Hanukkah & Christmas, but What About Kislev 24?

What is altogether fascinating is a much earlier and little known biblical reference to a different but very related date–Kislev 24 on the Jewish calendar–which begins this evening, December 23rd, at sundown.

This year Christmas Eve and Hanukkah happen to correspond–falling tomorrow evening, December 24. Often they are weeks apart, depending on the Jewish calendar and whether a particular year is 12 or 13 lunar months so this is a relatively rare occurrence. The festival of Dedication, more popularly known as Hanukkah–is also called the festival of Lights. This special Jewish festival that non-Jews often mistakenly think of as the “Jewish Christmas,” has its origins in the revolt of the Maccabees against the infamous Greco-Syrian ruler Antiochus IV (aka Epiphanes) in 167 BCE.

You can find the colorful and bloody story in 1 Maccabees 1-4, a book included in Catholic Bibles but referred to by Protestants as part of the “Apocrypha.” If you don’t have a copy around it is readily available on-line at apocrypha.org and is well worth reading. The festival itself, which lasts eight days, is a celebration of the “cleansing” and rededication of the Jewish Temple in 165 BCE when the forces lead by the family of Judas Maccabee (“the Hammer”) recaptured Jerusalem and removed the pagan altar and other “abominations” that Antiochus had instituted in an effort to stamp out worship of the Jewish God Yehovah (see 1 Macc. 4:59).

Coin of Hasmonean King Alexander Jannaeus during a rare window of Jewish Independence

In the time of Jesus we are told in the Gospel of John that Jesus went up to the Temple during this festival the last winter of his life (John 10:22). The date for this “Dedication” was Kislev 25 or the 25th day of the 9th month on the Jewish lunar calendar.

People often ask, having heard of the Jewish festivals such as Passover, Rosh HaShanah, and Yom Kippur–is Hanukkah ever mentioned in the Hebrew Bible–in other words is it a “Biblical” festival. These answer is yes and no, depending on how one looks at Kislev 24–the day before Hanukkah. Let me explain.

What is altogether fascinating is a much earlier and little known biblical reference to a different but very related date–Kislev 24 on the Jewish calendar–which begins this evening, December 23rd, at sundown. This, of course, is one day before the Hanukkah celebration, but the reference can be precisely dated to 520 BCE–over 350 years before the Maccabean victory. I refer here to the book of the Prophet Haggai.

Haggai comes to us from the 2nd year of the Persian King Darius, late summer, August, 520 BCE. It is one of the most precisely dated books in the Hebrew Bible, much like its sister Zechariah, and its twin Malachi. The three go together, like peas in the pod, both coming from that crucial time of the “restoration” of Judah to the Land following the Babylonian captivity. Collectively they are our last words of the Prophets in the Hebrew Bible–and thus for Jews and others who consider the Tanakh Scripture–the last inspired words of Yehovah. Indeed, it is possible that Haggai is the unnamed author of the book called Malachi, which means in Hebrew “My Messenger,” since in Haggai 1:12, the Prophet is identified as the “messenger of Yehovah.”

Both Haggai and Zechariah address their contemporary situation, as one would expect, and are concerned that the Temple be rebuilt and the city-state of Judea be restored to limited sovereignty after the Babylonian destruction in 586 BCE.  However, if read carefully, both clearly understand that this restoration of Judah is only a preliminary, even symbolic step, to a coming great restoration of Judah and all Israel–including the so-called “Lost Tribes.”

Even though there is a Priest (Joshua), and a Governor (Zerubbabel) of the Davidic line, there is no anointing of the BRANCH figure of whom both Isaiah and Jeremiah had spoken. One way of putting this is to say that Haggai and Zechariah are working in the tall shadow of Jeremiah (see especially chapters 30-31), and they know, from his clear and powerful prophecies, that the final days have not come with this tiny little beachhead return of a portion of Judah to the land. But they do believe that this return of Judah is a “sign” of things to come, and a guarantee that the Plan of Yehovah, to fill the earth with justice and righteousness, through Abraham’s seed, is not to fall to the ground.

And that leads us to the curious and fascinating references to the 24th day of the 9th month–or Kislev 24 as that month came to be called.

The book of Haggai is sequential; it takes you through the last months of the year 520 BCE. It begins with the Rosh Chodesh of the 6th month (August), takes you through the 21st day of the 7th month (2:1), which is the last day of Sukkoth (October), and then into December–with the 24th day of the 9th month. Haggai’s third and fourth messages come on this very day. It is a short book, and if you skim it through you will see the building sequence.

The precise date Kislev 24 is mentioned four times in the second chapter, verses 10, 15, 18 and 20. Twice it is emphasized that “from this day forward I will bless you,” and twice Haggai gets a special Word from Yehovah, on this very day. You have to read the whole chapter to get the context, but the message is basically that Yehovah will “shake the heavens and the earth and all nations” overthrowing their power, after which He will anoint the chosen one of the line of David (symbolized in that day by Zerubbabel), and essentially make Jerusalem the new world capital. This entire prophetic agenda to which Haggai alludes is laid out in great detail in the pre-Exilic Prophets, see particularly Isaiah 2:1-4; Jeremiah 3:14-18; 23:5-8; Micah 5:2-5).

This message is addressed to the two “Messiahs,” the Priest and the “King” or Governor, Joshua and Zerubbabel, respectively (2:4-5). They become “signifiers” of things to come. They are not the final anointed ones, and Zechariah picks this up in his visions, especially chapters 4 and 6. These symbolic figures, as well as the promised presence of the Holy Spirit (see 2:5 and Zech 4:6), are the guarantee that Yehovah will bring about these promises.

Notice, Zechariah begins getting his visions and messages in the 8th month of that same year (Zech 1:1), or mid-November. He has EIGHT night visions, they are all quite difficult to follow, but prophetically important in forecasting the redemptive future. There is much more detail in Zechariah, but the two, Haggai and Zechariah, should be read in tandem, as one explains the other.

Note carefully,  Kislev 24 is not specifically mentioned in Zechariah, but it is alluded to in chapter 4:8-10. It is the famous “day of small things,” that one might be led to “despise,” because after all, this tiny little remnant of Judah, beginning to lay the foundation of a nondescript temple, under the mighty thumb of the Persian empire, was hardly even worthy of the name of a city-state, much less a world kingdom, and yet had hopes and dreams and promises of world dominion–and the rulership of its promised “Messiahs.” These were the expectations that fueled the apocalyptic hopes of both the Dead Sea community and the followers of Jesus and John the Baptist.

