Tisha b’Av/The Ninth Day of the 5th Month: Its Meaning in History and Tradition

As sunset falls on this eighth day of the 5th lunar month, known in Judaism as the month of Av, Tisha b’Av–that is, the 9th of Av–is marked on the calendar. Last Sabbath (August 2nd or 6th of Av) began the reading of Deuteronomy and is called Shabbat Chazon, which means the “Sabbath of Vision,” taken from the first word (חזון) of Isaiah 1:1-27, which is the reading from the Prophets for this day. These opening words of Isaiah set the tone for remembering Israel’s sinfulness that brought about the destruction of the holy city of Jerusalem.

Tisha b’Av is mentioned in Zechariah 7:3 and 8:19, as the “fast of the fifth month.” It is a 24 hour fast observed first and foremost to commemorate the destruction of both the 1st and 2nd Temples of Jerusalem, in 586 BCE and 70 CE respectively–first by the Babylonians, the subsequently by the Romans. Josephus, the Jewish historian, who records the history of the latter, and lived through it, makes the connection between the strange coincidence of the Temple going up in flames on the same fateful day on the Jewish calendar (Wars, 6:249–50). ((The First Temple, built by King Solomon, was destroyed by the Babylonian king Nebuchadnezzar in 586 B.C.E. on the 10th of Av, according to Jeremiah 3:12, whereas in the corresponding record in II Kings 25:8–9, the date is given as the 7th of Av. The Tosefta Ta’anit 4:10 (also Ta’an. 29a) explains this discrepancy by stating that the destruction of the outer walls and of the courtyard started on the 7th of Av while the whole edifice was destroyed on the 10th of Av. R. Johanan declared that he would have fixed the fast on the 10th of Av because it was on that day that the greater part of the calamity happened. The rabbis however decided that it is more fitting to commemorate the “beginning of the calamity.” The Second Temple was destroyed by the Romans in 70 C.E., on the 10th of Av, according to the historian Josephus (Wars, 6:249–50). This day is still observed as a day of mourning by the Karaites. The Talmud (Ta’an. 29a), however, gives the date as the 9th of Av, which became accepted as the anniversary of both destructions. The Jewish Virtual Library)) Those twin destructions marked the day as a time of sorrow and mourning forever after, marked by solemness and fasting without food or drink for 24 hours. The customs associated with Shiva, the Jewish mourning for the death of a close relative are followed, and the book of Lamentations is read in a special mournful chant. Ironically, according to some rabbinic tradition, the Messiah either was or will be born on Tisha b’Av, as a way of affirming that Light comes in the midst of the deepest Darkness and Despair. Those who take this literally, that he has already been born, believe he is hidden away waiting for the time of redemption (y. Berachot 2:4; Eichah Rabbah 1:51). Over the centuries this day has grown large in both history, legend, and tradition, remembered as a dark day of dire news and impending disaster. What follows below is a summary of some of that tradition, compiled by Yoram Etinger and based on many sources:

The Roman Destruction of Jerusalem by David Roberts

1. The 9th Day of (the 11th Jewish month) Av is the most calamitous day in Jewish history. Fasting on that day commemorates national catastrophes, in an attempt to benefit from history by learning from critical moral and strategic missteps, thus preventing future catastrophes. It was first mentioned in the book of Zechariah 7:3.

2.  The Passover holiday of liberty and the fast of the 9th Day of Av are commemorated on the same weekday.  The fast of the 9th day of Av is succeeded by the 15th day of Av – a holiday of love and rapprochement. The 9th Day of Av is treated simultaneously as a day of lamentation and holiday, thus highlighting a cardinal lesson: In order to fortify liberty and advance deliverance, one must commemorate calamities, avoid wishful-thinking and be mentally and physically prepared to face crises, and never lose optimism.  A day of destruction/oblivion is the first day of the path toward construction/deliverance. A problem is an opportunity in disguise. According to the Jerusalem Talmud (Berachot 2:4), the Messiah is destined to be born on Tisha Be’Av.

3.  Major Jewish calamities occurred on the 9th Day of Av (Tisha B’Av in Hebrew):

*The failed “Ten Spies/tribal presidents” (VS. Joshua & Caleb) –slandered the Land of Israel, preferring immediate convenience and conventional “wisdom” over faith and long term vision, thus prolonging the wandering in the desert for 40 years.

*The destruction of the First Temple and Jerusalem by Nebuchadnezzar of Babylon (586BC) produced a massacre of 100,000 and a national exile.

*The destruction of the Second Temple and Jerusalem by Titus of Rome (70CE) was accompanied by a massacre of 1MN and a national exile.

*Bar Kochba (Great) Rebellion was crashed (135CE) with the fall of Beitar (in Judea & Samaria) and the plowing of Jerusalem by Quintus Tinius Rofus, the Roman Governor – 580,000 killed.

