The Meaning of “All Israel”, Part 2: “Saved or Safed?” (Mark Nanos)

Always know that Mark Nanos will shake things up. His Mystery of Romans (1996) had a major impact on me and is still one of my favorite books on Paul, even if I don’t buy all of its arguments. I’m hard pressed to think of a better treatment of Rom 4:18-25 and 14:1-15:6, and also some parts of Rom 11. (When it comes to Rom 13, he loses me.) At any rate, Nanos has done more work on Romans recently, and he is retracting some of his views set forth in that fabulous book. I find that unfortunate; his new reading of Romans 11 is (to me) less plausible. The good news is that it’s always rewarding to read Nanos; there’s always something I take away positively, even if in overall disagreement.

I’ll focus on two articles: “Paul – Why Bother?: A Jewish Perspective” (2019) and “All Israel Will Be Saved or Kept Safe? (Rom 11:26): Israel’s Conversion or Irrevocable Calling to Gospel the Nations?” (2021). The first is a revision of a lecture that Nanos gave at Lund University in Sweden, and the second is an article published in Israel and the Nations: Paul’s Gospel in the Context of Jewish Expectation (edited by Frantisek Abel). Nanos’ new reading involves re-translating a lot of terminology — the following three highlights in particular.

1. “Unpersuaded, not disobedient”. According to Nanos, it’s more accurate to translate Paul as saying that the Jews have “not yet accepted” the gospel instead of “rejected” the gospel, but this really amounts to a distinction without a difference. Even if the best translation for ἀπειθέω is “unpersuaded” — instead of either “disobedience” or “rejection of that which is known to be true” (p 282) — how different, ultimately, does that make Paul’s argument? Nanos asks:

“Would most Christians or Jews be accurately described as rejecting Islam or Muhammad as ‘the Prophet’? Does not that judgment require that they have been convinced that the claims made were true? Are they rejecting God’s grace? Or are they not persuaded of someone else’s claims for God, perhaps even not very aware of, or simply indifferent to those claims, more than likely convinced that what they do uphold as truth does not lead them to give this much thought?” (“Paul – Why Bother?”, p 283)

It’s actually very common, and accurate, to describe Christians or Jews (or any other non-Muslim group, like Buddhists or Hindus) as people who reject the claims of Islam. That judgment doesn’t necessarily require the non-Muslims to have accepted the claims of Islam in the first place. Christians reject Islam; Jews reject Islam; Muslims reject Judaism; Jews reject Christianity. All of these are common expressions in which “reject” could mean just about anything — “adamantly oppose”, “be unpersuaded by”, “be indifferent to”, etc. I always imagined that the non-Christian Jews of Paul’s day “rejected” his gospel for any number of these reasons — whether because they directly opposed it, were unconvinced by its claims, didn’t take it seriously, whatever. If there’s a difference between “not accepting Christ” and “rejecting Christ”, that difference is only on a high level of abstraction. Besides, Paul’s point about the Jews “not (yet) accepting Christ” is preserved (and acknowledged by most commentators) anyway, in the olive tree metaphor: there is still hope for the Jews; they may be grafted back in to the tree — or “unbent” and righted on the tree, if that’s the better reading. Which takes us to the next point.

2. “Bent, not broken off” (stumbling, not falling). On this point Nanos is more persuasive. He argues that the tree branches of the olive tree are better translated as being “bent” rather than “broken off”:

“In the early part of the allegory [of Rom 11:17-24], when discussing the bent branches, Paul only uses the verb ἐκκλάω, which just so happens to include the translation option ‘to break’ as in ‘to bend’. But when the allegory turns to threatening the foreign wild shoot with what it can expect if it should grow arrogant towards those branches temporarily bent aside to make a place for itself, then Paul introduces the verb ἐκκόπτω, which does indicate being ‘broken/cut off’, signalling a much more severe fate.

“When read this way, we can see that Paul was explaining why some Jews had not yet joined him to proclaim the message to the nations, which, he argued throughout the letter, was Israel’s special role, that over which some of Israel (even if many) were stumbling (Rom. 3:2; 9:6; 10:4, 15). This development represented a temporary anomaly that would soon be resolved, and that somehow had resulted in the best interests of the non-Jews anyway. In terms of branches, some among Israel were broken as in bent back, but not as if cut off of the tree, which fit the stumbling but not fallen metaphor that preceded.” (“Paul – Why Bother?”, p 280)

Only when speaking of the Gentiles (the wild olive shoot) does Paul threaten being broken or cut off altogether; the non-Christian Jews are simply “bent”. And instead of being “grafted back in” (Rom 11:23-24), these bent branches are “invigorated again”; Nanos again finds lexical support for the Greek phrase in these verses, which normally means “to goad” or “to spur on”. Now, if the lexical data does in fact support these translations of “bent”/”invigorated” branches for the Jews, then I agree with Nanos that it better supports the argument of Rom 11:11-32, especially what is announced in verse 11: that Israel has not stumbled so as to fall. On the other hand, I find it just as plausible that Paul used an imperfect metaphor. (The best theologians have been known to do so.) Either way, the overall argument of Rom 11:11-32 is clear: the situation for the Jews is temporary. So I don’t think anything stands or falls (pardon the mixed pun) on whether the branches come down or not.

3. “Safed, not saved” (protected in the interim, not redeemed in the end). Here’s where things get interesting. Nanos argues that the Greek word σώζω in Rom 11:26 was usually used to indicate being “saved” in the sense of being protected or kept safe (or “safed”, as he coins for English usage) more than in the sense of being converted or rescued from being lost:

“What the lexicons reveal is that the Greek word σώζω and cognates were normally used to refer to protecting and keeping safe — before and besides Paul’s supposed use, that is. This word group was not used to discuss someone or thing that had been lost being returned in the evangelical salvation sense that it has come to denote — converted in common parlance — but to prevent someone or something from becoming lost, or from the threat thereof; in this case, to preserve these Israelites in their covenant standing as Israel during this anomalous period so that all Israel could complete the calling to bring the ‘news of good’ to the nations: the gift of the entrustment with God’s oracles was irrevocable (cf. 11:28-29 with 3:1-2).” (“Saved or Safed”, p 244)

For Nanos, in other words, Israel wouldn’t need saving in the end; the Jews weren’t losing covenantal status for not accepting Jesus. What Israel needed was protecting; the Jews’ covenantal status was in jeopardy during this period of the apostolic missions, because they had been called to be a light to the nations, and most of them had not (yet) accepted Christ as the messiah, and so they could not be that beacon. For Paul, their covenantal status would be protected by the scheme he presents in the olive tree metaphor: the Jews (the bent branches) would turn to Christ as they witnessed more and more Gentiles doing so. That’s the first major takeaway of Nanos’ argument.

