The Suba “John the Baptist” Cave Revisited

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.

Return to the Cave of John the Baptist




Happy New Year to All–Yes, Today is the Beginning of the Hebrew Year

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!

Barley 2013

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.

Personal Reflections on the Hebrew Bible and the Greek New Testament

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.

Frank Moore Cross on the Hebrew Bible and the New Testament

One of the most fascinating interviews I have ever read is one conducted by Biblical Archaeology Review editor Hershel Shanks with Jewish thinker and Holocaust surviver Elie Wiesel and renowned Harvard Biblical scholar Frank Moore Cross (BAR 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, although 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 post here.

My favorite picture of Prof. Frank Moore Cross with his ever-present hat, intently discussing the James ossuary in Toronto in 2002 with Hershel Shanks and Joe Fitzmyer as we all crowd around to listen in. Thanks to Lori Woodall for this lovely photo.
My favorite picture of Prof. Frank Moore Cross with his ever-present hat, intently discussing the James ossuary in Toronto in 2002 with Hershel Shanks and Joe Fitzmyer as we all crowd around to listen in. Thanks to Lori Woodall for this lovely photo.

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.

The New Covenant is Not a Book!

Happily, I come out of a Christian 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.

Professor Frank Moore Cross, Harvard University

Most people today think of the New Covenant, or as it is more commonly called, the New Testament, as a book–namely the 27 documents making up the tradition canon of the Christian Scriptures. In our Western Christian world this collection, bound together with what is then called the Old Testament or Jewish Scriptures, makes up the Holy Bible.  What millions fail to realize is that this is a wholly new creation–at least two hundred years in the making–was unknown to Jesus, or any of the apostles–not even to Paul whose letters make up over a quarter of the whole. They were all Jews and to them the “Bible” or the Holy Scriptures was the Hebrew Bible, that Jews today call the Tanakh–the Torah, Prophets, and Writings. It is this precise collection of books that Christians erroneously ended up calling the Old Testament.

New Testament

It comes as a surprise to many of my students to learn that the term new covenant only occurs once  in the entire Hebrew Bible–in the book of the prophet Jeremiah. Although there are examples of the Covenant God made with all Israel through Moses at Horeb/Sinai being “renewed” at various points (e.g. Deuteronomy 29:1; 2 Kings 23:1-3), the “New Covenant” of which Jeremiah speaks (31:31-34) stands out in terms of how it is both described and placed in context.

Jesus did speak of a “new covenant” and it is clear that he is drawing from the prophet Jeremiah, whose life and message shape much of his understanding of his own mission. Just as Jeremiah had brought a message to Jerusalem and its corrupt leaders 40 years before the destruction of the 1st Temple in 586 BCE, Jesus saw himself repeating much of that mission, but in this case a generation before the destruction of the 2nd Temple in 70 CE by the Romans. Jesus declares the Herodian Temple a “den of robbers” based upon Jeremiah 7:11, and he declares it abandoned and forsaken by God, based upon his reading of Daniel 9:26 and Zechariah 13:7-9. According to the gospel of Mark Jesus quotes these very texts Jesus actually quotes as he goes about his final activities in Jerusalem the week before Passover the year he is crucified. Many scholars would see the matching of such quotations with the activities and expectations of Jesus as inserted after the fact by Mark but there are good reasons to think it might have been just the opposite. Jesus if finding his messianic “script” in the Hebrew Prophets and is accordingly acting out what he considers to be his prophetic messianic role as the representative Suffering Servant who redeems all Israel. I have published several articles on this point and summarized my arguments in the post “The Making of a Messiah” here. I am convinced that Jesus both predicted and anticipated his confrontation with the Roman and Jewish authorities and willingly submitted to the suffering that he felt was his lot to endure. But what does all this have to do with the New Covenant?

If one reads carefully the wider context of Jeremiah’s “new covenant” reference, in chapters 30-31, it is abundantly clear, both by the descriptive content and the timing indicated (“At that time” “in that day” “the days are coming”), that this is a singular, unique, event is to take place in a specific time when all the Tribes of Israel are gathered together back in the Land, with Judah and Israel becoming one.

This event is spoken of in all the prophets with a consistency and a specificity that rivals any other theme or subject in the Hebrew prophets, and is particularly evident in Ezekiel 37, that also mentions this “new” covenant, using different words. It is a key theme throughout Jeremiah (see 16:14-21).

I think it is indisputable that this very specific vision of the future was the one anticipated by Jesus in speaking of a New Covenant.  Indeed, right after referring to the New Covenant at his last meal with “the Twelve” he Jesus refers explicitly to this expectation according to our earliest source–the Q Saying. There he tells his Twelve chosen disciples: “I assign to you, as my Father assigned to me, a kingdom, that you may eat and drink at my table in my kingdom and sit on thrones judging the twelve tribes of Israel (Luke 22:29-30). Here it is clear that the “new covenant” is proleptically anticipated as a messianic banquet. His perspective is the future–the new age–that he calls the “new world” (παλινγγενεσία/paliggenesia) as Matthew’s parallel makes clear (Matthew 19:28).

Although there is a sense that one might still refer to this as a “renewed” covenant, it seems to stand out as different from the various “renewals” in the previous history of Israel, so that it is understood, by analogy at least, like a divorce and a remarriage, with all Twelve tribes (the house of Israel and the house of Judah) regathered to the Land and united under the Branch or Davidic Messiah (see Jeremiah 23:3-8). Indeed, this future “regathering” of the scattered “lost” sheep of the house of Israel would rival the Exodus of Moses in terms of its scope and significance. So in that sense there is only one covenant, the one with Israel–broken but renewed in the future. This is the single Covenant with Israel commanded to a “thousand generations” (Deuteronomy 7:9; Psalm 105:8).