*First Crusade Pogroms (1096) – scores of thousands slaughtered.

*Jewish expulsion from Britain (1290).

*Jewish expulsion from Spain (1492).

*WW1 erupted (1914).

*The beginning of the 1942 deportation of Warsaw Ghetto Jews to Treblinka extermination camp.

4.  The centrality of Jerusalem in Jewish history is commemorated on the 9th day of Av.  It is highlighted by Psalm 137:5 – “If I forget thee, O Jerusalem, let my right hand forget her cunning. If I do not remember thee, let my tongue cleave to the roof of my mouth, if I prefer not Jerusalem above my chief joy.” According to the constructive/optimist spirit of Tisha’ Be’Av: “He who laments the destruction of Jerusalem will be privileged to witness its renewal” (Babylonian Talmud, Ta’anit 30).

5.  The Book of the five Lamentations (The Scroll of Eikhah which was composed by Jeremiah the Prophet, who prophesized destruction, exile and deliverance) is read during the first nine days of Av. The numerical value of the Hebrew letters of Eikhah (איכה) is 36, which is equal to the traditional number of righteous Jewish persons. The Hebrew meaning of Eikhah could be construed as a reproaching “How Come?!”, as well as “Where are you?”  or “Why have you strayed away?”  The term Eikhah stars in the first chapter of Deuteronomy and the first chapter of Isaiah, which are annually studied in conjunction with the book of Lamentations on the 9th day of Av. Thus the 9th day of Av binds together the values of Moses, Jeremiah and Isaiah and three critical periods in the history of the Jewish People: deliverance, destruction, renewal.

6.  The 9th Day of Av concludes a series of three Torah readings of Jewish calamities (two by Jeremiah and one by Isaiah), and launches a series of seven Torah readings of consolations, renewal and ingathering (by Isaiah).

7.  Napoleon was walking at night in the streets of Paris, hearing sad voices emanating from a synagogue.  When told that the wailing/lamenting commemorated a 586BC catastrophe – the destruction of the First Temple – he stated: “People who solemnize ancient history are destined for a glorious future!”

8.  The commemoration of the 9th day of Av constitutes a critical feature of Judaism. It strengthens faith, roots, identity, moral clarity, cohesion and optimism by learning from past errors and immunizing oneself against the lethal disease of forgetfulness. Memory is Deliverance; forgetfulness is oblivion. The verb “to remember” (זכור) appears almost 200 times in the Bible, including the Ten Commandments. Judaism obligates parents to transfer tradition to the younger generation, thus enhancing realism and avoiding the curse of euphoric or fatalistic mood.

9.  The custom of house-cleaning on the 9th day of Av aims at welcoming deliverance. Fasting expresses the recognition of one’s limitations and fallibility and the constant pursuit of moral enhancement and humility.

10.  The 9th Day of Av is the central of the Four Jewish Days of Fast, commemorating the destruction of the First Temple:  the10th Day of Tevet (the onset of the siege that Nebuchadnezzar laid to Jerusalem), the 17th day of Tamuz (the walls of Jerusalem were breached), the 9th day of Av (destruction of both Temples) and the 3rd day of Tishrey (The murder of Governor Gedalyah, who maintained a level of post-destruction Jewish autonomy, which led to a murder rampage by the Babylonians and to exile).

11.  The 9thDay of Av culminates the Three Weeks of Predicament (ימי בין המצרים), starting on the 17th day of the month of Tamuz, when the walls of Jerusalem were breached by Nebuchadnezzar (1st Temple) and by Titus (2nd Temple).

12.  The month of Av launches the transformation from Curse to Blessing.  The Hebrew spelling of Av (אב) consists of the first two letters of the Hebrew alpha-Beth.  These letters constitute the Hebrew word for “bud” and they are the first two letters of the Hebrew word for “spring” (אביב , which means the father of twelve month).  The first letter, א, stands for ארור (cursed) and the second letter, ,ב stands for ברוך (blessed). The Hebrew letters of Av constitute the letters of Father (אב) and the first two letters of אבל (mourning).  The numerical value of Av (Aleph=1 and Bet=2), which is three, the combination of the basic even and odd numbers (King Solomon: “A triangular string/knot cannot be broken”). The zodiac sign of Av is a lion, which represents the Lion of Judah, rising in the aftermath of destruction caused by Nebuchadnezzar, whose symbol was the lion. Moses’ brother, Aharon – the embodiment of human kindness – died on the 1st day of Av.

