Monday, December 31, 2018

First-Century Memories of the Maccabees Part 3: Hanukkah in the First Century

1 and 2 Maccabees describe the origins of Hanukkah and commend its celebration, but both texts were composed in the late second or early 1st century BCE and, as I explained in an earlier post, there is very little concrete evidence that these two books circulated widely in the first century CE. What evidence do we have that the festival caught on enough to be “enthusiastically observed” a century or more after these texts were written, in Jesus’ day?

The short answer is not very much.

We begin with Josephus, writing in Rome in the 90’s CE. After describing the rededication of the Temple in 164 BCE, Josephus adds a brief explanation about the “Festival of Lights”:
“So much pleasure did they find in the renewal of their customs and in unexpectedly obtaining the right to have their own service after so long a time, that they made a law that their descendants should celebrate the restoration of the temple service for eight days. And from that time to the present we observe this festival, which we call the festival of Lights, giving this name to it, I think, from the fact that the right to worship appeared to us at a time when we hardly dared hope for it.” – Josephus Jewish Antiquities 12.324-5 (Loeb Classical Library)
This passage offers valuable evidence about first-century practice, but its significance should not be exaggerated. Josephus refers to Hanukkah here not because the festival was important, but because he is rather slavishly following his source in 1 Maccabees, which mentions Hanukkah immediately after describing the rededication of the Temple:
“There was very great joy among the people, and the disgrace brought by the Gentiles was removed. Judas and his brothers and all the assembly of Israel determined that every year at that season the days of dedication of the altar should be observed with joy and gladness for eight days.” (1 Macc 4:58-59 NRSV)
In his expansive paraphrase of 1 Maccabees, Josephus gives the festival a name, which has puzzled commentators; he presents the decision to celebrate it annually as the formulation of a law; he explains why it was celebrated, emphasizing the right to worship according to their own “customs”; and he notes that the festival continues to be observed in “the present.”

Josephus’s comment about celebrating the festival in his own day, however, needs to be qualified by his complete silence about Hanukkah everywhere else. He never mentions the festival in any other description of Jewish daily life from the Maccabees to the destruction of the temple in A.D. 70. With the exception of Purim, which, like Hanukkah, is only mentioned once, other Jewish festivals appear repeatedly, not only when Josephus paraphrases his biblical source but also when he discusses later Second Temple events. Thanks to C. J. Goldberg’s helpful compilation, I can tell you that Passover appears twelve times in Josephus’s narrative from 65 BCE – 70 CE; the feast of Weeks (aka. Pentecost or Shavuot) is mentioned four times between the reign of John Hyrcanus (134-104 BCE) and the Jewish revolt in 66 CE; and the festival of Sukkot (or “Booths”) is mentioned eight times between the accession of Jonathan in 152 BCE and the beginning of the revolt against Rome in 66 CE.

It will not do to attribute Josephus’s silence about Hanukkah to an apologetic attempt to distance the Jewish way of life from the sort of nationalistic ideology that prompted the Jewish revolt because (a) Josephus does not do this with other feasts (e.g., Passover in War 2.224, 280; 5.98-105); and (b) Josephus associates Hanukkah not with political independence but with the “right to worship” according to Jewish law.

I conclude that Josephus’s silence is meaningful. Only once, prompted by a source that mentions the decision to celebrate the festival of Hanukkah, does Josephus himself mention Hanukkah. This may suggest that the festival was relatively insignificant in the first century.

The Gospel of John
Mid-way through the Good Shepherd discourse in John chapter 10, the Evangelist pauses to describe the scene:
“Then the festival of the Dedication (τὰ ἐγκαίνια) happened in Jerusalem. It was winter and Jesus was walking in the Temple in Solomon’s Colonnade” (John 10:22-23).
Since John is a sophisticated writer who links other major feasts to Jesus, the mention of Hanukkah may well be more than a comment about the weather. But how and to what extent John links Hanukkah to Jesus remains debated.[1] All too often, commentators on John assume that Hanukkah was universally observed, that everyone knew what it meant, and that the bits and pieces of evidence in our surviving literary sources can be stitched together and translated without further ado into a picture of common practice and common knowledge. This picture is then deployed as the theatrical background against which the drama of John plays out. Such an approach is deeply problematic.

In any case, my interest at the moment is with what John contributes to our understanding of Hanukkah not what Hanukkah contributes to our understanding of John. To avoid circularity—arguing from a background whose existence I am interrogating—I will leave to one side questions about the possible symbolic significance of Hanukkah and concentrate here on the explicit reference to the festival of Dedication: John tells us when the festival occurred (winter), he names the festival as “the Dedications” or “the consecrations,” and he locates its celebration in the Jerusalem temple. He does not tell us who celebrated the festival, how popular it was, or whether it was celebrated anywhere else.

Megillat Taanit
Megillat Taanit (“The Scroll of Fasting”) is a 38-line Aramaic list of days on which it is prohibited to fast or to say eulogies for the dead. The text survives in a handful of medieval copies, but there is consensus that it originated in the Second Temple period. The scroll is unusual because it is a non-biblical written text that was treated as a source of halakah in later rabbinic literature. Vered Noam concludes that the text was most likely composed “sometime during the three decades preceding the fall of the Temple” (350). Line 25 of Megillat Taanit mentions Hanukkah:
“On the twenty-fifth of it [Kislev] – Hanukka of eight days, and one is not eulogize.”[2]
There are references to Hanukkah, though not to the Maccabees, in the Mishnah (compiled ca. 200 CE), and in later rabbinic literature the celebration of Hanukkah is taken for granted.[3] But as far as I know, the passages I have just quoted are the only direct evidence for Hanukkah that can be dated either during or shortly after the end of the Second Temple period.

On the basis of Josephus, the Gospel of John and Megillat Taanit, I conclude that Hanukkah was celebrated in the first century CE—though not by everyone. There is no indication that it was celebrated by the Qumran sectarians or other Essenes who had an adversarial relationship with the Hasmoneans. Although Hanukkah appears to have been celebrated in the Jerusalem Temple, there is not enough evidence to know who celebrated it, how it was celebrated, what aspects of the story of the revolt were emphasized – or how popular it was. We cannot, in short, say it was a “big festival” or that it was “enthusiastically observed.”[4] We are on firmer ground with Martin Goodman, who suggests that “despite lack of biblical authority for its observance the festival probably remained popular in the first century A.D.”[5]

Other Posts in This Series
Part 1: First-Century Memories of the Maccabees -- A Footnote with Footnotes
Part 2: First-Century Memories of the Maccabees Part 2: The Origins of Hanukkah
Part 4: Memories of the Maccabees in the Dead Sea Scrolls
Part 5: The Maccabean Revolt and the Success of Hasmonean Propaganda


[1] For a review of the options, see Brian C. Dennert, “Hanukkah and the Testimony of Jesus’ Works (John 10:22—39),” JBL 132.2 (2013): 431–51, whose proposal is no more persuasive than the alternatives.
[2] For the text and translation, see Vered Noam, “Megillat Taanit - The Scroll of Fasting,” in The Literature of the Sages Second Part: Midrash and Targum, Liturgy, Poetry, Mysticism, Contracts, Inscriptions, Ancient Science and the Languages of Rabbinic Literature, ed. Shmuel Safrai et al., CRINT II 3.2 (Assen, Netherlands: Van Gorcum, 2006), 339–62. Online here:
[3] Gedalyahu Alon, “Did the Jewish People and Its Sages Cause the Hasmoneans to Be Forgotten?,” in Jews, Judaism and the Classical World: Studies in Jewish History in the Times of the Second Temple and Talmud, trans. Israel Abrahams (Jerusalem: Magnes Press, 1977), 1–17.
[4] Nicholas Thomas Wright, Jesus and the Victory of God (Minneapolis: Fortress, 1996), 582, 492.
[5] Martin Goodman, The Ruling Class of Judaea: The Origins of the Jewish Revolt against Rome, A.D. 66-70 (Cambridge: Cambridge University Press, 1987), 12 (emphasis added).