Given this historical context and the clear words of Jeremiah the term Old Testament as a term applied to the Hebrew Scriptures or Tanakh is wholly inappropriate. As someone once said, O.T. might better mean “the Only Tesament.” So where did this idea of a new covenant replacing an old one that is obsolete originate? The answer is clear–it is wholly the creation of the apostle Paul. It is Paul who creates this dichotomy between his own work as a “minister of the new covenant” and the inferior and obsolete work of Moses that he refers to as a “ministry of death.” Indeed, he asserts that those who read the “Old Covenant” are blinded until they turn to Christ (2 Corinthians 3). In my own view, as I argue in my book, Paul and Jesus, these ideas of Paul which he begins to promulgate in the 50s CE, represent for the first time a new religion called Christianity, in contrast to the prophetic messianic message of Jesus and his first followers.

The “last” Prophetic word we have in the Hebrew Prophets is to “Remember the Teachings of My Servant Moses,” and that appears to take us to final days, characterized by the appearance of Elijah (Malachi 3/4). Rather than fade, the “glory” Moses experienced at Sinai will be renewed and enhanced in the time of which Jeremiah speaks. A simple reading of Jeremiah 30-31 belies Paul’s entire concept of a New Covenant that makes obsolete an Old, with a New Israel defined now as the Church of Christ, replacing the Jewish people whom he likens to “dead branches” broken off the tree of Abraham (Romans 11).

This is not to say that the images of putting the Torah in the heart, or having a “new heart,” that Paul makes use of, are not found in the prophetic passages that speak of the “new covenant” and its operation. They lie at the heart of things, but they are nothing new, in that these very possibilities and potentials are all at the center of the covenant Moses made with Israel. Moses constantly tells the ancient Israelites to circumcise the heart, to have hearts of flesh not stone, and to put the Torah within (Deuteronomy 10). This theme of a personal, spiritual “conversion,” or turning to Jehovah, is repeated constantly in the Psalms and Prophets as well. It is at the heart of the Sinai/Horeb revelation.  Grace and the personal forgiveness of sins, bringing about a bonded friendship with the Creator through the Holy Spirit, has always been offered freely to human beings, and all the more so through Moses’s covenant with Israel (Psalm 51; 145:18).

Paul’s view of a “fleshly” and “spiritual” dichotomy is well known to us in all the Hellenistic dualistic systems of thought of the ancient Mediterranean world, particularly the Platonists, Pythagorians, and to some extent the Stoics. That is why he thinks what one “eats or drinks” or observing “days” has nothing to do with the “real” inner person. One of the most telling indications of this orientation toward the “heavenly” over the earthly is his assertion that “God does not care for oxen” but the Torah passage mandating care for the welfare of animals actually refers wholly to supporting preachers like himself financially(1 Corinthians 9:3-12).

A central issue when it comes to Paul is not whether he was a good guy or a bad guy, sincere or insincere, or even whether the ethical principles of the Torah are abrogated or carried through into the “new covenant” as he understands it. I have no doubt that Paul thought he was living in the “end times” and would live to see all that Jeremiah spoke of come about, at least in some “spiritual” way, since he had given up the idea that what he calls “fleshly” Israel mattered anymore. The real issue is whether one, Jew or Gentile, can have a right relationship with God by grace through faith, as Abraham had, by turning directly in repentance and faith, without the requirements of “accepting Christ” and receiving “eternal life” through the blood of the cross, as the exclusive new “way of salvation.” This is where “Christianity,” at least as viewed by Paul, parts with Judaism, and for that matter, with a plain reading of the Hebrew Bible, both Torah, Prophets, and Writings. And yet for Paul, centering everything on God offering his divine Son as a sacrifice for sins is the heart of his “new covenant” ideas (2 Corinthians 3-5). If one then turns back and reads Jeremiah 30-31 there is little to no correspondence between what Jeremiah says and the ideas Paul expounds that he calls the “New Covenant.”

Jesus himself offers something dead center in terms of reflecting the Hebrew Bible and its “way of salvation.” His well known story of “justification” given by Jesus in Luke 15 and the lost son who comes home, requires only the father’s gracious acceptance of a son who is truly broken up over his past wrong behavior. Even more to the point is his story of the tax collector or “sinner” of Luke 18 who bowed his head, struck his breast, and said “God be merciful to me a sinner.” This is the one Way of turning to God that one finds consistently in the pages of the Hebrew Bible.

Two verses from the Hebrew Bible come to mind in this regard:

Psalm 145:18: “The LORD is near to all who call upon him, to all who call upon him in truth.”

Isaiah 56:6-7: “Seek the LORD while he may be found; call upon him while he is near; let the wicked forsake his way, and the unrighteous man his thoughts; let him return to the LORD, that he may have compassion on him, and to our God, for he will abundantly pardon.”

One might refer to this understanding of God and God’s relationship with humanity as “Abrahamic Faith,” taking one back to the pivotal and foundational “faith” of Abraham as reflected in the accounts of Genesis 12-22 in particular. It is a faith summarized in both the promises and the mission of Abraham as laid out in texts like Genesis 12:1-3; 18:17-19; Jeremiah 4:2). It is a path open to “all humanity,” who by taking up Abraham’s mission to represent “justice and righteousness” in the world become his spiritual offspring or “household.” I have explored this in a preliminary way in the Conclusion to my book, The Jesus Dynasty, but for those interested an approach that is much more biblically oriented there is much more in an older work of mine, long out of print, but now again available titled Restoring Abrahamic Faith.

