Hanukkah Yes, but what About Kislev 24?

Tomorrow night, Sunday, December 6th, begins the festival of Dedication, more popularly known as Hanukkah–the festival of Lights. This special Jewish festival that non-Jews often mistakenly think of as the “Jewish Christmas,” has its origins in the revolt of the Maccabees against the infamous Greco-Syrian ruler Antiochus IV (aka Epiphanes) in 167 BCE.

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

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

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

What is altogether fascinating is a much earlier and little known biblical reference to a different but very related date–Kislev 24 on the Jewish calendar–which begins this evening, Saturday, December 5th, at sundown. This, of course, is one day before the Hanukkah celebration, but the reference can be precisely dated to 520 BCE–over 350 years before the Maccabean victory. I refer here to the book of the Prophet Haggai.

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

So, what about Kislev 24?

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

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

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

The Best Bible on the Market

The marvelous JPS 2011 Oxford Leather Jewish Study Bible—which I highly recommend, is for sale today, Cyber Monday, through Christianbook.com for $27.99—regular price $79.99—that is 65% off! Here is the link:

http://www.christianbook.com/jewish-featuring-tanakh-bonded-leather-black/9781598568608/pd/568608

JPS Study Bible

Back in 2014 I purchased this Bible—and have used it extensively ever since. At that time I wrote this blog post: “My Bible Buying Days Are Over: The Best Bible on the Market.”  I repost it here:

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 essays, 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.

What 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 essays, 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.

Did Joseph Build the Great Pyramid at Gizeh?

Dr. Ben Carson has made lots of controversial headlines this week with his assertion, that turns out to be quite common in certain Adventist/Fundamentalist Christian circles, that the biblical Joseph in fact built the Great Pyramid of Cheops–the one that appears on the back of our U.S. dollar bill as the “Great Seal” of our nation.

greatseal

Although this assertion comes as a shock to the press and is repudiated by all Egyptologists, it has some broader background that is worth exploring–see Ana Marie Cox’s very intelligent post in the Daily Beast here. I remember hearing this theory here and there in Christian evangelical circles growing up in the 1960s as a teenager.  The assertion that Joseph was the engineering genius (with God’s help of course!) behind the mysterious construction of the oldest pyramids–and that they were used for grain storage, is still floating around after 50 years, see the purported evidence here. The late Dr. Herman Hoeh, self-educated “historian” and biblical scholar, wrote an article in the Plain Truth magazine in 1964 titled “Who Built the Great Pyramid?” that is available on-line here. He asserts that not only Joseph was involved, but the biblical figure of “Job” was in fact Cheops, the non-Egyptian king who ruled Egypt in the 18th century BCE. If you read through Dr. Hoeh’s article you can see how naive readers would be taken in by his presumed knowledge of history while all mainstream historians and archaeologists, lacking biblical faith, are thus deluded and can’t see the truth.

This is the “closed” scientific world that Dr. Carson and millions of fundamentalist Christians live in and within that bubble everything makes sense. I would so so far as to guess that Dr. Carson seems himself as a kind of “new Joseph,” who, “with God on his side,” has risen from rags to the highest office in the land in order to save a people from destruction. That is why he repeatedly says if God wills that he become the President then it will happen–not by power, nor by might, but by God’s Spirit.

Kheops-PyramidWhat the mainstream “progressive secularist” media, as Carson labels it, fails to realize is that such ideas are quite common among mainstream Evangelical/Fundamentalist Christian circles–connected to theories about how biblical archaeology confirms the Bible’s historical reliability. Dr. Carson’s assertion at the 1998 Andrews University graduation ceremony speaks for itself and is totally within the parameters of the commonly held views of history, archaeology, and biblical “literalism.” Listen to Dr. Carson’s address here–only snippets have been picked up by the press but the entire “sermon” sheds more light on Dr. Carson and his candidacy than anything I have seen about the current controversy.

Can Human Brain Consciousness be Replicated?

Robert Kuhn, an old friend, colleague, and producer of the amazing PBS program “Closer to Truth,” (see my own contributions here) has just published a most provocative piece at LiveScience titled: “The Singularity, Virtual Immortality and the Trouble with Consciousness.” Will science replicate the human brain and thus produce the phenomenon we all experience our conscious “inner-self,”–what Plato and Freud called the “Ego”?

According to techno-futurists, the exponential development of technology in general and artificial intelligence (“AI”) in particular — including the complete digital replication of human brains — will radically transform humanity via two revolutions. The first is the “singularity,” when artificial intelligence will redesign itself recursively and progressively, such that AI will become vastly more powerful than human intelligence (“superstrong AI”). The second revolution will be “virtual immortality,” when the fullness of our mental selves can be uploaded perfectly to nonbiological media (such as silicon chips), and our mental selves will live on beyond the demise of our fleshy, physical bodies.

