What Did You Find this Summer at the Mount Zion Dig?

This is the question I have been asked most often during the week I have been back home from spending a month excavating in the Old City of ancient Jerusalem. I have told our students and participants to answer with the retort–“everything that is there, from modern back to Iron Age.” This is indeed the proper response as we do not favor sensational finds or monumental structures–archaeology is the material evidence of the human past–all the evidence from all the past. But to be specific the word is now out, as of today, from our own archaeologist Dr. Shimon Gibson,  who has co-directed our Mt Zion excavation with me since 2006. Our interviews appear in the Charlotte Observer, now on-line and in print in tomorrow’s newspaper. So the word is out.  You can follow all the news at our main

University Web site: http://digmountzion.uncc.edu
Our Facebook site here: https://www.facebook.com/groups/digmountzion/

Shimon Gibson Interview: http://www.charlotteobserver.com/news/science-technology/article27905509.html

Screen Shot 2015-07-21 at 1.12.05 PM

One clarification, our dig does not cost $100K per week, if it did we would be staying at the King David Hotel. It is more like 100K per season/year, meaning everything from field operations to conservation and post-excavation. Somehow those figures got mixed up in the story below.




UNCC archaeology team in Jerusalem unearths 1st-century mansion

  • UNC Charlotte team unearths lavish, lower-level rooms from the time of Jesus
  • Remains of early Roman mansion ‘extraordinarily well preserved,’ says dig director Shimon Gibson
  • This summer’s find: a complete vaulted room

The 2015 excavations at Mount Zion, as seen from Jerusalem’s city wall.| Rachel Ward – UNCC



Shimon Gibson marvels at a depth of irony that’s borderline mythological: While digging up Jerusalem’s past, he’s also digging up his own.

The UNC Charlotte adjunct professor of archaeology has been co-directing an annual dig on Jerusalem’s Mount Zion that returns him to the historic, mysterious region he first explored as an 8-year-old. The UNCC team is using maps Gibson made in 1975 – at age 17 – as it uncovers unprecedented findings that provide important clues about life in firstcentury Jerusalem.

“This dig is the only academic archaeological expedition currently working in Jerusalem,” said Gibson, 57, an English native. “UNCC did some probes in the early 2000s, but it was in 2006 and 2007 that we really started excavating.”

This summer his crew has continued to investigate a finished bathroom it discovered in 2013, on the lower levels of what it believes to be an early Roman mansion. The team also found another complete vaulted room, again easing decades of concerns by archaeologists that remains from first-century Jerusalem were poorly preserved.

“These remains are extraordinarily well preserved,” Gibson said, “such that not only do we have the complete basements of houses with their rooms intact, but also the first story of these houses are also very well preserved. This is truly amazing.”

Reasons for the buildings’ condition are twofold, he said: Occupying Romans destroyed the Jerusalem of Jesus’ era in AD 70. The city was deserted for 65 years, until the Roman emperor Hadrian rebuilt a city on the ruins. “Then, in the Byzantine period (AD 330-1453), the buildings were filled in so the area could be flattened in order to build houses and structures on the top.”

Because of the elaborate nature of objects found in these buildings and their proximity to an excavated mansion in the nearby Jewish Quarter, “we surmise that the houses either belong to aristocrats, or probably to well-to-do priestly families,” Gibson said. If this can be verified – ideally via an inscription or document – the find may provide details about the lives of those who ruled Jerusalem at the time of Jesus.

One UNCC discovery underscoring this opulence was the largest number of murex shells ever found in the ruins of Jerusalem during that period. Murex – a Mediterranean sea snail–was coveted due to a rich purple dye that could be extracted.

Gibson said many of the tools used in digs haven’t changed over the years – pickaxes, hoes, trowels, brushes used for cleaning, buckets for carrying. He credited technological advances and a more sophisticated approach to digs as primary factors in the team’s finds.

UNCC student Brijesh Kishan calculates elevations at the site of the Mount Zion dig. | RACHEL WARD UNCC

UNCC student Brijesh Kishan calculates elevations at the site of the Mount Zion dig. | RACHEL WARD UNCC

An example: “In the 1970s, they excavated on the southern side of Jerusalem the remains of a medieval gate that dated to the beginning of the 13th century. Nothing was known about the area outside the gate.

“Well, this season, we know because of new scientific techniques of microarchaeology,”which involves taking soil samples. “We were able to determine once and for all that this area was a marketplace. So outside of the gate of the city was a marketplace where they specialized in the selling of chicken eggs and fish.”

Another newer approach is counting pot shards. “By charting these millions, billions of pot shards statistically, we can trace the movement of different types of vessels that date back thousands of years. This is a main way of dating for archaeologists.… Also, there’s all kinds of technology that can record and visualize remains that didn’t exist 40 years ago.”

Gibson says the mindset of archaeologists has evolved as well: “Forty years ago, it was all about getting down to the bottom as quickly as possible and unearthing the earlier remains as quickly as possible. Now we’re much more sensitive to the academic questions that are being asked about certain periods of time.”

James Tabor, a professor in UNCC’s department of religious studies, met Gibson during an excavation after the archaeologist had been studying agricultural landscapes in the area of Ein Karem, the traditional hometown of John the Baptist. Tabor said their collaboration is part of an unusually large community effort.

“Eighty percent of funding for these digs comes from the Charlotte community,” Tabor said. “These people aren’t just writing checks. We get people of all ages and faiths who join us on these digs,” which he said typically last about four weeks and cost $100,000 a week.

He’s excited about future possibilities. Gibson, who has lived in Jerusalem and conducted digs there most of his life, will teach a UNCC course on the history of Jerusalem this fall.

Tabor hopes public tours will be available at some of the dig sites several years down the road – and that thanks to UNCC’s strong ties with Jerusalem, “maybe there will even be a day when UNCC will be able to design an archaeological site there after having done the excavations.”

Did Paul Invent the Virgin Birth?

Legendary stories of gods fathering humans, so common in  Greco-Roman culture, may well have contributed to accounts of Jesus’ miraculous birth in Matthew and Luke but I would suggest an alternative. I am convinced that the idea of Jesus’ birth from a virgin–without a human father–implicitly goes back to the apostle Paul.

Christians regularly affirm that Jesus was “conceived by the Holy Spirit, born of the Virgin Mary.” This faith is embedded as a cornerstone of all the major Christian creeds and is recited by hundreds of millions each week. Surprisingly, the gospel of Mark has no account of the birth of Jesus. It opens with Jesus as an adult, traveling from Nazareth down to the Jordan River to be baptized by John. Since Mark is our earliest gospel the question arises–what is the origin of the idea of Jesus’ virgin birth? When and where did it originate?