A personal postscript: I grew up in the Alexander Campbell/Barton Stone  American”Restoration” movement which as much as any branch of modern Christianity has emphasized the New Testament as the only rule and authority for all matters of faith. We used to fight with the Baptists and Methodists “tooth and nail” for not recognizing that the Old Testament, like an outdated or abrogated “Constitution,” had been made null and void by the “New.” Ironically, it turns out, that this former “Church of Christ” kid is now allied, on this point at least, with those Christians who continued to draw spiritual insight and sustenance from the “Old Testament,” and indeed, in some cases seem to have come to prefer Jesus and the Hebrew Scriptures over the dogmas of Paul. See my blog post on Frank Cross, one of the greatest scholars of our time, on the Hebrew Bible and the New Testament here, as well as my own published reflections here.

The Abba Cave, Crucifixion Nails, and the Last Hasmonean King

The mystery deepens…the plot thickens…


Few have heard anything about the “Abba Cave,” discovered in 1971 in the north Jerusalem suburb of Givat Hamivtar–not far from the tomb of “Yehohanan,” the famous “crucified man,” discovered in 1968–about which much has been written. The Abba cave held the remains of another “crucified man,” with three nails–not just a single one in the heel bone–that clearly pinned the hands (not the wrists, as some have argued) in hook-like fashion to a cross beam. It was assumed back in the 1970s that these bones were buried and no longer available for analysis–but it turns out this is not the case. What is even more intriguing, the victim was arguably none other than Matitiyahu Antigonus–the last of the Hashmonean kings–who was both beheaded and crucified by Marc Anthony. in 37 BCE).

And even more significant, Greg Doudna has persuasively argued that this Antigonus is in the thick of things reflected in the Dead Sea Scrolls with the various priestly figures vying for power.  Doudna identifies Hyrcanus II, the great opponent of Antigonus, as none other than the famed “Teacher of Righteousness” in the Dead Sea Scrolls, see a summary of his evidence, “A Narrative Argument that the Teacher of Righteousness was Hyrcanus II.”

Here is an overview and an update on the discovery, published in HaAretz:

Cold case: Did archaeologists find the last Maccabean king, after all?

Crucified remains and a broken jaw have confused scientists for decades. But it could well be that the last Hasmonean king has been found under a private house in Jerusalem.

By Ariel David, Apr. 29, 2014

In 1970, a rock-cut tomb was discovered by workers building a private house in Jerusalem’s Givat Hamivtar neighborhood. Inside the two-chambered burial, dating back to the first century BCE, archeologists found a decorated ossuary – a limestone box containing the bones of the deceased – and an enigmatic Aramaic inscription affixed to the wall.

“I am Abba, son of Eleazar the priest,” proclaimed the 2,000-year-old text. “I am Abba, the oppressed, the persecuted, born in Jerusalem and exiled to Babylon, who brought back Mattathiah son of Judah and buried him in the cave that I purchased.”

Who was Abba, this unfortunate priest from Jerusalem? And who was the Mattathiah whose remains were apparently buried in the cave?

These questions have been fiercely debated by scholars for the past 40 years. Now. new research indicates that the initial interpretation of the find, that has long been dismissed, may have been right all along. This view identifies the Abba cave as the final resting place of a key figure in Jewish history: Mattathiah Antigonus II, the last king of the Hasmonean dynasty, whose reign was followed by Roman conquest, the destruction of the Second Temple and two millennia of exile.

A secret burial?

The supposed discovery of his remains was widely publicized in the Israeli media in the 1970s, and set off an archeological detective story that continues to this day, punctuated by academic rows, sudden tragedies and surprising twists.

Historians initially came up with the Antigonus II theory based on the names on the inscription and the tomb’s unusual features. Abba’s boastful claim and the painstakingly decorated ossuary, considered by archeologists one of the finest ever found, pointed to an important personage.

At the same time, the cryptic text, the fact that the ossuary lacked any identifying inscription and that it was found buried in a niche under the floor of the cave suggested that Abba may have acted in secret, which is consistent with the persecution the Hasmoneans and their followers suffered after the fall of Mattathiah.

The Maccabees, or Hasmoneans, had ruled ancient Israel since leading the revolt against the Syrian Greeks, which Jews commemorate during Hanukkah. The young Mattathiah, son of King Judah Aristobulus II, ruled only for three years. His reign was marked by constant warfare to keep Judea out of the clutches of Rome and its main ally in the area, Herod.

In 37 BCE, Herod seized Jerusalem and the throne. Mattathiah was captured, taken to Antioch and executed by Marc Antony, who at the time ruled Rome’s Eastern provinces with his lover, Cleopatra.

Horrific death

The theory that Abba may have retrieved the Hasmonean king’s body from Antioch, today in southern Turkey, and secretly buried it in his family tomb received a boost in 1974, when Nicu Haas, Israel’s top physical anthropologist at the time, discussed his analysis of the bones found inside the ossuary on Israeli television.

Interviewed for a program titled “The Last of the Maccabees,” Haas said he had identified the bones of at least two individuals, one older and one a young adult, around the age of 25, who had suffered a horrific death. Three nails where found in the ossuary with pieces of hand bones attached to two of them, suggesting the victim had been crucified.

Haas also identified clean cuts on the man’s second vertebra and lower jaw, indicating he had been decapitated with a sword or other sharp object. These findings were consistent with Mattathiah’s age and with the account of his execution given by ancient historians Josephus Flavius and Dio Cassius who recount that Marc Antony had the king crucified, scourged and beheaded.

With Haas’ analysis, all the pieces of the puzzle seemed to fall into place. But then, there was an accident. A month after the TV program aired, Haas slipped on an icy Jerusalem street and hit his head. He spent the last 13 years of his life in a coma and never published his findings on the cave.

The bones were passed on for analysis to Patricia Smith, an anthropologist from the Hebrew University. While agreeing that the remains included the skull fragments of a young man, she concluded that the cut jaw belonged to the elderly person – and that this individual was a woman. In her report, published in 1977 in the Israel Exploration Journal, she also dismissed the idea that crucifixion had occurred because the nails had not passed through the bones.