Chapters 7-14 of Zechariah, which the author receives two years later, are quite different. They are straightforward and fairly plain, laying out, likely in some sequential order, both the preliminary events, and the detailed climax, of the “time of the end.”

So, what about Kislev 24?

In the time of Haggai and Zechariah, it was the day marked for the promise that the redemption would ultimately come about, “not by power, nor by might, but by the Spirit of Yehovah”–but in its time (Zech 4:6). But in the time of the Maccabees, when Syrian ruler Antiochus IV unleashed his great persecution against the Jews of Judea/Palestine, it was on Kislev 24 that the enemy was defeated and the Temple freed from its desecration. That is why the festival of Chanukah is celebrated beginning at sundown, at the end of Kislev 24. In other words, it is not so much Hanukkah that is important, as its marker date: Kislev 24. I seriously doubt that either the author of 1 Maccabees or the Maccabees themselves were attempting to correlate their victory over Antiochus by some obscure date in the Prophet Haggai. There is no indication that such is the case and nothing is said in the texts of the Maccabees about Kislev 24. But in looking back on things it does in fact turn out that the victory began, “from this day forward,” on Kislev 24.

Fast forward to Sunday, December 9, 1917–100 years ago on the Jewish calendar. General Allenby, leading the British forces (remember Lawrence of Arabia), liberated Jerusalem for the first time in centuries from Turkish/Muslim rule. By the morning of December 9th Turkish forces had fled the city and the governor Izzat Pasha fled in a horse drawn carriage borrowed from the American Colony hotel–leaving behind a note of surrender. The date on the Jewish calendar–you guessed it: Kislev 24. That evening the Jewish soldiers in the British army celebrated Hanukkah and went to the Western Wall in openness and freedom. Allenby’s triumphal entry, captured in the photo above, was two days later, on December 11th. Prior to that date, and during the many centuries of Ottoman/Turkish rule, the Jews were only allowed to approach their “Wailing Wall” on Fridays before the Sabbath, even though they were the majority of the city of Jerusalem. It is doubtful that Allenby was aware, during the heat of the battle, of the Jewish festival of Hanukkah but we can be certain that he knew nothing of Kislev 24–this obscure date in the book of Haggai.

What to make of these strange patterns of events around Kislev 24, a date specified by Haggai in 520 BCE, I leave to my readers, but as preparations for Hanukkah begin tomorrow, take a look at Haggai 2:10-21 as a fascinating precursor to events in the 2nd Temple period and in our own times.

Jesus: The Final Cut

I finished up Religious Studies 3113, my “Historical Jesus” course here at UNC Charlotte on Tuesday. For the last class I wanted to try to offer an overview of what we can say about Jesus both in terms of what he did and what he said. Here are the notes.


A Brief Biography: Grew up in Nazareth in the lower Galilee. Joined his kinsman John in his apocalyptic baptizing movement preaching national repentance and the imminent arrival of the Kingdom of God. John executed by Herod Antipas. Jesus began preaching throughout Galilee, healing and casting out demons. He came in conflict with the religious authorities both local and in Jerusalem, becoming convinced that he, like John, must suffer and die. He challenged his followers to leave all behind and do the same. He was arrested in a final confrontation Passover week 30 CE by the Jewish Temple authorities and was condemned to death by crucifixion by the Roman governor of Judea, Pontius Pilate. He was believed by his followers to have been raised from the dead and glorified as the Messiah at the right hand of God with an expectation that he would return “in the clouds of heaven” before his generation passed. His brother James took over leadership of the movement which based itself for the next 40 years in Jerusalem. 

The Core Teachings of Jesus

  • The kingdom or rule of God, imminently breaking into human history, dismantles all human structures of power and privilege
  • What is up is down and what is down is up
  • The internal is what counts not the external
  • All humankind can have an intimate loving relationship with their Creator as father or “Abba”
  • Forgiveness and unconditional love, along with individual and societal justice and righteousness, are the core ethical standards
  • A call for suffering opposition and service in the face of the forces of darkness and evil


The Tour of Tours: See Israel from the Ground Up: March 3-14, 2017

Note: This tour is filling up fast with a dozen signing up in recent days–there are a few spaces left but you should act now to hold your space. We want to take a small enough group to allow lots of personal interaction so we are limiting the size.

I have made 60 trips to the Holy Land since 1990 but only five of those involved tours. Usually I go for academic research, or for a filming project, or to do archaeology. If and when I lead a tour I want it to be really something special and unique–such as the “Jesus Dynasty” tour I did earlier this year in celebration of the 10th anniversary of the publication of my book.

Ross Nichols and I have planned a very special tour March 3-14, 2017–a kind of “tour of all tours.” We have taken all our collective experience, including that of our host DeWayne Coxon of Blossoming Rose, who quit counting his trips to Israel when he reached 200, and put together what we consider to be an ideal tour. Many people have a trip to the Holy Land on their “bucket list,” including President Abraham Lincoln who looked forward to travel there after his term as President and was never able.1 Others plan to go but never work it out. While still others have been before, even more than once. Whoever you are I believe this particular tour is for you–it is that special–it will allow you to see the Holy Land on a level that most tours miss–including half a day at our Mt Zion excavation site for some “hands on” involvement. Who better to travel to the Holy Land with than us?

Here’s the pitch and itinerary–and the price is amazingly reasonable with high quality hotels and amenities. You can read more and download the application here.

Below is a PDF of the itinerary, wait for it to fully load and you can page through using the controls at the bottom or download and print out:

Here is a nice video that Ross made to whet your appetite. We hope you will sign up soon as we believe this tour will fill up fast:

  1. According to Mary Todd Lincoln the President, inspired by childhood reading of the Bible and his Secretary of State, had said not long before his murder that her husband “wanted to visit the Holy Land and walk where Jesus and the holy prophets of old had walked, saying there was no city he so much desired to see as Jerusalem.” See the contemporary account here by Lincoln’s Secretary of State, William H. Steward. 