Wednesday, December 26, 2018

First-Century Memories of the Maccabees Part 2: The Origins of Hanukkah

(This post is the second in a series on evidence for first-century CE memories of the Maccabean revolt. Part 1 is here.)

In a 1956 attempt to establish the existence of a Maccabean-inspired national resistance movement in the first century, William Farmer responded to the question, “Were the Maccabees Remembered?” by appealing to evidence for popular celebrations commemorating the Maccabean revolt:
“We rest the case for our thesis that the Maccabees were remembered by the Jews in Palestine during the first century A.D. on the fact that there were national holidays celebrated annually by the Jews in this period which commemorated certain great events from the time of the Maccabees.” [1]
The most important and most widely attested such festival was Hanukkah:
“No one questions the fact that the festival of Hanukkah was instituted in the time of the Maccabees to commemorate the rededication of the temple after it had been recovered and cleansed from the defiling hands of the Seleucids by the victorious Judas and his brothers.” [2] (133).
N.T. Wright, who wonders why Farmer’s book was “so long neglected,” goes further: Hanukkah was a “big annual festival” that “was enthusiastically observed in Jesus’ day.” [3] The festival’s popularity is important because it means “a far wider circle than simply the literate few would have known the story; the connection of revolt against the pagans, action in the Temple, and the establishment of a royal house was firmly impressed on the popular mind.” [4]

Because first-century Jews knew the story and had Maccabees on the mind, otherwise obscure similarities take on major significance. Wright endorses Farmer’s brilliant suggestion that Jesus’ triumphal entry and Temple cleansing were “Maccabean actions” that recalled Judas’s purification of the Temple in 164 BCE. [5]

Gerd Theissen argues in much the same way from the celebration of Hanukkah to a precise parallel between the Maccabean revolt and Jesus’ eschatological discourse in Mark 13: “The annual Feast of Dedication … kept alive memories of the Maccabean revolt. … Thanks to the Feast of Dedication, every Jew, whether educated in the law or not, knew (1) what the ‘desolating sacrilege’ was, and (2) that it had already, once before, been the occasion for flight to the mountains.” [6]

I hope to return to Theissen’s and Wright’s proposals in due course. First, let’s examine the evidence. What do we know about the size of the Hanukkah festival in the first century? Can we be confident it was so enthusiastically observed that Jesus’ triumphal entry would have reminded the Passover crowds of Judas’s purification of the temple 200 years earlier?

In this post, I begin with our two most important sources for the Maccabean revolt and the origins of Hanukkah.

Dating 1 and 2 Maccabees

1 Maccabees was written after 134 BCE and almost certainly before 63 BCE. We know that 1 Maccabees was composed during or after the reign of John Hyrcanus (134-104 BCE) because 1 Macc 16:24 mentions the annals of John Hyrcanus’s high priesthood. The book’s attempt to legitimate the Hasmonean dynasty through its story of Mattathias and his sons, combined with its positive attitude toward the Romans, secures 63 BCE as the terminus ante quem because that is when the Roman general Pompey brought Judaea under Roman control, ending almost a century of independent Hasmonean rule. [7]

Dating 2 Maccabees is more difficult. A letter attached to the beginning of 2 Maccabees fixes the terminus post quem of the book’s final form to 124 BCE. [8] Although some scholars have proposed dates as late as the mid-first-century CE for the book’s composition, a date before 63 BCE is most likely because (1) as in 1 Maccabees, 2 Maccabees views the Romans positively (see 2 Macc 4:11); (2) the author would have been unlikely to say that Jerusalem was still “in the possession of the Hebrews” (2 Macc 15:37) after 63 BCE. [9]

Hanukkah in 1 Maccabees

According to 1 Maccabees, there was no initial victory celebration when Judas entered the Temple along with his brothers and the entire Israelite army in 164 BCE:
“There they saw the sanctuary desolate, the altar profaned, and the gates burned. … Then they tore their clothes and mourned with great lamentation; they sprinkled themselves with ashes and fell face down on the ground” (1 Macc 4:38-40a NRSV).
After inspecting the desecrated Temple compound, Judas assigned priests to tear down the altar Antiochus had defiled, to build a new altar, and to rebuild the Temple and its furnishings (1 Macc 4:41-51). When this work was finished, the people fell on their faces again, but this time with joy instead of lamentation:
53 [T]hey rose and offered sacrifice, as the law directs, on the new altar of burnt offering that they had built. 54 At the very season and on the very day that the Gentiles had profaned it, it was dedicated with songs and harps and lutes and cymbals. 55 All the people fell on their faces and worshiped and blessed Heaven, who had prospered them. 56 So they celebrated the dedication of the altar for eight days, and joyfully offered burnt offerings; they offered a sacrifice of well-being and a thanksgiving offering. 57 They decorated the front of the temple with golden crowns and small shields; they restored the gates and the chambers for the priests, and fitted them with doors. 58 There was very great joy among the people, and the disgrace brought by the Gentiles was removed. 59 Then Judas and his brothers and all the assembly of Israel determined that every year at that season the days of dedication of the altar should be observed with joy and gladness for eight days, beginning with the twenty-fifth day of the month of Chislev. (1 Macc 4:53-59 NRSV)
Hanukkah in 2 Maccabees

2 Maccabees contains three descriptions of Hanukkah:

(1) In the form we have it, 2 Maccabees begins with two letters. The first was sent in 124 BCE to “the Jewish brothers in Egypt” (1:1-9). The letter appears to quote from an earlier letter sent in 143 BCE that describes a period of affliction that began in the years after Jason departed from the land, when the Jews in Judaea prayed, offered sacrifices, “lit the lamps and set out the loaves” (1:7-8). The letter concludes by requesting the addressees to “keep the days of Tabernacles in the month of Chislev” (1:9). Remarkably, the embedded letter from 143 BCE does not refer directly to Antiochus Epiphanes, but dates the beginning of affliction to the departure of Jason—one of the leading Jewish “Hellenizers”—an event that occurred during Antiochus’s reign (175-164 BCE), and that is described in 2 Macc 5. Hanukkah is not mentioned in the quotation from the 143 BCE letter either, although it may be implied in the reference to sacrifices (1:8), especially as the 124 BCE letter concludes by asking the Jews in Egypt to celebrate a festival during the month of Chislev. [10]

(2) A much longer second letter (1:10-2:18) of dubious authenticity counts Judas among its authors and claims to have been sent to “the Jews in Egypt,” presumably on the occasion of the first celebration of Hanukkah in 164 BCE. [11]