The Hasmonean thesis dies, mostly…

Based on Smith’s analysis, the Hasmonean hypothesis was abandoned and the investigation into the Abba cave was closed. The ossuary and the inscription were given to the Israel Museum, where they are still displayed today, and the bones, following pressure from ultra-orthodox Jews were reburied in the same spot they were found.

But not everybody accepted that Abba’s riddle could not be cracked.

Raphael Delarosa, the owner of the house under which the cave was found, continued to believe that he was living above the tomb of the last true king of Israel.

“There was a beautiful ossuary and an inscription describing the people buried here, clearly this was someone important,” Delarosa told Haaretz. “I felt a piece of Jewish history had been placed on my shoulders and I had to save it.”

Delarosa preserved the cave and kept it open for small groups of visitors and researchers. Recently, new scholarly work and evidence has emerged that supports the original hypothesis and casts doubt on the skeptics’ position.

In a paper published last year in the IEJ, Yoel Elitzur, a Hebrew University historian, sheds some light on the enigmatic priest Abba and links him to the Hasmonean dynasty.

As a scholar of Semitic languages and of the names of places in ancient Israel, Elitzur notes that in Jewish texts and manuscripts the name Abba and Baba were often used interchangeably. He identifies Abba as the head of a family mentioned by Josephus as the “the sons of Baba” and described as being supporters of the Hasmoneans long after Herod had taken power.

Elitzur also speculates that following Haas’ accident, Smith may have received a disorganized mix of bones including remains from other sites, leading to a possible mistake in identifying the person with the cut jaw as a female.

“Here we have the two top anthropologists in the country saying opposite things; they can’t be both right,” Elitzur said in a telephone interview. “Given that Haas received the bones fresh from the dig and not after they sat for years in a lab, I tend to go with his interpretation.”

Contacted by Haaretz, Smith said in an email that a mix-up “was possible but unlikely.”

She wrote that while the absence of the pelvis and complete skull made gender identification difficult, she was convinced the mandible belonged to a woman “based on its condition, size, shape and pathology.” Smith added that two of her colleagues had seen the bones and agreed with her findings.

Case closed – again? Not so fast.

Was it a man after all?

In yet another twist of this puzzling cold case, Haaretz can reveal that researchers did not return all the bones for reburial in the cave.

Some key remains, including the nails and the cut jaw and vertebra, were sent for safekeeping to Tel Aviv University anthropologist Israel Hershkovitz and remained untouched in his lab for years.

After reading Elitzur’s paper, Hershkovitz re-examined the remains. He analyzed the nails using an electron microscope, determining that they did break the bones of the hand, as would occur in crucifixion. This itself is a blow to skeptics, since Romans rarely crucified women, Hershkovitz said.

He also doubts Smith’s finding that the time-worn jaw belonged to a woman.

“Only the pelvis and the skull can give an indication of a skeleton’s sex, it’s impossible to scientifically determine it from a jaw bone, especially when it is severely fragmented,” Hershkovitz told Haaretz. “Actually the size and shape look more like that of a male to me, but it’s just a feeling, there is no scientific basis for it.”

Hershkovitz has been trying to extract DNA from the jaw in order to confirm whether it belonged to a man or a woman. Though that would not confirm Mattathiah’s identity, it would give weight to all the other evidence that points to him, he said.

“Once you remove the idea that the cut mandible belonged to a woman, you are left with all the other elements that prove that this is Mattathiah,” he said. “In this case, the writing was literally on the wall.”

Despite recent nay-saying, (see Doudna’s comments at the Zias article) by those who are apparently not aware of all the facts, including the available skeletal remains and nails mentioned here, the case that the tomb held the remains of a crucified/beheaded male, as Nicu Haas first indicated, is a convincing one, given this latest analysis from Prof. Hershkovitz. Also those who have argued that crucifixion nails went through the wrist not the hands, and that these nails are too “short” to be for crucifixion, are just mistaken. Hershkovitz has definitely clarified this issue. The nails are driven into the palm, then either angled or bent into a hook, not to hold up the body but to keep the hands and arms in place–thus “tacking” or pinning the hands to the wood behind. The hypothesis that this individual was the Hasmonean royal priest/king Antigonus turns out to be a live option.

In 1946, the year I was born, Robert Graves published his novel King Jesus, in which he argued that Jesus of Nazareth was the paternal grandson of Herod the Great through Herod’s son Antipater, whom Herod murdered five days before his death, as well as the maternal grandson of King Antigonus, the last Hasmonean king, since Antipater’s royal wife Mariame (Jesus’ mother) was a daughter of Antigonus, and was pregnant at his death. Joseph Raymond has vastly fleshed out and expanded the thesis in his book, Herodian Messiah and a subsequent novel titled: Grandson of Herod: IESVS NAZARENVS REX IVDAEORVM. Raymond proposes that Mariame and the infant Jesus escaped to Egypt despite Herodian attempts to kill mother and child. He provides the following comparative chart which addresses the small “feminine” stature of Antigonus, whom the Romans mockingly called by the feminine name Antigone:

AbbaTomb Antigonus

Mary Magdalene as First Witness and Thus First Among the Apostles

Carefully re-reading the late and sorely missed Jane Schaberg’s book, The Resurrection of Mary Magdalene, which I heartily recommend to all my readers, has set me to thinking and working through all the texts related to her once again, particularly those in our New Testament gospels. I wanted to do a bit of “thinking aloud” here, covering various thoughts and ideas that have come to me of late.