Adonis & Venus Vecellio

In contrast to Mark both Matthew and Luke give us different versions of the “Christmas story,” but they both agree on the source of Mary’s pregnancy. In Matthew’s account Joseph had a dream shortly after finding out about the pregnancy. In this dream an angel told him that her pregnancy was “by a holy spirit” and that he was to go ahead with the marriage regardless. He was to name her child Jesus. By marrying a pregnant woman who carried a child that was not his, and legally naming that child, he was in effect “adopting” Jesus as his legal son. The phrase “by a holy spirit” implies that the pregnancy came from the agency of God’s spirit but falls short of saying, outright, that God was the father of Jesus in the sense that, say, Zeus was said to be the father of Hercules by his seduction of his mother, Alkmene. In that sense the account is different from those miraculous birth stories so common in Greco-Roman mythology.

Nonetheless, scholars who question the literal truth of Matthew and Luke’s birth stories have suggested that they are a way of affirming the divine nature of Jesus as “Son of God” by giving him an extraordinary supernatural birth. This idea of humans being fathered by gods is quite common in Greco-Roman culture. There was a whole host of heroes who were said to be the product of a union between their mother and a god–Plato, Empedocles, Hercules, Pythagoras, Alexander the Great and even Caesar Augustus. In text after text we find the idea of the divine man (theios aner) whose supernatural birth, ability to perform miracles, and extraordinary death separate him from the ordinary world of mortals. These heroes are not “eternal” gods, like Zeus or Jupiter. They are mortal human beings who have been exalted to a heavenly state of immortal life. In the time of Jesus their temples and shrines filled every city and province of the Roman Empire. It is easy to imagine that early Christians who believed Jesus was every bit as exalted and heavenly as any of the Greek and Roman heroes and gods would appropriate this way of relating the story of his birth. It was a way of affirming that Jesus was both human and divine. Modern interpreters who view the stories in this way usually maintain that Joseph was likely the father and that these supernatural accounts were invented later by Jesus’ followers to honor Jesus and to promote his exalted status in a manner common to that culture.

These legendary stories from Greco-Roman culture may well have contributed to accounts of Jesus’ miraculous birth in Matthew and Luke but I would suggest an alternative. I am convinced that the idea of Jesus’ birth from a virgin–without a human father–implicitly goes back to the apostle Paul. Paul’s letters date several decades before our New Testament gospels and it is Paul’s understanding of Jesus as the pre-existent, divine, Son of God, that lays the conceptual groundwork for our Christmas stories.

Paul never explicitly refers to Jesus’ virgin birth nor does he ever name either Mary or Joseph. What he does affirm is that Jesus pre-existed before his human birth and subsequently gave up his divine glory through his birth as a human being. He writes that Jesus “though existing in the form of God” emptied himself and took on human form, “being made in the likeness of humankind” (Philippians 2:6-7). He says further “though he was rich, yet for your sake he became poor, so that you by his poverty might become rich” (2 Corinthians 8:9). He has to be referring here, metaphorically, to the “riches” of Jesus’ pre-existence with God, since all our sources have Jesus born of a poor peasant family. Paul also writes “In the fullness of time God sent forth his Son, made of a woman …” (Galatians 4:4). The implication of these texts is that Jesus’ mother was merely the human receptacle for bringing Jesus into the world. It is not a far step from these ideas about Jesus’ pre-existence to the notion of Jesus as the first-begotten Son of God–eliminating any necessity for a human father. Paul’s entire message centers on a divine not a human Jesus–both before his birth and after his death. For Paul he is the pre-existent Son of God, crucified, but now raised to sit at the right hand of God. Like the Christian creeds that jump from Jesus’ birth to his death and resurrection in single phrase, entirely skipping over his life, Paul paves the way for a confessional understanding of what it means to be a Christian. As Bultmann once put it, it is the “thatness” of the Gospel which interested Paul–that he was born of a woman, he died, that he rose, that he is coming again–with nothing inbetween.

The Jewish followers of Jesus later known as the Ebionites (see my previous post here) by the Orthodox Church Fathers, rejected Paul, used a version of Matthew in Hebrew that did not contain the account of the virgin birth in our present chapter 2 of the Greek text, and followed James the brother of Jesus in observing the Torah. It is difficult to imagine the virgin birth idea arising within these original Jewish circles whereas the perspectives of Paul lend themselves so easily to such mythology.

An alternative way of thinking about being a Christian is preserved in the gospel of Mark–our earliest narrative account of the career of Jesus. Mark mentions neither Jesus’ birth, nor any resurrection appearances on Easter morning (according to our earliest manuscripts that end with chapter 16:8). When a would-be follower addresses Jesus as “Good Teacher,” Jesus sharply rebukes him with the retort: “Why do you call me good, there is One who is good, God” (Mark 10:17-18). Mark emphasizes the suffering of Jesus on the cross, but only as a call to others to also “take up a cross” and thus give their lives as servants to others. In Mark Jesus defines true religion as loving God and loving ones neighbor, in contrast to all systems of religion. His version of the Jesus story is surely one that should not be forgotten despite the ubiquitous triumph of Paul’s theology.

Selected Excerpts from The Jesus Dynasty

The Jesus Dynasty was published in April 2006 (Simon & Schuster). It was a New York Times Best Seller, featured on ABC’s Nightline and 20/20 and the cover of USNews & World Report. It has been translated into 22 languages. Here are some key excerpts with further links, media and otherwise, to the book below. It is available in print, e-formats, and audio, see JesusDynasty.com


Jesus Dynasty Hardcover

The New Testament gospels:

“[The New Testament gospels present] a tangled tale of political intrigue and religious power plays with stakes destined to shape the future of the world’s largest religion.” (p. 81)

“[A]lthough our New Testament gospels contain historical material, the theological editing is a factor that the discerning reader must constantly keep in mind.” (p. 139)

The birth of Jesus:

“[The gospel of] Matthew implies that Isaiah’s prophecy was ‘fulfilled’ by the miraculous virgin birth of Jesus—but the original text clearly carries no such meaning.” (p. 46)

“The assumption of the historian is that all human beings have both a biological mother and father, and that Jesus is no exception. That leaves two possibilities—either Joseph or some other unnamed man was the father of Jesus.” (p. 59)

More than one messiah:

“The English word ‘messiah’ comes from the Hebrew word moshiach, which simply means ‘an anointed one.’ The equivalent Greek word, christos, also means ‘annointed’ and form that we have derived our more familiar term ‘Christ,’ meaning Messiah…. Most people are surprised to learn that the very first Messiah in the Bible was Aaron. He was ‘annointed’ as a priest by his brother Moses and is referred to in the Hebrew text as a ‘mosiach’ or ‘messiah’ (Exodus 40:12-15).” (p. 58)

“Christians and Jews subsequently have come to focus on the Messiah—a single figure of David’s line who was to rule as King in the last days. And yet, in the Dead Sea Scrolls we encounter a devoutly religious community, usually identified with the Essenes, who expected the coming of three figures—a prophet like Moses and the messiahs of Aaron and of Israel.” (p. 57)