Unlike the first letter, this letter makes the connection between the rededication of the Temple and the celebration of Hanukkah explicit:
1:18 Since on the twenty-fifth day of Chislev we shall celebrate the purification of the temple, we thought it necessary to notify you, in order that you also may celebrate the festival of booths and the festival of the fire given when Nehemiah, who built the temple and the altar, offered sacrifices. … 2:16 Since, therefore, we are about to celebrate the purification, we write to you. Will you therefore please keep the days? 17 It is God who has saved all his people, and has returned the inheritance to all, and the kingship and the priesthood and the consecration, 18 as he promised through the law. We have hope in God that he will soon have mercy on us and will gather us from everywhere under heaven into his holy place, for he has rescued us from great evils and has purified the place.” (2 Macc 1:18, 2:16-17 NRSV)
(3) The longest description of the rededication of the Temple and its accompanying festival appears in the body of the book. As it is difficult to excerpt, I quote the passage in full:
1 Now Maccabeus and his followers, the Lord leading them on, recovered the temple and the city; 2 they tore down the altars that had been built in the public square by the foreigners, and also destroyed the sacred precincts. 3 They purified the sanctuary, and made another altar of sacrifice; then, striking fire out of flint, they offered sacrifices, after a lapse of two years, and they offered incense and lighted lamps and set out the bread of the Presence. 4 When they had done this, they fell prostrate and implored the Lord that they might never again fall into such misfortunes, but that, if they should ever sin, they might be disciplined by him with forbearance and not be handed over to blasphemous and barbarous nations. 5 It happened that on the same day on which the sanctuary had been profaned by the foreigners, the purification of the sanctuary took place, that is, on the twenty-fifth day of the same month, which was Chislev. 6 They celebrated it for eight days with rejoicing, in the manner of the festival of booths, remembering how not long before, during the festival of booths, they had been wandering in the mountains and caves like wild animals. 7 Therefore, carrying ivy-wreathed wands and beautiful branches and also fronds of palm, they offered hymns of thanksgiving to him who had given success to the purifying of his own holy place. 8 They decreed by public edict, ratified by vote, that the whole nation of the Jews should observe these days every year.” (2 Macc 10:1-8 NRSV)
The final form of 2 Maccabees, with its two appended letters urging the celebration of Hanukkah, shows that the festival was important to an author in the late 2nd or early 1st century BCE. But the very fact that letters had to be sent to Egypt repeatedly shows that, at least in the Diaspora, it was not universally observed at this time.


Our two earliest sources for the celebration of Hanukkah describe the origin of the festival, and confirm that it originated in connection with the rededication of the Temple in 164 BCE. But they are not actually evidence for first-century CE memories of the Maccabean revolt. For one thing, both books were almost certainly composed before the Roman invasion that brought independent Hasmonean rule to an end in 63 BCE. For another, the books themselves do not prove that the stories they tell about the Maccabees were well known in the first century, since, as I mentioned in the previous post, we have very little concrete evidence for the circulation of 1 and 2 Maccabees in the first century CE.

More on first-century evidence for the celebration of Hanukkah in a subsequent post.

Other Posts in This Series
Part 1: First-Century Memories of the Maccabees -- A Footnote with Footnotes
Part 3: First-Century Memories of the Maccabees Part 3: Hanukkah in the First Century
Part 4: Memories of the Maccabees in the Dead Sea Scrolls
Part 5: The Maccabean Revolt and the Success of Hasmonean Propaganda

[1] William Reuben Farmer, Maccabees, Zealots, and Josephus: An Inquiry into Jewish Nationalism in the Greco-Roman Period (Westport, CT: Greenwood Press, 1956), 132.
[2] Ibid., 133.
[3] Nicholas Thomas Wright, Jesus and the Victory of God (Minneapolis: Fortress, 1996), 582, 492, emphasis added.
[4] Ibid., 492.
[5] “Maccabean actions” is Wright’s phrase (Ibid., 493). For Farmer’s proposal, see William Reuben Farmer, “Palm Branches in John 12:13,” JTS 3.1 (1952): 62–66; Farmer, Maccabees, Zealots, and Josephus, vii–viii, 198–200.
[6] Gerd Theissen, The Gospels in Context: Social and Political History in the Synoptic Tradition, trans. Linda M. Maloney (Edinburgh: T&T Clark, 1992), 158 note 66, emphasis added.
[7] Uriel Rappaport, “Maccabees, First Book Of,” in The Eerdmans Dictionary of Early Judaism, ed. John J. Collins and Daniel C. Harlow (Grand Rapids: Eerdmans, 2010), 904, dates the book during John Hyrcanus’s reign (134-104 BCE). According to George W. E. Nickelsburg, Jewish Literature Between the Bible and the Mishnah: A Historical and Literary Introduction, 2nd ed. (Minneapolis: Fortress Press, 2005), 106, “a date between 104 and 63 BCE is probable.” Michael Tilly, 1 Makkabäer, HTKAT (Freiburg: Herder, 2015), 48, opts “für die Zeit vor oder kurz nach seinem Tod.”
[8] See 2 Macc 1:9 and the discussion in Robert Doran, 2 Maccabees: A Critical Commentary, Hermeneia (Minneapolis: Fortress, 2012), 33. For an alternative dating of the letter to 143/142 BCE see Daniel R. Schwartz, 2 Maccabees, CEJL (Berlin: de Gruyter, 2008), 11–15, 519–29.
[9] See Frank Shaw, “2 Maccabees,” in The T&T Clark Companion to the Septuagint, ed. James K. Aitken (London: Bloomsbury T & T Clark, 2015), 275–77. Doran, 2 Maccabees, 14–15, refuses to assign a date, but agrees with John R. Bartlett, The First and Second Books of the Maccabees (Cambridge: Cambridge University Press, 1973), 215, that the main body of “the book may belong almost anywhere in the last 150 years B.C.”
[10] My interpretation of the letter follows Doran, 2 Maccabees, 23–38, closely. Schwartz, 2 Maccabees, 11–15, 143, 519–29, argues that the letter should be dated to 143 BCE (following 2 Macc 1:7), and that the date in 1:9 should read “the 148th year” (=164 BCE) instead of “the 188th year” (=124 BCE). I find Doran’s response compelling (2 Maccabees, 28–33).
[11] Doran, 2 Maccabees, 62–63 concludes that the attribution to Judas is a forgery because the letter’s worldview seems to presuppose Judaea’s complete independence. According to Schwartz, 2 Maccabees, 144, “it cannot be excluded that it is based upon an original going back to Judas himself …. However, if there was such an authentic kernel, it grew.”

Sunday, December 16, 2018

First-Century Memories of the Maccabees -- A Footnote with Footnotes

This post began as an attempt to document an assertion I wanted to make about widespread memories of the Maccabean revolt in the late Second Temple period. When I did not find the succinct and authoritative discussion I was looking for, I decided I would need to compile the evidence myself. Many hours later, my survey, with all its caveats and qualifications, is too large for the footnote I had originally planned. I am transplanting it here to give it room to grow into a short essay—a footnote with footnotes—which will, I hope, help me more quickly bring this tangent to an end, while preserving what I found for my own and others’ future reference.