According to Paul the first named witnesses to Jesus’ resurrection was “Cephas” or Peter and James the brother of Jesus, along with the Twelve, other apostles, and a group of 500 “brothers,”and finally, much later, Paul himself (1 Corinthians 15:8). Curiously–or not so curiously–given Paul’s culture and the denigration of women, Mary Magdalene and the group of women who first discovery the empty tomb, according to all our gospels accounts, go unmentioned. In the gospels not only is Mary Magdalene at the core of the narratives, but she is mentioned first, as head of the entourage of women followers of Jesus from Galilee, even ahead of Jesus’ own mother, and in two of our accounts (Matthew and John) she becomes the “first” witness to Jesus’ resurrection.

I begin with Mark, whose references to Mary Magdalene form the core of the Synoptic gospels account of her. He mentions her three times, at the crucifixion, at Jesus’ burial, and at the empty tomb on Sunday morning (Mk 15:40-41; 15:47; 16:1). She is named first among two other women from Galilee, Mary the mother of James and Joses, and Salome, but according to Mark they are part of a larger contingent of “many other women” who had followed Jesus from Galilee where they had provided (Greek: diakoneo) for him. This reference to a large group of Galilean women who form a base of support, presumably financial and otherwise, is something Luke picks up on and elaborates (8:1-3), but it fundamentally comes to us from Mark. I presented arguments in my book, The Jesus Dynasty, that this second Mary of Mark’s group, is Jesus’ mother, with Salome most likely his sister. At any rate, it is these three, led by Mary Magdalene, who make preparations to attend to the intimate task of preparing the corpse of Jesus for burial, buying spices on Saturday evening with the intention of anointing his body early Sunday morning. Thus they come to discover the empty tomb early Sunday morning.

Matthew, clearly relying on Mark as his source, has the same three references to Mary Magdalene, at the crucifixion, the burial, and early Sunday morning at the tomb. She is paired with the “other Mary,” and he does not name Salome, though he implies she might be the “mother of the sons of Zebedee. Regardless, it is the two Marys who witness the burial and visit the tomb Sunday morning (Matt 27:55-56, 27:61; 28:1).

Luke, also following Mark, makes some significant changes to Mark’s basic structure. He too has women from Galilee standing at the cross but he names none of them (Luke 23:49). Likewise, at the burial, these women from Galilee remain unnamed (Luke 23:55-56). Finally at the empty tomb he says the women who came to complete the rites of burial were Mary Magdalene, Joanna, Mary the mother of James, and “the other women with them” (Luke 24:10). This means that Luke only names Mary Magdalene once in the three scenes that Mark has introduced her.

As we will see, this is absolutely deliberate and calculated. What he does is introduce her much earlier, back in Galilee, among this group of many women who had provided for Jesus, picking up on Mark’s reference. But there he adds that she was part of a group of women who had been cured of “evil spirits and infirmities” naming Joanna and another woman, Susanna, but adding that Mary Magdalene herself was positively deranged beyond description, in that she had been possessed by seven demons! (Luke 8:1-3). Luke is keen to make the point that the presence of these women, who do not need to be even named, is of no credible importance, since they come from such shady backgrounds, epitomizing the hysterical “female” whose testimony would be considered an “idle tale,” thus preparing the way for the true and reliable male witnesses to Jesus’ resurrection (Luke 24:11). All he really has to go on is Mark, but he skillfully recasts Mark’s material in this way, thus marginalizing Mary Magdalene, and “demonizing” her, quite literally, cured or not, lest anyone might think the resurrection faith was first proclaimed by such a witness. But there is more. Just before Luke introduces the deranged woman in chapter 8, as followers of Jesus from Galilee, he constructs a scene, in Galilee, of an unnamed woman of an unnamed city, a “sinner,” who comes to Jesus at a dinner with an ointment, who then weeps uncontrollably, bathes his feet with her tears, wiping them with her hair, and anointing them (Luke 7:36-50). Jesus forgives her many sins, and she presumably becomes his follower. And thus Mary Magdalene is introduced in the next passage. The juxtaposition is deliberate. Although Luke is not bold enough to say that Mary Magdalene herself is this forgiven harlot, the contextualizing is enough, coupled with her deranged mental past. Interestingly enough, Mark also has a story of an anonymous woman anointing Jesus, but it is a few days before Jesus’ death, in Jerusalem, and she is honored not as a forgiven sinner, but one whose anointing prepared him “beforehand” for his burial (Mark 14:3-9).

What Mark tells us then about Mary Magdalene is that she is first among a group of women from Galilee who provided for Jesus, that she is involved along with his mother, in the intimate rites of preparing Jesus’ body for burial, and that she, Mary, and Salome, are the “first witnesses” to Jesus’ resurrection. Mark knows nothing of appearances of Jesus to these women, but they hear the proclamation, “He has been raised, he is not here.” The disciples, led by Peter, are to “see him in Galilee,” though such a scene is never reported by Mark. Matthew elaborates Mark’s disturbingly sparse account, with Jesus subsequently encountering the women who linger at the tomb, and a mysterious “foggy mountain” appearance to the Eleven somewhere in Galilee (with some doubting!). Luke feels compelled to go further. There is no disputing the women were involved, at the cross, the burial, and the empty tomb–but as a group they are unnamed, and even when named, identified as “formerly” deranged and contextualized with the unnamed “harlot” whom Jesus forgives for her many sins. Luke wants nothing of appearances in Galilee, nor of the deranged women who might have proclaimed such as “first witnesses.” For him the resurrection of Jesus rests solidly on his Jerusalem based appearances to reliable male witnesses, including to Peter and the Eleven.