On the Highway to Hell: Rafi Lewis on the Crusader Battle of Hattin

The extraordinary discoveries of at our Mt Zion site related to the Crusader period have been studied by Prof. Rafi Lewis and were profiled this week in HaAretz: Debris from Crusader Attack on Queen of Jerusalem Found on Mount Zion. Next week he will be a guest lecturer at UNC Charlotte. Details below.

rafi-unc-charlotte-lectureIf you are in the Charlotte area don’t miss it. No charge and everyone welcome. COED building is College of Education, right across from our Student Center which has Visitor’s Parking. Fantastic topic, amazing lecturer. We can’t wait!

The Making of a Messiah: Did Jesus Claim to be the Messiah and Predict His Suffering and Death?

In my post on “That Other King of the Jews,” I stressed my own conviction that Jesus of Nazareth thought of himself as much more than a teacher, prophet, or healer, but rather that he understood himself to be nothing less than the “one to come,” the Davidic Messiah or King of Israel. For most Christians such a messianic claim by Jesus is self-evident since it lies at the heart of all of our Gospel accounts, which are, as Mark puts things: “The good news of Jesus Christ the Son of God.”

In contrast, many of my academic colleagues in the field of Christian origins would argue that the identification of Jesus as the Jewish Messiah was one put on Jesus by his followers after his death, as part of their recovery of faith following the unanticipated shock of his crucifixion, not something he claimed himself. According to this understanding the scene in Mark where Jesus is confessed as Christ or Messiah by Peter is projected back into the life of Jesus, implying that he both anticipated his death and understood himself in the role of a “suffering Messiah”:

And Jesus went on with his disciples to the villages of Caesarea Philippi. And on the way he asked his disciples, “Who do people say that I am?” And they told him, “John the Baptist; and others say, Elijah; and others, one of the prophets.” And he asked them, “But who do you say that I am?” Peter answered him, “You are the Christ.” And he strictly charged them to tell no one about him. And he began to teach them that the Son of Man must suffer many things and be rejected by the elders and the chief priests and the scribes and be killed, and after three days rise again (Mark 8:27-31).


I have no doubt that various theological interpretations of Jesus were retrospectively projected back on him in our New Testament gospels. I have written extensively on that process of theological “overlay” on this blog over the years. In fact, in my recent book, Paul and Jesus: How the Apostle Transformed ChristianityI explain that all four of our gospels are essentially post-Pauline productions, fundamentally reflecting Paul’s understanding of the “gospel.” However, my own study of the history of “Messianism,” including messiah figures both ancient and modern, I am convinced that the gospels preserve for us a pattern of what I call “Messianic self-identity,” that is applicable to Jesus. In other words, I think we can trace in our sources elements of Jesus’ own messianic self-consciousness.

In this post I want to to consider what I call the “textual dynamics of messianic self-identity.” I realize that is a mouthful but bear with me here, as this subject is quite fascinating and I think we can see some light on this issue if we take all our evidence into account, both ancient and modern.

Running through the various layers and strata of the New Testament Gospel traditions is a complex set of Messianic titles or designations against which the careers of both John the Baptizer and Jesus of Nazareth are tagged and evaluated. In the climatic exchange at Caesarea Philippi, the Markan Jesus puts it most bluntly–“Who do people say that I am?” (Mark 8:27). The possibilities subsequently enumerated appear earlier in Mark, when Herod Antipas hears of the “powers” at work in the career of Jesus and rumor has it that he might be John the Baptizer “raised from the dead,” or Elijah, or one of the prophets of old (Mark 6:14-17). Each of these possibilities are implicitly rejected by Mark as Peter makes his definitive, though at this point, misguided declaration: “You are the Messiah” (see Mark 1:1 where the reader is clued into the mystery of who Jesus is: Jesus Christ [Son of God]). On trial before the high priest, the question is put even more directly: “Are you the Messiah, the Son of the Blessed One?” Jesus answers “I am” but then couples his affirmation with the added declaration: “You will see the Son of Man seated at the right hand of Power and coming with the clouds of heaven” (presumably based on a combined reading of Dan 7:13-14, Psalm 110 and possibly Psalm 2). Earlier, when Jesus is glorified on the high mountain, just following Peter’s declaration, the disciples ask, in response to their experience of the “kingdom of God coming with power”–“Why then do the scribes say that Elijah must come first?” (Mark 9:11). Jesus implies that the recently executed John the Baptizer is indeed the Elijah to come (based on Malachi 4:5), but was rejected and killed based on what was “written of him” (Mark 9:13).

Similarly, in John’s Gospel, the Baptizer is asked by the Jerusalem religious establishment, “Who are you?” with the suggested possibilities: the Messiah, Elijah, or “the Prophet.” John denies all three and declares himself “the Voice of one crying in the desert,” based on Isaiah 40:3.

Even more striking is the question in the Q source that the imprisoned Baptizer puts to Jesus shortly before his beheading-“Are you the one, or are we to wait for another?” (Luke 7:20). In a closely related Q pericope John is declared to be not merely a prophet, but “more than a prophet,” and indeed the Malachi “Messenger” (Malak) whom, as Deutero-Isaiah’s “Voice crying in the desert,” is to “prepare the way of Yahweh” (Luke 7:26-27). This singular and resolute designation, “the one,” implies a cluster of speculative Messianic interpretations of prophetic texts, echoed in strangely parallel ways to Qumran materials, see my post here (e.g. 4Q521, 4Q174, et al.).

What we find then, within these multi-layered Gospel traditions is a whole set of textual “categories” with potential “candidates” measured against the reported career patterns, or “contexts” of a given figure-in this case the work, and particularly the deaths, of both John the Baptizer and Jesus.

For over a hundred years now these materials have presented scholars of the New Testament with a classic form of the proverbial “chicken or the egg” question. Do our Gospel traditions import and impose these textual categories onto the figures of John and Jesus, long after their deaths, as a kind of exegetical or “scribal” enterprise to explain and justify the shocking and wholly unexpected facts of their deaths–the beheading of John and the crucifixion of Jesus. Or is it remotely possible, or even probable, that figures such as John, Jesus, or for that matter, a whole host of late 2nd Temple Jewish Palestinian “messiah” figures might have “anticipated” their suffering and death as part of their mission? The Dead Sea Scrolls give us insight into the life and times of the unnamed “Teacher of Righteousness.” Josephus mentions a string of messianic figures, besides Jesus, including Judas the Galilean, Athronges, Simon the Perean, “the Samaritan,” Theudas, and “the Egyptian.” I would argue that these and others might well have derived their self-identity and also a self-propelled “career pattern” based on a reading of prophetic “messianic” texts.