Jehoash Tablet Returned to its Owner–To Go on Display

An inscribed stone that may be the only remnant of Solomon’s Temple has been returned to its owner after an 11-year legal battle waged by the Israeli government. The Jehoash Tablet, also known as the “Bedek Habayit” inscription, is back in the hands of Tel Aviv collector Oded Golan, who plans to put it on public display in a major museum. Golan finally retrieved the tablet and hundreds of other items more than two years after he was acquitted of forging priceless antiquities in a seven-year criminal trial and nearly a year after the High Court finally rejected a last-ditch appeal by Israel’s state attorney and the Israel Antiquities Authority.Jehoash Tablet

As ever Matthew Kalman does a great job of covering things in this breaking report on the final outcome of the Jehoash tablet lawsuit, see his piece in HaAretz here. I look forward to the day that both this and the James ossuary can be viewed by anyone.

The best archive of materials on this and the James ossuary, both for and against the case for authenticity, is here at Bible&Interpretion and the best coverage of the trials is by Matthew Kalman, see his web site here.

What I find interesting among both colleagues and general readers alike is the tendency to state dogmatic conclusions charging forgery, and greed without reading the full evidence on both sides. Oded’s reputation has been slandered by the forgery charges and it remains the case, despite charges to the contrary, that he has never sold a piece of art or an artifact from his antiquities collection. Anyone charged with a crime or misdeed is entitled to speak but by far the majority of those expressing views have not even bothered to read what Oded has written.  I recommend this overview where Oded provides a very factual and fair of the entire affair from start to finish: http://bibleinterp.com/articles/authjam358012.shtml.

Simcha Jacobovici Featured at 71st Anniversary Meeting of United Israel

The 71st Annual Meeting of United Israel will be held over the weekend of April 25-27, 2014 in Charlotte, NC at the Doubletree Suites Hotel in South Park. The program will run from 5pm on Friday, April 25th through 5pm Sunday, April 27th. Simcha Jacobovici is our featured speaker this year. He will do a screening of his influential film, “Falasha: Exile of the Black Jews,” as well as speak on the topic of “The Archaeology of the Biblical Exodus.” Our complete program, speakers, and topics are below.

Although you can register at the door we encourage you to register on-line here.

The modest registration fee of $20 per person/$30 for couple or family, can be paid when one registers or at the event. When you fill out the registration form you will be given the choice to pay now or later.

UI 71th Program 2014


My Bible-Buying Days are Over–The Best Bible on the Market

From the lovely, elegant, and scholarly 1985 JPS translation, to the unparalleled Oxford maps, the extensive scholarly, well-balanced notes (including academic as well as rabbinic perspectives), the s, tables, and charts in the back, with additional maps and charts splashed on the pages throughout, printed on high quality “Bible” paper and with attractive single column layout. This Bible is it!

I could not count the many editions of the Bible I have owned since age 17 when my parents gave me a fine Oxford Leather-bound copy of the King James Version with those wonderful maps. I still have that Bible. Since then I have bought many many more–too many to count. I am not just talking about buying Bibles in order to have all the major translations–that I have done as well. I am thinking here of personal study Bibles–that I purchased because I wanted to finally settle on a single edition and make it my own–for personal study and meditation. I have seldom stayed with one more than a year or two, until another would catch my fancy, or I would change my mind about how to mark the one I was using and begin over again. The joke in our household if any package arrives with my name on it is, “Dad has probably bought another Bible”–and this time he “swears” that this is the one. I will actually admit to “sneaking” new Bibles into the house knowing no one would notice the difference since I have had so many over the years.

Up until about 1986 the Bibles I bought were usually Christian ones–with the New Testament and often as not the Apocrypha. One of my favorites is the older Oxford RSV with Apocrypha–leather bound of course. I used that one for years and I have several hardcover editions of the same that I have worn out in 30 years of teaching. Since around 1986 I have owned just about every “Jewish Bible” on the market–from the old JPS (1917), various editions of the Koren Jerusalem Bible in several editions, the new JPS (1985), the Stone Tanakh, to numerous editions of the Torah and other portions of the Hebrew Bible whether by Kaplan, Fox, Alter, or Friedman.

JPS Study BibleWhat I wanted to report here is that I have finally, at long last, found the ultimate English edition of the Hebrew Bible–the leather-bound Jewish Study Bible (JPS Tanakh) published by Oxford University Press. I am taking a stand here–this will be my last personal Bible–that is how pleased I am with it. From the lovely, elegant, and scholarly 1985 JPS translation, to the unparalleled Oxford maps, the extensive scholarly, well-balanced notes (including academic as well as rabbinic perspectives), the s, tables, and charts in the back, with additional maps and charts splashed on the pages throughout, printed on high quality “Bible” paper and with attractive single column layout. There is simply nothing like it–and it comes in a leather edition that is published, ironically, by Christian Book Distributors–not Oxford or JPS directly. Apparently there is enough interest in the Hebrew Bible and a Jewish translation among DBD customers who are of course overwhelmingly Christian. The retail price is $79.99 but it is on sale in a lovely boxed edition for around $30.00. I also want to give credit to my friend and colleague Ross Nichols who first put me on to both this Bible and the CBD edition at this amazing price.

