especially the question of Jesus’ “place”–should not be resolved simply in favor of Mark. Cana as a place in John is as significant as Capernaum in Mark. In fact, Richardson argues that Cana served as an operational base for Jesus according to the tradition that John reflects. It is interesting to note that during the Jewish Revolt Josephus, commander of the Jewish forces in Galilee, made Cana his strategic headquarters for a time (Life 86). Its prime location, overlooking Sepphoris and the cities of the Bet Netofa valley made it an ideal location. Also, Jewish tradition locates the priestly family of Eliashib, mentioned in 1 Chronicles 24:19 as one of the 24 orders of Cohanim or priest, as from Cana.3
John indicates the connection in the last chapter of his gospel, where he says that the disciple Nathanael, mentioned only in the gospel of John is from Cana in Galilee (21:2). Nathanael is mentioned earlier in the gospel of John as an early follower or disciple, associated with Andrew of Bethsaida (1:45). He is most often identified as one of the Twelve, under his father’s name, Bar-Tholomew or “Bar Tolmai” in Aramaic, in Mark’s list of the disciples (Mark 3:18). I find this identification likely.
Given this background all we can do is speculate. I think we can assume that Mary, the mother of Jesus, is somehow involved in the wedding and since we know Jesus and his disciples, as well as his brothers are invited to the wedding, it is not a passing event but some kind of family affair. And since he returns to the place when things get heated for him and his disciples in Judea, it is a safe place for him, and one to which he is connected. So whose was the wedding? Or can we even make a wild guess?
Many have suggested that the wedding at Cana was that of Jesus. I find this unlikely. Even though the account is very “allegorical” as it comes to us in John, and it is accordingly hard to derive historical material therefrom, the way in which Jesus shows up with his disciples, when his mother and brothers are already there, indicates to me that the wedding is of someone else. My own guess would be that it is the wedding someone to whom Mary is related, perhaps one of her daughters, since she is involved, but not as the hostess. It is the bridegroom who seems to be from Cana and he is the one who takes charge of things, but Mary is unquestionably concerned with the provisions for the wedding–so she is not just a guest. Cana then becomes a place to which Jesus can return, and as with Capernaum, it served as a kind of “home” for him. Regardless, I do think, as Richardson has argued, we should take John’s references to geographical locations as rooted in some of the earliest traditions we have related to the life of Jesus–even predating Mark.
Inside a room found with its ceiling intact was a bathtub – an extremely rare luxury that commoners of the time could not afford.
Bathtubs, as opposed to ritual dipping pools, have so far only been found at King Herod’s palaces in Masada and Jericho, and in the so-called “Priestly Mansion” in the Jewish Quarter of the Old City of Jerusalem.
“It’s clear from the finds that the people living here were wealthy, aristocrats or perhaps even priests,” Prof. Shimon Gibson, co-director of the excavations, told Haaretz.
You can read the entire article with some lovely photos here.
According to the Jewish historian Josephus (Jewish War 7:389-406), when the Roman Tenth Legion finally captured the desert fortress of Masada in the spring of 73 CE, bringing a tragic end to the Jewish Revolt, 960 Jewish defenders of Masada–men, women, and children–perished at their own hands the night before the Romans broke into the camp. Though a few historians have doubted the historical veracity of Josephus’s heroic account, in the main it has been substantiated by the archaeological work done at the site over the past 50 years.1
Today Masada remains the single most visited tourist site in Israel, so much so that any tour to Israel, whether Jewish, Christian, or other, must include a visit to Masada on the itinerary. I could not count the times I have visited Masada, sometimes walking up the narrow snake path, but most often, with groups in tow, taking the lovely cable cars to the 1300 foot plateau. Twice I have even rappelled down into the caves on the southern tip of the fortress, seeking to learn more about Masada’s ultimate mystery–what happened to the skeletal remains of the defenders? The most likely hypothesis is that the Romans would have buried them in a pit, cremated them, or thrown them over the steep sides of the ravine, since they subsequently occupied the site themselves for several decades. No evidence of either a burial pit or funerary pyre has yet been found. The Hebrew text Yossipon, offers an alternative account to the Greek versions of Josephus most familiar to us. It says the men killed the women and children only, buried them in a pit at Masada, and then died fighting the Romans, inflicting significant casualties before they were wiped out. Tourist who visit the site are often told by their guides about the skeletal remains of three individuals found at the base of the northern palace–as if they jumped off or were thrown off the heights–a young man, a young woman, and her child. Portions of the braided hair of the woman are on display to this day at the Masada museum and the Israel Museum. What many do not realize, including scholars in my field, is that much larger representation of human skeletal remains were discovered in the row of caves at the very southern tip of Masada, particulary in the double cave marked on the excavation map as 2000-2001. I have rapelled down the side of the southern tip of Masada on three different occasions and thoroughly examined this cave–other than the accumulated dust and animal droppings it is completely clean of material remains.
In the fall of 1963, just into the first season of the famed Masada excavation conducted by Yigael Yadin, human skeletal remains of 25 individuals were discovered in one of the caves just below the southern edge of the fortress. The following is my full summary of what we know about these bones and what still remains to be determined.
The Masada “Cave of the Skeletons” (loci 2001-2002) was first mentioned in Yigael Yadin’s preliminary report Masada: First Season of Excavations 1963-64 (Jerusalem: Israel Exploration Society, 1965), pp. 90-91. This volume contains a short report by Yoram Tzafrir who was the supervising excavator for the locus. The cave is the westernmost of a row of caves below the southern cliff of Masada. It is elongated, with its western half designated locus 2001 and its eastern locus 2002.
Tzafrir reported (based on Dr. Nicu Haas’ evaluation) that 25 skeletons were found in this cave: 14 males, 6 females, 4 children and one foetus. The women were all ages 15-22 years; the men were aged 22-60, one being over 70, and the children were 8-12 years of age. Six of the men, aged 35-50, were of a powerfully built, distinctively different physical type from the rest. Tzafrir writes that the cave was rich in material remains: juglets, cooking pots, fragments of mats, food remains. The bodies were in disarray, as if tossed in heaps, with fragments of clothing throughout.
Cave on the South Face of Masada
Yadin also relates the find in chapter 15 “The Remains of the Last Defenders” in his popular illustrated book Masada: Herod’s Fortress and the Zealots’ Last Stand (Jerusalem: Steimatzky’s; 1966, pp. 192-199). His book includes a photo of a portion of the cave floor with a some of the skeletons visible (pp. 198-199). Yadin reports, also basing his summary on Dr. Nicu Haas’ examination, that 14 were males between 22-60, one is a man over the age of seventy; 6 are females between 15-22; 4 are children between 8-12, plus the embryo. His enumeration appears to separate the 14 males aged 22-60 from the single man over 70, thus making 15 adult males and bringing the total skeletons to 25 plus the foetus. It remains unclear whether there were a total of 25 skeletons including the foetus (Tzafrir) or 25 plus the foetus.
Neither Yzafrir nor Yadin report when the Cave was discovered and cleared out. Both conclude that the remains are those of the defenders of Masada, ruling out that they were Romans or later Byzantine monks, based on Dr. Haas’ conclusion that most of the skulls matched the type discovered in the Bar Kochba caves in Nahal Hever.