The second takeaway is that Jewish salvation itself doesn’t depend on accepting Christ. According to Nanos, for Paul the Jews should accept Christ (for the reason just mentioned), but whether they do or don’t, they will be redeemed in the end on account of being God’s chosen people. Yet strangely, Nanos denies that he advocates a two-covenant reading of Paul: “Some readers may be tempted to classify my argument as another expression of the various Sonderveg and Two Covenant alternatives. It should not be.” (p 254) With all due respect, it should absolutely be. What makes a two-covenant reading is that Jews can be saved apart from Christ, and that is exactly how Nanos reads Paul: the Jews should accept Christ (and be a light to the nations) but they don’t have to in order to be saved:

“As I understand Paul, he confessed Jesus as Messiah and upheld that his fellow Jews should do the same, but not in order to be saved in evangelical salvation-based terms by any mechanism, period. For Paul, that was a truth claim made within Judaism; it did not involve Jews being saved in evangelical soteriological terms because they were never lost in the logical way that paradigm requires. What he promoted was a chronometrically based propositional claim that an awaited event, when the reign of God would arrive to rescue those who were already in a living covenant relationship from sinfulness, from sinners, from enemies, and so on — so that they could complete their calling to bring the gospel announcement to the nations — had begun. That premise, central to the gospel, should shape the thoughts and lives of the non-Israelites he addressed toward humble concern for the well-being of those Israelites who were not persuaded that was the case yet: they remained the “beloved” because of the promises made to their fathers, not least to Jacob/Israel. To argue that Israelites were being protected during this anomalous period of alienation while retaining continued covenant standing is not the same as the later evangelical concept that Jews need to believe in Jesus Christ to become saved, which empties their historical covenantal standing as “irrevocable” of the substance that Paul labors to explain.” (“Saved or Safed?”, p 255)

Nanos thus argues that Jewish soteriological salvation doesn’t depend on the preserving of covenantal status — in other words, it doesn’t depend on accepting Jesus as Israel’s messiah which leads to the bent branches being straightened again on the olive tree. But it appears that Gentile soteriological salvation, in a way, does depend on the preserving of Israel’s covenantal status — so that Christian Jews can bring the good news to the nations and convert Gentiles before the end of all things.

I’ve always found Nanos to be a refreshing exegete who thinks outside the box. As I said, he often fails to convince me, but not because he can’t make a formidable case. The biggest problem with this reading is the same problem for all two-covenant approaches. It doesn’t make sense of Paul’s sorrow and “unceasing anguish” for his fellow Jews (Rom 9:1-5) that he can go so far as to wish himself “accursed and cut off from Christ” for their sake. Those aren’t the feelings of a guy who knows that his countrymen are going to be saved, no matter what. He wouldn’t wish the worst thing on himself simply because his fellow Jews aren’t “gospeling the nations”. That’s a much too limited point for the overall concern of Rom 9-11.

I believe it’s accurate to describe Paul as follows: He believed that most Jews were lost, in need of salvation, disobedient, for not accepting the gospel; he believed that they were rejecting the gospel (whether because they were unpersuaded, actively hostile to it, or indifferent about it), but that this was a temporary state for them — they were “bent” branches, as Nanos says, not “broken off” altogether, and would either be righted again during the apostolic missions, or redeemed at the end, by Christ himself. That’s assuming that “all Israel” referred to the Jews. If “all Israel” referred to both the Jews and the northern tribes, as Jason Staples has suggested (and talk about thinking outside the box), Paul may have envisioned the saving of all twelve tribes, of which Gentiles were actually a part. I find either one of those readings (the fourth and fifth listed here) about equally persuasive at the present moment. Regretfully, I remain unconvinced by any variation of the two-covenant reading, though I am glad that someone like Nanos is willing to go to bat for it. He’s one of its better advocates, and we need them.

The Meaning of “All Israel” in Rom 11:26: Five Views Ranked

After reading Jason Staples’ book, The Idea of Israel in Second Temple Judaism, I want to revisit Paul’s argument of Romans 11:25-27, in particular his claim in verse 26 that “all Israel will be saved”:

(25) I want you to understand this mystery: a hardening has come upon part of Israel, until the full number of the Gentiles come in, (26) and so all Israel will be saved; as it is written, “The Deliverer will come from Zion, he will banish ungodliness from Jacob”; (27) “and this will be my covenant with them when I take away their sins.”

What does “all Israel” refer to in Paul’s statement? Here are five possible answers, each ranked on a scale of 0 to 10.

1. The two-covenant reading: Israel in 11:26 refers to the Jews, who don’t need to believe in Christ to be saved (Stendahl, Gaston, Gager). Christianity is a separate path to salvation for Gentiles, not Jews who can be saved as they’ve always been saved, through the Torah. By rights this reading deserves a plausibility score of 0. Paul is clear that salvation comes through Christ alone, and damnation awaits you otherwise, no matter who you are. Not to mention that this view makes no sense of Paul’s sorrow for his fellow Jews  (Rom 9:1-5) and his intention to make them jealous in the section immediately preceding this passage (Rom 11:13-24). But I throw it a bone, since some interpreters (like Stendahl) give it more nuance than others (like Gaston and Gager) whose ecumenical/post-Holocaust sensibilities are so transparent. Plausibility ranking: 1/10.