AI singularity and virtual immortality would mark a startling, transhuman world that techno-futurists envision as inevitable and perhaps just over the horizon. They do not question whether their vision can be actualized; they only debate when will it occur, with estimates ranging from 10 to 100 years. [Artificial Intelligence: Friendly or Frightening?]

iBot

Kuhn, who has his Ph.D. in brain science has his doubts, but takes us through all the various views with clips and interviews from the best and the brightest in the field of the physiology and psychology of the human brain. A fascinating read.

I surely have no expertise in this field but I remain convinced that any such replication, however precise and infinitely complex, would remain as “dumb” as a more sophisticated version of Siri on my iPhone. More is more, but more is not consciousness. 

On the other hand I think the idea of a “non-physical” component or aspect of the brain is perhaps a category mistake. Why denigrate the so-called “physical” to the four forces of physics as they are currently conceived—electromagnetic, magnetism, and strong and weak nuclear—when there might be “other” aspects of reality, whether one wants to use the term physical or not, being manifest through the 3 lb human brain. Many have argued that brain size (100 billion neurons for us humans) relative to body-rate is what seems to distinguish us from other creatures on the planet–but such is not the case, see “The Four Biggest Myths About the Human Brain.”

I am not thinking so much here of the proverbial human “soul,” conceived as a non-physical “entity” somehow inserted by the Divine into our physical world. This view is in fact based on a mistranslation–and thus a misunderstanding–of Genesis 2:7: “Then the LORD God formed man of dust from the ground, and breathed into his nostrils the breath of life; and man became a living soul” (KJV). The problem is twofold here. First, the term in Hebrew, “breath of life”  (נשמת חיים) is not some mysterious non-physical component–but simply a reference to air-breathing creatures–human or otherwise (see Genesis 7:15 where it is used for land animals in general). Second, the term translated “living soul” (נפש חיה) has absolutely nothing to do with any idea of an immortal soul–it simply means any air breathing creature (see Genesis 1:30).

On the mind/body problem, in terms of this article, I would favor some version of 2 & 3 with openness to 4. I do think we have to distinguish between “consciousness” more generically (“being aware of an outside world”) and a unique sense of “self,” or the Ego. I am pretty sure my dog lacks the latter. With it goes the ability, of course, to think in time, and about time, and thus to contemplate the future and to act by “choice,” with anticipation of outcomes—and thus ethics. This of course goes way beyond “instincts” or learning patterns (i.e. don’t touch a hot plate). Another factor of course is the body itself as mental states are also bodily and can hardly be separated therefrom—hearing music, seeing colors, sensing smells, sexual feelings, various kinds of emotions, including love, kinship, happiness, sadness, well being, et al. I wonder how any computer that “replicates” the structure of the brain would function without a “body,” since the two are one and the same system—impossible to separate out.

I loved the film Ex Machina as much as anyone but I nonetheless think we still have a lot to learn about the proverbial “mind body problem,” and philosophers from antiquity to the present have laid out most of the parameters of the arguments. Read much more on this and related topics at the “Closer to Truth” homepage–five minutes of browsing and you will be hooked!

Tabor & Trible Team up at St Olaf Biblical Archaeology Society Seminar

It is not too late to join us July 19th through 25th…Full details are here.

The BAS Summer Vacation Seminar at St. Olaf is back by popular demand! This year, the tranquil campus of St. Olaf College will welcome two exciting scholars giving 20 dynamic lectures to our enthusiastic participants. Dr. Phyllis Trible of Union Theological Seminary and Dr. James Tabor of the University of North Carolina, Charlotte, will present what promises to be one of our most unique programs yet.

The program is truly amazing. Just think–to pack so much into a week, with time to “hang out” and interact in the evenings and at meals is an opportunity not to be missed. Come have a seat with us in this beautiful setting and let’s dialogue on these important topics.

StOlaf

The program looks fantastic. I am doing “Trajectories through Earliest Christianity” and Phyllis Trible is doing “Treks through the Tanakh with Biblical Characters” as only she can do them. Here is the breakdown:

Tabor: Trajectories through Earliest Christianity
In his lecture program, Professor Tabor examines some of the most intriguing enigmas, mysteries, and controversies in early Christianity

  1. Re-humanizing the Mythological/Theological Miriam, Mother of Jesus
  2. Miriam the Magdalene: Wife, mother, Consort, or Literary Fiction?
  3. Identifying the Mysterious Disciple Whom Jesus Loved
  4. A Thoroughly Apocalyptic Jesus – Was Schweitzer Right?
  5. John the Baptizer—An Alternative Messiah in the Time of Jesus?
  6. Why the “End of the Age” Should Have Come in 70 CE
  7. Did the Apostle Paul Repudiate Judaism?
  8. The Q Source Hypothesis after 100 Years – What Can We Definitely Say?
  9. Understanding the Earliest View of the Resurrection of Jesus
  10. What Kind of a Jew was Jesus?