Screen Shot 2014-04-04 at 5.44.26 PMI know my family, friends, and others who know me will scoff–but I am taking an official stand here–my Bible buying days are over. I can’t imagine a personal study Bible that could ever meet or surpass this one. If you want a Christian Bible there are many choices, both translation and study editions–but for the O.T. (i.e., The Original Testament)–this is it–and it is hard to believe the price. I have to admit–when I ordered a copy I was skeptical that it would turn out to be some kind of “cheap” knock-off edition but it is fully up to Oxford quality. You can “look” inside the hardcover edition on Amazon if you want to browse a bit before buying but I am certain you will not be disappointed if you are looking for an academic study Bible that will stand the test of time.

Bashers of the Noah Film Should Re-Read Their Bibles

Spoiler Alert: This review of the Darren Aronofsky film “Noah” reveals plot details and analysis you may not want to know beforehand if you plan on seeing the film.

Darren Aronofsky’s new $100m blockbuster film “Noah” opened on Friday in 3936 theaters to a huge wave of media attention. Google News lists over 1400 stories on the film this morning and IMDB lists 2217 articles–many of them evaluating its merits or assessing the public reaction. Mainstream reviews are mostly solidly positive (Rotten Tomatoes 73, Metacritic 68) but the film is being blasted, damned, and condemned in many conservative Christian circles. So far it has been banned in Indonesia, the largest Muslim country, as well as Qatar, Bahrain, and the UAE–but here in the U.S. those objecting most strongly to the film are Christians who find its portrayal of the Noah story “unfaithful” to the Bible.

noah-film-700x464Ken Ham, the self-styled “Creationist” of recent fame for his disastrous debate with Bill Nye on “Evolution,” tells TIME magazine that the film is an insult to Christians, with “barely a hint of biblical fidelity,” and thus “unbiblical” and “pagan.” Glenn Beck, labels the film a “100 million dollar disaster,” objecting, among other things, that it is “pro-animal” and “anti-human.” Erick Erikson, on his “Redstate” blog, concludes his scorching review with the suggestion that “we might should consider burning at the stake any Christian leader who endorses this movie.” His Tweet was picked up by MSNBC and other TV media last night and has now gone viral. Brian Godawa calls the film “Godawful” in the Christian Post, referring to “the sick twisted agenda that seeps through every frame of this movie.”

None of these Christian critics explain why this ancient story, written by Jews, and part of the Hebrew Bible, should fall under Christian purview or guardianship in terms of its interpretation. But that aside, these two Jewish guys, Aronofsky and his former Harvard roommate and writing partner, Ari Handel, in aiming for what they call the “least biblical” of Bible themed films, have ended up in my view producing a film that profoundly reflects biblical themes that have been lost in most common readings of the Noah story in Genesis 6-9. I find myself in agreement with Christopher Orr’s most perceptive review in The Atlantic,

But despite its flamboyant, and at times goofy, fantasy trappings, Noah is firmly anchored by the fierce moral intensity of Aronofsky’s vision, which is, if anything, more Old Testament than the Old Testament itself.

What I want to do here is to touch on just a few of the most common Christian objections that I reference above.

The Film Never Mentions God
I have heard this objection repeatedly this weekend, particularly on FOX news and Talk Radio outlets, and it is blatantly false and ridiculous. The very word translated “God” in Genesis is not a name but a generic reference that might be translated as “The Powers” (Elohim). One can only imagine the uproar had Aronofsky chosen to call the Creator “The Powers”–which would have been quite biblical. In the Noah film this nameless One is constantly referred to as “the Creator,” but used in a very personal way by all the characters in the film–good and bad. According to Exodus 6:3 God did not make Himself known by His personal name Yahweh (YHVH) or “the LORD” until the time of Moses. The references to God as “the LORD” in Genesis 6-9 in the Flood story are accordingly anachronistic—so it turns out, ironically, that Aronofsky’s designation of God as “the Creator,” is more biblical than his critics have imagined.

The Film is Pro-Animal and Promotes Vegetarianism and Environmentalism
Here I would have to say “guilty as charged”–and thus thoroughly biblical.  What few realize is that according to the Bible humans before the Flood were never given permission to hunt, shed blood, or eat the flesh of living creatures. In Genesis 1:29 God says “I give you every seed-bearing plant that is upon all the earth, and every tree that has seed bearing fruit; they shall be yours for good.” It is only after the flood, that permission to “shed blood” and eat meat is given to humans, though it is stipulated that God will hold humans accountable even for the blood of an animal. According to the Rabbis, this means that the life of an animal must be taken without cruelty and with reverence (Genesis 9:3).