2. The replacement reading: Israel in 11:26 refers to a spiritual Israel, that is, the church, consisting of Jews and Gentiles who believe in Christ (Wright especially). This reading earns a few points for the reason that Paul does imply that the church is Israel elsewhere, like in Galatians (6:16). The problem is that it makes nonsense of his argument in Romans, where prior to the passage cited at the top, Israel is clearly used in the traditionally ethnic sense — indeed the whole argument of Rom 9-11 is to explain how Gentile inclusion does not threaten Jewish salvation but actually reinforces it. If the ethnic Israel (of Rom 9:1-11:24) has been replaced by a new group just being called by the same name (Rom 11:26), that’s a baby-switcher and doesn’t prove Paul’s case at all. As Jason Staples says, “that would be like telling parents that they needn’t worry about their child’s safety because a substitute child with the same name can be provided.” While it’s true that biblical prophecies and promises are often understood by New Testament authors to be fulfilled in radically revisionist ways, that isn’t the case when the author is going out of his way to argue (at tortured length) why the recipients of the traditional promises have nothing to worry about. On the replacement reading of Rom 11:26 they have plenty to worry about; it’s bad news and hard to take seriously. Plausibility ranking: 4/10.

3. The causal reading: Israel in 11:26 refers to the Jews, who will be saved through jealousy — their jealousy of the Gentiles being saved through the apostolic missions without their co-participation (Sanders, Dunn, Watson). Their resentment will provoke them to reconsider the gospel and become saved, as Paul just argued in the preceding section (Rom 11:13-24). In other words, Jewish disobedience leads to Gentile salvation which in turn leads to Jewish salvation. The Jews still have a chance, and will indeed be ultimately saved (11:26). They are God’s enemy for the time being, but God’s chosen in the end (11:28). This is the most straightforward reading of the text and plausible — meaning that it’s a plausible interpretation of the text as it stands in Romans. As a salvation scheme it wouldn’t have sounded very plausible. Most Jews would have scorned the idea that they would be provoked to accept Jesus Christ because they were jealous of Paul’s success in converting pagans. The proof of the pudding was in the eating: Jews were obviously not being converted en masse as Paul intended. Plausibility ranking: 7/10.

4. The miraculous reading: Israel in 11:26 refers to the Jews, some of whom will be saved as in reading #3 above, through jealousy of the Gentiles during the apostolic missions (Rom 11:13-24), but most of whom will be saved miraculously, by Jesus himself, when he comes again at the end of all things (Rom 11:25-27) (Munck, Tobin, Esler). On this reading, verses 25-27 don’t reinforce verses 13-24; they are a “Part 2” argument. Paul knows good and well that his “jealousy” argument of verses 13-24 is a desperate scheme and not the way things are panning out. His people remain unconvinced by the gospel. So to keep God’s promises to the Chosen intact, he introduces in verses 25-27 a failsafe for any Jews (indeed, most Jews) who continue to reject Christ during the apostolic missions: Christ himself will save the bulk of the Jews in the end, whether by preaching to them directly or miraculously converting them at once. Plausibility ranking: 9/10.

5. The twelve-tribes reading: Israel in 11:26 does not refer to the Jews (readings #1, 3, 4) anymore than it refers to the Gentile dominated Christian church (reading #2). It refers to exactly that — the twelve tribes of Israel, which includes Jews (those like Paul who are descended from the tribes of Judah, Benjamin, and/or Levi) and those from the northern tribes of Israel who are not Jews. This is a new argument from Jason Staples, the foundations of which are laid in his book on Second Temple Judaism. His argument is that the restoration of Israel always, by definition, included more than just the Jews who returned from Babylon, and Paul makes that idea work to his advantage, arguing that since the northern tribes of Israel have become assimilated among the Gentile nations, the only way for Israel’s restoration to happen is for Gentiles to be included among Israel. That’s what the “fullness of the nations” is coming into (Rom 11:25). Says Staples in a blogpost:

“What does Paul mean by ‘fullness of the nations’? Why use that specific phrase? It turns out that phrase appears in one place in Paul’s Bible: when the patriarch Jacob blessed the two sons of Joseph [Ephraim and Manasseh], he declared a greater blessing over Ephraim (which also became another name for the northern kingdom since Ephraim was the ruling tribe), promising that Ephraim’s ‘seed [descendants] will become the fullness of the nations’ (Gen 48:19)… By echoing this distinctive phrase, Paul effectively argues that the plan of God has been hidden in plain sight: northern Israel would become gentile-ified but would then be restored — in the process fulfilling God’s promise to bless the nations through Abraham’s seed.

This reading can satisfactorily answer all questions. The ‘fullness of the nations’ represents the seed of Ephraim (the northern kingdom) assimilated among the gentiles. It enters and is reincorporated in Israel, and this is the means by which not only the Jews but all Israel will be saved. Thus Paul argues that incorporation of gentiles is a necessary part of Israel’s restoration and is in fact evidence of God’s faithfulness to Israel — God will go as far as incorporating gentiles (!) to essentially resurrect Israel from the dead (see Ezekiel 37; Rom 11:15).

“This reading explains how Paul can insist both on the continued special status of Israel while also emphasizing the equal incorporation of believing gentiles in early Christian communities. It also dispenses with the major weaknesses of the other proposals. Unlike the ‘replacement’ view, Paul has not replaced the ethnic understanding of Israel or argued that the gentile church has somehow become a ‘new Israel.’ Instead, the gentiles’ salvation depends on their inclusion in Israel, something that amounts to an ethnic conversion. And unlike the other common scholarly views, Paul has also not redefined ‘Israel’ to more narrowly refer to Jews only but instead continues to keep the broader emphasis on all twelve tribes.”

As I see it, this reading also doesn’t need to rely on the crutch of a “Part 2” miraculous end-time deliverance (reading #4). On the assumption that “all Israel” refers to the Jews, Paul’s “jealousy” scheme (Rom 11:13-24) is hollow since most Jews are not in fact accepting the gospel (out of jealousy or for any reason), and thus most of Israel is not in fact being restored — which is why the Jews require a divine bail-out at the end. But if Paul believes that Gentiles are included in ethnic Israel, then that goes a long way to solving the problem of so many Israelites (supposedly) being left out of the covenant promises. Jews are a subset of Israel; they are not (contrary to what most scholars assume) equivalent to Israel.