Everyone agrees that the Maccabean revolt was a watershed in Jewish history. In 167 BCE, when Antiochus IV Epiphanes outlawed the practice of the Jewish way of life—banning circumcision, ordering the destruction of copies of the Torah, setting up a pagan altar in the Jerusalem Temple, and forcing Jews to sacrifice to other gods—he set in motion a popular revolt led by Judas the Maccabee and his four brothers. The Temple was rededicated in 164 BCE. Twenty-two years later Judaea became an independent state for the first time since before the exile, and Judas’s brother Simon became the first ruler in a Hasmonean dynasty that governed for almost a century.

Joseph Sievers sums up the long-term consequences this way:
"It was the tenacity of the martyrs and the courage of Judas Maccabeus and his companions that saved monotheism for Judaism and thus for humanity …. The development of distinct Jewish groups, or Judaisms, in the late Second Temple period occurred partly in response to some of the later Hasmoneans. Thus the influence of the Hasmoneans reaches well beyond their own time" [1].
Like most scholarly discussions of the Hasmoneans and the Maccabean revolt, Sievers has little to say about what Jews in the later Second Temple period thought about the events leading up to the revolt. It is this question—about the revolt’s perceived impact rather than its historical effects—that I want to pursue here.

The changes that modern historians attribute to the Maccabean revolt were not necessarily grasped by those who lived a couple centuries downstream from these decisive events. It is, in fact, hard to imagine that Jews in the first century CE were aware of the extent to which their daily practices and beliefs owed their specific shape to a crisis in the second century BCE, and not, for instance, to the commands given to Moses on Mount Sinai.

So what did Jews in the first century think about the Maccabean revolt? How close to the surface of their consciousness was it? I begin with two ways of addressing the question that I find problematic.

(1) The Apocryphal Maccabees: Perhaps the answer to my question about Second Temple memories of the Maccabean revolt is so obvious it doesn’t need saying. Since we have easy access to our most important sources for the Maccabean revolt in the Apocrypha, it is easy to imagine that most Jews in the first century CE knew the stories 1 and 2 Maccabees preserve. In a recent essay Gerbern Oegema concludes that Paul, as someone with “a Jewish background and … a Jewish and Greek education,” would have been “familiar with the contents of 1 and 2 Maccabees” [2]. He also supposes that Paul’s Diaspora audience would have known the texts too because the “Septuagint”—including 1 and 2 Maccabees—was the “Bible” of the “Greek speaking churches founded and visited by Paul” [3].

In my view, such confidence about the scriptural status of 1 and 2 Maccabees is unwarranted. To be sure, allusions to and citations from 1 and 2 Maccabees in Christian writings as early as the late second century indicate that 1 and 2 Maccabees were viewed as divinely inspired Scripture by some Christian writers. It is possible, as Henry Swete proposed in 1900, that early Christian canon lists, which tend to exclude the Apocrypha, reflect a later attempt to align the Christian Old Testament with what had become the Hebrew canon, and that the great codices of the fourth and fifth century preserve an earlier more expansive view inherited from Greek-speaking Diaspora Jews who regarded 1 and 2 Maccabees and other apocryphal books as Scripture [4]. Nevertheless, our earliest canon lists begin with Origen in the early third century, while our earliest evidence for the inclusion of 1 and 2 Maccabees among other books from the Hebrew Bible comes from the fourth and fifth-century codices א and A. It is far from clear that 1 and 2 Maccabees or the other works now included in modern editions of the Septuagint were widely regarded as Scripture by Greek-speaking Jews and early Christians during the first century [5].

Concrete literary evidence for knowledge of either of these two quite different books—let alone both together—is scant before the end of the first-century CE. Josephus paraphrased much of 1 Maccabees, but appears not to have known 2 Maccabees [6]. 4 Maccabees reworks 2 Maccabees, Hebrews 11:35 refers to 2 Maccabees 7, but neither the author of 4 Maccabees nor the author of Hebrews seem to be aware of 1 Maccabees [7]. Even if a handful of other possible references to 1 or 2 Maccabees in Philo, 3 Maccabees, the Additions to Esther, and the New Testament is included [8], it will show only that some Jews knew these primary sources. We can hardly conclude on the basis of this slim evidence that educated Jewish readers in the Greco-Roman world would have known 1 or 2 Maccabees as a matter of course.

(2) Maccabees in the Air: Another approach identifies ideological parallels between those who resisted the Hellenistic reforms in the second century BCE, and ordinary Jews living two centuries later. In 1956 William Farmer defended the existence of a Maccabean-inspired “national resistance movement” in the first century on the basis of links he identified between the zeal of the Maccabees and the Zealots described in Josephus [9]. More recently Anthony Cummins has constructed a “Maccabean model of Judaism,” which he then presupposes as a background against which to interpret Paul [10]. Farmer and Cummins also discuss positive evidence, such as the celebration of Hanukkah, to support their claims that the Maccabean revolt was popular in the first century, so perhaps it is unfair for me to try to distinguish this hard evidence, which I will assess in a subsequent post, from ideological parallels, when they treat them both together. In the case of ideological parallels, however, I am inclined to assume that much of what is isolated as distinctively “Maccabean” was in fact common to first-century Jews in general, and that it had no necessary connection to the Maccabean revolt in the thinking of Jews themselves. Zeal for the law, to take one example, was not the preserve of the Maccabees alone, and the existence of such zeal need not have always evoked the Maccabean revolt.

In any case, I am looking for hard evidence. What else besides Hanukkah points to first-century memories of the Maccabean revolt? And what evidence is there for the celebration of Hanukkah anyway? More on this in the next post.

Other Posts in This Series
Part 2: First-Century Memories of the Maccabees Part 2: The Origins of Hanukkah
Part 3: First-Century Memories of the Maccabees Part 3: Hanukkah in the First Century
Part 4: Memories of the Maccabees in the Dead Sea Scrolls
Part 5: The Maccabean Revolt and the Success of Hasmonean Propaganda