“This ideal vision of Two Messiahs became a model for many Jewish groups that were oriented toward apocalyptic thinking in the 2nd to 1st centuries B.C.” (p. 143)

The family of Jesus:

“That Jesus has four brothers and at least two sisters is a ‘given’ in [the gospel of] Mark, our earliest gospel record. He names the brothers rather matter-of-factly: James, Joses, Judas, and Simon.” (p. 73)

The historical Mary:

“The later Christian dogma that Mary was a perpetual virgin, that she never had children other than Jesus and never had sexual relations with any man lies at the hart of the issue. No one in the early church even imagined such an idea, since the family of Jesus played such a visible and pivotal role in his life and that of his early followers. It all has to do with Mary being totally removed from her 1st-century Jewish culture and context in the interest of an emerging view of the time that human sexuality was degraded and unholy at worst, and a necessary evil to somehow be struggled against at best.” (p. 74)

“There is good reason to suppose that Joseph died early, whether because he was substantially older than Mary or for some other unknown cause…. According to the Torah, or Law of Moses, the oldest surviving unmarried brother was obligated to marry his deceased brother’s widow and bear a child in his name so that his dead brother’s ‘name’ or lineage would not perish. This is called a ‘Levirate marriage’ or yibbum in Hebrew, and it is required in the Torah (Deuteronomy 25:5-10).” (p. 76)

“Given this information, a rather different but historically consistent picture begins to emerge. Jesus was born of an unknown father, but was not the son of Joseph. Joseph died without children, so according to Jewish law ‘Clophas’ or ‘Alphaeus’ became his ‘replacer,’ and married his widow, Mary, mother of Jesus.” (p. 80)

The “lost” childhood of Jesus:

“We have extraordinarily good historical records from the reign of Herod the Great. It is inconceivable that such a ‘slaughter of the infants’ would go unrecorded by the Jewish historian Josephus or other contemporary Roman historians. Matthew’s account is clearly theological, written to justify later views of Jesus’ exalted status.” (p. 88)

“A good trivia question would be ‘What was Jesus’ vocation?’ Everyone knows he was a carpenter, or at least the son of a carpenter…. The Greek word tekton is a more generic term referring to a ‘builder.’ It can include one who works with wood, but in its 1st-century Galilean context it more likely refers to a stoneworker.” (p. 89)

Jesus as a Galilean Jew:

“Jesus was a Jew, not a Christian…. To understand Jesus in his own time and place we have to understand his deep commitment to the ancestral faith of his fathers.” (p. 108)

“…[Jesus] is not ‘liberal’ with regard to Jewish observances in any modern sense of the term. What he did not accept were certain oral traditions and interpretations that some rabbinic teachers had added to the biblical commandments.” (p. 115)

“As we shall see, Jesus held Herod Antipas and all he stood for in utter contempt…. It was Herod who had brutally murdered his kinsman and teacher John the Baptizer, and Jesus had witnessed firsthand how Herod’s aspirations for wealth and power had unjustly oppressed the lives of his countrymen.” (p. 106)

His relationship with John the Baptizer:

“Jesus near his thirtieth birthday joined the crowds that were streaming out to hear John. He traveled from Nazareth down to the Jordan, along this very route, to be baptized by John in the Jordan River (Mark 1:9). By such a response he was publicly joining and endorsing the revival movement John had sparked…. [F]rom the time of Jesus’ baptism he was ready to take his destined place alongside John as a full partner in the baptizing movement.” (p. 127)

“The great embarrassment that the Christians faced was that it was well known that John had baptized Jesus—not the other way around! Jesus had come to John and joined his movement—which in the context of ancient Judaism meant that Jesus was a disciple of John and John was the rabbi or teacher of Jesus.” (p. 133)

“There [in a Hebrew version of the gospel of Matthew untouched by the Greek copyists] Jesus’ astounding testimony to John’s greatness stands unedited and unqualified: ‘Among those born of women there is none greater than John.’” (p. 134)

The twelve apostles:

“When he told them, ‘Let’s leave the nets and go fish for people,’ they did not blindly drop everything in some mesmerized state of devotion to his irresistible bidding as is so often portrayed. These disciples had worked with him and lived with him for months the previous year in Judea when they were baptizing huge crowds of people.” (p. 158)

“This is perhaps the best-kept secret in the entire New Testament. Jesus’ own brothers were among the so-called ‘Twelve Apostles.’ This means they were the muted participants in all those many references to the ‘Twelve.’ They were with Jesus at the ‘last Supper’ and when he died he turned his movement over to his brother James, the eldest, and put his mother into James’s care. James is none other than the mysterious ‘beloved disciple’ of the gospel of John.” (p. 163)

Apocalyptic vision:

This arrival of the ‘Son of Man,’ which Christians later took as a reference to the Second Coming of Jesus, was coded language from the book of Daniel. It does not refer to Jesus’ arriving, since he was standing with them when he said it, predicting the effect of their vital mission…. The phrase ‘son of man’ in the dream vision of Daniel 7 stood collectively for the faithful people of Israel who would receive rule from their Messiah.” (p. 164)

The final week in Jerusalem—the Temple and the Last Supper:

“Jesus’ activities that day [in the temple] were not intended to change things or to spark a revolution. Like his ride down the Mount of Olives on the foal of the donkey, he intended to signal something—namely that the imminent overthrow of the corrupt Temple system was at hand and the vision of the Prophets would be fulfilled.” (p. 194)

“Later Christian tradition put Jesus’ last meal with his disciples on Thursday evening and his crucifixion on Friday. We now know that its one day off. Jesus’ last meal was Wednesday night, and he was crucified on Thursday, the 14th day of the Hebrew month Nisan. The Passover meal itself was eaten Thursday night, at sundown, as the 15th of Nisan began. Jesus never ate that Passover meal. He had died at 3 p.m. on Thursday.” (p. 197)

“At every Jewish meal, bread is broken, wine is shared, and blessings are said over each—but the idea of eating human flesh and drinking blood, even symbolically, is completely alien to Judaism…. This general sensitivity to the very idea of ‘drinking blood’ precludes the likelihood that Jesus would have used such symbols.” (p. 200-201)

Jesus’ trial and death by crucifixion:

“Scholars are agreed that little in the accounts of Jesus’ trial before Pilate is historically credible. They have been completely shaped by a later Christian theological tradition that sought to put the blame for Jesus’ death wholly upon the Jewish people while exonerating the Romans as sympathetic to Jesus, with Pilate doing all he possibly could to save Jesus’ life.” (p. 213)

“If Jesus did come to anticipate his suffering at the hands of his enemies, I am convinced that he expected that he would be saved from death, delivered from the ‘mouth of the lion’ as the Psalmist had predicted (Psalm 22:21).” (p. 179)

The resurrection of Jesus:

“As shocking as it may sound, the original manuscripts of the gospel of Mark report no appearances of the resurrected Jesus at all!” (p. 228)