My only reservation with Staples’ reading is that it has the whiff of being too clever for its own good. (Sort of like Bruce Chilton’s interpretation of the eucharist.) But I have to admit, his book on second temple Judaism paves the way for it convincingly. I can’t see anything significant that is wrong with it. For now my assessment of his reading is very high. Plausibility ranking: 9/10.

 

Appendix: Romans 11:13-27:

(13) Inasmuch as I am an apostle to the Gentiles, I magnify my ministry (14) in order to make my fellow Jews jealous, and thus save some of them. (15) For if their rejection means the reconciliation of the world, what will their acceptance mean but life from the dead? (16) If the dough offered as first fruits is holy, so is the whole lump; and if the root is holy, so are the branches.

(17) But if some of the branches were broken off, and you, a wild olive shoot, were grafted in their place to share the richness of the olive tree, (18) do not boast over the branches. If you do boast, remember it is not you that support the root, but the root that supports you. (19) You will say, “Branches were broken off so that I might be grafted in.” (20) That is true. They were broken off because of their unbelief, but you stand fast only through faith. So do not become proud, but stand in awe. (21) For if God did not spare the natural branches, neither will he spare you. (22) Note then the kindness and the severity of God: severity toward those who have fallen, but God’s kindness to you, provided you continue in his kindness; otherwise you too will be cut off. (23) And even the others, if they do not persist in their unbelief, will be grafted in, for God has the power to graft them in again. (24) For if you have been cut from what is by nature a wild olive tree, and grafted, contrary to nature, into a cultivated olive tree, how much more will these natural branches be grafted back into their own olive tree.

(25) I want you to understand this mystery: a hardening has come upon part of Israel, until the full number of the Gentiles come in, (26) and so all Israel will be saved; as it is written, “The Deliverer will come from Zion, he will banish ungodliness from Jacob”; (27) “and this will be my covenant with them when I take away their sins.”

(28) As regards the gospel they are enemies of God, for your sake; but as regards election they are beloved for the sake of their forefathers. (29) For the gifts and calling of God are irrevocable.

The Idea of Israel in Second-Temple Judaism

On Facebook I posted a chapter-by-chapter review of Jason Staples’ new book, and here I gather all the entries into a single review. The book’s thesis is that throughout the 2nd Temple period, “Israel” was not an equivalent term for “the Jews”. It’s a solid argument and carries some interesting payoffs.

Chapter 1: Jews and Israelites in Antiquity: The Need for a New Paradigm

In this chapter Staples addresses the traditional assumption, shaped by Karl Kuhn in 1938, that “Israel” is positive insider language while Ioudaios (“Jew”) is negative outsider language. While it’s true that “Israel” is almost never used by an outsider to refer to a Jew, and while Ioudaios almost never occurs in the context of insider prayers, there are too many exceptions and theoretical problems with relying on Kuhn’s general idea. In particular, there’s not a single example of Ioudaios (“Jew”) ever being used as a disparaging term in pre-Christian antiquity. Ioudaios seems to have been the default term used by both insiders and outsiders. Kuhn had essentially explained the difference between “Israel” and “Jew” by superimposing the idiom of Nazi Germany onto antiquity (Kuhn was himself a Nazi). And while Staples (rightly) acknowledges that one “could be an anti-Semite, even a Nazi, and arrive at an accurate scholarly model”, the insider/outsider model really doesn’t account for all the data.

This is of interest to me, since modern scholars like Jack Elliott have actually relied on Kuhn’s model in order to *combat* anti-Semitism in biblical studies. Elliott wrote the well-known essay, “Jesus the Israelite was Neither a Jew Nor a Christian”, arguing that Jesus is properly understood as an Israelite, not a Jew. And for good reason: (1) Jesus identified himself and his associates as Israelites. (2) Jesus never called himself a Ioudaios (“Jew” or “Judean”) and was never designated as such by fellow Israelites. He was called, or thought of as, a Ioudaios (“Jew” or “Judean”) only by non-Israelite outsiders whose terminology was consistent with Hellenistic and Roman practice. (3) His first followers were identified by fellow Israelites also as “Galileans”, “Nazarenes”, or members of “the Way”, but never as “Jews” or “Judeans”. (4) They too, like Jesus, viewed themselves as Israelites. (5) The apostle Paul’s usage is consistent with this pattern. He too prefers “Israel” and “Israelite” as self-identifiers. With an eye to the Israelite fellow believers who are in the audiences of his letters to the Philippians, the Corinthians, and the Romans, he identifies himself as an “Israelite”. With an eye to his Gentile readers, on the other hand, he can also identify himself, as a concession to their nomenclature, as a Ioudaios. Elliott’s essay, to me, still carries persuasive power. We’ll see if I remain persuaded by the end of Staples’ book. [See the end of the review, where I return to the subject.]

Staples concludes the first chapter by taking his cue not from Kuhn but Josephus, who shifts from using “Israelite” (in Antiquities 1-11) to Ioudaios (“Jew”) (in Antiquities 11-20, Apion 1-2, Life, and War 1-7). “It would of course be absurd,” says Staples, “to conclude that this terminological shift is because Josephus wrote the first eleven books of Antiquities to an insider audience but the rest of his corpus for outsiders.” The shift is rather because Josephus is narrating a linear history, and after the point of the Babylonian Exile, the group in view has changed: only a subset of Israelites returned to the promised land — the two tribes of Judah and Benjamin, plus Levites. For Josephus, “Israelites” is no longer appropriate, because the Ioudaioi (“Jews”) are a subset of people within the whole house of Israel. Jews are Israelites, but not all Israelites are Jews. “In its broader sense, the term ‘Jew” includes those specifically from the tribe of Judah and at least Levites and Benjaminites.” Jospephus believes that the bulk of Israel never returned from exile.

Chapter 2: The Other Israelites

Staples shows further how “Israelite” and “Jew” weren’t equivalent through the examples of Israelites who were not understood to be Ioudaioi (Jews) despite scholars who say otherwise. In particular, the idea that Samaritans were a variety of Jews, or apostate Jews, or a Jewish sect is “a non-sequitur, akin to treating Canada as a part of the United States or Presbyterianism as part of the Church of England.” Josephus, for example, does regard Samaritans as apostates or imposters, but of Israel, not of the Jews, and he goes out of his way to clarify that neither the Ioudaioi (Jews) or the Samaritans themselves identify Samaritans as some breed of Ioudaioi (Jews).