And then there is the gospel of John. John also has Mary Magdalene at the cross, and he clearly identifies Jesus’ mother there as well. He does not mention the women at the burial but his account of what happened early Sunday morning is significantly different from that of Mark. Rather than the group of women arriving together, John relates that Mary Magdalene came alone, very early, while it was still dark, and saw the stone removed from the tomb (John 20:1-10). She runs to tell Peter, and he, and an unnamed disciple rush to the tomb, confirming her story, but not yet coming to the conclusion Jesus was raised. There are no messengers, angelic or otherwise, as in Mark, Matthew, and Luke, to tell the women Jesus is raised–it is simple a case of someone having “taken the master out of the tomb, and we do not know where they have laid him” (20:2).

I find this account in John strangely compelling. Mark’s young man in white linen, proclaiming Jesus is risen, seems wholly theological, not to mention Matthews fantastic expansion where we have a dazzling angel who comes like lightening from heaven, heralded by an earthquake, who rolls back the stone and proclaims Jesus is risen. Luke’s two men in dazzling clothing is cut from the same cloth. In contrast, John’s core account has nothing fantastic or even theological. It deserves our careful attention, and at the heart of this account is the singular experience of a woman–namely Mary Magdalene.

According to John the tomb is found empty very early Sunday morning, even at dark. The logical conclusion is that someone has removed the body and placed it elsewhere, perhaps the gardener, or as the rumor in Matthew has it, some of his disciples. Schaberg effectively argues, in my judgment, that what happens next in John’s gospel (20:11-18), namely Jesus’ encounter with Mary Magdalene, still in the garden near the tomb where he was missing, is our earliest and most fundamental witness to Jesus’ resurrection, and that further, the form and structure by which John narrates this encounter, implies an Elijah-Elisha like succession story, of Jesus passing on this witness to his chosen and intimate follower, Mary Magdalene. In this extraordinary account we have dialogue between Jesus and Mary. She is Maria in the narrative but Jesus calls her name directly, “Miriam,” and she replies with the affectionate diminutive “Rabbouni,” my dear/little Master. What she is told is that she must not grasp him for he is ascending to the Father.

Like Matthew and Luke, John includes other appearance stories, both to the disciples in Jerusalem, and in Galilee. But this core account, found now in John 20:1-18, is perhaps our best window for reconstructing what might have happened that early Sunday morning. Based on the Mary Magdalene account, found only in John, I am convinced that the discovery of the empty tomb should be given historical weight. It is what John’s account does not say that makes it compelling. With no angelic messengers proclaiming the resurrection, and Mary not even told to go tell the rest that they too would see Jesus, it seems to me we should give the Mary Magdalene story priority. The subsequent accounts of Mark, Matthew, Luke, and even the supplemental accounts in John, all seem to be accretions to this core account.

Mark does not dispute that Mary Magdalene and the other women first discovered the tomb, but his account is clearly a generalized expansion of an earlier core story, much elaborated by Matthew, and radically re-contextualized by Luke. But they do not venture to remove the Magdalene. Only Paul does that, in his roll call of appearances of the heavenly Jesus in 1 Corinthians 15:1-11. There Mary Magdalene is completely eliminated. In effect, that has already begun to happen in Mark, since the women “say nothing to anyone” and are mainly pointers to the male Eleven who will see Jesus in Galilee. In Matthew the main point of resurrection is the “commission,” and that would not be given to women, but only to the male Eleven. Likewise in Luke, who has Jesus appear to the Eleven, telling them to take his message to all the nations.

In my view John 20:1-18 stands separate and isolated from all these subsequently embellished traditions. John is able to contextualize it with subsequent appearances to the male leaders, but read as “first testimony” it has a most compelling ring to it. I find it the only account that lends itself to some measure of credible historical reconstruction. It essentially is what I make most use of in my own reconstruction in The Jesus Dynasty:

Jesus is hastily buried in a temporary tomb that happened to be nearby in a garden at the place of crucifixion. The intent was to move his body to a permanent place after the festival/Sabbath was past. Mary Magdalene arrives early Sunday morning, while it is still dark, and finds the stone rolled away and the tomb empty. She alerts Peter and the others. No one thinks Jesus has been raised, but they draw the logical conclusion, that someone has moved him. Presumably that someone would be either other family members, or more likely Joseph of Arimathea. Lingering near the tomb Mary has a visionary encounter with Jesus himself. She is told by him that he is ascending to heaven and that is what she reports to the others. Mary then becomes first witness, and as such, “successor” to the ascending Jesus. She alone is given the message–Jesus has ascended to the Father.

It is difficult to read this account as it stands without interjecting subsequent stories from Matthew, Luke, and John. But that Mark, writing as late as the 70s AD, has no appearances, yet he does have Mary Magdalene at the tomb, supports the essential core of John’s Mary Magdalene story. Historians have rightly judged that the series of expanded and dramatic appearances of Jesus to his various male followers are theologically cast apologetics. As such, the singular appearance to Mary Magdalene, did not fare so well. Luke begins the long history of her demise and defamation–yes, she was there, but remember, she and the others were surely less than reliable witnesses. What is important is that even in Mark she can not be eliminated. She is there at the first, and she is clearly the first, if John is to be given any weight at all.