Aronofsky portrays the righteous descendants of Seth–through Methuselah, Lamech, and Noah, preserving this “peaceable kingdom” of non-violence and harmony with nature, whereas the murderous descendants of Cain had filled the earth with violence  and “corrupted its ways upon the earth.” God’s decision is to destroy humankind “along with the earth” they have corrupted (Genesis 6:12-13). The barren wasteland, and specifically the abandoned strip-mining scene, is a testimony to what humans have made of the “good Earth” that was the original Creator’s handiwork.

Noah’s family represents the last remnant of hope for humankind’s peaceable ideal in which violence toward humans or beasts is quelled and warfare ceases. This is the vision of Isaiah the prophet for the ideal human future–swords beaten into plowshares and the wolf lying with the lamb with none hurting or destroying. In fact Isaiah pictures a time when “slaying an ox” will be considered as weighty a matter as killing a human being (Isaiah 65:25-66:3).

The Film Devalues Humans
Again, I have to say, “guilty as charged”—and thus thoroughly biblical. There could be no stronger expression of the “devaluing” of humans than we find in the Bible in the time of Noah. The Creator says that He regrets that he has created the human species and that it grieves Him to his heart. The entire species is characterized as hopelessly “wicked” with every thought of the heart only evil continually (Genesis 6:5-7). It is an open question then–as Aronofsky so profoundly portrays in the film–as to whether humankind should continue. This is not a Christian text, with presuppositions about God so loving the world and sending his Son to die for sinners–with infinite love for every wicked person and their eternal salvation. That simply is not the biblical story here in Genesis 6. The issue is whether the Creation itself has been so marred and destroyed by human behavior that it is best wiped away as a failed attempt by God to create creatures in His image–who nonetheless have free will and the “knowledge of good and evil.” The Flood story touches upon the essential existential issue of our own time—our “human all-too-human” role on a planet upon which our dominant place as moral beings with choice is continually being weighed in the balance.

Noah and his family are to be spared–since they have not gone the “way of Cain,” but Noah himself, in the film, wrestles with the central dilemma of the text–should the human race be spared at all? The key point in the film, which I will not explicitly give away, is when Noah sees an evil “Serpent” reflection of himself on one of the Tubal-Cain character’s faces—a kind of flashback to the Garden of Eden–and it suddenly dawns on him that we are all of one species. This means that all of us have the potential for horrible evil manifesting itself in our lives, or in the lives of our descendants. His wife, played by Jennifer Connelly, presents the other side of the conundrum–arguing that “we are good, our children are good,” and thus should be spared to inhabit a new world in which peace and righteousness would prevail and create a new world order.

It is not a matter of Noah favoring a flower over the life of the two newborn infants (again I will not elaborate this plot line here)–but wrestling with the moral dilemma–which is the Creator’s Dilemma–of whether or not the race should continue. Not picking even a flower is the very point. This “environmentalism” represents the “good way” of caring for the earth, for its creatures, and for one another and living in peace—in sharp contrast to the way of power and exploitation of the descendants of Cain.

Tubal-Cain, played by Ray Winstone, represents an ultimately opposite perspective. For him what makes a man truly a man is the complete independence from any Creator or any other moral code–forging his individual way in the earth through his power and his choices.  As he says to Noah just before he dies—“I told you the Creator’s miracles mean nothing to me.” Thus when Ham ends up killing him to save his father he tells him–“Now you have become a man,” just because Ham has finally acted autonomously and thus gone “beyond good and evil.”

The Hebrew Bible, unlike the Christian New Testament, explores this theme of the ultimate fate of humankind and the “good earth” in any number of places. In fact, in the closing book of the Prophets, the book of Malach, which ends the Christian Old Testament, we find the sober warning that if humans do not find peace among themselves the Creator will come and “strike the earth with a curse.” The word translated “curse” (Hebrew cherem) here means an “ban of utter destruction.” So even at the end of the Hebrew Prophets humankind is pictured as standing on the brink of judgment with a choice of death or life before them.

The Film Does Not Follow the Bible
In addition to addressing these various controversial points I should add that the film has lots more–with special effects, bizarre phenomenon, and all sorts of creative and artistic embellishments on the rather “bare” story of Genesis 6-9. One must remember, however, that Genesis is not our only account of the Flood. There are other literary sources such as the Gilgamesh Epic and the mysterious books of 1 Enoch and Jubilees–revered by both ancient Jews and early Christians–but not included in the Bible–but found among the Dead Sea Scrolls. There one does read more of the mysterious heavenly “Watchers,” fallen down to earth, who teach humankind all the skills that the descendants of Cain pervert into selfish ends. There is a wonderful and emerging web site that deals broadly with this whole topic, many of the other texts, and a wide range of insightful commentary and discussion–FloodofNoah.com. I highly recommend this site to my readers. And I hope you will all see the Noah film and decide for yourselves about its value and its merits.