“Paul seems to be willing to use the term ‘resurrection’ to refer to something akin to an apparition or vision. And when he does mention Jesus’ body he says it was a ‘spiritual’ body. But a ‘spiritual body’ and an ‘embodied spirit’ could be seen as very much the same phenomenon.” (p. 230)

“In this context, it is easy to see why the Tomb of the Shroud, the James Ossuary, and the Talpiot tomb discovered in 1980 spark such heated controversy. At the heart of the storm is the unspoken possibility that the tomb might contain the remains of Jesus himself. Neither Christianity or Judaism welcomes that proposition.” (p. 235)

Jesus’ successors and legacy:

“Although the followers of Jesus reshaped themselves under the new leadership of James, and eventually returned to Jerusalem, there might well have been a period in which they retreated to Galilee in order to sort things out, and that is just what these gospel traditions appear to reflect. If that was the case then the more idealized account of the Jesus movement in the early chapters of the book of Acts is Luke’s attempt to recast things in a more triumphant way.” (p. 238)

“There are two completely separate and distinct ‘Christianities’ embedded in the New Testament. One is quite familiar and became the version of the Christian faith known to billions over the past two millennia. Its main proponent was the apostle Paul. The other has been largely forgotten and by the turn of the 1st century A.D. had been effectively marginalized and suppressed by the other.” (p. 259)

“The Nazarene movement, led by James, Peter, and John, was by any historical definition a Messianic Movement within Judaism. Even the term ‘Jewish-Christianity,’ though perhaps useful as a description of the original followers of Jesus, is really a misnomer since they never considered themselves anything but faithful Jews. In that sense early Christianity is Jewish.” (p. 264)

“I would go so far as to say that the New Testament itself is primarily a literary legacy of the apostle Paul.” (p. 270)

“There is no evidence that James worshipped his brother or considered him divine.” (p. 280)

“…[W]hat we can know, with some certainty, is that the royal family of Jesus, including the children and grandchildren of his brothers and sisters, were honored by the early Christians well into the 2nd century A.D., while at the same time they were watched and hunted down by the highest levels of the Roman government in Palestine.” (p. 290)

Academic Endorsements of The Jesus Dynasty

Excerpts from The Jesus Dynasty

Interview with Dr. Tabor on The Jesus Dynasty

Facebook page on The Jesus Dynasty with news and updates

Critical but well done review in Slate by Richard Wrightman Fox.

Read the first chapter here on-line from ABC News

For reviews, interviews and more media coverage of The Jesus Dynasty see Media Tab

Should Christians Be Celebrating the Birth of Paul Rather Than Jesus?

Millions celebrate the birth of Jesus without realizing that it was the Apostle Paul, not Jesus, who was the founder of Christianity. Jesus was a Jew not a Christian. He regularly went to the synagogue on the Sabbath day, read from the Torah, observed the Jewish festivals such as Passover and Yom Kippur, and quoted the Shema: “Hear O Israel, The Lord our God is One Lord.” In Jesus’ day the closest holiday to Christmas was the Roman celebration of the Saturnalia.

BirthofJesusRead the rest at The Daily Beast here.

How Did the Romans Crucify?–New Archaeological Evidence

The four-part series “Biblical Conspiracies” airs on the Science Channel again tonight: December 23 beginning at 7PM EST:

7:00 PM Bride of God
Gathering dust at the British Library is a 1500-year-old manuscript, written by an anonymous monk. After millennia of rumors, this seems to be the first solid written evidence that Jesus was married to Mary Magdalene.

8:00 & 11:00 PM Secrets of the Crucifixion
A scientific investigation of 2,000-year-old bones may hold the key to the Crucifixion, revealing that the classical depiction of Jesus on the cross may be all wrong.

9:00 PM Secrets of the Sculpture
The new discovery of a terra cotta sculpture attributed to Michelangelo contains a secret symbol that unlocks an ancient, untold story of murder, sex and politics with Michelangelo at its center.

10:00PM Nails of the Cross
Two nails were discovered in the tomb of the High Priest Caiaphas who, according to the gospels, sent Jesus to the Romans, who then sent him to the cross. Using high tech tools, scientists try to prove that these nails were used to crucify Jesus.

Two of the programs are of particular focus in that they have reshaped the entire discussion about how the Romans crucified–in other words, how were victims in fact attached to a cross by nails? It now appears we have the archaeological evidence to answer this question and those of us who have thought for years that nails were put through the wrists not the hands were simply wrong.

Screen Shot 2014-12-23 at 5.55.00 PM

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

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

In April, 2011 filmmaker Simcha Jacobovici released a film titled “Nails of the Cross,” part of a six-part series on the History Channel titled “Secrets of Christianity.” In this film Jacobovici claimed he had located two lost crucifixion nails, both of which had been originally found in the 1990 discovery of the tomb of the High Priest Caiaphas. The implication, according to Simcha, was these these might well have been nails used to crucify Jesus that Caiaphas superstitiously had buried with him in the common belief at the time that such nails had magical powers–perhaps for healing or to guarantee good fortune in the afterlife. The reaction from biblical scholars and archaeologists was dismissive, charges of Easter-time sensationalism, and denials that there was any evidence these nails were either used in anyones crucifixion much less that they could be identified as coming from the tomb of Caiaphas. Prof. Robert Cargill offered the most expansive critique, which you can read here, and Simcha replied to him, point by point, here.

This latest version of “Nails of the Cross” presents new evidence based on scientific tests that  the nails in Professor Hershkovitz’s lab match the Caiaphas tomb’s chemical signature, they can be traced to the bone box of the High Priest himself, they were in contact with bones, and perhaps most significantly, contain pieces of ironized cedar wood still adhering to the nail.

Jacobovici Responds to Bauckham Review of “Lost Gospel”

Update: Bauckham has now posted Parts 3 his review of the book here as well as Part 4 which is a counter-response to Jacobovici’s initial response to his Parts 1 & 2, here.

Last week Richard Bauckham began a serial publication of his detailed assessment of the new book, The Lost Gospel, by Simcha Jacovovici and Barrie Wilson via Mark Goodacre’s blog. Here are the links to Part 1 and Part 2.

Jesus as the sun-god Helios/Sol Invictus Vatican grottoes under St. Peter's Basilica.

Jesus as the sun-god Helios/Sol Invictus Vatican grottoes under St. Peter’s Basilica.

Simcha has just posted a detailed response to Parts 1 and 2 at his Web site here and here. This respectful and informative exchange is most welcome.

Update: Bauckham has now posted Parts 3 his review of the book here as well as Part 4 which is a counter-response to Jacobovici’s initial response to his Parts 1 & 2, here.