One puzzle in John is that he, like Mark and Luke, also has a scene at which Jesus is anointed by a woman (John 12:1-8). His account is clearly parallel to that of Mark in several of its key elements, but then it departs significantly therefrom. John’s story takes place a few days earlier than Mark’s, six days before Passover. John identifies the woman as Mary of Bethany, sister of Martha and Lazarus, whereas Mark leaves her unnamed. Rather than Jesus’ head, as in Mark, this Mary anoints his feet with a costly perfume and wipes them with her hair–which in turn reminds one of the Luke story of the “woman of the city,” that is the “sinner.” In John Jesus does not say that she has anointed him beforehand for his burial, but rather that the costly perfume was well spent and that she can store it up to use in the future on the day of his burial! One would then expect her to appear in some manner, at the burial scene, to anoint Jesus’ body, as Mark has Mary Magdalene do. I see no easy way to sort through these three anointing stories. I think behind them lies some event that took place the last week of Jesus’ life, in Jerusalem. We can surely discount Luke’s moving the story much earlier, and placing it in Galilee, as well as his implication that the woman who anoints Jesus is a “sinner.” But that Luke juxtapositions his redeemed harlot story with his own introduction of Mary Magdalene as formerly “deranged” or demon possessed, gives one pause. Does Luke fear that Mark’s story might imply that the anointing woman is none other than Mary Magdalene–who subsequently comes to the tomb to complete her prophetic or proleptic act of devotion? The intimacy implied in John’s story, namely the wiping of the feet with the hair, given Jewish custom, is also present in Luke but not in Mark. It is all more than confusing but one is tempted to say at the core of these accounts is a story of involving intimacy, anointing, and burial. I do not think it makes sense to identify Mary of Bethany with Mary Magdalene, as some have suggested. However, it might make sense that final editors of John wanted to distance Mary Magdalene from such an intimate act by some substitution of names, whereas Mark simply leaves her anonymous.

The Most Important Ten Verses of the Gospels to Read on Easter Morning

All across the world this morning, moving from east to west, Easter bells are ringing. Multiple millions will gather in churches to celebrate Easter–“Rejoice! Christ is Risen!” will be the theme of every service. Without exception texts of the gospels reporting on the first Easter and the discovery of Jesus’ empty tomb–along with his appearances to his followers–will be read.  In the New Testament gospels we have four rather complex and ofttimes contradictory accounts of what happened Sunday morning after Jesus was crucified–so there is quite a mix to choose from (Mark 16; Matthew 28; Luke 24; John 20-21). Liturgical traditions have a set of these texts already designated. More independent groups will go with whatever their minister or preacher has prepared for the Easter sermon. What almost everyone will miss is the following:

Embedded in these layers of tradition are ten verses that appear to be the earliest narrative–and one that rings historically more likely given all the circumstances of that fateful weekend. Although these verses are found in the Gospel of John, one of our latest gospels, this little fragment of tradition stands alone and unique.

Mary Magdalene Alone at the Tomb
Mary Magdalene Alone at the Tomb


Here are those verses:

Now on the first day of the week Mary Magdalene came to the tomb early, while it was still dark, and saw that the stone had been taken away from the tomb. So she ran, and went to Simon Peter and the other disciple, the one whom Jesus loved, and said to them, “They have taken the Lord out of the tomb, and we do not know where they have laid him.” Peter then came out with the other disciple, and they went toward the tomb. They both ran, but the other disciple outran Peter and reached the tomb first; and stooping to look in, he saw the linen cloths lying there, but he did not go in. Then Simon Peter came, following him, and went into the tomb; he saw the linen cloths lying, and the napkin, which had been on his head, not lying with the linen cloths but rolled up in a place by itself. Then the other disciple, who reached the tomb first, also went in, and he saw and believed; for as yet they did not know the scripture, that he must rise from the dead. Then the disciples went back to their homes. (John 20:1-10).

That is it. Short and simple. What it does not say is as important as what it does say:

  • There is no group of woman coming just after sunrise
  • There is no earthquake
  • There are no angels appearing and proclaiming “Christ is risen”
  • There are no Roman guards knocked out cold from the terror of it all
  • There are no men in white garments
  • There is no resurrections of the “saints” who have recently died
  • And most important: There are no appearances to anyone.

Notice carefully: What Mary, the unnamed “Beloved” disciple, and Peter “believe” is that the body has been taken away, not that Jesus has been raised from the dead! This is made explicit in this text.

Now all of these elements appear elsewhere in the accounts of Mark, Matthew, Luke, and John, cited above. But this little fragment of tradition clearly stands alone, in “silent” contradiction and start contradistinction from the Easter tradition as a whole.

I am convinced this passage preserves an independent embedded early tradition that centered on the mysterious Mary Magdalene that was passed on to John’s community through the equally mysterious “Beloved Disciple.”1

Notice the three main elements of this text:

  1. Mary Magdelene came alone before before sunrise–while it is still dark and she discovered the tomb already open and drew the obvious conclusion–namely that “they” had moved the body and placed it elsewhere.2
  2. The “they” in this context is clearly those in charge of Jesus’ permanent burial–namely the Joseph of Arimathea burial party–Jesus’ corpse had been temporarily stashed in this unfinished and as yet unused tomb nearby the site of crucifixion just an hour or so before Passover (John 19:41-42).
  3. Peter and the “beloved disciple” rush to the tomb, confirm the body has been “taken away,” and return to their homes in the Galilee–which fits well with the parallel tradition we have in the lost Gospel of Peter. There the disciples weep and mourn and return to Galilee to resume their fishing still in despair.

In this text and this text alone: Mary Magdalene, with her unique and special connection to Jesus came alone early that morning, most likely to mourn at the tomb and await the others to finish the rites of burial. This simple “bare bones” account rings true. The subsequent accounts here in John, as well as in Mark, Matthew, and Luke all are part of the typical “myth-making,” literary expansion, and theological embellishment–40 to 60 years after Jesus’ death.  One would expect that these Christian communities begin to bolster their faith stories in the face of skeptical opposition. That is why all of the subsequent accounts have an “apologetic” tone to them–with some doubting and more and more “proof” being offered that the “sightings” of Jesus were more than apparitions. These ten verses seems to be a primitive core account that is then later embedded in the larger narrative of John’s gospel with physical appearances in Jerusalem and Galilee and all the trappings we have come to associate with Easter.