As In the Days of Noah

Darren Aronofsky’s film “Noah,” starring Russell Crowe, Jennifer Connelly, Emma Watson, and Anthony Hopkins opens today with lots of publicity, expectation, anticipation, and mixed preliminary reviews. I am anxious to see it though I know there will be things I will both love and hate about it.

Screen Shot 2014-03-28 at 11.10.05 AMThe excellent review in the  New York TimesRain, Heavy at Times,” by A. O. Scott covers things well. The website “Internet Movie Data Base” (IMDB.com) has a slew of good materials, links, and a really nice slide-show, all well worth browsing, see here. Today’s issue of Bible History Daily is titled “Examining Noah’s Flood,” with lots of links as well. A colleague just pointed out to me a really impressive web site: floodofnoah.com that has a wealth of material on ancient flood stories, forums on various topics, and so forth–this one is not to be missed.

What many readers of the Bible fail to notice is that if you read through the Flood account in the Bible, Genesis 6-9, the chapters contain an single story based on two accounts, now harmonized and interwoven, see the comparison side-by-side here, and a clear exposition of the differences by a former more conservative Christian reader here. Both account preserve specific perceptions and emphases that overlap and intertwine when read as the single narrative that comes down to us.

This film “Noah,” not the least because it is by Aronofsky, is truly a fascinating cultural phenomenon. First, it probes one of the core ancient stories of our culture, highlighting themes of apocalyptic doom and ecological disaster that parallel our own times. Indeed, the NY Times has stories on its front page today discussing the phenomenon of the rising seas and disappearing lands around the globe, see here and here. Ironically, those who might be most inclined towards apocalyptic thinking in our own day are precisely the ones who deny “global warming” and the impending disaster that most scientists see for the planet in the next hundred years.

Do Historians Exclude the Supernatural?

One of the most frequent responses I get to my work as a historian of religions, particularly in my dealings with Jesus, Paul, and the development of early “Christianities” is the objection that I “exclude  the miraculous” as a valid part of the investigation. The idea seems to be that “secular historians” prejudge evidence and are accordingly biased in that they will not allow even the possibility of the miraculous as part of ones historical inquiry. If historians ask the questions: what do we know and how do we know it–how is it that we claim to “know” from the start that miracles do not happen and that supernatural explanations for various developments are to be rejected? As Darrel Bock put things, reviewing my book, The Jesus Dynasty for Christianity Today: “James Tabor’s historical assumptions that reject God’s activity on Earth force him into odd arguments to explain the birth of Christianity.”

For Bock and others these assumptions essentially result in “explaining away the New Testament” to use his words. Bock is referring particularly to my observation that historians assume that all humans have two biological parents, that dead bodies don’t rise, and that humans do not bodily ascend to heaven. Oddly enough, I maintain, along with most historians, that the “odd arguments” are characteristic of those who take the assertions that Jesus had no human father or that he walked out of his tomb and ascended bodily into the clouds of heaven as literal scientific statements of fact. Whether I reject “God’s activity on Earth” is a much more complex matter that I will deal with in another context, but what about this charge that secular historians are biased against the supernatural?

My training at the University of Chicago was that of a historian, not a theologian or even a “Biblical Scholar” as such. My Ph.D. was not from the Divinity School but in the Division of Humanities. I worked broadly in the area study of “Ancient Mediterranean Religions and Culture” and more specifically within ancient Judaism and early Christianity. My teachers were primarily Jonathan Z. Smith and Robert M. Grant. What I reflected in The Jesus Dynasty and in all of my academic work (my full CV here), are the methods and approaches generally employed by most qualified scholars who work in these areas.

Doing the work of an historian is not “hard” science in the purest sense of the term, but none of us in the field would want it to be understood as “art” either, at least not in some wholly subjective way. There is no doubt that historians often differ in their conclusions in important ways, and that “interpretation” of the data, how it is finally weighed and processed, is indeed a somewhat subjective process. When it comes to Jesus, as Albert Schweitzer pointed out long ago, historians all to often have “looked into the long well of history” and seen their own reflection staring back at them. In other words, when they come up with a so-called “historical Jesus” fashioned almost wholly by their own imaginations and biased desires.

When my students retreat to some historical conclusion that I or others have reached, with the easy retort “but that is just your interpretation,” I encourage them to go beyond that kind of reductionism. History is not mere subjective interpretation, even if it involves such. Ideally it is based on arguments and evidence and in the end a good historian wants to be persuasive. It is rare that historical conclusions close out any possible alternative interpretations, but the goal is to set forth, in the open court of reasoned argument and evidence, a compelling “case” for whatever one is dealing with. Even when we disagree we end up stating “why” we don’t find this or that argument convincing, or what we find weak in the assumptions of one with whom we differ.