If this was truly Yadin’s conviction, it is puzzling that these extraordinary finds in Cave 2001 were never reported to the press. In contrast, when three skeletal remains (a man, woman, and child) were found in the Northern Palace in late November, 1963, Yadin called a press conference and excitedly reported his find of the very bones of some of the Jewish defenders of Masada. I have now been able to determine, based on confidential sources, that Cave 2001 was discovered and cleared in late October, 1963, just one month earlier, making it all the more puzzling that these bones were not mentioned at that time, or at least when those of the Northern Palace were reported in November. Neil Silberman, in his definitive study of Yadin titled A Prophet from Amongst You (1993), makes the point that Yadin’s Masada efforts were very much driven by ideological factors and that finding human remains of the Masada defenders was a central part of his agenda—in order to confirm the heroic account of Josephus (see pp. 278-281). One can only wonder what reaction the discovery of these 25 skeletons caused on the part of Yadin and his senior staff at the time. The Jerusalem Post published regular stories throughout the dig season on what was being found–however, a thorough search of all these accounts indicates that nothing was reported about the contents of Cave 2001. The Post ran a special “Masada Section” written by Yadin on November 27, 1964 as the second season of the excavation began. In it he reports on his sensational finds of the first season, including the mosaics of the palace, the scrolls, the synagogue, the mikvas, and even the three skeletal remains of the “defenders” in the Northern Palace. Curiously, no mention is made of the skeletons found in Cave 2001. Further, the Illustrated London News published an even more extensive report with photos by Prof. Yadin on October 31, 1964, and once again Cave 2001 and its contents are not mentioned, while the three skeletons found in the Northern Palace are highlighted (pp. 693-697). The only press account I have found that mentions the Cave 2001 finds is a report on the press conference that Yadin held following the second season’s excavation (November, 1964-April 1965), published in the Jerusalem Post on March 28, 1965. He laments that only 28 skeletons had been found at Masada, leaving the mystery of what happened to the more than 900 others that Josephus claims died there in April, 73 C.E.
The Burial Controversy
A major public controversy regarding the skeletal remains from Masada erupted two years later. Following the publication of Yadin’s popular book on Masada in 1966 (reviewed in the Jerusalem Post, December 23, 1966), Agudat Yisrael MK Shlomo Lorinez mounted a vigorous protest in the Knesset, bewailing the fact that these Jewish defenders had never been given a proper burial (Jerusalem Post, March 23, 1967). Lorinez charged that cynical archaeologists and medical researchers were violating Jewish law and that according to his sources, some of the skeletons had even been sent abroad. Yadin’s defenders in the Knesset replied that the research was necessary to determine as accurately as possible the identity of these remains, whether Jewish, Roman, or Christian.
Dr. Haas’ research apparently continued over the next two years as the question of when and where to re-inter the Masada bones became more heated. Yadin was strongly opposed to the plans of the Religious Affairs Minister and the Chief Rabbis to bury all the remains in the Jewish cemetery on the Mt. of Olives. He argued that only the three found in the Northern palace were most certainly Jewish, and that the identity of the remaining 24 (this is the number reported in the Jerusalem Post story, March 11, 1969 based on Yadin’s statement), which had been found “in a cave” was uncertain, though they were probably Jews. This position starkly contradicts the view he expresses in his book, namely that “they can be only those of the defenders of Masada” (p. 197). Yadin wanted these remains to be buried quietly in the cave where they were found. A hastily appointed Ministerial Committee ruled on March 23, 1969, that all the bones found at Masada would be buried at the site and plans were made accordingly. The burial took place on July 7, 1969, near the tip of the Roman ramp (this description of the location, taken from news reports, does not make clear the precise location of the site). Chief Chaplain of the Army Rabbi Shlomo Goren officiated at the ceremony, which included full military honors. Prof. Yadin read part of Josephus’ record of the final speech of Eleazar, Jewish commander of the defenders of Masada in 73 C.E. Various dignitaries were also present, including MK Menachem Begin. It should be noted that the press reports consistently refer to 27 skeletons, three from the Northern Palace and 24 (rather than 25) from the southern Cave (see Jerusalem Post, July 7, 1969).
One significant sidelight to the 1969 controversy was Yadin’s revelation, reported in the Jerusalem Post on March 4, 1969, that animal bones, including pig bones, were found among the remains in the Cave. In a 1981 interview with Post reporter Benny Morris, Yadin said that he told the chief rabbi Yehuda Unterman back in 1969 that he could not vouch for these bones being Jewish since “the pile of bones found in the cave on Masada’s southern face were mixed together with bones of pigs” (Jerusalem Post, November 11, 1981). More recently Joe Zias has offered further argument that the “pig bones” were the reason for Yadin’s reticence.2
Finally, on September 4, 1994 a new tomb for the Defenders of Masada was unveiled. Funded by the National Parks Authority, the monument has twelve stones signifying the tribes of Israel and is located at the foot of the Roman Ramp on the northwest side of the fortress (Jerusalem Report, Sept 5, 1994). It was not revealed whether the remains were moved or disturbed by this operation but one assumes they were left in their 1969 location.
Despite all the questions regarding whether the bones found in Cave 2001 were Jewish or not, Prof. Yadin later asserted, in the same 1981 interview with Morris, that Carbon-14 tests were never carried out on these remains nor on those found in the Bar Kochba caves. He said it was not his business to initiate such tests. In the same interview, anthropologist Patricia Smith said Carbon-14 dating was expensive and that facilities to carry it out in Israel had only recently become available, so such tests were done infrequently in the past. The subject had come up in connection with assertions that the Bar Kochba skeletons, found in Nahal Hever, were actually from the Chalcolithic period. The latter were subsequently buried in Nahal Hever on May 11, 1982 with a State funeral officiated by Chief Rabbi Shlomo Goren and attended by Prime Minister Begin.3
In 1991 Joseph Zias of the Israel Antiquities Authority initiated a C-14 test of woolen textile from Cave 2001 at the Weizmann Institute. The results came out 77 C.E. (+/- 37), indicating the probability that these were remains of the Jewish defenders of Masada (see Jerusalem Post, Sept 20, 1991 as well as the Addendum, “Human Skeletal Remains from the Northern (sic) Cave at Masada—A Second Look” by Joseph Zias, Dror Segal, and Israel Carmi, Masada: Final Reports, Vol. IV, pp. 366-367).4
The Nicu Haas Examination
The Masada skeletal remains were apparently in the control of Dr. Nicu Haas (Dept. of Anatomy, Hebrew University-Hadassah Medical School) from their discovery until their re-interment in July, 1969—a period of over five years. Dr. Haas never published anything on these remains. Dr. Haas lapsed into a coma due to a fall in January, 1975 and died in November, 1987. He is best known for his work on the Giv’at ha-Mivtar/Jerusalem skeletons, which included the remains of the Roman period “crucified man” Yehochanan.5 Although aspects of Prof. Haas’ work on human remains have been criticized and his failing health hampered his work over the years, his published articles demonstrate his general ability to produce detailed reports and analysis with drawings, tables, and statistical measurements. That he never published even a preliminary report on the results of the Masada skeletal remains is regrettable. Joseph Zias reports that in cleaning out Prof. Haas’ office and files following his death he discovered nothing in the way of notes, drawings, or analytical data relative to the Masada remains. A subsequent search by Alan Paris of the Israel Exploration Society and Associate Editor of The Masada Reports, in response to my own 1994 queries in this regard, has produced a few notes on the Masada skeletons that were found stored in the attic of one of Dr. Haas’ relatives which I now have. They are currently being analyzed by several Israeli forensic anthropologists.