The vast majority of critical historians dealing with Christian Origins have taken the former position, put so succinctly by Rudolf Bultmann over a generation ago: the scene of Peter’s confession is an Easter story projected backward into Jesus’ lifetime (Bultmann, Theology of the New Testament, I: 26). That Jesus himself ever claimed to be the Messiah is considered unlikely, and that he might have resolutely marched to an anticipated ordeal of suffering, and possible death, is categorized as theological apologetics, or perhaps worse, sensationalist romance (e.g., Hugh Schonfield, The Passover Plot). In contrast Albert Schweitzer concludes his Quest for the Historical Jesus with the intriguing conclusion:

The Baptist appears and cries: ‘Repent for the Kingdom of Heaven is at hand.’ Soon after that comes Jesus, and in the knowledge that he is the coming Son of Man lays hold of the wheel of the world to set it moving on that last revolution which is to bring all ordinary history to a close. It refuses to turn, and he throws himself upon it and is crushed.

The so-called “third Quest” for the historical Jesus seems hopelessly halted between two opinions (e.g. Crossan, Borg, and Funk vs. Wright, Ehrman, and Fredriksen). The problem is clearly one of method, as we are always working, it seems, though a double veil–that of our own psychology, trying to probe the inaccessible inner psychology of Jesus himself–and that, through the medium of a complex of layered texts, all of which are to a large degree theological, tendentious, apologetic, and propagandistic. Despite prodigious effort and a plethora of sophisticated historical-critical studies published in the past ten years, it seems that by and large we end up with the “Jesus” of our individual methodological presuppositions. Indeed, one wonders, at the opening of the 21st century, whether Bultmann’s cautionary assertion that we could know next to nothing about the “Jesus of history” and everything about the “Christ of faith” has come back to haunt us.

In 1999 I was given two pre-publication book manuscripts to evaluate, one by Michael Wise, The First Messiah: Investigating the Savior Before Christ, the other by Israel Knohl, The Messiah Before Jesus.  As it turned out, both of these scholars, working completely independently, the one completely unaware of the other, had come up with a strikingly similar thesis. Both Wise and Knohl put forth the argument, based on their reading and evaluation of the autobiographical nature of portions of the Thanksgiving Hymns (1QHodayot) and associated texts from Cave 4 (especially 4Q491 “Self-Glorification Hymn”), that the author of these materials had closely identified his mission, role, calling, and career in the light of the Servant Songs of Isaiah, the “Seventy Weeks Prophecy” of Daniel 9, and various Psalms. In other words, what we have documented in the Qumran texts are the textual dynamics of what I am calling “messianic self-identity,” by the leader of the 1st century B.C.E. Qumran community.

Although Wise and Knohl have their sharp differences, both with regard to the dating, as well as the identity of the mysterious Teacher of the community, both of them argue that the ways in which their figure self-consciously appropriates these prophetic texts puts the question of the self-understanding of Jesus in a new light. The point is not merely that somewhere, once upon a time, someone combined the standard messianic texts regarding glorification (Isa 11, Micah 5, and others) with the notion of rejection, suffering, and death (Servant Songs, Daniel, and the Psalms)–but rather that since it happened once, it might happen again. The case is actually much stronger, especially as set forth by Knohl, namely, that Jesus himself, as well as his earliest followers, rose out of the kind of messianic, apocalyptic way of thinking that has its closest parallels in the Qumran materials. In other words, the Jesus movement is best understood, as Robert Eisenman has put it, as a 1st century C.E. revival of at least one branch of the “messianic movement in Palestine” that flourished in the 1st century B.C.E.

To quote Bultman again:

Of course the attempt is made to carry the idea of the suffering Son of Man into Jesus’ own outlook by assuming that Jesus regarded himself as Deutero-Isaiah’s Servant of God who suffers and dies for the sinner, and fused together the two ideas Son of Man and the Servant of God into the single figure of the suffering, dying and rising Son of Man. At the very outset, the misgivings which must be raised as to the historicity of the predictions of the passion speak against this attempt. In addition, the tradition of Jesus’ sayings reveals no trace of consciousness on his part of being the Servant of God of Isaiah 53. The messianic interpretation of Isaiah 53 was discovered in the Christian Chruch and even in it not immediately (Theology of the New Testament I: 31.).

This point, shared by the vast majority of scholars doing critical-historical Jesus research, bears a careful reconsideration in the light of the arguments of Wise and Knohl. It is surely possible, and maybe even probable, that Jesus himself appropriated a cluster of prophetic texts in this messianic manner, and the composite he came up with included the notions of rejection, suffering, and death, as well as the more common elements of exaltation and glorification.

My own study of the messianic self-identity of two contemporary Messiahs, namely David Koresh (1993 i nWaco, TX) and Moses Guibbory (1926 in Jerusalem), has both reinforced and clarified the unfolding textual dynamics of such an autobiographical enterprise. The kind of prophetic, or potentially prophetic texts that most readily lend themselves to such a personalized interpretation are those in which the autobiographical “first person” style sets the stage for “third person,” pesher like interpretation. For example, the “I” of Isaiah 48:16; 49:1-7; 50:4-6; 61:1-4 can be combined with the narrative pattern of texts such as Isaiah 42:1-9; 52:13-53:12; Psalm 2 and 110, and Micah 5:2-4.

Draw near to me, hear this: from the beginning I have not spoken in secret, from the time it came to be I have been there. And now the Lord YHVH has sent me and his Spirit (Isaiah 48:16).

Listen to me, O coastlands, and hearken, you peoples from afar. Yahweh called me from the womb, from the body of my mother he named my name. He made my mouth like a sharp sword, in the shadow of his hand he hid me; he made me a polished arrow, in his quiver he hid me away. And he said to me, “You are my servant, Israel, in whom I will be glorified.” But I said, “I have labored in vain, I have spent my strength for nothing and vanity; yet surely my right is with Yahweh, and my recompense with my God.” And now Yahweh says, who formed me from the womb to be his servant, to bring Jacob back to him, and that Israel might be gathered to him, for I am honored in the eyes of the Yahweh, and my God has become my strength–he says: “It is too light a thing that you should be my servant to raise up the tribes of Jacob and to restore the preserved of Israel; I will give you as a light to the nations, that my salvation may reach to the end of the earth.” Thus says Yahweh the Redeemer of Israel and his Holy One, to one deeply despised, abhorred by the nation, the servant of rulers: “Kings shall see and arise; princes, and they shall prostrate themselves; because of Yahweh, who is faithful, the Holy One of Israel, who has chosen you (Isaiah 49:1-7).