As for sources, nothing is excluded and everything can be evaluated as long as it offers us some reasonable way to reconstruct the past. Historians love and welcome evidence. That is what we live on and we crave any new materials that can shed more light on what we know. But even our best sources, particularly the literary ones, are remarkably tendentious. Modern standards of argument and objectivity were unknown to ancient writers. Writing was more often than not a blatant attempt at propaganda and apologetics, and all the more so when it came to competing systems of religious understanding. Recognition of those factors is a vital part of every historian’s method. If we want to “use” Josephus we also have to give attention to what we know of him as a person, as a writer, what his tendencies are, what his competence was, and so forth. It is the same with the Gospels, with Eusebius, and with all the ancient texts and material evidence that we have at our disposal. It is also the case that for many important questions related to Jesus and his movement we simply do not have good evidence and probably never will. As thankful as we are for what we have, whether textual or archaeological or myth or tradition, in the end we have to face our own limitations.

Determining what Jesus said, or what he did, given the obvious theologically motivated editing and “mythmaking” that goes on even in our core New Testament gospels is a methodologically challenging project upon which none of us wholly agree. For example, we know virtually nothing about the so-called “lost years of Jesus,” and thus are left to speculate about his childhood and early adult life until about age 30 (assuming we even trust Luke, our single source, about his age when he joined John the Baptizer). Our attempts are educated guesses and creative reconstructions. Most of us are quite sure that the reports of the various so-called “Infancy Gospels” that have Jesus as a child magically turning clay birds into real ones or jumping off the roof a a building unharmed are less than historical. They are late, legendary, and fabulistic to the extreme. It is doubtful that such sources contain any useful historical information at all. I cannot prove that Jesus and his brothers worked with their father Joseph in the building trades in nearby Sepphoris, but I think it is a likely possibility, given what we know (see Mark 6:3). In contrast, the assertions that Jesus traveled as a child with his uncle Joseph of Arimathea to Britain, or that he studied in Egypt or in India, are based upon legendary materials far removed in time and place from his world. It is the same with the question of whether or not Jesus was married or had children. For years I agreed with most of my colleagues that the possibilities of this appear to be slight but over the past five years, in looking at the new evidence from the Talpiot tombs, as well as reviewing all the arguments, I have become convinced otherwise. A recent reviewer of our new book, The Jesus Discovery, has asserted on this point that “The claim that the Gnostic Gospels are a good source on Jesus being married to Mary Magdalene, for instance, is just breathtakingly silly — they were written incredibly late and reflect a particular theology/religious perspective–not history.” I have to disagree here and clearly, the reviewer, Raphael Magarik, is completely unaware of the solid scholarship on Mary Magdalene by fine scholars such as the late Jane Schaberg, April DeConick, or a host of others and seems not to have read very carefully the arguments I review in the book that I think are actually quite persuasive.

The public has been geared to think of the suppression of evidence, usually with the Roman Catholic church being the culprit, but such grand “conspiratorial” theories have little basis in fact. What is most characteristic of early Christianity, or more properly, “Christianites,” is a competing diversity of “parties and politics,” each propagating its own vision of the significance of the life and teachings of Jesus of Nazareth. All sorts of interpretations are offered of Jesus, but the question finally comes down to how convincing a given argument is to other historians who work in the field and deal with the same sources and materials. But even “consensus” is no guarantor of final truth. Sometimes a minority view, in time, can prove to be true, and often pioneers in any area of history are castigated or rejected by colleagues when they initially put forth their theses.

As far as the subjects of the miraculous and the supernatural, historians of religions remain observers. The fact is we do not exclude religious experience in investigating the past–far from it. We actually embrace it most readily. What people believe or claim to have experienced becomes a vital part of our evidence. We can note that Mark reported that Jesus walked on water or raised the dead or met his disciples in Galilee after his death, and then we date and evaluate Mark as a source, just as we note the miracles that Philostratus claims for his contemporary hero Apollonius of Tyana, or that the story that Zeus fathered Hercules or that Romulus was taken bodily into heaven (see these and other texts here). Most scholars in the field would say that Jesus practiced “exorcism,” and healed the sick, which was seen as a releasing one afflicted from Satanic power, but what that implies about the reality of the demonic world goes beyond our historical methods. We know enough about human psychology and our modern controversies regarding psychic phenomenon to realize the complexities of drawing such conclusions. History and theology/faith do part ways in some of these areas but I tell my students often: “Good history is never the enemy of proper faith.” It is easy to hold that “God” can do anything, and thus argue for the acceptance of a male baby being born without male sperm, or reports of a corpse rising after two or three days and ascending bodily into heaven, but such claims are not the purview of historians and they run contrary to our human experience and a more rational scientific understanding of birth and death. Historians likewise deal with “beliefs” about the afterlife and the unseen world beyond, but without asserting the historical reality of these notions or realms. We can evaluate what people claimed, what they believed, what they reported, and that all becomes part of the data, but to then say, “A miracle happened” or this or that “prophet” was truly hearing from God, as opposed to another who was utterly false prophecy, goes beyond our accessible methods. I don’t want to oversimplify things here and I realize that the question of “faith” and “history” and the assumptions modern historians make in terms of a so-called “materialistic” worldview can be challenged, even philosophically. But for the most part historians are willing to leave the “mystery” in, but in terms of advocating this or that view of the so-called “supernatural,” as an explanation, they properly, in my view, remain wary.