[1] Joseph Sievers, in Dictionary of New Testament Background, ed. Craig A. Evans and Stanley E. Porter (Downers Grove: IVP Academic, 2000), 438-442, here 441.
[2] Gerbern S. Oegema, “1 and 2 Maccabees in Paul’s Letter to the Galatians,” in Die Makkabäer, ed. Friedrich Avemarie et al., WUNT I 382 (Tübingen: Mohr Siebeck, 2017), 345–60, here 345, 352.
[3] Gerbern S. Oegema, “Portrayals of Women in 1 and 2 Maccabees,” in Transformative Encounters: Jesus and Women Re-Viewed, ed. Ingrid R. Kitzberger, Biblical Interpretation Series 43 (Leiden: Brill, 2000), 245–64, here 263.
[4] Henry Barclay Swete, An Introduction to the Old Testament in Greek (Cambridge: Cambridge University Press, 1900), 219-226.
[5] For similar reservations about the use of fourth and fifth-century Christian evidence to determine first-century Jewish views about Scripture, see Roger Beckwith, The Old Testament Canon of the New Testament Church and Its Background in Early Judaism (Grand Rapids: Eerdmans, 1985), 383; Julio Trebolle, “Canon of the Old Testament,” New Interpreter’s Dictionary of the Bible 1:548–63, here 552.
[6] For Josephus’s lack of knowledge of 2 Maccabees, see Daniel R. Schwartz, 2 Maccabees, CEJL (Berlin: de Gruyter, 2008), 86–87; as well as Isaiah M. Gafni, “Josephus and 1 Maccabees,” in Josephus, the Bible, and History, ed. Louis H. Feldman and Gohei Hata (Detroit: Wayne State University Press, 1989), 130 note 39, responding to Jonathan A. Goldstein, I Maccabees: A New Translation, with Introduction and Commentary, AB (Garden City, NY: Doubleday, 1976), 56–57. For other analyses of Josephus’s use of 1 Maccabees, see Shaye J. D. Cohen, Josephus in Galilee and Rome: His Vita and Development as a Historian (Leiden: Brill, 1979), 44–47; Louis H. Feldman, “Josephus’ Portrayal of the Hasmoneans Compared with 1 Maccabees,” in Josephus and the History of the Greco-Roman World: Essays in Memory of Morton Smith, ed. Fausto Parente and Joseph Sievers (Leiden: Brill, 1994), 41–68; Étienne Nodet, “Joséphe et 1 Maccabées,” Revue Biblique 122.4 (2015): 507–39.
[7] On the use of 2 Maccabees in 4 Maccabees and Hebrews see Schwartz, 2 Maccabees, 85–90; Frank Shaw, “2 Maccabees,” in The T&T Clark Companion to the Septuagint, ed. James K. Aitken (London: Bloomsbury T & T Clark, 2015), 287–88. David A. deSilva, 4 Maccabees: Introduction and Commentary on the Greek Text in Codex Sinaiticus, Septuagint Commentary Series (Leiden: Brill, 2006), xxix–xxxi, makes no mention of 1 Maccabees in his discussion of the sources of 4 Maccabees. Craig R. Koester, The Epistle to the Hebrews: A New Translation with Introduction and Commentary, AB 36 (New York: Doubleday, 2001), 116, notes that Hebrews “used the deuterocanonical stories of the Maccabean martyrs (2 Macc 5-7; Heb 11:35-38) and perhaps the Wisdom of Solomon (Wis 7:25; Heb 1:3).”
[8] For the “influence” of 2 Maccabees on 3 Maccabees and the Additions to Esther, see Robert Doran, Temple Propaganda: The Purpose and Character of 2 Maccabees (Washington, D.C.: Catholic Biblical Association of America, 1981), 111–12; in his recent commentary, 2 Maccabees: A Critical Commentary, Hermeneia (Minneapolis: Fortress, 2012), 14, 17, Doran speaks more cautiously of “correspondences.” Schwartz, 2 Maccabees, 86–87 discusses and discounts the possibility that 3 Maccabees was influenced by 2 Maccabees and that the description of torture in Philo, Every Good Man is Free 89 drew on 2 Macc 7:4-5; 9:9. Michael Tilly, 1 Makkabäer, HTKAT (Freiburg: Herder, 2015), only cites Josephus among early Jewish writings before the end of the first century CE, and notes “Zwar finden sich keine direkten Zitate im Neuen Testament oder bei den Apostolischen Vätern” (52).
[9] William Reuben Farmer, Maccabees, Zealots, and Josephus: An Inquiry into Jewish Nationalism in the Greco-Roman Period (Westport, CT: Greenwood Press, 1956), see esp. pp. 189-191.
[10] Stephen Anthony Cummins, Paul and the Crucified Christ in Antioch: Maccabean Martyrdom and Galatians 1 and 2, SNTSMS 114 (Cambridge: Cambridge University Press, 2001).

Thursday, December 6, 2018

John Newton on Learning the Biblical Languages

After describing how he taught himself Latin (see the previous post), John Newton goes on to say how he gave it up for the sake of Christ:
"In short, in the space of two or three voyages I became tolerably acquainted with the best classics …. [A]t length I conceived a design of becoming Ciceronian myself, and thought it would be a fine thing indeed to write pure and elegant Latin.--I made some essays towards it, but by this time the Lord was pleased to draw me nearer to himself, and to give me a fuller view of the 'pearl of great price,' the inestimable treasure hid in the field of the holy scripture, and for the sake of this, I was made willing to part with all my new acquired riches. I began to think that life was too short (especially my life) to admit of leisure for such elaborate trifling. Neither poet or historian could tell me a word of Jesus, and I therefore applied myself to those who could." - 166-7

I find this posture--one is tempted to call it "anti-intellectual"--a bit unfortunate. Why can't you be devoted to God and read the classics? Newton seems almost to boast in the next excerpt about never reading Classical Greek, when that would only help, not hinder, a reading of the New Testament, and he goes on to remark, "I would rather be some way useful to others, than die with the reputation of an eminent linguist." Why must it be one or the other? Still, for Newton, who left school when he was 10 years old, being an "anti-intellectual" meant teaching himself Greek, Hebrew and Syriac (Aramaic):
"I devoted my life to the prosecution of spiritual knowledge, and resolved to pursue nothing but in subservience to this main design. This resolution divorced me … from the classics and mathematics. My first attempt was to learn so much Greek, as would enable me to understand the New Testament and Septuagint; and when I had made some progress this way, I entered upon the Hebrew the following year; and two years afterwards, having furnished some advantages from the Syriac version, I began with that language. You must not think that I have attained or ever aimed at a critical skill in any of these: I had no business with them, but as in reference to something else. I never read one classic author in the Greek; I thought it too late in life to take such a round in this language, as I had done in the Latin. ... In the Hebrew I can read the historical books and psalms with tolerable ease; but in the prophetical and difficult parts I am frequently obliged to have recourse to Lexicons, etc. However, I know so much, as to be able, with such helps as are at hand, to judge for myself the meaning of any passage I have occasion to consult." - 204-5

Would that all pastors today were "anti-intellectuals" like Newton.


Wednesday, December 5, 2018

John Newton and Learning Babylonian as a Living Language

In the 11th letter of his epistolary autobiography, John Newton describes how he taught himself Latin while serving as captain of a slave ship:
"Having now much leisure, I prosecuted the study of the Latin with good success. I remembered a dictionary this voyage, and procured two or three other books; but still it was my hap to chuse the hardest. … I was not aware of the difference of style; I had heard Livy highly commended, and was resolved to understand him. I began with the first page, and laid down a rule, which I seldom departed from, not to proceed to a second period till I understood the first, and so on. I was often at a stand, but seldom discouraged: here and there I found a few lines quite obstinate, and was forced to break-in upon my rule, and give them up, especially as my edition had only the text, without any notes to assist me. But there were not many such; for before the close of that voyage, I could (with a few exceptions) read Livy from end to end, almost as readily as an English author. And I found, in surmounting this difficulty, I had surmounted all in one." - John Newton, Authentic Narrative (1764), pp. 165-6
The key ingredients here are dedication, time and freedom from distraction. For a more efficient approach, I recommend learning Latin--or any "dead" language really--as you would a living language. Take Babylonian, for instance:
"A Cambridge academic has taught himself to speak ancient Babylonian and is leading a campaign to revive it as a spoken language almost 2,000 years after it became extinct. Dr Martin Worthington, a fellow of St John’s College, has created the world’s first film in the ancient language with his Babylonian-speaking students dramatising a folk tale from a clay tablet from 701BC." - Charles Hymas in The Telegraph
You can watch the very interesting film here (with subtitles if you prefer):
Click here for more information about the film, with a link to Dr. Worthington's book, Teach Yourself Complete Babylonian.