The Lord Yahweh has given me the tongue of those who are taught, that I may know how to sustain with a word him that is weary. Morning by morning he wakens, he wakens my ear to hear as those who are taught. The Lord Yahweh has opened my ear, and I was not rebellious, I turned not backward. I gave my back to the smiters, and my cheeks to those who pulled out the beard; I hid not my face from shame and spitting (Isaiah 54:4-6).

There is no denying that our earliest Passion Narrative, now reflected in the Gospel of Mark, clearly builds up the career of Jesus based on a set of prophetic texts such as Zechariah 9:9. Accordingly, the precise historicity of individual episodes remains in dispute. Did Jesus ride into Jerusalem on a colt, or does Mark create this scene based on the prophetic text? However, this uncertainty should by no means lead us to conclude that the inner dynamics of messianic self-identity, based on key prophetic texts and contexts, is unlikely in the case of Jesus of Nazareth.

What really stirs this apocalyptic messianic “pot” of stew is the combination of subjective inward experience and objective, external, historical fact. In other words, the messianic candidate comes to the text to inform his or her self-understanding, as well as launch a messianic career, while at the same time external events, such as Pilate delivering Jesus to be crucified, elucidate the “true” meaning of the texts. This is the heart and core of the pesher method of interpretation as seen in, say, the Habakkuk Pesher (1QpHab). The “chastisement of the Teacher of Righeousness” (IV.10) and the suffering and faith of the followers (VIII. 1-3) both inform inner self-understanding and reinforce, or even “orchestrate,” external events.

Most common in this complex of categories, candidates, and contexts is the notion of a kind of “realized eschatology,” to borrow a phrase from C. H. Dodd. In other words, the hard reality of history is mediated by the imaginative projection of communal or individual self-understanding. The full confirmation of prophetic fulfillment is always “at hand,” just out of reach, but the serendipitous and fortuitous nature of events, as well as the self-conscious activities of the leader and the group, work together to construct a convincing picture. Although the texts themselves act powerfully in this mix, it is the utter conviction of the candidate, set in these historical contexts, that furnishes the apologetic power. With such dynamics at work we truly have “the makings of a Messiah” in ways that can be documented down through history, even into our own time.

That Other “King of the Jews”

Then they arrayed him in scarlet, and when they had plaited it they invested him with a victor’s wreath made of thorn, and saluted him with, “Hail! King of the Jews!” (Mark 15:18).



According to the gospel of Mark, when Jesus is on trial before the Roman Prefect Pontius Pilate he was asked if he claimed to be the “King of the Jews,” and his ambiguous answer was “You have said so,” which might be translated “as you say.” (Mark 15:2). Pilate then refers to Jesus as “the King of the Jews,” apparently echoing back a charge of Jesus’ enemies, that he claimed to be a “king”  (Mark 15:9, 12).1 Later that morning when the Roman cohort of soldiers gathered inside the Praetorium2 to beat and mock their new prisoner, draping him with a purple robe and crowning him with a victor’s wreath of thorns, they saluted him, “Hail! King of the Jews!” (Mark 15:18). Finally, the placard upon which was written the charge against him, placed over his head on the cross, read “The King of the Jews” (Mark 15:26).3

What few Bible readers realize is that the claim to be “King of the Jews” was a highly charged political act of sedition or lese-majesty, considered a capital crime in Roman Law4. Robert Eisler in his classic work The Messiah Jesus and John the Baptist (1931) as well as S. F. Brandon, Jesus and the Zealots (1967) have thoroughly explored these political dimensions5

The emperor Augustus gave Herod the title King of the Jews and his connections with Rome and the emperor Augustus and his court were extraordinary.6 Throughout his long reign he desperately, but abortively, wanted to establish some kind of “dynasty” or royal line, as evidenced by his marriage to the Hashmonean princess Miriame. So obsessed was he with genealogical records that Josephus reports that he had the archives at Sepphoris destroyed lest any rivals challenge his pedigree or put forth their own. His son, Herod Antipas, tried much the same, seeking to forge royal connections through marriage and building his magnificent capital at Sepphoris, just a stone’s throw the northwest of the tiny village of Nazareth. Meanwhile, in Rome, Octavian, as the emperor Augustus, also sought to establish a dynastic line of succession by his adoption of Tiberius not long before his death. It seems that “Dynasties” were in the air in the 1st century CE Roman world.

I have collected books on Herod the Great for 30 years now and I find him endlessly fascinating and alluring as an historical figure, but much more so as a study in contrasts with that other “King of the Jews,” Jesus of Nazareth, crucified in 30 CE at Passover as a potential insurrectionist and heir to the royal throne of David. Unlike many of my colleagues in the area of Christian Origins who see Jesus as a healer, prophet-like figure, or teacher (all of which he surely was!), I have not the slightest doubt that he laid claim to the royal Davidic lineage and understood himself as the legitimate King of Israel or “messiah.” 7 In my book, The Jesus Dynasty, I try to lay out the full implications of this understanding, one I consider key to recovering the “historical Jesus.” ((If you have never read this book, published in 2006, I recommend it, modestly but highly! See http://jesusdynasty.com))

Our earliest source for Jesus as a Davidic “Royal” comes from Paul (Romans 1:3). Indeed, I believe that the Davidic messianic claims for Jesus are an essential factor for any interpretation of the figure of Jesus in his own time and context. I am convinced the Messianic self-identity of Jesus opens up a world of understanding of both of the man and his movement, and that without it any interpretation of the historical Jesus fundamentally fails. I have always been a bit puzzled as when I have been asked–but why would you think Jesus thought himself to be of Davidic lineage, when my question would be the opposite–how could he have possibly viewed himself otherwise, given what we know of the movement, its beliefs, and its history? Teachers, prophets, and charismatic healers are one thing, but the coming of the “Messiahs of Aaron and Israel” was at the heart of Jewish expectations of the future under the rule of a succession of Herodian rulers who were considered to be corrupt in illegitimate kings. (See my unpublished paper here on the “Two Messiahs” concept).