One particularly intriguing mystery is this photo of an intact skeleton given to Joe Zias by the late Ehud Netzer, and subsequently published by Zias in Biblical Archaeology Review. In contrast to the jumble of skeletal remains of the 25 individuals in Cave 2001 this individual seems to be laid out for burial on a niche outside the cave and toward the east. So far nothing has been definitively published on the provenance of this find, or where these bones ended up, assuming they are separate from those reportedly buried at the foot of the ramp at Masada.6
Conclusion: What We Know and Don’t Know About the Bones
I want to stress here that I am not implying any kind of conspiracy or bad effort by anyone who has been involved in the archaeological investigations of Masada. My investigation is my own and has been motivated by the simple desire to sort through the facts about these skeletons discovered in the 1963 excavations. Unfortunately, at this point in time, what we don’t know, even information of the most basic sort, far exceeds what we know as the following concluding points make clear:
1. The first seven volumes of the Masada: Final Reports have now been published by the Israel Exploration Society. Other than a map which shows a drawing of the outline of Cave 2001 (Vol. III, p. 489), there is no information, discussion, or even mention of either the human or material remains of this locus in these volumes—including textiles, lamps, ostraca, basketry. This is despite Tzafrir’s recollection that the cave was “rich” in material evidence. Volume III does contain one notation in this regard: “Both the caves, surveyed and excavated in 1963-65, and this cistern [locus 2006] will not be included in the present report and will be published separately” (p. 499). It is not clear whether the editors mean Cave 2001/2002 will not be included in that particular volume, or in the Masada reports on the whole. In September, 1994 I closely questioned Israel Exploration Society director Joseph Aviram regarding plans to publish a full report on the contents of this cave. He referred me to Associate Editor Alan Paris, who following some preliminary inquiries, informed me that to his knowledge the Israel Exploration Society had no information or data on this locus (photos, drawings, written reports, notes) and he was aware of no concrete plans to cover the subject in the Final Reports.
2. In September, 1994 I also presented the same basic query in written form to Israel Antiquities Authority director Amir Drori. He replied to me by letter, dated October 6, 1994, that his information was very limited and he could not be particularly helpful, but suggested I contact editors Foerster and Netzer, as well as Yoram Tzafrir. Recently I learned, through Dan Bahat, who was a field supervisor at Masada, that Drori had actually assisted Tzafrir in cleaning out Cave 2001, so one can only assume that he would be in a position to respond firsthand to most of the questions I raised. Why he chose not to do so is unclear to me.
3. When one examines the commendably detailed volume published by Yadin, The Finds from the Bar-Kochba Period in the Cave of the Letters (Jerusalem: Israel Exploration Society, 1963), with its lavish information on every aspect of that cave’s contents, including that of the skeletal remains (photos, tables, drawings, scientific analysis), one can only wish for the same regarding Cave 2001/2002 at Masada. Given that we know virtually nothing about these skeletons, information even marginally equivalent to the details of Dr. Haas’ work on the Gi’vat ha-Mivtar remains would be most welcome. How can it be that a discovery of such significance was not carefully recorded (photos, drawings, field notes) and at least the results of Dr. Haas’ work on the human remains preserved or published?
4. For reasons that remain unclear it appears that Yadin was reticent to publicize and explore the significance of the skeletal remains of Cave 2001/2002. Perhaps he suspected they would turn out to be Roman or Christian? Perhaps the pig bones bothered him? Yet it should be recalled that Yadin mentions these animal bones quite openly to the Chief Rabbi in 1969. Surely the material evidence in the cave, as Tzafrir noted in his preliminary report, indicated nothing later than the period of the 1st Revolt. Why was this discovery not excitedly reported as Yadin had done in the case of the three skeletons found in the Northern Palace just one month later? Surely both the in situ evidence, as well as the subsequent anatomical analysis, might have indicated much of scientific interest about who these people were and how they died. And most intriguing of all, what about the single skeleton, laid out in burial fashion? Given our complete lack of data, we can not even determine which of the 26 he/she was (male, female or age). Surely this phenomenon alone deserves careful analysis and discussion, yet it was never even mentioned or reported in an already sparse set of references to Cave 2001 over the past 30 years. Many additional questions remain. Were these remains Carbon-14 dated prior to the Zias test in 1991? Were any bones shipped abroad as MK Lorinez charged? If so, where and for what purpose? What information now exists about the contents of Cave 2001—whether photos, drawings, notes, tape recorded sessions, or lab reports, and in whose hands? We can only hope that the present query will give rise to various sources of information that have been preserved so the impact and significance of this vital discovery will not be completely lost.
Nachman Ben-Yehuda has been prolific critic of Josephus’s story, see The Masada Myth: Collective Memory and Mythmaking In Israel (University of Wisconsin Press, 1995) and Sacrificing Truth: Archaeology and the Myth of Masada (Humanity Books, 2002). Shaye Cohen summarizes the main objections in his article “Masada: Literary Tradition, Archaeological Remains, and the Credibility of Josephus” Journal of Jewish Studies: Essays in honour of Yigael Yadin 32 (Spring-Autumn 1982): 385-405, available on-line here. For a counter to these critiques see Amnon Ben Tor, Back to Masada (Biblical Archaeology Society, 2009). ↩
“Whose Bones?” Biblical Archaeology Review 24 (1998): 40-45, 64-64 and most recently, “Masada: Who is a Jew?” at The Bible & Interpretation, available here. In my view Zias’s position is flawed by inaccuracies which I address in a response at The Bible & Interpretation, here. ↩
A preliminary check of the journal Radiocarbon indicates Yadin did indeed send materials to the lab in Cambridge, England from the Bar Kochba caves during 1961-63, and that others in Israel (e.g. Pesach Bar Adon) used the lab of the U.S. Geological Survey in Washington, D.C. for the same purposes during this period (see Radiocarbon 6 (1964), p. 134; 4(1962), p. 70). In fact the tests were relatively inexpensive, running only about $150 per sample even as late as 1981. ↩
“Northern Cave” is an unfortunate but acknowledged misprint in the volume and should have been “Southern Cave.” ↩
See his detailed anatomical report “Anthropological Observations on the Skeletal Remains from Giv’at ha-Mivtar” Israel Exploration Journal 20 :38-59; as well as the revisions by Joseph Zias and Eliezer Sekeles, “The Crucified Man from Giv’at ha-Mivtar: A Reappraisal,” Israel Exploration Journal 35 :22-27. ↩
See my article on this subject in The Bible and Interpretation, here. ↩
They sent over a young archaeologist by the name of Amos Kloner. He climbed into the tomb and came out literally shaking. I’ll never forget. I asked him what he saw and he repeatedly muttered ‘I never saw such a thing….I never saw such a tomb.’