Then there were the “Hebrews”, a linguistic label referring to either the ancient biblical Hebrews, who spoke either Hebrew or Aramaic, or to later speakers of a Semitic tongue: “When not referring to biblical figures, this term was most typically used of those Ioudaioi (Jews) who remained Semitic speakers, typically those living in Palestine. Not all Jews were Hebrews, as most Jews in the disapora were Hellenes rather than Hebraioi. Likewise, not all Hebrews were Jews, as the Samaritans in the land are an example of the former but not the latter.”

A sidebar from all of this what Paul means when he uses Hebraios on two occasions (2 Cor 11:22 and Philip 3:5), each time in order to assert his authority relative to rival apostles. Staples suggests that by claiming to be a Hebrew, Paul is saying that he can speak Hebrew and Aramaic — that he can read the Torah in its original language and speak in Jesus’ native tongue.

I have no real problems with anything in this chapter. Staples is right to reverse the commonly accepted idea. Those who called themselves “Israelites” in the 2nd-Temple period don’t fall under the umbrella of “Judaism”. It’s rather that “Judaism”, like “Samaritanism”, were “sects of a more broadly imagined ‘Israelism’.”

Chapter 3: Judah’s Bible and Biblical Israel

In this chapter Staples critiques the scholarly default-reading of the Old Testament, namely that since the northern Israelites had disappeared after being taken away by the Assyrians, the biblical writers and editors took the liberty of appropriating the term “Israel” and equating it with the people of Judah (later Judea) in their construction of biblical Israel. In other words, Judah became Israel after the fall of the northern kingdom.

That view admittedly has intuitive appeal, since the Hebrew Bible was edited from the perspective of the southern Judahites. But to the attentive reader, says Staples, that only highlights the true oddity — that the Bible “grapples with and constructs not Judahite/Jewish identity but Israelite identity, consistently constructing a biblical Israel larger than the Jews alone… Far from appropriating the full heritage of Israel or constructing a post-exilic Israel comprised of a remnant from Judah, the biblical stories construct, emphasize, and idealize a unified twelve-tribe Israel and lament its broken state, regularly depicting Judah as incomplete without its northern counterpart.”

The Hebrew Bible is thus “the great metanarrative of deportation, exile, and potential return” (Robert Carroll). The Torah, the Deuteronomist histories, and Chronicles “position their readers and their communities in a liminal position awaiting Israel’s restoration”. They do this by “establishing a continual reminder of the broken circumstances of the present, constructing an Israel *not* realized in the present… Put another way, at the root of exilic and post-exilic Judaism we find not a redefinition of Israel limited to Jews/Judahites, but a theology looking backward to biblical Israel and forward to a divinely orchestrated future restoration of Israel far exceeding the small return of Jews in the Persian period.”

Deuteronomy, for example, has a clear pattern of obedience and blessing, disobedience and chastening, return and mercy, exile and restoration. It doesn’t establish a new Israel limited to Jews, as often supposed, but rather the essential unity of the twelve tribes — promising the restoration and return of Israel much larger in scope than the Jew refugees from Babylon. This isn’t a Judean appropriation of Israel.

Likewise, the narratives of Samuel and Kings don’t appropriate Israel or legitimate Judah, but rather underscore the incompleteness of Israel in the present and point to future redress, by “constructing an Israel that once was, now is not, and is to come.”

At first blush the narratives of Chronicles seem different with their anti-northern bias. They heap disproportionate blame on the northern tribes and Jeroboam I instead of Solomon. They focus on the southern tribes of Judah, Benjamin, and Levi — suggesting to many scholars that these three tribes, in the Chronicler’s view, have become heirs to all of Israel’s heritage. Staples shows however that the Chronicler is actually open-minded to the north and concerned for their plight, and like the Deuteronomist histories upholds the ideal of a restored and reunited twelve-tribe Israel. The Chronicler, to be sure, gives that hope a different thrust: Deuteronomy and the books of Samuel/Kings rely on a model of accumulated sin and decline; the Chronicler presents a more immediate system of reward/punishment and repentance/restoration — “a model consistent with the concept of individual (rather than intergenerational) responsibility”. The theology isn’t uniform but the central grammar of discourse (restoration eschatology) is shared in all these Old Testament books.

As I read Staples’ arguments hand in hand with the biblical text, I don’t sense any hoodwinking. It may be, as he suggests, that the Hebrew Bible narratives “consistently place the reader in the implied context of exile, in a place awaiting reconciliation”. But part of me wonders if this business is being exaggerated. I’m thinking of Tom Wright’s work in New Testament studies which overplays the idea of first-century Palestinian Jews — especially figures like Jesus and Paul — feeling like they were in exile just because they lived under Roman rule. Is Staples arguing for a Wright-like paradigm on slightly different terms?

Chapter 4: Between Disaster and Restoration: The Prophets

A fairly straightforward chapter arguing that the prophets function overall like the Torah and historical narratives, putting the reader “in the liminal space between the tragedy of divine wrath and the reconciliation through divine mercy”, in other words, reinforcing hopes for the reunification of the tribes that were scattered by Assyria no less than the tribes scattered by Babylon.

This is seen in seven of the twelve minor prophets (Hosea, Amos, Jonah, Micah, Nahum, Zechariah, and Malachi) and also in the major prophets (Isaiah, Jeremiah, and Ezekiel). In the case of Isaiah, Staples refutes the common view that the idea of “Israel” becomes restricted as one moves from First to Second to Third Isaiah — from a broad vision of Israel chapters 1-39, to a narrower vision in chapters 40-55, and even narrower in chapters 56-66. [First Isaiah was written during Isaiah’s lifetime, 740-700 BCE, with some later editions; Second Isaiah during the Babylonian Exile, between 587-539 BCE; and Third Isaiah was written after the Jews (descendants from the tribes of Judah, Benjamin, and Levi) returned from Babylon to Judah in 538 BCE.] The obvious problem with the “narrowing” view of Israel in the Three Isaiahs is that premodern readers assumed a unified authorship (they didn’t read the Bible like modern historical critics) and so would have naturally read all references to “Israel” in (what we call) Second and Third Isaiah in the same broad sense used in First Isaiah. Not only that, says Staples, there’s no evidence for the assumed shifts of meaning in any case. Historical critics should read the entirety of Isaiah as the ancients did. While it’s true that Second and Third Isaiah are concerned with Zion/Jerusalem/Judah, that doesn’t mean the term “Israel” only refers to those points. The Israel-became-Judah theory assumes what it needs to prove.