I am further convinced that part and parcel of the Davidic lineage idea was that one was part of a dynasty, made up of brothers and sons. And this is what we find in the Jesus movement as James, the brother of Jesus, becomes his successor, and Simon, another brother (some say cousin but of the same royal lineage), takes the leadership at the death of James.  Yose, Jesus second brother after James, has apparently died by the time of the death of James in 62 CE or he would have likely been next in line. All of this evidence fits “hand-in-glove” with what we find in the “Jesus family tomb” at Talpiot. (See my overview “The Case for A ‘Jesus Family Tomb in East Talpiot: A Comprehensive Summary of the Evidence.” )

The Talpiot Jesus tomb is below under the concrete slab in the foreground. Herod’s tomb, the Herodium, is the dome-like structure in the distance, in the center of the photo above the roof tops.

We known the splendor with which Herod was buried from the account in Josephus and the ruins of the Herodium, especially the more recent discoveries of my friend, the late Ehud Netzer. Jesus, in contrast, was crucified as a criminal and hastily and temporarily placed in a rock-hewn tomb near the place where he died. Joseph of Arimathea, who had taken charge of his burial, likely provided a more permanent tomb for Jesus, and perhaps for the rest of his family, shortly thereafter, see my exposition on this here. Like other Rabbis and teachers of the time we can expect the followers of this “Branch of David,” would have made sure he and his family were well taken care of, in death as in life. The elaborately decorated sarcophagus of Herod stands in sharp contrast to the plain undecorated ossuary of Jesus son of Joseph of the Talpiot tomb. That the Jesus of the tomb also has a son named Judah makes the entire Dynasty concept all the more dynamic.

Several years ago, standing in the parking lot of the condominium complex overlooking the Talpiot Jesus family tomb I suddenly realized, looking to the south, that the Herodium, which became Herod the Great’s fortress Tomb, was clearly visible in the distance. I thought to myself–how appropriate! The two men called “King of the Jews,” but for very different reasons and in very different contexts, buried within sight of one another!

  1. Such a claim would be considered the capital crime of lese majesty under Roman law, see Tacitus, Annals 4. 70; 6.7 

  2. See my post “Standing Again with Jesus: Ecce Homo Revisited,” here

  3. John has a significantly expanded version of this trial scene in Mark that seems to be more theologically reflective than “historical,” see John 18:28-19:21 

  4. See Tacitus, Annals 4. 70; 6.7 

  5. Eisler, whose 1929 German edition was translated into English is long out of print but it can be found in most libraries and is available in a photocopy edition, see more here

  6. See Peter Richarson, Herod: King of the Jews and Friend of the Romans (Philadelphia: Fortress Press, 1999. 

  7. See my arguments in this regard in the article “Are You the One? The Textual Dynamics of Messianic Self-Identity,” in “Knowing the End from the Beginning: The Prophetic, the Apocalyptic, and their Relationships,” edited by Lester L. Grabbe and Robert D. Haak, Journal for the Study of the Pseudepigrapha Supplement (Sheffield: Sheffield Academic Press, 2004), pp. 180-191. 

Rosh HaShanah Explained: The “Day of the Blast”

Cry aloud to God our strength, raise a shout to the God of Jacob.

This evening at sundown the Jewish holiday popularly known as Rosh HaShanah begins. Literally, rosh ha-Shanah means “head of the year.” It is commonly included on our secular calendars today as one of the “Jewish Holidays,” along with Passover and Yom Kippur, and is widely known as the “Jewish New Year.” Surprisingly though, on the Jewish calendar it is the 1st day of the seventh month, not the first day of the first month–so how could it mark a new year?

Blowing the Shofar
Blowing the Shofar


In biblical times, and on the Jewish calendar today, the “months” are lunar months, marked by the appearance of the “new moon,” 12 or 13 times in a solar year of 365.25 days. Judaism has two ways of marking the beginning of a year. The term “year” in Hebrew, shanah/שׁנה, is related to a verbal root meaning “to change” or “to turn.” Accordingly, one can refer to the “turning” of a year. The seasonal New Year is the first day of the first month, as Exodus 12: 1 puts it:

This Moon/month shall be to you the beginning (rosh, lit. “head”) of months.”

I suppose one could call it the original or primary “Rosh HaShanah,” as it comes with the beginning of the Spring and is therefore tied to the barley harvest and its seasonal ripening. That day is very significant in biblical and Jewish history as many events have taken place on Nisan 1st–the biblical New Year, marking times of “new beginnings” (Exodus 40:2; 2 Chronicles 29:17; Ezra 7:9; 10:17).

The “Jewish New Year” that most are familiar with today falls on the 1st day of the 7th lunar month–in the fall of the year. It marks the beginning or “turning” of different kind of year, one that in ancient times had to do with certain calculations regarding the Jubilee, the redemption of bond-servants, and so forth. It is kind of an “legal” New Year, much like our July and Oct “fiscal years” in our society today. It has to do with “accounting.”

In the Torah itself this holy day is never called Rosh HaShanah. Rather it gets a different name–Yom Teru’ah, that is “day of the blast.” Teru’ah/תרועה in Hebrew refers to raising up a loud noise, whether the shout of a human voice, such as a battle cry, or the piercing sound of a shofar or “trumpet” as a call of assembly or alarm–much like our modern concept of a siren.  Thus some Christian groups that keep this day refer to it as the “feast of Trumpets,” though that phrase never occurs in the Hebrew Bible.

There is, however, an association of this day with a “trumpet,” or more properly, a “shofar,” in Psalm 81, coupled with the word teru’ah or “shout.”

Cry aloud to God our strength, raise a shout to the God of Jacob.
Lift up a song, and give out a timbrel, a pleasant harp with psaltery.
Blow in the month a shofar, in the new moon, at the day of our festival,
For a statute to Israel it is, an ordinance of the God of Jacob.
A testimony on Joseph He hath placed it, in his going forth over the land of Egypt (Psalm 81:2-6).

But what does it mean? The instructions in Leviticus 23, where all the biblical festivals and sabbaths of the Jewish calendar are amazingly sparse give no reason or meaning to the day. There one is simply told:

Speak to the people of Israel, saying, “In the seventh month, on the first day of the month, you shall observe a day of solemn rest, memorial of teru’ah, a holy convocation (Leviticus 23:24).