Last year Simcha Jacobovici posted a new eyewitness account of the initial discovery of the Talpiot “Patio” tomb in April, 1981 by Avraham Leket. Unfortunately, due to a bit of “Talpiot Tomb Fatigue Syndrome,” on the part of some of my colleagues, this important bit of new evidence did not receive too much attention. What follows is a quick overview review of the latest including a “bombshell” that nearly knocked me off my chair!
The “Patio” tomb is the intact one that is presently under a condo building with seven ossuaries including the one with the Jonah image and the “resurrection” inscription, just yards away from the more famous “Jesus family tomb,”–but located on the same ancient estate. Avraham Leket worked at the time for the building company carrying out construction at the site when the tomb was found. He was the one who first called the Israel Antiquities Authority when the drill they were using punched through the roof of the tomb and he was present when the young archaeologist Amos Kloner first entered the tomb. Here is Leket’s report as published by Simcha here:
“My name is Avraham Leket. I saw your films on the Talpiot tombs (“The Lost Tomb of Jesus” and “The Resurrection Tomb Mystery”). And I want you to know that, at the time that Talpiot was being built up, I was working for the building company Shikun Ovdim, which was responsible for part of the site. The site supervisor was a man by the name of Eli Parsi. When he went on vacation, I filled in for him. As we were drilling, the drill went through the roof of a burial cave [i.e., the Patio tomb]. I realized we had hit an archaeological site and I called the Antiquities Authority. They sent over a young archaeologist by the name of Amos Kloner. He climbed into the tomb and came out literally shaking. I’ll never forget. I asked him what he saw and he repeatedly muttered ‘I never saw such a thing….I never saw such a tomb.’ He took out one ossuary that did not weigh much because it was small, belonging to a child. But then religious people got involved. They didn’t want the tomb disturbed. Things shut down for the Sabbath and after that Eli Parsi came back to work.” Mr. Leket said that he hoped the information was helpful. It’s very helpful, Mr. Leket.
What Kloner saw that day and what happened next is a subject of much confusion and contradictory testimony that we tried our best to sort through in our book, The Jesus Discovery, published in 2012, with full primary source documentation. An article published in the now defunct newspaper Davar, in May, 1981, had tantalizingly hinted at “rare” or “unique” ornamentation. But this is the first we have heard of Amos Kloner’s amazement at what he found in this tomb which he has since said was entirely “ordinary.”
After we published our book something entirely new surfaced–which rather than clearing the air, added more to the confusion. Prof. Amos Kloner gave lecture at Bar Ilan University on December 27, 2012 at the “New Studies on Jerusalem Conference” on his original exploration of the Talpiot “Patio” tomb in 1981. Kloner’s intention was to “set the record straight” and more specifically, to counter what he considered to be the sloppy and sensational interpretations of Simcha Jacobovici and me, based on our IAA licensed 2010 re-examination of this sealed tomb by robotic camera with archaeologist Rami Arav.
Just to review a bit here. We have argued that one of the ossuaries in this tomb contains an image of a fish spouting out Jonah–with the name “Yonah” (יונה) clearly inscribed across the image, see here. Next to it there is a second ossuary that has a four-line Greek inscription referring to “lifting up” or resurrection of the dead. We further maintain that both the inscription and the Jonah image most likely came from Jewish followers of Jesus who are affirming faith in resurrection of the dead. The main outlines of my argument I presented in a technical paper posted on-line at Bible & Interpretationhere, as well as in a co-authored book that extensively deals with the evidence from both of the Talpiot tombs, The Jesus Discovery (Simon & Schuster, 2012). When the book and the article were published in February 2012, the American Schools of Oriental Research (ASOR) devoted the month of March to an open discussion of these finds and their interpretation on its blog, sparking a heated and controversial series of posts and comments with diverse points of view. The Israeli magazine Eretz made our discoveries and the resulting controversy a cover story of the May issue with the provoking article, “Who’s Afraid of the Tomb of Jesus?” which you can read here:
Prof. Kloner offered no input whatsoever to the month-long ASOR discussion so we now hear for the first time his views on the subject. He now reveals that he thinks the “Jonah” image is not a fish at all but a vase or “amphora,” and that the Greek inscription has nothing to do with resurrection but rather is a prohibition against disturbing bones. These various alternative interpretations, along with the idea that the “fish” is a “funerary tower,” were debated extensively on the ASOR blog and at subsequent ASOR meetings, with papers on all sides of the debate now archived at the Bible & Interpretation web site here. I have read a transcript of Kloner’s oral remarks, which I make available to readers here:
You can view a his much longer paper in Hebrew here.
Kloner’s paper immediately generated an Op-Ed in the Times of Israel in which Matthew Kalman offered a very balanced overview here. Simcha Jacobovici, who was present at the lecture recorded his initial impressions which you can access here.
Simcha Jacobovici subsequently posted a long and probing piece based on his more carefully reading of Kloner’s published paper in Hebrew, which you can read here. Simcha and I have very different styles and I consider Amos Kloner a colleague and a friend, but the various problems he notes with Kloner’s account of the events of 1981 are serious and myriad.
What jumped out at me when I read the full paper was that there is nothing Kloner reports seeing in 1981 that adds anything to our own camera probe discoveries in 2010, other than his reported “count” of how many individuals’ bones were in each ossuary–the basis of which one has to wonder. All the rest of the data were precisely what we reported.1
Most puzzling to me is the drawing Kloner publishes in his paper of the ossuary with the “Jonah and the fish” image. Kloner says that he made this sketch, along with another one of the ossuary with the Greek inscription, in 1981 while briefly inside the tomb. Why he had never revealed these before, not even to his co-author Shimon Gibson with whom he wrote his definitive paper on the Talpiot tombs for the forthcoming Charlesworth volume remains for him to answer.2 The sketches are not in the Israel Antiquities Authority excavation files nor has anyone to my knowledge ever seen them before. We do know that the positions of these two ossuaries was different in 1981 from where they are today in the niches and the “Jonah” ossuary was not blocked from view in 1981 as it is today. So Kloner could have easily made such a sketch, or even better, taken a photo of both ossuaries.
Here is the problem. We were not able to see the entire front of the ossuary with the Jonah image. That ossuary is blocked by the one with the Greek inscription right in front of it, butted up to a few centimeters against its face. You can see here our camera coming into the niche with these two ossuaries up against one another. The one in the back is the one with the “Jonah” image, and just enough of the left side of that ossuary was visible to us to make out the image and get fairly good photos. It was the right side of the ossuary that remained a mystery to us. Our camera caught the bare beginnings of the square “temple” like structure on the right side, but what was inside that structure that we could not see clearly. In his paper Kloner is quite interested in this structure and offers analysis as to its possible meanings–but without mentioning anything about its important internal features–which would surely reveal more as to what the artist was wanting to portray.