We will probably never know with absolute certainty who Jesus’ father was, or what happened to the body of Jesus, or whether Paul “really” talked with Jesus after his death, but I prefer the “odd arguments” of the historian in investigating those matters, however inconclusive and speculative, to the dogmatic assertions of theology that are problematic from a scientific point of view.

Does the Pentateuch or Torah Contain Multiple Sources? The Documentary Hypothesis in 2014

I normally post on matters in my areas of expertise, namely, late 2nd Temple Judaism and earliest Christianity in the Greco-Roman period (“Augustus to Constantine” as my revered Chicago Professor Robert M. Grant so succinctly put things). Still, as a “Biblical scholar” academic issues in the study of the Hebrew Bible are of great interest to me. It is difficult to draw chronological “border lines” when it comes to biblical studies. How we read and view sources from the Ancient Near East–biblical or otherwise–has great influence on how we understand the subsequent development of “Judaisms” (including the Jesus movement) in the 1st century CE.

Julius_WellhausenThe so-called “Documentary Hypothesis,” classically represented in the formulation of Julius Welhausen in 1882, argued that the Torah or Pentateuch, traditionally referred to as the “Five Books of Moses” contained four distinct literary sources–traditionally designated as Yahwist, Elohist, Priestly and Deuteronomist (JEPD)–stemming from different times and different authors–woven skillfully together by a final “redactor” or author. That there are distinct sources that make up the Torah or Pentateuch is hardly in dispute among academics but in conservative Jewish and Christian circles Wellhausen’s work has been cast as a threat to the traditional view of the “Mosaic” authorship of the Torah. Richard Friedman’s immensely popular books, including Who Wrote the Bible? and The Bible with Sources Revealed: A New View into the Five Books of Moses have presented the main contours of Wellhausen’s hypothesis to a mass of the general public. I highly recommend anyone interested in biblical studies, no matter what ones presuppositions might be, to read Friedman’s work carefully. Click here for a PDF chart showing Friedman’s main breakdown of the sources.


Richard Friedman’s “Chart” of Sources of the Pentateuch

Now, over a hundred years after Wellhausen one often hears among conservatives the assertion that Wellhausen’s “Documentary Hypothesis” is dead–as if to imply that most mainstream biblical scholars repudiated its basic contours. Such is certainly not the case. I wanted to recommend a particularly perceptive and well-documented blog post on this very question by David Bokovoy titled “The Death of the Documentary Hypothesis.” It goes a long way toward setting the record straight as to the actual state of the question in responsible academic circles today. I recommend a careful reading to my students and my blog readers. Thank you David for putting this together for us all.

The Top Seven Fateful Passages in the New Testament

I originally had in mind doing a kind of “Top Ten” list of fateful New Testament passages that have been both understood and misunderstood over subsequent ages in ways that enforce and foster incalculable harm to our lives. I have revised these categories into “Seven” and clustered some together so that the results are more comprehensive. I did not try to order these into any kind of priority and I think that would be a difficult thing to determine. These “affirmations” have so direly effected so many billions of people over the past two thousand years I would not want to even attempt to put one above the other in terms of fateful impact. I ask my readers to keep in mind that this series is not about what any of these passages in fact mean but rather how they have been understood and applied to our personal, social, civil, and spiritual lives with great consequence and effect. The simple phrase–“The Bible tells me so” has justified and covered a multitude of sins!

I could have just as easily chosen passages from the Old Testament or Hebrew Bible but in terms of application and impact I think there is no question that the New Testament, considered by the dominant culture as superseding the “Old,” has taken first place in influencing our culture in these areas. So below are my Top Seven listed in chronological order with links:

new-testament1. Let His Blood Be on our Heads

2. It Is Good to be Alone

3. Let Women Keep Silent

4. Slaves Obey Your Masters

5. Rulers  are God’s Servants

6. Look to the Things Unseen

7. Salvation only in Jesus