This is quite literally a “commemoration” announced by a blasting sound–whether of shouting or that of a shofar. The best clues to the ancient meaning of this day are found in Psalm 80 & 81. The connection here to the tribe of Joseph is quite interesting. Judaism has connected the sound of the shofar as a call to the Tribes to gather as well as a call to all humanity to awaken. It comes to be associated with judgment and resurrection of the dead. Paul writes that the return of Jesus in the clouds of heaven and the resurrection of the dead will commence with the “sound of the trumpet of God” or “the last trumpet” (1 Thessalonians 4:16; 1 Corinthians 15:52). In the gospel of Matthew the “elect” or chosen ones, which would make up a kind of “true Israel,” are gathered at the end of days by the sound of a “loud trumpet” (Matthew 24:31).

Since this day of Teru’ah comes ten days before Yom Kippur, the solemn day of “covering” or atonement, the blast of the shofar has come to mean a call to introspection and judgment. The “ten days of awe,” between the two festivals are a time when the world stands in judgment and the doors of repentance are open. The rabbis emphasize that whereas Passover, which falls in the first month of the Jewish calendar celebrates the freedom of Israel from slavery in Egypt, this “Day of the memorial Blast,” that falls in the seventh month, is a call to all humankind to stand before God in judgment, and thus is much more universal in scope.

Rare Roman Gold Coin of Nero Found at Mt Zion Excavations!

A Roman gold coin depicting the Emperor Nero, dated to 56 CE was discovered in summer, 2016 at UNC Charlotte's archaeological excavation at Jerusalem's Mt. Zion. Credit: Shimon Gibson
A Roman gold coin depicting the Emperor Nero, dated to 56 CE was discovered in summer, 2016 at UNC Charlotte’s archaeological excavation at Jerusalem’s Mt. Zion.
Credit: Shimon Gibson

The discovery of a rare gold coin bearing the image of the Roman Emperor Nero at the University of North Carolina at Charlotte’s archaeological excavations on Mount Zion in Jerusalem, has just been announced by the archaeologists in charge of the project, Drs. Shimon Gibson, James Tabor, and Rafael Lewis.

“The coin is exceptional,” said Gibson, “because this is the first time that a coin of this kind has turned up in Jerusalem in a scientific dig. Coins of this type are usually only found in private collections, where we don’t have clear evidence as to place of origin.”

The gold coin (aureus) bears the bare-headed portrait of the young Nero as Caesar. The lettering around the edge of the coin reads: NERO CAESAR AVG IMP. On the reverse of the coin is a depiction of an oak wreath containing the letters “EX S C,” with the surrounding inscription “PONTIF MAX TR P III.” Importantly, these inscriptions help to work out the date when the coin was struck as 56/57 AD. Identification of the coin was made by the historian and numismatist, Dr. David Jacobson from London.

The coin dates to a little more than a decade before the destruction of Jerusalem by the Romans in 70 AD, and was found in rubble material outside the ruins of the 1st Century Jewish villas the team has been excavating. The team has hypothesized that the large houses may have belonged to wealthy members of the priestly caste, and it may have come from one of their stores of wealth.

“The coin probably came from one of the rich 2000-year old Jewish dwellings which the UNC Charlotte team have been uncovering at the site,” said Gibson. “These belonged to the priestly and aristocratic quarter located in the Upper City of Jerusalem. Finds include the well-preserved rooms of a very large mansion, a Jewish ritual pool (mikveh) and a bathroom, both with their ceilings intact.”

This mansion and other like it, were utterly destroyed by Titus and the Roman legions, when Jerusalem was razed to the ground. It is likely, owing to the intrinsic value of the gold coin, it was hidden away ahead of the destruction of the city, and was missed by the marauding and looting Roman soldiers.

“It’s a valuable piece of personal property and wouldn’t have been cast away like rubbish or casually dropped. It’s conceivable that it ended up outside these structures in the chaos that happened as this area was destroyed.”

The image of Nero is significant in that it shows the presence of the Roman occupation and provides a clear late date for the occupation of the residences. There is no historical evidence that Nero ever visited Jerusalem. Tabor pointed out that the coin is dated “to the same year of St. Paul’s last visit to Jerusalem, which resulted in his arrest (on the charge of taking Gentiles into the Temple) and incarceration in Caesarea.” Last of the Julio-Claudian line, Nero was Roman emperor for fourteen years (54-68 AD). He had the reputation for being a tyrant, and some believed he was responsible for the devastating fire of 64 AD, which resulted in the burning of much of Rome.

The archaeological project has brought to light many other significant finds during the 2016 summer season, and work at the site will be resumed next year.


Story Source:

The above post is reprinted from materials provided by University of North Carolina at Charlotte. Note: Content may be edited for style and length.

Picking and Choosing: How Scholars Read the Gospels

I recently wrote a post titled “Do Historians Exclude the Supernatural?” Here I want to explore a related issue that one often hears from a variety of circles also having to do with methods of the academic study of religions–how scholars evaluate ancient texts–and here I will particularly focus on my own work on the historical Jesus.

When it comes to a critical reading of our New Testament gospels and other related texts one can get the impression that scholars end up rather arbitrarily “picking and choosing” whatever they want–especially in trying to construct their portraits of the “historical Jesus.” In other words, as Albert Schweitzer cautioned long ago, all too often historians seem to come up with a Jesus made in their own image, so that texts and traditions they favor are retained whereas those they disfavor are discarded as unreliable. In fact, I would argue that more often quite the opposite is the case. Many of those who claim simply to “take the Bible as it is,” without any critical discernment of sources, traditions, and historical contexts actually end up as the ones who quite arbitrarily fall into this trap of subjectively “picking and choosing.”

HistoricalJesus Books


For example, we have two very different versions of the so-called Beatitudes–Matthew 5:1-12 and Luke 6:20-26. The same is the case for the Lord’s Prayer–compare Matthew 6:9-13 and Luke 11:2-4. Matthew’s version is by far the one best known, most often quoted, and clearly favored by most Christians–but what about Luke’s alternative version? How and why is it different and what can we make of those differences? Why do we have differing versions of many of Jesus’ teachings and sayings in Matthew and Luke that are not in Mark–this is the “double tradition” that most scholars refer to as Q. Rather than picking ones “favorite” version, and using it arbitrarily for ones own purposes, what critical scholars attempt to do is analytically account for the various strands of tradition, carefully comparing the similarities and differences, in an effort to get at why our traditions differ, when and where they originated, and which might more reliably go back to Jesus himself–if such can be determined. I often tell my students, a critical reading of our sources means a careful reading, with great attention to differences and details. Many of those who claim that they simply “take the Bible as it is,” in fact have never carefully read the very texts they claim to honor and are blissfully unaware of the important differences in our various sources.