When we had our replicas made this became a real problem. Since we could not see clearly the right side of this ossuary how should it be presented? In our first attempt, which was the ossuary displayed in New York at our February 28th press conference, the artisan took our limited photos of the right side and could barely make out something inside the “temple” and tried to represent it partially. This caused no end of problems because what he ended up with looked like some kind of “hangman’s gallows.” This led to endless speculation on those who saw the reproduction as to what the mysterious hidden meaning of this marking might be. The truth is this was simply all we could make out with our camera shots and it would have been best to leave the space blank.
When we had a second set of ossuary reproductions made in Israel for our subsequent press conference in Jerusalem on April 4th we wanted to do whatever we could to improve our first attempt. We made the Jonah fish image a bit fatter, having reexamined all our photos, and most important Simcha and I advised Felix Gobulev, the Associated Producers technical expert who was working with the artisans, to simply leave the inside of the temple-like structure blank. There was something substantial inside, but since we could not see what it was, why offer a partial sketch that could end up being misleading? Accordingly, the second reproduction looked like this:
When I saw Kloner’s drawing I almost fell off my chair. It was an almost precise copy of our Jerusalem ossuary reproduction. The only problem is, he also leaves the inside of the “temple” structure blank–just as we did, though it is clear that anyone who was looking at the full unblocked face of the ossuary would have seen what is obviously inside the “temple” like structure. The “blank” is not blank–there is a substantial architectural feature plainly visible. When I heard Kloner had presented his drawings I was quite excited. I was even wondering or hoping there might be some kind of inscription inside that “blank” space–and now we would know at last. I leave it to readers to draw their own conclusions and I welcome any explanation from Prof. Kloner.
The main thing we could not see in our robotic probe, and which Kloner saw clearly enough to draw–but did not include–was what was on the panel opposite the “Jonah” image? One can only speculate and wonder if filling in that blank space might explain why Prof. Kloner would have repeated several times “I never saw such a thing, I never saw such a tomb.” Until we can remove all the ossuaries from the tomb and examine them carefully firsthand with full scientific tests (including I hope DNA tests) we have only the following hints from our partial view via the robotic camera probe.
Here the only photos we were able to obtain so that anyone interested might have a tiny “peek” at what lies inside the blank space. One in particular shows the beginnings of a substantial internal rectangular pattern, which became the basis for our “hangman’s gallows” in the original reproduction. These are the original untouched photos from our probe cameras and I realise they will appear somewhat dark here on this blog but those who wish to download them can easily lighten them up and sharpen the quality and you will be able to see quite a bit. We thought it best to present them here in their original state for anyone to work with who might be interested.
One example. Kloner had previously written in the publications below that there were “two Greek names” inscribed on ossuaries in this tomb. He says nothing about iconography or a Greek inscription, which presumably he not only saw but drew. We were able to see one name, MARA, but the other was out of range of our cameras. The only hint we had of this name was from the 1981 B&W photos, but it is faded and unclear, but at that time the ossuary was turned differently and plainly facing out. Kloner also reports that he can not read the second name, though anyone actually inside the tomb, looking right at the ossuary, would have seen the letters clearly. There are three published reports on the tomb, each tantalizingly sparse in details with some differences between them: Amos Kloner, Excavations and Surveys in Israel 1982, vol. 1, 78-81 (October 1982), p. 51; Amos Kloner, Survey of Jerusalem: the Southern Sector (Jerusalem: Israel Antiquities Authority, 2000), p. 84; Kloner and Zissu, Necropolis of Jerusalem, pp. 342, which contains a map by Kloner. The IAA files contain one single memo dated August 2, 1981 plus some photographs. An April 17, 1981 memo that Kloner wrote right after his team finished their work is referenced in the August 2nd memo but nowhere to be found. One early Roman period cooking pot was catalogued by the IAA as from this tomb, although excavators remember other items being removed. There is no copy of the excavation license. These are unfortunate losses and perhaps these and other materials will be recovered in the future. Curiously, Kloner reports that “three of the kokhim contained seven ossuaries” and does not mention removing an eighth one from a fourth niche, see Survey of Jerusalem: the Southern Sector (Jerusalem: Israel Antiquities Authority, 2000), p. 84. Kloner later published a sketch of the tomb showing the locations of all eight ossuaries, distributed in four of the niches, see See Necropolis of Jerusalem, pp. 342, published in 2007 with Boaz Zissu. ↩
See Amos Kloner and Shimon Gibson, “The Talpiot tomb Reconsidered: The Archaeological Facts,” in The Tomb of Jesus and His Family? Exploring Ancient Jewish Tombs Near Jerusalem’s Walls: The Fourth Princeton Symposium on Judaism and Christian Origins, eds. James H. Charlesworth and Arthur C. Boulet (Grand Rapids: Eerdmans, forthcoming, 2013) ↩
From the lovely, elegant, and scholarly 1985 JPS translation, to the unparalleled Oxford maps, the extensive scholarly, well-balanced notes (including academic as well as rabbinic perspectives), the essays, tables, and charts in the back, with additional maps and charts splashed on the pages throughout, printed on high quality “Bible” paper and with attractive single column layout. This Bible is it!
I could not count the many editions of the Bible I have owned since age 17 when my parents gave me a fine Oxford Leather-bound copy of the King James Version with those wonderful maps. I still have that Bible. Since then I have bought many many more–too many to count. I am not just talking about buying Bibles in order to have all the major translations–that I have done as well. I am thinking here of personal study Bibles–that I purchased because I wanted to finally settle on a single edition and make it my own–for personal study and meditation. I have seldom stayed with one more than a year or two, until another would catch my fancy, or I would change my mind about how to mark the one I was using and begin over again. The joke in our household if any package arrives with my name on it is, “Dad has probably bought another Bible”–and this time he “swears” that this is the one. I will actually admit to “sneaking” new Bibles into the house knowing no one would notice the difference since I have had so many over the years.
Up until about 1986 the Bibles I bought were usually Christian ones–with the New Testament and often as not the Apocrypha. One of my favorites is the older Oxford RSV with Apocrypha–leather bound of course. I used that one for years and I have several hardcover editions of the same that I have worn out in 30 years of teaching. Since around 1986 I have owned just about every “Jewish Bible” on the market–from the old JPS (1917), various editions of the Koren Jerusalem Bible in several editions, the new JPS (1985), the Stone Tanakh, to numerous editions of the Torah and other portions of the Hebrew Bible whether by Kaplan, Fox, Alter, or Friedman.
What I wanted to report here is that I have finally, at long last, found the ultimate English edition of the Hebrew Bible–the leather-bound Jewish Study Bible (JPS Tanakh) published by Oxford University Press. I am taking a stand here–this will be my last personal Bible–that is how pleased I am with it. From the lovely, elegant, and scholarly 1985 JPS translation, to the unparalleled Oxford maps, the extensive scholarly, well-balanced notes (including academic as well as rabbinic perspectives), the essays, tables, and charts in the back, with additional maps and charts splashed on the pages throughout, printed on high quality “Bible” paper and with attractive single column layout. There is simply nothing like it–and it comes in a leather edition that is published, ironically, by Christian Book Distributors–not Oxford or JPS directly. Apparently there is enough interest in the Hebrew Bible and a Jewish translation among DBD customers who are of course overwhelmingly Christian. The retail price is $79.99 but it is on sale in a lovely boxed edition for around $32.99–yes, that price is not a typo! I also want to give credit to my friend and colleague Ross Nichols who first put me on to both this Bible and the CBD edition at this amazing price.