Chapter 5: Israel’s Incomplete, Failed, and Delayed Restoration

A meaty chapter that sticks it in the eye of scholarly consensus, and sure to generate controversy. The first half covers Ezra and Nehemiah and the second half 1 and 2 Maccabees.

The academic consensus for Ezra and Nehemiah is this: The two books portray Israel’s restoration. The temple is rebuilt and the returned exiles from Babylon — that is, the southern tribes of Judah, Benjamin, and Levi — now constitute “Israel” while the “people of the land” are foreigners to be avoided and not married. The first problem with this consensus view, says Staples, is that to equate the Jews (the descendants of the southern tribes) with Israel “represents an uncritical acceptance of Ezra-Nehemiah’s argument and application of that perspective to the historical situation”. The second problem is that treating the events of Ezra-Nehemiah as the restoration or end of exile runs counter to both (a) the message of Ezra-Nehemiah itself and (b) how Ezra-Nehemiah was interpreted throughout the second temple period. It’s true that the books of Ezra and Nehemiah narrate many *attempts* to restore and redefine Israel, but the books make clear that those attempts failed and kept restoration a future dream. There is no “realized eschatology” in Ezra-Nehemiah, contrary to the consensus view.

Staples suggests that Ezra 3:12-13a — the people’s response to the laying of the foundation of the temple — is a fitting summary of the emotional response in general that runs throughout Ezra and Nehemiah: many weep, many shout for joy, so that no one can distinguish the shouts of joy from the sounds of weeping. The return to the land and rebuilding of Jerusalem and the temple are important events, but they also leave a hell of a lot to be desired, falling short of the golden age promised by the prophets.

The completion and dedication of the second temple in Ezra highlights its inferiority when compared to the first temple erected under Solomon. Solomon’s temple was dedicated with a huge feast of 22,000 oxen and 120,000 sheep; the second temple only with 100 bulls, 200 rams, and 400 lambs. Unlike Solomon’s temple, the second involved a sin offering (of twelve male goats), “underscoring the incompleteness of Israel and the continued hopes of a fuller (twelve-tribe) restoration. The returnees from Babylon thereby serve as the vanguard on behalf of the rest of Israel, whose restoration appears to depend on this atoning work.” And finally, unlike Solomon’s temple, there was the absence of any sign of God’s approval of the second temple.

Worth noting is that the people of the land, to say the least, could hardly have had warm and fuzzy feelings for the new temple regime, especially after having offered to help the Jews in their rebuilding efforts only to be given the cold shoulder. As Staples says, the Jews’ rejection of help shows that they didn’t regard the people of the land to be legitimate Israelites, even if the people identified themselves as Yahwists or Israelites (as surely those from Samaria, the descendants of Ephraim and Manasseh, did). They were seen as rejected by God, rebels and idolaters, squatters on the land, and their shrines as illegitimate places of sacrifice.

Basically, I read Staples as arguing that the narratives of Ezra and Nehemiah show a tension between desire and result, which accounts for why these books want to have their cake and eat it — that is, to imply that the Jews (the descendants of Judah, Benjamin, and Levi) are “Israel” while also implying that Israel extends far beyond the Jewish community. Each episode of Ezra and Nehemiah begins in the hope of restoration and ends in failure and disappointment, and each failure leads to a cranking up of purification efforts, especially in the defensive marriage strategies (to wed only Jews). Ezra’s procession to the land (around the time of Passover) was aimed at fulfilling restoration prophecies, but his efforts failed. Nehemiah’s mission to rebuild the walls of Jerusalem was actually a clear acknowledgment that restoration was far away (from prophecies like Zechariah’s that “Jerusalem will be inhabited without walls”). Etc.

And it is these repeated failures, concludes Staples, that provide the wider context in which Ezra and Nehemiah limit the term “Israel” to the Jewish exiles over against the people of the land. But that’s not the same thing as limiting “Israel” to the Jews in general (descendants of Judah, Benjamin, and Levi) in the way usually understood. “The Jewish returnees are the sole legitimate representatives of Israel *in the land*. They are the vanguard of Israel’s restoration, having separated themselves not only from the nations but also from other Yahwists in the land, all apparently in the hopes that the remainder of Israel would be restored under Jerusalem’s authority.”

Turning to the Hasmoneans, the case of 1 Maccabees is the exception proving the rule. Unlike all the other literature examined up to this point, 1 Maccabees uses Israel language more or less synonymously with “the Jews”. And yet on closer examination, Staples finds that even here, Israel is used in relation to restoration hopes. The military successes of the Hasmoneans against Gentile oppressors function in a similar way to the southern tribes returning to the land and the temple being rebuilt in Ezra-Nehemiah: I Maccabees, like those books, appropriates “Israel” in the belief that the promised restoration is almost taking place, though far from complete. I Maccabees appropriates the term even more so, so that “Israel” and “the Jews” are indeed almost equivalent; yet, as Staples emphasizes, not even I Maccabees supports the insider-outsider distinction as Kuhn thought (see chapter 1 above). For in I Maccabees, Ioudaios (“Jew”) is frequently used as insider term. The upshot for I Maccabees, is that while “Israel” and “Judah/Judea” mean very close to the same thing (and that is exceptional), the Judah/Judea/Jew language is the default “when speaking in a more mundane register”, while the Israel language is invoked to make a precise point that Judah/Judea under Hasmonean rule is fulfilling God’s promises about the restoration of Israel.