Simcha also offers an overview of the thesis of his new book in a Huffington Post blog post, “Jesus’ Marriage to Mary Magdalene is Fact Not Fiction,” that is trending “most popular” on the Religion Home page this morning with 4.4K “likes”

In related news the Washington Post issued a correction and an apology for its initial story on the new book in which the writer had incorrectly asserted that Discovery TV, that produced Simcha’s 2002 documentary on the “James ossuary,” had called it “one of the top ten hoaxes of all time.” Neither Discovery nor any of its agents ever made no such statement and the source was actually Joe Zias, whom Simcha is suing for just that sort of libel. In fact Discovery aired two of Simcha’s subsequent documentaries on the Talpiot Tombs (“The Lost Tomb of Jesus” (2007) and “The Resurrection Tomb Mystery” (2010), both of which it still promotes on its web site). The companion documentary to the Lost Gospel titled the “Bride of God” that will air on Discovery Science, December 14 and 21.

Simcha has also responded to Bill O’Reilly’s charge that he is “stupid” and that Jesus never had any brothers or sisters, see here.


More on “The Lost Gospel”

I just got my copy of the new book, The Lost Gospel by Simcha Jacobovici and Barrie Wilson and have spent the past hour thumbing through it carefully in anticipation of giving it a close and careful read. It definitely is a substantial work, running over 400 pages with notes, illustrations, a new annotated translation of a Syriac manuscript of the ancient work Joseph and Asenath and its accompanying letters, bibliography, and index.


My guess is that some who have dismissed the book before obtaining a copy might have cause to reshape their critiques after a careful reading. I plan to do just that over the next week or so and then offer what I hope will be a substantial and respectful review of its main arguments and evidence. Despite the focus on the issue of whether Jesus might have been married to Mary Magdalene it is clear to me already that the book is really about a much broader and more significant agenda–the origins and nature of what comes down to us in the 2nd and 3rd centuries as so-called “Gnostic” Christianity. The authors argue that alongside of Pauline Christianity, and the sort of “Jewish-Christianity,” represented by James the brother of Jesus and the Jerusalem church, is a far more Hellenized Galilean wing of the movement that understood Jesus and his partner Mary Magdalene as representatives of a mystical male/female cosmic union such as that known to us later through the gnostic theology of a figure like Valentinius, with secret rites of initiation such as are hinted at in “Secret Mark,” including Eucharist and baptism rituals that signified the “cosmic ascent,” and thus perfection of the soul.  Beyond the text of Joseph and Asenath, the authors find the evidence for such a system of interpretation in various archaeological discoveries including artistic representations of Jesus and his consort as Helios and Artemis. My first question is whether the text of Joseph and Asenath supports such a reading or not, can any of these ideas be reliably traced back to the 1st century CE. Jacobovici and Wilson are convinced such is the case and I am interested to hear them out on their arguments. I will offer my own take on all this in a forthcoming blog post or two, once I have had time to read the book carefully.

“The Lost Gospel” A New Take on Jesus and Mary Magdalene

I am not at all keen on the crazy pre-publication sensationalism surrounding the release of a new book by authors Simcha Jacobovici and Barrie Wilson, The Lost Gospel: Decoding the Ancient Text that Reveals Jesus’ Marriage to Mary the Magdalene (Pegasus) that is to be released tomorrow with a press conference at the British Library in London. If the screaming Dan Brown/DaVinci Code style headlines in the Daily Mail were not enough, the harsh personal attacks of bloggers Robert Cargill and Greg Carey, not to mention the wildly inaccurate piece in the Washington Post by Terrence McCoy, who gets almost all his “facts” wrong, ((McCoy missed the boat entirely on the James ossuary, the Zias trial lawsuit, the two Talpiot “Jesus” tombs,  and even the 2008 Jerusalem Talpiot Tomb conference, see here, herehere, and here.)) have created lots of heat and almost no light. Cary admits he has not even read the book but sees zero evidence that Jesus was married. Mark Goodacre repeats the same on Good Morning AmericaCargill claims he has “read the book,” apparently in one day, presumably on Google Books which of course limits access and allows only scanning of parts of books, but is fully prepared to rush out what he calls a “review,” which ends up ignoring all the major points the book makes, ignores Wilson’s impressive scholarship, and primarily attacks Jacobovici personally.


What is missing so far is any reasoned and informed evaluation by anyone who has carefully worked through this 444 page work, complete with appendices, new translations of this Syriac version of Joseph and Asenath, and notes. I have read a pre-publication version of the book and I can say that even as a trade book it is well worth a fair academic evaluation. Barrie Wilson is a first rate scholar and Simcha Jacobovici is a skilled writer and investigative journalist. I think they are a good team both well worth hearing out. I will be delving into the book and the various issues it raises further on this blog after I have time to read the final published book after its release tomorrow. There is a lot to say and I hope a more reasoned and civil dialogue might ensue among those of us who work in the field of Christian Origins. In the meantime co-author Simcha Jacobovici offers a nice overview of the research, the resulting book, and its conclusions here.


Mt Zion 2014 Dig: A Report from the Ground Up

Here is a great article about our 2014 Mt Zion dig in the midst of the kidnappings, murders and the Gaza conflict written by one of our UNC Charlotte student participants who also served as our excavation photographer this past summer. For more on the dig itself and our results see the Bible & Interpretation report filed here.

Screen Shot 2014-11-06 at 2.59.11 PM

Click on image for larger Web site version

Information on participation in our 2015 Mt Zion excavation will be posted soon at the Biblical Archaeology Society web page “Find a Dig,” in the January/February issue of Biblical Archaeology Review, and at our university web site: http://digmountzion.uncc.edu.

If I Ascend to Heaven…Paul’s Journey to Paradise

I wrote my Ph.D. dissertation at the University of Chicago, on “Paul’s Ascent to Paradise” under Jonathan Z. Smith, Robert M. Grant, and Bernard McGinn. Its focus was the celebrated passage where Paul reports his extraordinary experience, as a “man in Christ” who was taken to the “third heaven,” and then into Paradise (2 Corinthians 12:1-10). I completed the degree in 1982 and published the dissertation as a book, Things Unutterable: Paul’s Ascent to Paradise in its Greco-Roman, Judaic, and Early Christian Contexts (Brown University Studies in Judaism) in 1986. It is long ago out of print but I plan to make an e-book or PDF edition available soon for free downloading.

Paul is not the only one in antiquity reported to have experienced such a “heavenly journey.” In my latest book, Paul and Jesus I discuss the implications of these claims of Paul to extraordinary revelations and how they created both conflict and controversy in what I call the “battle of the apostles.” What few readers of the New Testament might not realize is that the phenomenon of the “heavenly journey” is a rather common one in Paul’s time, and stretching back several hundreds years before him. What follows here is a rather thorough study and analysis of the various reports we have of figures, both legendary and historical, who are said to have ascended to heaven. As you will see, there are several types of such journeys, each with its own specific meaning, context, and implications. Paul’s report fits into a certain genre which helps us to understand the implications of the claims he is making.