I know my family, friends, and others who know me will scoff–but I am taking an official stand here–my Bible buying days are over. I can’t imagine a personal study Bible that could ever meet or surpass this one. If you want a Christian Bible there are many choices, both translation and study editions–but for the O.T. (i.e., The Original Testament)–this is it–and it is hard to believe the price. I have to admit–when I ordered a copy I was skeptical that it would turn out to be some kind of “cheap” knock-off edition but it is fully up to Oxford quality. You can “look” inside the hardcover edition on Amazon if you want to browse a bit before buying but I am certain you will not be disappointed if you are looking for an academic study Bible that will stand the test of time.
Our archeological excavation begins one month from today at our unique site on Mt Zion. We are the only foreign university currently excavating in Jerusalem. We have a record number of participants coming this year–over 70 total plus staff, coming from a dozen countries all over the world. We are truly an international and diverse group.
The Mount Zion excavation is a rich and unique site. Although just outside the southern Turkish wall dating to the 16th century, the location was in the center of ancient Herodian Jerusalem of the 1st century CE–see the map below.
Dr. Shimon Gibson and I are the directors of this IAA licensed dig. We have been excavating at this site since 2008 and what we are uncovering is truly amazing and unique–there is no other dig quite like this in all of Jerusalem. Our excavations are exposing all levels and periods of habitation, from ancient Israel up through the modern period, with significant remains from the 1st century CE, the later Roman, Byzantine, Islamic, Crusader, and Ottoman periods. The 1st century – what archeologists call the Herodian Period or Jerusalem in the time of Jesus – remains are turning out to be particularly spectacular. We are now digging down to remains of lower levels of houses that date back to the 70 CE destruction of Jerusalem, many with intact ceilings and in some cases more than one story preserved. Our discoveries are myriad and important, including coins, lamps, ceramics, inscriptions, and even a mysterious stone cup with 13 lines of text that can be linked to the Dead Sea Scrolls. We have attracted international media attention and the eyes of the archaeological community and the wider public are on our site.
We need your help to fund this dig. Faculty and staff costs are paid by UNC Charlotte and participants pay a modest fee but we have to raise $50,000 each year to cover our operational costs. At this point we are $22,000 short of this minimum amount. You can make a tax deductible donation either by check or on-line, to UNC Charlotte, see How to Support the Dig. I know many of my blog readers are loyal fans of my work and I hope you can help with any amount–there is strength in numbers. I have full confidence we will meet our goal by June 13th when we begin our excavation. If you do decide to help please tell them “Dr. Tabor sent you” and mention this blog post!
You can learn more about our excavation, its unique finds, and its amazing potential through the video below, and this special report on our 2015 season, “Jerusalem Dig Hits Pay Dirt.”
The magazine Popular Archaeology has just done a very nice cover story feature on our Suba “John the Baptist” cave excavation for their Spring issue. We conducted from 2000-2011—overlapping with our Mt Zion dig. Even though that excavation is largely finished Shimon Gibson and I are bringing to completion our academic monograph with Eisenbraun’s, which will supplement our previous publications on the site.
Wishing all of my readers a meaningful, insightful, and joyous Passover, however observed or not. Remembering ancient Israel’s birth of freedom and all those who seek life, liberty, and the pursuit of happiness as our core human values.
Today brings the New Moon or a new month on the Jewish calendar. But it is not just any new moon. According to the Torah, “This month (literally “new”) shall be to you head of the months…Exodus 12.
Today is the beginning of Nisan or Aviv, the biblical name of this new moon/month. It is literally the day of “New Sheaves,” or as we would say in the Northern Hemisphere–the budding of Spring!
Most people think of the Jewish festival of “Rosh HaShanah,” which comes in the Fall of the year 10 days before Yom Kippur, as the “Jewish New Year.” In biblical times such was not the case. The New Year fell in the Spring, most often the New Moon closest to the Vernal Equinox, on the 1st day of the 1st month on the Jewish Calendar. This was the beginning of the “Sacred” year, whereas “Rosh HaShanah” was more of a “civil” year, much like our fiscal year markers–having to do with certain economic and governmental cycles.
The term “first day of the first month” in the Hebrew Bible, marking the”New Year,” signals a new beginning, or renewal of life. Thus in Exodus 12:1 Moses tells the Israelites that this day will be the beginning of the “months” for them–leading up to the Passover that falls in the first month. It is also called the turning of the year, and has to do with the sprouting of the barely, and with what we call “Spring”–at least in the northern hemisphere!
According to the Torah Isaac was born when Abraham was 100 years old and Sarah was 90 (Gen 17:17). A year earlier, when Abraham was 99, we have an important set of references to what was ahead. Three “men” appeared to Abraham, one of whom is subsequently revealed to be an “epiphany” of Yahweh. The Yahweh figure tells Abraham explicitly twice:
I will certainly return to you when the season comes around, and lo, Sarah your wife shall have a son (Gen 18:10).
Is anything too hard for Yahweh? At the set time I will return to you, when the season comes around, and Sarah shall have a son (Gen 18:14).
Two precise Hebrew expressions are used here, lending strong emphasis to the precise timing of the birth of Isaac. There is great meaning in all this. The first phrase, “when the season comes around,” is literally, “at the time (or season) of life.” It is a reference to the new year in the Spring, in the month of Abib or Nisan (see Exodus 12:2). It is worth noting that in the traditional reading of the Torah portions this section is paired with a reading from the Prophets, from 2 Kings 4. There we read of another extraordinary birth, that of the son of the Shunammite woman during the time of Elisha (2 Kings 4:16). Truly this month of Nisan is a month of miracles and “new birth” as we shall see. The second phrase, “at the set time,” stresses the exactitude of the timing of this important event. It will come at a precise time or season. These are not merely superfluous passing references. Three chapters later we read:
And Sarah conceived and bore Abraham a son in his old age, at the set time of which God had spoken to him (Gen 21:2).
What we learn here is that Isaac was born in the Spring of the year, likely in the month of Nisan, at a “set time.” In the book of Exodus we read of another “Spring” birth–this time the birth of the nation of Israel. Whether the author intended to link the two ideas or not is difficult to say:
Israel is My son, My first-born,
and I have said unto you: Let My son go (Exodus 4:22).
When Israel was a child I loved him,
And out of Egypt I called My son (Hosea 11:1).
Exodus 12:40-41 explicitly states that this “birth” of a nation taking place at this precise time:
Now the sojourn of the children of Israel who dwelt in Egypt was four hundred and thirty years. And it came to pass, at the end of the four hundred and thirty years, even the very day [i.e., Passover], it came to pass that all the host of Yahweh went out from the land of Egypt.