As a sidebar, I’ll note that I’m not surprised I Maccabees is exceptional in the way that Staples finds. It’s exceptional in other ways too, notably for being the only book (in the Catholic and Orthodox bibles anyway) that validates holy war in a prescriptive sense — to enforce the Jewish religion by force of arms. (The holy wars of Joshua, by contrast, aren’t presented as prescriptive or patterns to follow; nor do the armies of Joshua subjugate their foes by forcing Israelite religion on them.) Unlike 2 Maccabees, which teaches the superior resistance acts of spiritual protest and martyrdom — and unlike Daniel which (even better) is about the supreme faith that leaves the rightings of all wrongs to God — I Maccabees prescribes Taliban-esque violence and sacralizes warfare.

2 Maccabees of course was written much later than I Maccabees, takes a much dimmer view of the Hasmoneans, and even holds a measure of respect for “rebel” Yawhist groups like the Samaritans. It seems to recognize the Samaritans’ claim to Israelite heritage, “even if they are not at present united with (or under) Judah as the Jewish author believes they should be”. Staples finds that “Israel” in 2 Maccabees functions as it does in all the other literature and not as it does in I Maccabees. Here, Judah/Judea is not synonymous with Israel; it’s but a part of Israel, the full restoration of which lies in the future.

The chapter concludes urging that when we hear the word “Israel” in Jewish literature of the Second Temple period — even in the odd-ball case of I Maccabees — “our ears should be primed for eschatological, messianic, or theological-political claims”, and that conclusion seems sound.

Chapter 6: Exile and Diaspora Theology

This chapter shoots down more consensus views, this time pertaining to Jews in the diaspora, who supposedly discarded restoration eschatology. That view depends on two pillars: (1) that the Septuagint weakens the negative prophetic view of the exile in favor of a new “Hellenistic optimism”; (2) that the passage of time changed the perspective of those who voluntarily remained outside the land (unlike those captured and forced into exile) and prospered in stable communities. Staples knocks over these pillars with relative ease.

In the first place, neither the Septuagint or later Hellenistic Jewish literature dilutes what the prophets said about exile. They present the diaspora as a sign of judgment based on the Torah’s curses. It’s true that the Septuagint amplifies the concept of injustice of the nations toward Israel and Judah, but not to soften the prophetic passages that declare exile to be a divine punishment. “Like Zechariah, the Septuagint holds these two together as complimentary rather than incompatible.” And in any case, the idea of the nations being unjustly oppressive isn’t a “positive” or “optimistic” theology. The first pillar rests on sand.

With the regards to the second and more plausible pillar, it only sounds more plausible but really depends on caricature. Staples cites Eric Gruen as representative of the problem, as Gruen writes (speaking for many scholars): “It’s not easy to imagine that millions of ancient Jews dwelt in foreign parts for generations mired in misery and obsessed with a longing for Jerusalem that had little chance of fulfillment. To imagine that they repeatedly lamented their fate and pinned their hopes on the recovery of the homeland is quite preposterous.” But that’s just caricature and Staples rightly refutes it.

For obviously, just because Jews had thrived and acculturated in the diaspora doesn’t mean they replaced traditional restoration eschatology with a (supposed) positive universalist diaspora theology. Says Staples: “Evidence of prosperity is insufficient to come to such a sweeping conclusion; to suggest otherwise reflects a startlingly consumerist perspective.” As an example, Staples uses American Christian Evangelicals, who adhere to apocalyptic theology (that characterizes the present world as evil) while also being prosperous, politically active, and well integrated into secular society.

I’d suggest another example: Muslim jihadists who adhere to (mainstream) holy-war doctrine (the necessity of killing infidels and/or dying while trying to kill them, to be rewarded in paradise) though many of them are wealthy and some even well integrated into secular societies. (The idea that jihadists are usually poor and uneducated has been disproven.) To imagine that jihadists living in the secularized west experience everyday life in a state of anxious bloodthirst is as much a caricature as to imagine diaspora Jews constantly and miserably longing for the return to the promised land. But, as Staples says, it’s equally absurd to assume that social integration means the traditional values have been discarded.

A solid chapter that corrects naive understandings about the diaspora Jews.

Chapter 7: Israel, the Jews, and Restoration in Josephus

In his chapter on Josephus, Staples makes a comment which I enjoyed, namely that “it’s difficult to escape the sense that many of Josephus’ modern interpreters desperately want him to be positive about the diaspora and latch onto any possible indication of such a view, ignoring all evidence to the contrary.” Start reading the Qur’an and Hadith critically, and you’ll feel the same way about interpreters of Muhammad. They desperately want him to be positive (and peaceful) about all sorts of things. It’s hardly novel to point out that in the field of historical criticism a scholar is as likely to be led by his conclusions rather than to them, but it never gets any less exasperating.

The view that Josephus, as a Roman shill, was positive about the disapora is shown by Staples to be without foundation. He was prudently vague and subtle so as not to provoke his Roman patrons, but he repeatedly implies that Roman rule will be temporary and followed by the righteous rule of Israel. And he was clever and coy enough that Jewish readers would have understood him as saying that, while Roman readers (like many of our modern scholars) would have seen him saying the opposite. For example, in Antiquities 10, he cites Daniel’s prediction of the desolation of the temple by Antiochus Epiphanes and then goes on about Daniel’s writing “about the Roman empire, and that it would be desolated by them”. According to Staples, Josephus is being “deliciously ambiguous” here, as Roman would have understood ‘it’ as the temple and ‘them’ as the Romans, while Jewish readers familiar with Dan 9:26 and connecting it with the stone of Nebuchadnezzar’s dream (mentioned already by Josephus) would have known that Josephus was referring to the destruction of the Roman empire by a restored Israel.

In other places he appears just as subtle, as in Antiquities 11 where he speaks of the “two tribes now subject to the Romans [the Jewish ones, Judah and Benjamin]” and then writes: “But the ten tribes are beyond Euphrates until now and a re a boundless multitude, not to be estimated by numbers”. Rome may have subjugated the Jews, but the rest of Israel is beyond their control and dominion, and Josephus’ sly point here is that eventually even Roman power won’t be able to prevail against this “boundless multitude”.