Thursday, November 15, 2018

The Holy Kiss as Family Practice among Christian Brothers

Among the biblical imperatives almost universally ignored by modern western Christians is Paul’s repeated injunction to “greet one another with a holy kiss” (Rom 16:16; 1 Cor 16:20; 2 Cor 13:12; 1 Thess 5:26). In an effort to live up to its Truth Made Clear™ motto, the New Living Translation replaces the concrete kiss with the abstraction of “Christian love.” This attempt to retain a timeless meaning while discarding the cultural husk obscures the real—and really challenging—point of the command, which has less to do with the heartiness of the handshake than with the embodiment of family.

In the Bible we encounter kissing between rulers and subjects (2 Sam 15:5; Ps 2:12), between a host and his guest (Luke 7:45), and between close friends (1 Sam 20:41), but in both the Bible and Greco-Roman society kissing was most commonly practiced between relatives (see Song of Solomon 8:1). In its first-century context, then, the “holy kiss” was a transgressive act:
“In the early years of Christianity, followers of Jesus were noted for kissing each other (probably, though not necessarily, on the lips) and for making the exchange of such greetings a part of their public liturgy. Paul’s emphasis that this greeting was to be a ‘holy kiss’ (cf. 1 Pet. 5:14) makes clear that nothing erotic was implied. Still, the practice was a novel one. … [T]here does not appear to have been any precedent in Jewish or Greco-Roman society for kissing between men and women who were not either relatives … or lovers.” - Mark Allan Powell summarizing Michael Philip Penn*
When slaves and their owners, gentiles and Jews, and males and females in Paul’s churches kissed each other, they enacted family unity, demonstrating to themselves and others that they really were brothers and sisters in Christ, members of one body. If the goal of translation is to convey the—in this case shocking—effect of the original, NLT’s “Greet each other with Christian love” fails miserably. I am not proposing that churches today should add a literal “holy kiss” into their order of service, but they should probably have the chance to be exposed to what Paul actually said so that they can reflect on what an analogous contemporary practice might look like. (If you are like me, such reflection is unsettling.)

Alongside the kiss was the early Christian practice of addressing fellow believers as “brothers.” Unfortunately, readers of the NIV, NLT and other dynamic equivalence translations will sometimes miss the import of this speech act. I have no objection to replacing the Greek word for “brothers” with the gender neutral “brothers and sisters,” but when translators substitute the less cumbersome “believers,” the family connotations of the underlying Greek expression are lost—and these connotations are hugely significant both for the meaning of the term and its effect on those among whom it was used.

In the early Jewish book of Tobit, for example, marriage makes husband and wife “brother” and “sister” (7:12)—if, that is, marriage is kept in the family. Tobias addresses his new bride Sarah as “sister” (8:4) after he dutifully followed his father’s instruction to choose a wife from among his brothers, just like Abraham and the patriarchs (4:12; 6:16). In Tobit, the family ultimately includes all Israelites, who as descendants from Abraham are “brothers” (e.g., 1:3, 10, 16). The marriage between Sarah and her close relative, Tobias, is emblematic of a concern in the book to promote endogamy within the larger family of Israel and prohibit intermarriage with gentiles.

In 1 Maccabees, “brothers” frequently denotes those faithful Israelites who stood with Judas and his literal brothers (e.g., 1 Macc 2:40-41; 5:32). It is true that later in the book, Jonathan and the “assembly of the Jews” address the Spartans as “brothers,” but this exceptional usage proves the rule, for the Spartans explain in their reply that they had discovered that both Jews and Spartans were descendants of Abraham (1 Macc 12:21). (With Christopher Jones**, I take it that the assertion of kinship was believed to be genuine, not just a rhetorical device.)

Despite differences in where they draw the boundaries, Tobit and 1 Maccabees illustrate a wider Jewish pattern of usage drawn from the Hebrew Bible, which can use “brother” to refer to any descendant of Israel (e.g., Deut 17:15).

Much like giving a kiss, then, Christians in Paul’s churches who addressed each other as “brother” or “sister” were signaling that they were family, insiders as opposed to outsiders. (I should add that even though the new Christian family reflected in Paul’s letters crossed ethnic boundaries, it was just as exclusive in its own way as the Jewish pattern from which it was derived.)

In the next post, I want to explore how “brother” is used as a form of address in Acts. There is, I think, a consistent pattern that is intentional, but also rather puzzling.

Works Cited 
*Mark Allan Powell, Introducing the New Testament: A Historical, Literary, and Theological Survey (Grand Rapids: BakerAcademic, 2009), 379, summarizing Michael Philip Penn, Kissing Christians: Ritual and Community in the Late Ancient Church (Philadelphia: University of Pennsylvania Press, 2005).
**Christopher Prestige Jones, Kinship Diplomacy in the Ancient World (Cambridge: Harvard University Press, 1999).

Sunday, November 11, 2018

A November Miscellany

You can chalk October's blog silence up to a trip to Dublin at the beginning of the month, for which I needed to prepare a paper, a trip to Caronport at the end of the month, for which I needed to prepare a course, and the ancillary packing, unpacking, and follow-up that simply takes time.

Both trips were a treat. In Dublin we got to see biblical manuscripts in the Chester Beatty Library ...

... and to marvel at Trinity College Dublin's Old Library:

Saskatchewan in October calls for a more refined palate that can appreciate different shades of brown, but the interaction with students, friends, and colleagues was rich, and the week of teaching "Jewish Backgrounds to Early Christianity" was very satisfying. I also had a few conversations that make me excited about the prospect of returning to full-time teaching next fall (see #4 below).

Real life takes precedence over the virtual, but I want to mention a few things quickly:

(1) Ambiguities in Acts: I hope to resume my blog series on the Law (and related topics) in the book of Acts shortly.

(2) The soundtrack to my daily commute right now is the audiobook version of Charles Marsh's superb Strange Glory: A Life of Dietrich Bonhoeffer (Vintage, 2015). This is no hagiography of Bonhoeffer, and all the better for that. Perhaps most remarkable from my middle-aged vantage point is that by age 25 Bonhoeffer had two doctorates, and by the age of 30 he was one of Germany's most vocal opponents to Hitler. What might the 20-somethings of today accomplish?

(3) One of the best available Bible programs--one that also happens to be free--has decided to make its accurate tagged databases of the Hebrew Bible, Septuagint, and Greek New Testament freely available for others to use and develop. Kudos to David Instone-Brewer and STEP Bible.

(4) Learn Ancient Greek as a Living Language in 2019: I am delighted to announce that Briercrest College and Seminary plans to offer an intensive sequence of 5 Greek courses next fall, all in one semester. Instead of the traditional grammar-translation approach, the courses will be team-taught in Koiné Greek, drawing on best practices in second language acquisition. I will have more to say about the program later on. In the meantime, you can read a selection of my earlier posts about teaching and learning Greek and Hebrew as living languages here, here, here, and here

Thursday, September 27, 2018

Faculty Job Openings at Briercrest College and Seminary

Briercrest College and Seminary is currently looking to fill faculty positions in Old Testament, Theology, Philosophy, Psychology, Business Administration, and Leadership and Management.