Paul’s Ascent to the Third Heaven by Poussin

The motif of the journey to heaven is a vitally important phenomenon of ancient Mediterranean religions. There are five figures in the Bible who, according to standard Jewish and Christian interpretation, are reported to have ascended to heaven: Enoch (Gen 5:24); Elijah (2 Kgs 2:1-12); Jesus (Luke 24:51; Acts 1:9); Paul (2 Cor 12:2-4); and John (Rev 4:1). There are also four related accounts in which individuals behold the throne, or heavenly court, of Yahweh: Moses, Aaron, and the elders of Israel (Exod 24:9-11); Micaiah (1 Kgs 22:19-23); Isaiah (Isa 6:1-13); and Ezekiel (Ezk 1, 10). Finally, there is the scene in which an otherwise unidentified “son of man” comes before the throne of God in an apocalyptic vision of Daniel (Dan 7:11-14). This notion, that mortals enter into, or behold, the realm of the immortal God (or gods) undergoes various complicated developments from the Ancient Near Eastern into the Hellenistic period. It is closely related to a number of other topics such as the descent or journey to the underworld of the dead, the heavenly destiny of the immortal soul, the apotheosis or divinization of selected mortals (rulers, philosophers, divine men), and aspects of Greco-Roman, Jewish and Christian mysticism. Sorting through this complex conceptual web, and trying to understand these Biblical texts with their contexts and complicated traditional development, has occupied historians of ancient religions for the past 150 years (Bousset 1901; Segal 1980).

The various types of the heavenly journeys we have reports about can be divided into four basic categories, based upon the fundamental purpose or outcome of the ascent as reported in a given text. Generally speaking, the first two categories are more characteristic of the Ancient Near Eastern, or archaic period, which would include most texts of the Hebrew Bible (OT). The latter two categories are more typical of the Hellenistic period, which reflects the perspective of the NT.

1. Ascent as an invasion of heaven.
In the cosmology reflected throughout most of the Hebrew Bible mortal humankind belongs on earth, not in heaven, and at death descends below to the nether world known as Sheol. Ps 115 expresses this succinctly:

The heaven’s are the LORD’S heavens,
but the earth he has given to the
sons of men.
The dead do not praise the LORD,
nor do any that go down into silence.
But we will bless the LORD
from this time forth and for evermore.

Generally speaking, just as there is no coming back from the dead, there is no idea or expectation that humans can go to heaven, a place reserved for God and his angelic attendants. This means that any report of a human being ascending to heaven would be seen as not only extraordinary, but often even as an intrusion or invasion of the divine realm. In an Akkadian text, Adapa, the son of Ea, attempts to ascend to heaven to obtain eternal life but is cast back down to earth (Pritchard 1969:101-3). A somewhat similar story is told of Etana, one of the legendary rulers of the Sumerian dynasty of Kish (Pritchard 1969: 114-18). A direct protest against such an ascent is found in Isa 14:12-20 (compare Ezk 28:11-19). There the prideful King of Babylon, who wants to ascend to heaven and become like God, is cast down to the nether world of worms and maggots (v 11). The ironic language of Prov 30:2-4 (compare Job 26; 38:1-42:6), though not a tale of ascent, emphasizes the contrast between the human and divine realms. A similar idea lies behind Deut 29:29 and 30:11-14. There is no need for one to ascend to heaven to learn the “secret things” which belong to God (compare Sir 3:21-22). Lucian’s tale, Icaromenippus, though from the Roman imperial period, typifies this understanding of ascent to heaven as an invasion of the realm of the gods.

The accounts of Enoch and Elijah are best understood in this context. First and foremost, they are extraordinary. The normal fate, even of great heroes of the Hebrew Bible such as Abraham, Moses, and David, is death or “rest” in Sheol (Gen 25:7-9; Deut 34:6; 1 Kgs 2:10, cf Acts 2:29-34). Furthermore, both texts, particularly the one about Enoch, are ambiguous. Genesis 5:24, from the P source, in lieu of recording Enoch’s death, simply says “Enoch walked with God; and he was not, for God took him.” Where he was taken, the text does not say. Though the bulk of later Jewish and Christian tradition understood this text as ascent to heaven (Charlesworth 1983: 1: 3-315; Tabor 1989), this was not universally the case (compare Heb 11:5, 13-16). The author might have had in mind a journey “Beyond,” to some special region on this earth (e.g. “Isles of the Blessed”), as in the cases of Gilgamesh’s Utnapishtim or Menelaus in Homer. Such might also be the case with Elijah. Though he is clearly taken from the earthly scene in a chariot of fire that rises to heaven like a whirlwind, the author might well have had in mind his removal or “retirement” to some remote area. If so, “heaven” in this text is equivalent to “sky,” and the author does not intend to imply that Elijah joined Yahweh as an immortal in the heavenly court. This appears to be the understanding of the Chronicler who reports that much later, Jehoram, king of Judah, receives a letter written by Elijah (2 Chr 21:12-15).

2. Ascent to receive revelation.
This type of ascent involves a “round trip” from earth to heaven and back again, or some visionary experience of the heavenly court from which one returns to normal experience (ascent/descent). In contrast to the previous type, the journey or experience is appraised most positively. The earth, not heaven, is still understood as the proper human place, so that the ascent remains a “visit,” though not an intrusion, into the divine realm.

The complex literary traditions surrounding the ascent of Moses on Mount Sinai, now found in Exodus 24, though not explicitly referring to a journey to heaven, are closely related to this category. Moses (or alternatively Moses, Aaron and the seventy elders), in ascending the mountain, enter the presence of God, the realm of the divine. He is given revelation in the form of heavenly tablets, then descends back to the mortal realm. Though he is not explicitly deified or enthroned, he becomes a semi-divine figure, eating and drinking in the divine presence and returning from the mountain with his face transformed like an immortal (Exod 24:11; 34:29-30). In later interpretation this was understood as full deification (see Philo, De vita Mosis 2.290-91; De virt. 73-75; Ezekiel the Tragedian 668-82). The prophetic call of Isaiah is a further example of this same pattern (Isa 6:1-3). Since there is no specific reference to Isaiah being “taken up,” this is a “visionary ascent,” though the distinction between the two types is not always clear (see 2 Cor 12:2-4). He sees “The LORD sitting on a throne, high and lifted up . . . .” (v 1). He is then given a message with a corresponding prophetic commission. As a mortal, he is out of place in the divine realm; he cries out “Woe is me! For I am lost; for I am a man of unclean lips . . . for my eyes have seen the King, the LORD of hosts!” (v 5). The throne visions of Ezekiel (Ezk 1, 10) should be compared here, as well as the scene before the throne of the “Ancient of Days” in Daniel 7:14 where a “son of man” is given cosmic rulership over all nations. Micaiah’s vision of the heavenly court also belongs under this category (1 Kgs 22:19-23). In all of these texts the ascent or vision of the heavenly throne serves as a way of claiming the highest and most direct heavenly authority for the message. Such experiences are clearly evaluated as more noteworthy than the epiphany of an angelic messenger or receipt of a prophetic “word of the LORD.” Widengren (1950) has traced this motif of royal or prophetic enthronement (ascent, initiation into heavenly secrets, receipt of a divine commission) into later Jewish traditions involving kingship, prophetic commissions and the revelation of secret heavenly lore. This understanding of ascent dominates one of the oldest sections of 1 Enoch, the Book of the Watchers (chaps. 1-36). The legendary figure Enoch is taken through the heavenly realms and shown cosmic secrets, even appearing before God’s lofty throne. The Greek version of the Testament of Levi (2nd century B.C.E.) draws upon the ascent motif in a similar way, as does the Latin Life of Adam and Eve (1st century C.E.) and the Apocalypse of Abraham. In each of these texts the ascent to heaven functions as a vehicle of revelation, offering divine authority to the cosmological and eschatological lore the authors were expounding.