Trible: Treks through the Tanakh with Biblical Characters
The ten lectures will explore literary, theological, and feminist perspectives on Biblical narratives with particular attention to select characters. The characters, by lecture, include the following:

  1. God the Creator
  2. Eve
  3. Adam
  4. Hagar, Sarah, and Abraham
  5. Ishmael and Isaac
  6. Jacob
  7. Miriam
  8. Elijah and Jezebel
  9. Jonah
  10. God Wrathful and Merciful

Biblical Name Eshbaal Found Outside of the Bible

Courtesy of “Bible History Daily” from the Biblical Archaeology Society
Link: http://www.biblicalarchaeology.org/daily/ancient-cultures/daily-life-and-practice/biblical-name-eshbaal-found-outside-of-the-bible/

Khirbet Qeiyafa excavators publish new Iron Age inscription
Robin Ngo   •  06/05/2015

qeiyafa-eshbaal

Ner was the father of Kish, Kish the father of Saul, and Saul the father of Jonathan, Malki-Shua, Abinadab and Esh-Baal.

—1 Chronicles 8:33 The Biblical name Eshbaal has been found for the first time in an ancient inscription. Incised before firing on a 3,000-year-old pithos (large ceramic storage jar), the inscription was discovered at the site of Khirbet Qeiyafa in Israel. Researchers Yosef Garfinkel, Mitka R. Golub, Haggai Misgav and Saar Ganor have published their study of this inscription in a forthcoming issue of the journal Bulletin of the American Schools of Oriental Research (BASOR).

The Eshbaal inscription reads “[ ] | ʾšbʿl | ˹bn˺ | bdʿ” (“ʾIšbaʿal son of Bedaʿ”) and was written from right to left in the Canaanite alphabetic script. The name ʾšbʿl, commonly translated as ʾIšbaʿal (or Esh-Baʿal—“man of Baʿal”), is known from the Bible. Eshbaal was the second king of Israel, King Saul’s son and a rival of King David (1 Chronicles 8:33; in 2 Samuel 2–4, this king is called Ish-Bosheth). The name Bedaʿ, however, is unique.

qeiyafa-mapRadiometric dating of the layer from which the Eshbaal inscription was unearthed dates the layer to c. 1020–980 B.C.E. The clarity and precision with which the inscription was written suggest, according to the researchers, that the inscription was the work of a skilled hand—perhaps a trained scribe.

“This new inscription marks a transitional stage between the writing system used for 800 years and the official, standardized Phoenician script used by kingdoms and states in Canaan by at least the 10th century B.C.E.,” the researchers wrote in their BASOR article.

The free eBook Life in the Ancient Worldguides you through craft centers in ancient Jerusalem, family structure across Israel and ancient practices—from dining to makeup—throughout the Mediterranean world.

 

The Eshbaal inscription, along with five other inscriptions—two of which are also from Qeiyafa, offers evidence that the Canaanite script was used in the late 11th–10th centuries B.C.E. Included in this important corpus is the five-line Qeiyafa Ostracon, a prize find unearthed during the 2008 season at Khirbet Qeiyafa and possibly the oldest Hebrew inscription ever discovered.*

qeiyafa-ostracon

Excavations at Khirbet Qeiyafa, led by Yosef Garfinkel and Saar Ganor on behalf of the Hebrew University of Jerusalem, were conducted from 2007 to 2013. Located about 18.5 miles southwest of Jerusalem, Khirbet Qeiyafa was occupied during several periods: Late Chalcolithic, Middle Bronze, Iron, Persian-Hellenistic and Byzantine. Qeiyafa’s main phase of occupation was during the Iron Age, when there was a heavily fortified city boasting a casemate wall, two gates and monumental buildings.In a Biblical Archaeology Review article, Yosef Garfinkel, Michael Hasel and Martin Klingbeil explain the importance of the Iron Age city at Qeiyafa:

The seven seasons of excavations at Khirbet Qeiyafa […] uncovered for the first time in the archaeology of the Holy Land a fortified city in Judah from the time of King David. The date of this site (1020–980 B.C.E.) is confirmed by olive pits sent to Oxford University for radiocarbon dating.