More information is available on the Briercrest website here.

Thursday, September 20, 2018

Three or Four Views on the Law in Acts: Preliminary Taxonomies

Bonus marks if you can identify the location of the stairwell.
Note: This is part 2 in a series on the Law in Acts. Part 1 is here.

At the risk of caricature, I begin with two rough-and-ready ways of classifying the major options.

Taxonomy 1: The first typology plots Jewish-Christian Torah observance along a trajectory from least observant (option 1) to most observant (option 2c):

(1) Freedom from the law within Acts: The book of Acts tells the story of a progressive, divinely-orchestrated, abandonment of the law, in tandem with the spread of the gospel to all nations. Acts narrates the emergence of Christianity out of Judaism and the replacement of Israel by the church as the people of God.* This view is the starting point for many ordinary readers who conflate Acts with a conventional understanding of Paul, and who assume the New Testament is about Christianity not Judaism; it remains a common scholarly option as well. [*Supersessionism is a slippery term. Some scholars finesse “replacement” differently, while still holding that Luke presents a move away from the law among Paul and other right-thinking Jewish-Christians within Acts.]

(2) Law-observant Jewish Christians & law-free gentile Christians: A second broad approach grants (a) that the conversion of Cornelius in Acts 10-11 and the Jerusalem Council in Acts 15 are focused on a law-free mission to gentiles, and (b) that Luke depicts Jewish Christ-believers within Acts—including Paul—as obedient to the law. What this means for Luke’s understanding of the significance of the law in his own time remains debated:

(a) A Torah-observant past within Acts vs. a law-free post-70 present in Luke’s own day: Acts distinguishes between Jewish and gentile Christians, defending a law-free gentile Christianity but depicting Paul—and therefore all Jewish Christians—as fully Torah observant. However, between the story of Acts and the time of writing a major break between Judaism and Christianity occurred. In Luke’s own post-70 (gentile?) context, there is no longer a distinction between Jewish and gentile Christians, and the law is not considered binding on anyone in the church. Supporters of this view (2a) often regard Luke’s description of law-observant Jewish Christianity in Acts as an attempt to justify the claims of gentile Christianity to be the people of God and heirs of Israel’s ancient heritage. As a result, view 2a often resembles view 1.

(b) A Torah-observant past within Acts and a Torah-observant option in Luke’s own day (?): Luke knows of Torah-observant Jewish Christians among his contemporaries, and he thinks it is fine for them to continue to keep the law, but he doesn’t think it is necessary to do so.

(c) A Torah-observant past within Acts and in Luke’s own day: Acts makes it clear that both Jews and gentiles are saved by faith alone, but the author distinguishes between “a people from the nations” who are not required to observe the law, and God’s covenant with Israel at Mount Sinai, which, Luke assumed, remained in effect. Faithful Jewish believers in Jesus are thus expected to continue to keep the law. More clearly than view 2a, adherents of this view tend to deny that Luke depicts gentile believers as replacing Israel as the people of God. The “true Israel”—not a biblical term, but a sectarian concept—consists rather of Jewish believers in Jesus.

This taxonomy helps us see at a glance the difference between the two major approaches to the law in Acts. On the first approach, Acts can be made to correspond with conventional readings of Paul's letters. On the second approach (options 2a-c), Acts presents Paul as fully Torah-observant.

A problem with the taxonomy is that it combines questions about the story Luke tells--“Are Jewish Christians Torah observant in Acts?”--with speculative reconstructions of Luke’s own later church context--for example, “Were Jewish Christians in Luke's later church still Torah observant?”

Taxonomy 2: Before attempting to form conclusions about Luke's own church context, we should probably begin by trying to relate the story Luke tells about the law with another closely-related theme (or themes) in Acts. So here is a second taxonomy organized like a JoHari Window that combines Luke’s depiction of the law in Acts (the x-axis) with Luke’s depiction of Jewish Christianity within Acts (the y-axis):

  • The x-axis plots Jewish Christianity as described in Acts as either “Torah observant” or “Law-free.” 
  • The y-axis focuses on the significance of the story Luke tells, with “(gentile) church replaces Israel” at one end, and “Israel reduced to a Jewish sect” at the other. 
View 1 on the first typology belongs in the top right quadrant: According to this view, the church described in Acts claims to replace Israel as the people of God and has already abandoned the law.

Views 2a and 2b belong in the top left quadrant: Acts depicts Jewish Christians as fully Torah observant, but presents all believers in Jesus, both Jews and non-Jews, as part of a single new people of God. In the opening chapters of Acts, we see the development of a sectarian movement consisting only of Jews who claim to be experiencing the fulfillment of God's promises to Israel. As the sectarian assembly (or "church") expands to include non-Jews alongside Torah-observant Jews, non- or "trans-" ethnic Christianity begins to emerge out of Judaism and to replace ethnic Israel as the people of God.

View 2c belongs in the bottom right left [!] quadrant: According to this view, Luke not only distinguishes between Torah-observant Jewish believers (including Paul) and law-free gentile believers, he also continues to distinguish between a Jewish-Christian sectarian group that claims to be “Israel restored,” and a non-Jewish “people from the gentiles” who share in salvation, the Holy Spirit, and the other blessings brought by Jesus, but who are never fully merged with Jewish followers of Jesus and who are never described as Israel.

No doubt there are still other ways of organizing the scholarly options. Before pursuing these further I hope in the next few posts to begin to lay out the evidence that is so variously interpreted by modern readers of Acts.

Wednesday, September 19, 2018

Three or Four Views on the Law in Acts

Anyone who has followed this blog for a while will know that I keep returning to the puzzle of Luke’s attitude toward the law. In 2014, in what was at least the third post on some aspect of the topic, I concluded that leaving the puzzle unsolved would be better than forcing all the pieces to fit:
Rover as "sober second thought"
As I have tried to push for consistency, for an interpretation of Acts that makes sense of all the data, I have found myself offering readings of individual passages that, on sober second thought, seem unsustainable. After multiple attempts to walk away with a solution to the problem of Luke and the law, it dawned on me that allowing two readings of Luke's silences to sit side-by-side without deciding finally between them is better than a tour de force that forces all the evidence to fit instead of admitting honestly where the difficulties are. (Click here for the whole post; here and here for earlier posts; and here, here, and here, for subsequent posts.)
For better or worse, by the time the essay I was working on was complete, I had decided to try my hand at a tour de force. Although I did allow that Luke may have envisioned a change in the food laws to enable Jewish believers to eat whatever was set before them by baptized gentile believers, I argued not only that Luke depicts Jewish Christians in Acts as consistently Torah-observant, but that he also thought Jewish believers in his own day should continue to observe the law.

I am now far enough removed from the argument of that essay to want to subject it to “sober second thought.” I like to tell myself that when I am not completely convinced by what I am saying I am probably trying to get at something important. Difficult questions exist for a reason. If the answers were obvious, the questions would have been resolved already. Still, while I was confident enough to go into print with it, aspects of the argument have always troubled me.