The closest non-Jewish, or Greek, parallel to this notion of ascent is probably Parmenides’ prooemium, which survives in only a few fragments (Taran 1965). He tells of being taken in a chariot through the gate leading to daylight, where he is received and addressed by a goddess. On the whole, for Greeks in the archaic period, revelations came through epiphanies, oracles, dreams, omens, and signs of various sorts, not by being taken before the throne of Zeus. The fair number of Jewish (and Jewish-Christian) texts which make use of ascent to heaven as a means of legitimating rival claims of revelation and authority is likely due to the polemics and party politics that characterized the Second Temple period. It became a characteristic way, in the Hellenistic period, of claiming “archaic” authority of the highest order, equal to a Enoch or Moses, for ones vision of things.

3. Ascent to immortal heavenly life.
This type of ascent to heaven is final or “one way:” a mortal obtains immortality, or release from mortal conditions, thorough a permanent ascent to the heavenly realms. Broadly, there are two overlapping ideas involved here, both of which have been extensively investigated. First, that a hero, ruler, or extraordinary individual has obtained immortal heavenly existence (Farnell 1921; Guthrie 1950; Bieler 1935-36; M. Smith 1971; Gallagher 1982). Second, the more general idea that the souls of humankind, bound by mortal conditions, can obtain release to immortal heavenly life (Rhode 1925; Bousset 1901; Burkert 1985). The second is not merely a later democratization of the first, rather, the two exist side by side throughout the Hellenistic period. While they are distinct from one another, both are related to a fundamental shift in the perception of the proper human place. Increasingly in this period one encounters the notion that humans actually belong in heaven, with life on earth seen as either a “fall” or temporary subjection to mortal powers (Nilsson 1969: 96-185; J. Z. Smith 1975).

The only candidates for such immortalization in the Hebrew Bible are Enoch and Elijah, though, as noted above, both texts are ambiguous. As early as the Maccabean period (2nd century B.C.E.) Daniel speaks of the righteous dead being resurrected and “shining like the stars forever and ever,” having obtained immortality (12:3). A similar notion is found in the Wisdom of Solomon, where the “souls of the righteous” are promised immortal life (3:1-9). Gradually, in Jewish and Christian texts of the Hellenistic period, the older idea of the dead reposing in Sheol forever is replaced with either a notion of the resurrection of the dead or the immortality of the soul or some combination of the two (Nickelsburg 1972). Both ideas involve the notion of a final ascent to heaven.

The NT reflects this Hellenistic perspective in which mortals can obtain heavenly immortality. Matthew 13:43, reflecting the language and influence of Daniel, asserts that “the righteous will shine like the sun in the kingdom of their Father.” Eternal life is promised to the righteous throughout the NT corpus (Mark 9:42-48; Q [Matt 10:32-33=Luke 12:8]; Matt 25:46; Acts 13:48; John 3:16; 14:1-3; Rom 6:23; Col 3:1-4; 1 Tim 1:16; Heb 12:22-23; Jas 1:12; 1 Pet 1:4; 2 Pet 1:4; 1 John 5:11; Jude 21; Rev 20). In most cases this involves ascent to heaven and life before the throne of God (1 Thess 4:13-18; Rev 7:9-17). According to the NT, the righteous of the OT, such as Abraham, Moses, and the prophets, are included in this promised resurrection to immortal heavenly life (Heb 11). In the NT the ascent of Jesus to heaven is the paradigm for all those righteous mortals who follow. Just as he was raised from the dead, made immortal, and ascended to the Father, so will followers experience the same at his return (John 14: 1-3; 1 Cor 15: 20-28; Rom 8:29-30). The state of the the righteous souls who have died prior to the time of the end and the resurrection and ascent to heaven is not always clear. Paul seems to prefer the metaphor of “sleep,” which parallels the Hebrew Bible notion of Sheol (1 Thess 4:13; 5:10; 1 Cor 15:18-20). But in two places he might imply that these “souls” or “spirits” depart immediately at death and ascend to the presence of Christ in heaven (Phil 1: 21-24; 2 Cor 5:1-10). In Revelation the “souls of the martyrs” are pictured as under the altar, presumably in heaven, longing for their time of vindication (6:9-11). In distinction to both of these views, the story of the rich man and the beggar Lazarus, unique to Luke, pictures the Hadean world of the dead, which is below not above, as a place in which rewards and punishments are already being experienced prior to the final resurrection and judgment (Luke 16:19-31). This latter text is more in concert with other Jewish materials of the period which see the “dead” as conscious, but in the Hadean world below, awaiting the resurrection and last judgment (cf. Rev 20:11-15). There is no uniform NT view of this subject of the “state of the dead.”

Surprisingly, an actual narrative account of the ascent of Jesus to heaven occurs only in Luke (24:51, but see textual variants; Acts 1:9). It is assumed in Matthew and Mark and spoken of in John (20:17) and Paul (Rom 8:34). A similar resurrection from the dead followed by bodily ascension to heaven is prophesied for the “two witnesses” in the book of Revelation (11:7-12). They are God’s final prophets before the return of Christ and the last judgment. The contrast between the NT and the Hebrew Bible regarding this expectation of ascent to heaven could not be more striking. Other than the doubtful examples of Enoch and Elijah, it is not until the book of Daniel, which is perhaps the latest text in the canon of the Hebrew Bible, that one finds any reference to mortals ascending to heavenly life (some would include Isa 26:19; Job 14:14-16 is a longing, not an affirmation). The NT is fully a part of the process of Hellenization in which notions of resurrection from the dead, immortality of the soul, and ascent to heaven were the norm rather than the exception.

4. Ascent as a foretaste of the heavenly world.
This type of ascent involves a journey or “visit” to heaven which functions as a foretaste or anticipation of a final or permanent ascent to heavenly life. Though related to the second category, ascent to receive revelation, it is fundamentally different. For example, when Isaiah is taken before God’s throne, though he receives a commission and experiences the glories of the heavenly world, there is no idea that he will return to that realm. He remains a mortal who dies and descends to Sheol with all the other dead.