The reference to the very day is to the 15th of Nisan, the evening of the Passover Seder. But what about this intriguing reference to 430 years? Scholars have disputed over the meaning of this chronological note. It should be noted that the verse, when properly translated, does not say that Israel was in the land of Egypt for 430 years, but rather the that the time of their “sojourning” was 430 years. What event happened, 430 years earlier, “to the day,” from Israel’s Exodus from Egypt, based on the chronological records now preserved in the traditional Hebrew “Masoretic” text.
Some have suggested plotting this 430 year period of “sojourn” with the Call of Abraham in Genesis 12. Others have counted the 430 years from the circumcision covenant with Abraham, when he was 99 years old (Gen 17). Still others have begun the 430 years with the birth of Isaac in Genesis 21. The Rabbinic source Seder ‘Olam preserves a traditional solution to this question.
In Genesis 23:4 Abraham tells the children of Heth, from whom he purchases the burial cave of Machpelah in Kiriatharba or Hebron, “I am a stranger and a sojourner” with you. Abraham refers to himself as a ger (stranger) and a toshav (sojourner), even though the Land of Canaan had been promised to him. Abraham never received the Land of Promise in his lifetime; he remained a “sojourner” until the day of his death. The same is true for Isaac, Jacob, Joseph and their 70 descendants who went down to Egypt. The question is, precisely when did this “sojourning” of the people of Israel begin? According to Seder ‘Olam it begins not in Genesis 12, with the Call of Abram to leave his father Terah’s house in Haran, but five years earlier, when he left the city of Ur in Babylon. Note carefully, when Abram leaves Haran he is 75 years old (Gen 12:4). But according to Genesis 11:31 “they went forth . . . from Ur of the Chaldees” some years earlier. This is the actual beginning of their wandering or sojourning. There is a significant reference in this regard in Genesis 15:7:
And He said to him: “I am Yahweh that brought you out of Ur of the Chaldees, to give you this land to inherit it.”
One might have expected, on the basis of Genesis 12:1-3, for the text to read “who brought you out of your father’s house,” i.e., from Haran. But in the Genesis tradition, picked up on by the Rabbis, the initial “Call” of Abram was out of Ur in Babylon, not from Haran in the land of Canaan. In other words, the wandering, or “sojourning” of Abram begins before his call from Haran at age 75. Also, the Hebrew word here is crucial. The phrase here translated “brought you out” is from the verb yatz’ah, the same word used in Exodus 20:2 introducing the Ten Words at Mt Sinai:
I am Yahweh your God, who brought you out of the land of Egypt.
That would mean that according to the Masoretic chronology Abram left Ur, which was his own personal “Exodus” from idolatry and paganism, on the very same night, Nisan 15th, which later becomes the Passover.
The precise chronology of the Masoretic Hebrew text confirms this. Note the following references and numbers (the years are given as AM, “after Man (i.e., Adam),” which correspond to the traditional numbering of Jewish years since Creation):
Abram leaves Ur Abram 70 Year 2018 AM (Gen 11:31)
Abram leaves Haran Abram 75 Year 2023 AM (Gen 12:4)
Birth of Isaac Abram 100 Year 2048 AM (Gen 17:17)
Birth of Jacob Isaac 60 Year 2108 AM (Gen 25:20)
Israel to Egypt Jacob 130 Year 2238 AM (Gen 47:9)
Exodus 210 yrs later Year 2448 AM (Ex 12:40)
The total years from Abram leaving Haran at age 75 (2023 AM) until Jacob going down to Egypt (2238 AM) are 215. To this we add the 210 years of Egyptian slavery for a total of 425 years: from Abram leaving Haran, until the Exodus in the year 2448 AM. Since Exodus 12:40-41 designates 430 years rather than 425 the conclusion becomes obvious. The five additional years are by default the time Abram spent in Haran. Accordingly, he must have left Ur at age 70. Thus, the total years of “sojourning of the children of Israel,” is precisely 430 years, from the Abram’s “going out from Ur” at age 70 (2018 AM), until Israel’s “going out of Egypt” in the year 2448 AM.
One important additional note here. Why would Exodus 12:40 speak of the sojourn of the “children of Israel” as 430 years when this period begins with Abram? According to the rabbis Abram stands for the whole people. The term “Israel” is both a name and a title which includes Abraham and his entire line through Isaac and Jacob. The Covenant with the Jewish people begins with Abraham. The Rabbis love to play with letters and point out that the name ISRAEL in Hebrew is spelled Yod, Shin, Resh, Alef, Lamed. These five Hebrews letters are the first letters of the names of the Patriarchs and their wives, namely Yod=Yitzak (Isaac) and Yaakov (Jacob); Shin=Sarah; Resh=Rebecca and Rachel; Lamed=Leah!
Isaac is born at a “set time,” when the “season of life” comes around. We have already seen that this is a reference to the beginning of Spring, or the month of Nisan. In Jewish tradition Isaac, as a miraculous child of promise, was born on Nisan 15th or Passover. In fact Genesis hints at the festivals and holy days of Israel, later set forth in the Torah, as known in various ways in much earlier times (Gen 1:14; 8:13). For example, there is a reference to Lot preparing “unleavened bread” or matzos, for the heavenly guests prior to the destruction of Sodom and Gomorrah (Gen 19:3)! Why matzos? In the previous chapter Abraham has been told that Isaac will be born “at this season next year” (18:14). So, in the text of Genesis we know we are in the time of Nisan, when Abram is 99, a year before Isaac’s birth. Does Genesis imply that God rescued and removed Lot and his family from Sodom around, or even on, the very night of Passover? The text contains several Passover motifs. The angels keep urging Lot and his family to leave, to hurry, and not to delay. In a similar way the Israelites make haste to leave Egypt, not even allowing their bread to rise.
I have been thinking lately about the essential differences between Judaism and Christianity, or more properly, the kind of religion reﬂected in the Hebrew Bible and that of the Greek New Testament. In terms of definition and label I am neither a Jew nor a Christian — by that I mean the Mishnaic-Talmudic forms of the Classical Jewish faith that developed after Second Temple times, and the Orthodox Catholic versions of Christianity that developed in the West and East after Constantine. I am interested in religious and philosophical truth, but my training is that of an historian, so perhaps that is why I am drawn to the more ancient forms of these two faiths, i.e., the Hebrew faith as formulated by the Prophets and ﬁnal redactors of the Hebrew Bible, and earliest Christianity as reﬂected in the New Testament. In considering these two “religions” or ways of thinking about God, the world and human purpose, I ﬁnd that I am much more drawn to the former than the latter. Why is that so? What is it about the Hebrew Bible, even on a symbolic/mythological level, that seems to draw me so? Conversely, what is it about early Christianity, especially the systematic theologies of Paul or the Gospel of John, that puts me off so?
The Hebrew Bible’s Ambiguity
As for the Hebrew Bible, the whole notion of the One, true and living Creator, the God of Abraham is most appealing. Humans are seen as mortal, made of dust. Consequently, death and human history are taken very seriously. They are made in the image of God, capable of reason and free choice, of good as well as evil. God reveals Divine laws, the “Way” for humankind; a way that brings blessings not curses. The human race is seen starkly in its wayward and sinful condition, yet there are those who love and follow this true God in the midst of it all. Their mission is to be a witness to the “nations” (non-believers) and to bring about the establishment of righteousness, justice, and peace on the earth. On an individual level, as in Psalms or Job, there is a lot of questioning after God. The ways of God are far from clear. There is certainly expectation of intervention, a longing for God’s help and care, but simplistic view of things is rejected.The Hebrew canon (with the exception of Daniel) essentially closes with this kind of ambiguity.