For one thing, my conclusions seem to put the author of the Gospel of Luke and the book of Acts at odds with the apostle Paul. Try as I might, I have not been able to persuade myself that comments about the law in Paul’s letters are addressed only to non-Jews, as proponents of the “Paul within Judaism” perspective tend to argue. When in Romans 6:15 Paul declares “we are not under law but under grace,” I take it that he includes all believers in Jesus, both Jews and gentiles. Paul’s self-description as one who became “without the law to those without the law” (1 Cor 9:21) and who was “persuaded in the Lord Jesus that nothing is unclean in itself” (Rom 14:14) is difficult to square with the Paul of Acts who insists, “I have in no way committed an offense against the law of the Jews” (Acts 25:8 NRSV)—if, that is, Luke means that Paul maintained a fully Torah-observant lifestyle.

To be clear, Paul’s letters do not determine what Acts must mean or vice versa. The unity of Scripture is, in my view, a theological dictum, not a hermeneutical method that can be used to impose an artificial harmony on the text. Nevertheless, I admit that my inability to reconcile the Paul of Acts and the Paul of the letters results in a certain amount of uncomfortable dissonance.

More importantly, the difference between my reading of Acts and my reading of Paul’s letters raises historical questions about the setting and purpose of Acts. Where in the late first or early second century would you encounter a church composed of Torah-observant Jewish Christians and law-free gentile believers? Was Luke really so unaware of the kind of things Paul said about the law in his letters?

There are also niggling doubts about bits and pieces of Acts that could point in other directions. Was I explaining the text or explaining it away?

Apart from being more reluctant to draw conclusions from the narrative of Acts about law observance in Luke’s own later context, I haven’t changed my mind on any major point (yet). But I have decided that I want to re-evaluate the puzzle of Luke’s attitude toward the law along the more expansive lines of what I suggested back in 2014—not by defending one option, but by presenting the main alternatives as persuasively as I can, and evaluating the evidence as fairly as I can.

My plan in subsequent posts is to use this space to think through the evidence and the options in more detail. Feedback, corrections, and comments are welcome.

Other posts in this series:
Preliminary Taxonomies

Saturday, September 8, 2018

The Hypocrisy and Moral Bankruptcy of the American Evangelical Right

In 1998 James Dobson, the founder of Focus on the Family, told his supporters that marital infidelity and lying should disqualify Bill Clinton from serving as president: 
"What has alarmed me throughout this episode has been the willingness of my fellow citizens to rationalize the President's behavior even after they suspected, and later knew, that he was lying. ... As it turns out, character DOES matter. You can't run a family, let alone a country, without it. How foolish to believe that a person who lacks honesty and moral integrity is qualified to lead a nation and the world! Nevertheless, our people continue to say that the President is doing a good job even if they don't respect him personally. Those two positions are fundamentally incompatible. In the Book of James the question is posed, 'Can both fresh water and salt water flow from the same spring?' (James 3:11, NIV). The answer is no." - James Dobson, as quoted by John Fea here and here.

Two decades later James Dobson not only endorsed but continues to support Donald Trump as president because he offers "relief from judicial tyranny."

For more detail, and a response to American Evangelical reasons for supporting Trump, see John Fea's Believe Me: The Evangelical Road to Donald Trump (Grand Rapids: Eerdmans, 2018).

Modular Course: Jewish Backgrounds to Early Christianity

I will be back in Saskatchewan in October to teach "Jewish Backgrounds to Early Christianity" as a week-long modular course at Briercrest. The class can be taken in the college as a 300-level undergraduate History or Biblical Studies elective, in the seminary (with a little more work) as a Masters-level Biblical Studies elective, or as an audit.

This is how I describe the course in the syllabus:
Contemporary scholars of Christian origins are committed to studying early Christianity carefully in its early Jewish context; they also agree that Judaism should be studied fairly on its own terms and not simply as the background to Early Christianity.

This course will adopt the same approach. We will examine pivotal “intertestamental” period events, such as the Maccabean revolt, and consider the impact of centuries of Persian, Greek and Roman rule on the beliefs, practices, and dreams of first-century Jews. We will learn about the distinctives of the Pharisees, Sadducees and Essenes, as well as what was common to the majority of ordinary Jews who did not belong to any group. We will also gain a first-hand acquaintance with early Jewish literature by reading selections from the Apocrypha, the Pseudepigrapha, and the Dead Sea Scrolls. By the end of this course, you will recognize more fully the richness and complexity of the Jewish milieu out of which Christianity developed. You will also be familiar with major trends in scholarship on early Judaism, and be better able to identify the nature and limits of the historical evidence, as well as to distinguish between speculative and solidly-grounded historical reconstructions.

And yet at every turn we will be concerned with the implications of what we are learning for our understanding of early Christianity. Our study of Jewish eschatological beliefs will shed light on the early Christian affirmation that Jesus is the Messiah. Our analysis of early Jewish interpretation of Scripture will help us pay attention to the use of the Old Testament in the New Testament; it will also provide an opportunity to explore the development of the Old Testament canon. Finally, what we learn about the role of the law in early Jewish life will provide a framework within which Paul’s statements about the law can be evaluated. Fresh ways of looking at familiar texts will raise new questions as well as answer old ones. This is good—not least because it can direct us back to the Bible, prepared to listen to Scripture more carefully and to hear its challenge with new force.
It's a course I've taught a bunch of times now--see here and here for past iterations--but never as a "mod." This time around I switched up some of the assignments to suit the intensive format, and, hopefully, my students. I also changed one of the key textbooks--assigning short essays from The Jewish Annotated New Testament instead of readings from George Nickelsburg's Jewish Literature between the Bible and the Mishnah. Here is the full list of assigned texts, in case anyone is interested:

Secondary Sources
Cohen, Shaye J. D. From the Maccabees to the Mishnah. 3rd ed. Louisville, KY: Westminster John Knox, 2014.
Levine, Amy-Jill, and Marc Zvi Brettler, eds. The Jewish Annotated NewTestament. 2nd ed. New York: Oxford University Press, 2017.
Reserve Reading 
Kugel, James L. “Early Jewish Biblical Interpretation.” Pages 151–78 in Early Judaism: A Comprehensive Overview. Edited by John J. Collins and Daniel C. Harlow. Grand Rapids: Eerdmans, 2012.
Sandmel, Samuel. “Parallelomania.” JBL 81 (1962): 1-13.
Primary Sources
Apocrypha: Coogan, Michael D., ed. The New OxfordAnnotated Apocrypha: New Revised Standard Version. 5th ed. New York: Oxford University Press, 2018.
Dead Sea Scrolls: Vermes, Geza. Penguin Classics Complete Dead SeaScrolls in English. 7th ed. New York: Penguin, 2012.
Pseudepigrapha (Note: You are not expected to purchase a copy, but you are required to bring a copy of the assigned readings from the Pseudepigrapha with you when they are discussed in class):
Charlesworth, James H., ed. The Old Testament Pseudepigrapha. 2 vols. New York: Doubleday, 1983, 1985. Repr. Peabody, MA: Hendrickson, 2010.
Or Charles, R. H., ed. Pseudepigrapha. The Apocrypha and Pseudepigrapha of the Old Testament in English. Vol. 2. Oxford: Clarendon, 1913. (Online at or

And here are the syllabi:
BLST 371 College Biblical Studies Syllabus
HIS 371 College History Syllabus
BLST 801 Seminary Biblical Studies Syllabus