[…]

Khirbet Qeiyafa redefined the debate over the early kingdom of Judah. It is clear now that David’s kingdom extended beyond Jerusalem, that fortified cities existed in strategic geopolitical locations and that there was an extensive civil administration capable of building cities.

Read the BASOR article on the new Eshbaal inscription from Khirbet Qeiyafa.

Wishing all a Meaningful Shavuot 2015/5775

Chag Sameach Shavuot–Happy Festival of Weeks!

This year it just happens that the traditional Jewish day of the “Festival of Weeks,” known otherwise as Pentecost (from the Greek word πεντηκοστή meaning “50th”), corresponds with the more literal “count” of 50 days beginning the “day after the Sabbath” of Passover week–counting 50 days–until the day after the seventh Sabbath or Sunday (Leviticus 23:15-16; Deuteronomy 16:10). For Jews Shavuot marks the giving of the Torah at Mt Sinai or Horeb (Exodus 19:1ff) and for Christians, Pentecost (known by its Greek name) marks the beginning of what was later understood as the inauguration of a “New Covenant” (Acts 2:1-4). Even the Dead Sea Scrolls community had a ceremony for the “renewal of the Covenant” on this day in ancient times (Community Rule).

shavuotWhatever its meaning it always seems to have to do with “new beginnings” and inauguration. So wishing all new beginnings and abundance of “harvest.”

 

Weekend Seminar: How An Ancient Apocalyptic Vision of the Future Took Over the World

I will be leading a seminar this weekend at the 72nd annual United Israel Conference here in Charlotte, NC at the lovely Doubletree Hotel in Southpark. Registration is open to anyone interested. My topic deals with “Apocalypticism, from the Dead Sea Scrolls to Isis,” and here is an outline of what I will cover:

Tabor Apocalyptic Lecture

 

Details on the conference at: http://unitedisrael.org/uiwu-e…/uiwu-2015-annual-conference/

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Sale Ends Tomorrow: 2-1 Sale: Restoring Abrahamic Faith

SALE ENDS TOMORROW, December 31st.

Many of my blog readers have copies of my book Restoring Abrahamic Faith but I wanted folks to be aware of the annual “Holiday” 2-1 sale on this particular book. I was thinking many who appreciate find this book might find it to be an ideal gift for friends and family. Here are the details on the sale and below is a post from 2010 where I describe the book, its history, and how I came to write it. Unfortunately, due to sky high international postage (more than the cost of the book!), this 2-1 sale is only offered to US domestic customers. I hope to have an e-book version out in 2015. Copies are mailed UPSP Priority Mail and shipped the next business day of the order.

Holiday 2-1 SALE through the end of 2014
Order any quantity of copies of Restoring Abrahamic Faith
and your order will be automatically doubled at no extra cost
All Copies are signed by the author
US Domestic Orders Only

Payments by Credit/Debit or Paypal via genesis2000.org or through Amazon.
Payments by Check to: Genesis 2000 mailed to:
Genesis 2000 Press
2124 Crown Centre Drive, Suite 300
Charlotte, NC 28227

RAFShadded

As a professor in a large and thriving Department of Religious Studies in a public/state university I make every effort to keep my personal religious faith and our enterprise as a faculty in the area of the academic study of religion properly separated. There is some debate in our field on this question with arguments on both sides as to what extent one’s implicit religious or political views should become part of the teaching discourse. Although there is no need to avoid matters of religious faith in the classroom, and indeed such matters are part of our study, my position is that personal theology belongs elsewhere–particularly for those in public education.

That said, like Frank Moore Cross and many others in our field who were raised in Christian contexts, I have found myself more personally drawn toward the complex of ideas, concepts, tensions, and even contradictions, reflected in the Hebrew Bible, as I have noted previously in my Blog post “Reflections on the Hebrew Bible and the New Testament.”

Back in 1991 I published a little book titled Restoring Abrahamic Faith with a small non-profit publisher called Genesis 2000. It was more or less in response to questions I was getting from many quarters regarding my own “beliefs.” It was mainly an attempt to save my “breath,” so I could refer it to those who were curious about my own personal faith, or the lack thereof.  Also, in the final chapter of my popular book, The Jesus Dynasty, that was intended for general audiences far beyond my academic arena, I did include, a final “Conclusion” that delved into matters of faith and the consequences of historical Jesus studies–mentioning my view of “Abrahamic Faith.” In 2008 in an expanded, 3rd edition was released.  It is now available either directly from the publisher (http://genesis2000.org) or through Amazon. And yes, alas, it also has a Facebook Fan page! You can read the preface to the book on-line here, as well as several endorsements and reviews.

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.

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