Humans are to seek God, to live the ways of God on the earth, but much is left open, whether individual ideas of immortality or broader schemes of historical plans and purposes. The essential idea of the Shema is the heart of it all: God’s people are to acknowledge God’s nature, to love God, and to follow the ways of God revealed in the Torah and Prophets. Ecclesiastes shows clearly how many questions are simply left unanswered. True, the Prophets do offer many predictions of a restoration of Israel and even a transformed age to come. However, the texts themselves express lament-full doubts about when, and even whether, this will ever come (e.g., Psalm 89; Habakkuk). The Hebrew canon closes with II Chronicles 36:23 — “Let him go up” — which could bear some symbolic meaning beyond the proclamation by Cyrus of the end of the Persian exile of the Jews. It comes at the very beginning of the Second Temple period, as if to say: all if open, Israel’s future is still unwritten, and individuals are called to respond.
The New Testament’s Answers
The New Testament comes out of a wholly different milieu. First, it is part and parcel of the broad changes in religious thought that we know as “Hellenization.” It is characterized by a vast and expanded dualistic cosmos, an emphasis on immortality and personal salvation, i.e., on escaping this world for a better heavenly life. At the same time, and to be more speciﬁc, it is absolutely and completely dominated by an apocalyptic world view of things, whereby all will be soon resolved by the decisive intervention of God, the End of the Age, the last great Judgment, and the eternal Kingdom of God. In addition, the Christology that develops, even in the ﬁrst century, is thoroughly “Hellenistic,” with Jesus the human transformed into the pre- existent, divine, Son of God, who sits at the right hand of God and is the Lord of the cosmos. The whole complex of ideas about multiple levels of heaven, fate, angels, demons, miracles and magic abound. It is as if all the questions that the Hebrew Bible only begins to explore — questions about theodicy, justice, human purpose, history, death, sin — are all suddenly answered with a loud and resounding “Yes!” There is little, if any, struggle left. There are few haunting questions, and no genuine tragedy or meaningless suffering. All is guaranteed; all will shortly be worked out.
Of course, various attempts are made to reinterpret this early Christianity for our time, usually in terms of ethics or some existential core of truth, but early Christianity rests on two essential points, both of which resist easy demythologization: it is a religious movement built upon an apocalyptic view of history; and an evaluation of Jesus as a Hellenistic deity, i.e., a pre-existent divine Savior God in whom all ultimate meaning rests. If these are unacceptable in the modern world, or incompatible with the fundamental Hebrew view of things, then the whole system become difficult, it not superﬂuous.This is not to say that there are no similar problems with the Hebrew Bible, but fundamentally things are different. Even Daniel, that begins down the path of fantastic apocalyptic answers to hard human questions about the meaning of history, is somewhat vague about it all. That is one good reason Daniel was never included among the Prophets in the Jewish canon. Of course, the Hebrew Bible, like the New Testament, is framed around God’s intervention in human history: God calls Abraham, delivers Israel to Egypt, reveals the Torah at Sinai, gives the Land to the Israelites, expels them, promises to bring them back, etc. It is an interventionist story. And yet, in contrast to the New Testament, God is often silent, there are many dark areas, many unanswered queries, and much doubt and debate expressed about it all, even within the texts themselves. But more important, the two of the major problems for the later Hellenistic age–human mortality and theodicy, are left largely unaddressed.
Some years ago I read a fascinating interview in Biblical Archaeology Review by editor Hershel Shanks with Jewish thinker and Holocaust surviver Elie Wiesel and renowned Harvard Biblical scholar Frank Moore Cross (July/August, 2004). In one short but significant section Professor Cross comments on how being a Christian affects his relationship to the Hebrew Bible, which is his field of concentration. I find his comments enlightening, and though here he only focuses on one issue, that of the magical/demonic world of late antiquity, the implications of what he states appear to parallel my thoughts here:
Shanks: How does being a Christian affect your relationship to the Hebrew Bible?
Cross: Happily, I come out of a Calvinist tradition in which the Hebrew Bible carries as much authority as the New Testament. No different weight is given to one or the other. The Bible is one, Old and New, in my particular tradition. My own interest is far more in the Hebrew Bible. My religion is more personally related to the Hebrew Bible than the New Testament.
Shanks: What does that mean?
Cross: I find myself a little uncomfortable in the New Testament environment. And this is also true of what I would call late Judaism, the Judaism of the Second Temple and later. With the Hebrew Bible, you’re living in an austere world. When you come to the New Testament you can’t even swing a cat without hitting three demons and two spirits. And magic becomes something that is everywhere. In the Hebrew Bible this sort of thing doesn’t go on.
Shanks: You have miracles, yes, but they’re not the work, normally, of demons.
Cross goes on to explain his approach to the Hebrew Bible as one that takes a critical view of its stories and narratives, with lots of question marks regarding “historicity,” while appreciating the power and meaning of its epics, myths, and symbols.
My Attachment to Both Canons
Began my career as a “Bible scholar” and my college majors were Greek and Bible, so I still, broadly, consider myself a student of the Bible–that includes Hebrew Bible as well as New Testament, and of course my specialty is Christian Origins. I ﬁnd myself drawn to these biblical texts, these ideas and images, tempered through the sifting and sorting out that comes through historical criticism in an effort to separate myth and history. I want to neither devaluing the former nor ignore the latter. The opening chapters of Genesis powerfully expresses any number of fundamental perceptions around which my own approach to human life is shaped. God as the “Power of all powers” (Elohim) orders the chaotic planet earth with humans, created from the, “dust of the earth,” but reflecting the image of the Elohim. Humans and beasts are given only “green herbs” to eat. It is only after the Flood that meat is allowed, when sin and violence had ﬁlled the earth. Are we to re-present to the world in this small way, this way of peace from which we have fallen? It is a powerful idea, as Isaiah himself knew when he spoke of the child’s leading the lion, the infant’s playing at the nest of the scorpion–“They will not hurt nor destroy on all My holy mountain, says the LORD” (Isa. 11:9). Human are to “dress and keep” the garden and have both the power and responsibility to exercise custody over the good earth, even in the world of “thorns and thistles” outside the gates of Eden. When it comes to the New Testament the cosmically triumphant theologies of Paul and John are dominant, but running through the Gospel materials are layers in which one finds a Jesus wedded to the ethics and perspectives of the Hebrew Prophets, not a deity but one who is vulnerable, a “human all-to-human,” one who, as Schweitzer puts it, throws himself onto the wheel of history in an effort to move things forward but is tragically crushed. Those contingent, conditional, and open-ended aspects of the Jesus story I find most compelling, and most in keeping with the Hebrew view of history and human possibilities.
A version of these thoughts was published in the Journal of Reform Judaism (Summer, 1990): 35-38.