As an illustration take a look at my post on the various differing accounts of the discovery of Jesus’ empty tomb following his crucifixion, “How Faith in Jesus’ Resurrection Originated and Developed.” Rather than arbitrarily choosing the one I liked best, I tried to arrange them in their most likely chronological order and to account for the differences in terms of the obvious rewriting and overwriting of earlier sources by later ones.

So how do historians go about doing their work? What methods and principles do they value and seek to follow?

To begin with, historians do not privilege any texts, be they in or out of the Bible, as inherently reliable based on a view of divine inspiration. This method immediately separates historical work from theological work, in that theology, at least traditional Christian theology, begins with the assumption that the texts of the Bible are inspired and thus at some level “true” or at least “more true” than other writings of the time. For the historian there is a sense in which all texts are created equal and are therefore examined with the same methods of analysis. That does not mean, however, that some are not considered more accurate historically than others. For example, when it comes to reliable history or teaching of Jesus most scholars would not give as much weight to the Gospel of Thomas as the Gospel of Mark. Often this has to do as much with dating and chronology as to whether a text is “in” the New Testament or not. Thomas, like the newly published Gospel of Judas, dates from the late 2nd or early 3rd century whereas Mark seems to have been written around 70 CE–within forty years of Jesus’ lifetime.

Older is not always better, but when we have a text as old as Mark, we surely want to give it the priority that it deserves. And we can show how Mark becomes the narrative core or basis for both Matthew and Luke, who “overwrite” and “rewrite” it with their own interests in mind. This does not mean, necessarily, that anything from Matthew’s and Luke’s “rewritten Mark” has no historical value, but it does allow us to account for how and when the various differences arose, and often we can trace them to particular emphases or interests of the authors. For example, Luke consistently removes, time and time again, the motif, so dominant in Mark, of the failure of the disciples. Those sections of Mark are simply missing in Luke–he purposely and consistently takes them out (e.g. Mark 8:32-33; 10:35-40; 14:32-50).

It is also possible that the “double tradition” in Matthew and Luke, that most scholars refer to as Q, might well predate even Mark. It appears to be an early collection of the teachings of Jesus with a minimum of narrative material. Chronology is not everything, but at least in the beginning we want to try to arrange our sources as much as possible in a chronological fashion, thus when it comes to Jesus we have: the Q source, Mark, Matthew, Luke, the “Signs source,” John, the letter of James, the Didache, fragments of the Gospel of Peter, fragments of “Hebrew Matthew” and the gospel of Thomas, even though scholars might disagree as to their precise dating. Surprisingly, to many, the letters of Paul are earlier than any of these gospel materials and one of our latest sources, which is mistakenly taken by many as the most foundational text for the development of the early Christian movement, is the book of Acts.

It is also important to try and detect the kind of editorial development that goes on in such a trajectory of texts. It is not always strictly chronological, but often it is. On the whole we can see, within the early Christian tradition, a tendency to make Jesus more divine and less human, to downplay the role of John the Baptist, and to mute or mitigate the role of James and the family of Jesus. What we try to do is to take all our sources and compare them side by side and then to draw conclusions, as much as we can, as to what is most likely closer to Jesus and what might be a later development.

To take just a few examples, Matthew uses Mark as a source and he consistently “edits” him at crucial points. In Mark 10:17-18 a man says to Jesus “Good teacher, what do I do to inherit eternal life?” and Jesus rebukes him replying, “Why do you call me good, there is One who is good, God.” Matthew comes to that story and alters Jesus’ answer to read: “Why do you ask me about the good.” Here you can see that given Matthew’s more divine view of Jesus, he finds the wording of Mark troubling and freely edits it. When it comes to Q there are times when the Hebrew version of Matthew appears to be less edited than the Greek versions in either Matthew or Luke. A prime example is Matthew 11:11 (Luke 7:28) where Jesus declares that “among those born of women there is none greater than John.” This startling statement stands unqualified in the Hebrew version of Matthew preserved by Ibn Shaprut, whereas in Greek, both Luke and Matthew have the qualifying addition: “but nonetheless, the least in the kingdom of God is greater than he.” I am convinced that the latter is an editorial gloss that was added to soften the shocking implication that John the Baptist is then greater than Jesus. In such a case we often give the more difficult, or the more “primitive” reading more weight than what appears to be a later addition. The issue of Jesus being baptized by John is one of the clearest examples one can find of the unfolding tendency to elevate Jesus above John. Mark offers a straight account of John Baptizing Jesus, Matthew adds the lines in which John objects to doing this since Jesus is greater, Luke reports Jesus’ baptism and implies John did it, but never directly says so, and John drops the entire narrative account entirely. Most of us are convinced that this kind of evidence can not be dismissed as chance and it should not be ignored but carefully analyzed.

This entire process can appear to a casual reader as “picking and choosing” at will, but it is in fact a carefully worked out process. In my book, The Jesus Dynasty, I try to bring the reader into the methods of analysis I employ so as to make clear why certain texts and traditions are thought to be more historically reliable while others are seen as secondary. In  our book, The Jesus Discovery, coauthored with Simcha Jacobovici, that process continues. The book begins with our new archaeological discoveries at the Talpiot tomb but it is much more than that, with two thirds of the book devoted to a careful and critical analysis of a set of related issues–who was Mary Magadelene? What about the accounts of the “empty tomb”? What role did James the brother of Jesus play in early Christianity? How do Paul’s letters contribute historically to our understanding of Jesus?–as well as many others.

What we historians attempt is not a perfect lab science–if such a thing exists–but there is a method to what might appear to some to be “madness.” I want to invite my readers into the process of critical evaluation and reflection; the same process that I use with my students and that is commonly followed in advanced courses in universities when one deals with the historical Jesus. Once one carefully works through the arguments presented in both The Jesus Dynasty and more recently in The Jesus Discovery,  I think one might find that what seems at first glance to be “picking and choosing” is actually a rather careful methodological attempt to sort through the sources in a responsible historical manner.