The earliest example of this notion of ascent is in the Similitudes of Enoch (1 Enoch 37-71), probably dating from the 1st century B.C.E. In chapter 39 Enoch relates how he was taken to heaven. The experience transforms him (39:14) and he is told that he will later ascend to heaven permanently and receive glory and immortal heavenly life (chaps. 70-71). 2 (Slavonic) Enoch also reflects a similar pattern. Enoch’s journey through the seven heavens, which lasts 60 days (chaps. 1-20), is followed by a return to earth. The experience transforms him and functions in anticipation of his final translation to heaven. Christians later took up and elaborated this understanding of ascent from such Jewish models, as seen in texts such as the Ascension of Isaiah. In the NT we have the striking firsthand account of Paul’s own experience of ascent to Paradise (2 Cor 12:2-4). This text provides evidence for the actual “practice” of ascent to heaven in Jewish-Christian circles during this period, in contrast to a purely literary motif adopted to lend heavenly authority to a text. Obviously, Paul’s experience functions as a highly privileged foretaste of the heavenly glorification which he expected at the return of Christ (Tabor 1986).

There are definite links between the language and ideas of these Jewish texts from Second Temples times, the testimony of Paul, and the Tannaitic and Amoraic Merkabah (and later Hekhalot) traditions (Scholem 1960; Gruenwald 1980; Halperin 1980).

There are also examples of this type of ascent to heaven in non-Jewish/Christian materials. Perhaps the clearest is Cicero’s report of the “Dream of Scipio Africanus” in his Republic (6. 9-26). The text was highly influential and functions as a kind of universal declaration of the gospel of astral immortality (Luck 1956). Scipio travels to the heavenly world above and returns with a revelation that all humans are immortal souls, trapped in mortal bodies, but potentially destined for heavenly life above. The gnostic text Poimandres, found in the Corpus Hermeticum also fits this category of ascent. There is also an important text in the Greek Magical Papyri, mistakenly called the “Mithras Liturgy,” (PGM 4. 624-750). It provides the initiate who desires to ascend to heaven with an actual guide for making the journey with all its dangers and potentials. There are Jewish texts such as Hekhalot Rabbati which have strong parallels with such magical materials, showing that we are dealing here with an international phenomenon of late antiquity (M. Smith 1963). It is also likely that the rites of initiation into certain of the so-called “mystery religions,” such as that of Isis, involved such proleptic experiences of ascent to heaven (see Apuleius, Metamorphoses 11 and discussion of Tabor 1986: 89-92).

It is noteworthy that Paul’s testimony in 2 Cor 12:2-4 remains our only firsthand autobiographical account of such an experience from the Second Temple period.


• Betz, H. D., ed.
1986    The Greek Magical Papyri. Vol. 1: Texts. Chicago: University of Chicago Press.
• Bieler, Ludwig.
1935-36    THEIOS ANER: Das Bild des “Gottlichen Menschen” in Spatantike und Fruhchristentum. 2 Vols. Vienna: Oskar Hofels.
• Bousset, Wilhelm.
1901    Die Himmelsreise der Seele. ARW 4: 136-69.
• Burkert, Walter.
1985    Greek Religion. Trans. John Raffan from German, 1977. Cambridge: Harvard University Press.
• Charlesworth, James H. ed.
1983    Old Testament Pseudepigrapha. Vol. 1. Garden City: Doubleday & Company.
• Dieterich, Albrecht.
1923    Eine Mithrasliturgie. 3rd ed, ed. Otto Weinreich. Leipzig: B. G. Teubner.
• Farnell, Lewis R.
1921    Greek Hero Cults and Ideas of Immortality. Oxford: Clarendon Press.
• Gallagher, Eugene V.
1982    Divine Man or Magician?: Celsus and Origin on Jesus. SBL Dissertation Series, no. 64. Missoula: Scholars Press.
• Gruenwald, Ithamar.
1980    Apocalyptic and Merkavah Mysticism. Arbeiten zur Geschichte des antiken Judentums und des Urchristentums, vol. 14. Leiden: E.J. Brill.
• Guthrie, W. C. K.
1950    The Greeks and Their Gods. Boston: Beacon Press.
• Halperin, David J.
1980. The Merkabah in Rabbinic Literature. American Oriental Series, vol. 62. New Haven: American Oriental Society.
• Nickelsburg, George W. E., Jr.
1972    Resurrection, Immortality and Eternal Life in Intertestamental Judaism. Harvard Theological Studies, vol. 26. Cambridge: Harvard University Press.
• Nilsson, Martin.
1969    Greek Piety. Trans. J. J. Rose. New York: W. W. Norton.
• Pritchard, James B., ed.
1969    Ancient Near Eastern Texts Relating to the Old Testament. 3rd. ed. Princeton: Princeton University Press.
• Reitzenstein, Richard.
1978    Hellenistic Mystery-Religions: Their Basic Ideas and Significance. Trans. John E. Steely from German, 1925. Pittsburg Theological Monograph Series, no. 15. Pittsburgh: Pickwick Press.
• Rohde, Erwin.
1925    Psyche: The Cult of Souls and Belief in Immortality Among the Greeks. Trans. W. B. Hillis from German, 1892. 8th. ed. New York: Harcourt, Brace, & Co.
• Scholem, Gershom.
1960    Jewish Gnosticism, Merkabah Mysticism and the Talmudic Tradition. 2nd. ed. New York: Jewish Theological Seminary of America.
• Segal, Alan F.
1980    Heavenly Ascent in Hellenistic Judaism, Early Christianity and their Environment. Vol. 23, pp. 1333-94 in Aufstieg und Niedergang der Romischen
Welt, Principat II, ed. Wolfgang Haase. Berlin: Walter de Gruyter.
• Smith, J. Z.
1975    “Hellenistic Religions.” Pp. 749-51 in vol. 8 of The New Encyclopedia Britannica: Macropaedia. 15th ed. Chicago.
• Smith, Morton.
1963    “Observations on Hekhalot Rabbati.” Pp. 142-160 in Biblical and Other Studies, ed. Alexander Altmann. Cambridge: Harvard University Press.
1971    Prolegomena to a Discussion of Aretologies, Divine Men, the Gospels and Jesus. JBL 90: 174-99.
• Tabor, James D.
1986    Things Unutterable: Paul’s Ascent to Paradise in its Greco-Roman, Judaic, and Early Christian Contexts. Studies in Judaism. Lanham, MD: University Press of America.
1989    “Returning to the Divinity: Josephus’s Portrayal of the Disappearances of Enoch, Elijah, and Moses.” JBL 108: 224-36.
• Taran, Leonard, ed.
1965    Parmenides: A Text with Translation, Commentary, and a Critical Essay. Princeton: Princeton University Press.
• Widengren, Geo.
1950    The Ascension of the Apostle and the Heavenly Book. Uppsala Universitets Arsskrift, no. 7. Uppsala: A. B. Lundequistska.