How, when, and why the disciples began to have experiences of “sighting” Jesus is another question that I have explored in depth, see “What Really Happened Easter Morning–The Mystery Solved.” But this simple primitive account gives us much to ponder this Easter weekend–and along with Mark’s account which has no appearances of Jesus–it allows us to begin to reconstruct the birth of the Easter tradition from its beginnings.3

  1. See my series “There is Something About Mary–Magdalene, and Who Was the Mysterious Disciple Whom Jesus Loved

  2. See my article, “The First and Second Burials of Jesus.” 

  3. See “The Strange Ending of the Gospel of Mark and Why it Makes all the Difference.” 

The First Easter: When Angels and Apostles Wept

Jesus was taken down from the cross a few hours before sundown on the preparation day for Passover, the afternoon of the 14th of Nisan. Joseph of Arimathea, an influential follower, had hastily placed Jesus’ dead body in an unfinished rock-hewn tomb that just happened to be near the place of execution until after the festival and the Sabbath day when proper rites of Jewish burial could be carried out and decisions about a permanent burial place could be made. A blocking stone had been placed at the entrance to protect against predators.

Just after sundown the entire Jewish populace of Jerusalem, swollen by tens of thousands of pilgrims, gathered to eat the Passover meal. Jesus’ core followers, including the twelve apostles, and a band of disciples, both men and women, who hopefully followed him down to the festival from Galilee expecting him to publicly reveal himself as Messiah were in utter despair. Their Teacher was dead–brutally murdered by his Roman and Jewish enemies in the most shameful of deaths.

HolySat Weeping

Jesus’ followers had scattered at his arrest the night before and we are not told where or how they observed Passover that night. One might assume they would have regathered at the house of Lazarus, in Bethany, just over the southern summit of the Mount of Olives, with the sisters Mary and Martha hosting the Passover meal for these out of town guests. Present would have been Mary Magdalene and Jesus’ mother, broken hearted beyond expression, as well as other close followers along with the Twelve. According to Mark, when Jesus and his band had arrived in Jerusalem a week earlier they had made this household their home, spending the nights there and their days in the Temple and its surrounding areas. As Jews they surely would have surely sat down together at the traditional Passover meal. One can scarcely imagine their grief and shock. Passover is normally a festival of joy and celebration but this particular “night to be much remembered,” to use Moses’s words, had to be the saddest of their lives. Our gospels record nothing of that evening or of the Passover day and Sabbath following. We must assume there was little to be said. A dead Messiah is no Messiah and all the talk about the kingdom of God being at hand, and the leaders sitting on thrones ruling over the regathered tribes of Israel had become meaningless.

The four New Testament gospels variously report what happened next. They do not agree on any of the substantive details and I have carefully documented their differences and the unfolding legendary embellishment of what happened that first Easter morning in several posts:

What Really Happened Easter Morning

The Strange Original Ending of the Gospel of Mark

We do have another ancient source that appears to change the entire story significantly–namely the Gospel of Peter, see “The Surprising Ending of the Lost Gospel of Peter.” This fragmentary narrative, discovered at the end of the 19th century, was found buried with a Christian monk in upper Egypt, just north of Nag Hammadi where another trove of ancient writings was found–including the Gospel of Thomas. It was our first non-canonical gospel to have surfaced for modern eyes. In more recent times two additional fragments were recovered that appear to belong with what we already had. This Gospel is narrated in the first person by Peter. Toward the end we find his strikingly significant words, and then the text breaks off:

[58] Now it was the final day of the Unleavened Bread; and many went out returning to their home since the feast was over. [59] But we twelve disciples of the Lord were weeping and sorrowful; and each one, sorrowful because of what had come to pass, departed to his home. [60] But I, Simon Peter, and my brother Andrew, having taken our nets, went off to the sea. And there was with us Levi of Alphaeus whom the Lord …

Notice–according to this source the disciples of Jesus spend the entire week of Passover and the seven days of Unleavened Bread–in a state of weeping and mourning. Clearly, in this tradition, no one has seen the multiple apparitions of Jesus reported by Matthew, Luke, and John. In fact, the Gospel of Peter agrees with our earliest gospel source–Mark. It has no appearances of Jesus but predicts a recovery of faith in Galilee. This is precisely what is implied in the appendix to the Gospel of John–chapter 21–which should be taken as a source separate from that gospel as a whole. Peter and the rest of the disciples depart home to Galilee, still in a state of mourning, and they resume their fishing business. That means the entire Easter morning cluster of stories of appearances in Jerusalem are late, legendary, and without any basis in history. As dear and central to Christian tradition as the Eastern morning “appearance” scenes might be, this alternative scenario, preserved in Mark, the Gospel of Peter, the appendix of John, and alluded to in the ending of Matthew, turns out to be more historically believable, and in the end more inspiring.

Ginnosar by Daniela Ciubuc
Ginnosar by Daniela Ciubuc

These sources ring true to what most likely happened and they give us a limited glimpse into Passover and the entire week following with all its sadness and disappointment. Christians today celebrate Easter but it seems clear that such was not the case that fateful Passover week in 30 CE. No one was rejoicing that weekend or through the next seven days. The return to Galilee must have been a painful one, leaving behind the body of their Teacher, now buried permanently in a tomb by Joseph of Arimathea. How the group recovered its faith that Jesus had indeed been exalted to the right hand of God is another story–but it took place clearly in Galilee not in Jerusalem, apparently during the 50 days between Passover and Shavuot or Pentecost–when the group would have returned to Jerusalem for the that pilgrim festival. It clearly had nothing to do with “bodily” appearances of Jesus, with Jesus limping up to Galilee sometime after the festival with festering wounds and crippled limbs. Jesus lifeless body was given back to the dust, like putting off old clothes, but faith that his spirit had returned to God and been “reclothed” with a new immortal spiritual body was the earliest resurrection faith.  Here Paul is our best source as I have discussed extensively out in a previous post, “Why People are Confused about the Earliest Christian View of the Resurrection of the Resurrection of the Dead.”