I agree with Staples that Josephus didn’t take pride in the diaspora, but rather in “the superiority of the Jewish people’s laws and customs that gave them fortitude in spite of their calamities.” He didn’t reject restoration theology, just the opposite, but advocated a quiet version of it, as he wanted the Jews to serve their Roman masters while waiting patiently for the restored kingdom of Israel. In that sense, suggests Staples, Josephus was a lot like Jesus and Paul, urging his Jewish readers to “wait it out” and shun the violent insurrectionist approaches of any would-be messiahs on the make. I had never thought of it like that, but yeah, it seems about right.

Chapter 8: Israel and Restoration in Philo

Acknowledging the writings of Philo as complex, Staples nevertheless nails him down pretty well, and offers a corrective to the majority of scholars who tend to glide over Philo’s interest in practical nationalism and ethnic heritage, or who (like interpreters of Josephus) believe that Philo thought of the diaspora in positive terms.For example, Philo’s discussion of the Babel story makes clear that diaspora is a form of destruction (“to disperse is the cause of bad things”), though God uses it for redemptive purposes, and once the diaspora has done its dirty work, Israel’s restoration will follow. Staples largely follows E.P. Sanders’s view — for all Philo’s allegorizing, he never gave up on eschatology.

Philo’s treatise On Rewards and Punishment puts the matter beyond doubt, really. It’s an exposition of Lev 26 and Deut 28-30, retelling the biblical stories and urging his readers not to despair over the long-delayed restoration and rescue from the diaspora, but to obey the Torah, as collective Torah obedience will trigger the overflow of eschatological blessings. Granted that Philo is speaking of a virtuous transformation of the soul, but that’s not incompatible with a literal return of all the tribes of Israel. For Philo they go hand in hand, and indeed he specifies that the restorative promises apply to those scattered “in Greece and barbarian lands”.

The chapter gets interesting toward the end. Staples first shows that like Josephus, Philo doesn’t use “Israelite” as synonymous with “Jew”. “Israel” is an aspirational identity tied to restoration, and the relationship between God and Israel is portrayed differently that the relationship between God and the Jews. For Philo, “Israel is a class of virtuous people who embody the principles of the Torah and have come to see God” — but as long as the disapora reigns, Israel doesn’t.

The Jews, on the other hand, while a subset of Israel, are not *all* necessarily part of Israel, and this is something I never fully appreciated: just how close Philo is to the apostle Paul. Like Paul, Philo believes that some of the Jews have been “cut off” from Israel due to disobedience, while proselytes (Gentile converts) who follow Abraham’s example can be incorporated into Israel. Branches may be cut from the tree, “but the tree will always be preserved, with new shoots regenerating it to life”. The restoration of Israel isn’t the exclusive heritage of the Jews. The only difference I can see between this scheme and Paul’s (in Rom 9-11) is, as Staples says, that Paul goes a step further than Philo in doing away with circumcision and Torah-identity as a requirement for Gentile proselytes.

Staples’s book doesn’t cover the New Testament ideas of Israel, but he does have a sequel slated for publication this summer, Paul and the Resurrection of Israel, and it’s not hard to see where he’s going with Romans 9-11.

Interlude: The Introduction

Before moving on to chapter 9, I want to go back to the beginning of the book, since I skipped over the introduction, where Staples presents his reasons for translating the Greek word Ioudaios as “Jew” (as most do) instead of “Judean” (as some scholars prefer). In the past I have argued strongly for the “Judean” translation, so I feel I should comment.

It’s curious that Staples objects to “Judean” given his thesis. The point that he (correctly) drives home, chapter after chapter, is a point that is rarely recognized or acknowledged in modern scholarship, namely that “the distinction between Jews and northern Israelites persists with surprising regularity in the literature of the Second Temple period” (see p 315 for example). But that’s precisely one of the reasons scholars prefer to translate Ioudaios as “Judean” rather than “Jew”. “Judean” intrinsically distinguishes itself from the northern tribes. “Jews”, as we tend to think of them, refer to the adherents of beliefs and practices associated with the Mishnah rather than the temple cult of Judea, and it was only by the third century CE that “Judaism” (as we tend to think of it), really emerged — that is, a common pattern of religion irrespective of locale. The predecessors of the Jews, the Judeans, were localized and provincial, with a different pattern of religion based on the temple cult. And that doesn’t depend on a false distinction between ethnicity and religion, as Staples worries about. He writes in the intro:

“The attempt to distinguish between religion and ethnicity is anachronistic… There was no transition from ‘Judean’ ethnicity to ‘Jewish’ religion.” (pp 17, 19)

Of course not. I agree completely. But this objection is a bit of a smokescreen. The anachronism is a straw man. Some scholars may argue for the “Judean” translation on that basis, but not all do, and I never have. On the contrary, “Judean” is preferable for the reasons I stated above, and also — now that I think about it, and quite ironically — because it would probably enable more scholars to see what Staples wants them to see: the distinction preserved in the 2nd-Temple literate between Ioudaioi (“Judeans”) and northern Israelites.

That said, this isn’t a hill I want to die on. I’ve lost the will to go to bat for the “Judean” translation, for pragmatic reasons. It’s not only scholars who read my blog; many non-academics read it too, and while they’re a smart bunch, many feel like I’m pulling some kind of trick by saying that “Jews didn’t exist until the third century”. Even when I spell out that nothing substantive is being lost — that instead of plotting the history of “Israelites–>Jews” we should be viewing it as “Israelites–>Judeans–>Jews” — it’s perceived that an oblique agenda is at work. And I don’t want to write in a language that disorientates my readers. I also believe in bridging the scholarly ivory towers with the masses. From that point of view, re-writing our bibles to replace every instance of “Jew” with “Judean” is too impractical. So nowadays, instead of insisting on the trajectory of “Israelites–>Judeans–>Jews” I just go with “Israelites–>2nd-Temple Jews–>Rabbinic Jews”.

So that’s my hypocritical critique of Staples on translating Ioudaios.

Chapter 9: Exile and Restoration in the Dead Sea Scrolls

Turning now to the sect behind the Dead Sea Scrolls, Staples gives a lengthy treatment of these “exiles within the exile” — “exiles from rebellious Judah within the continuing exile of Israel”. They had withdrawn to the wilderness (the “new Sinai”), some to the desert region along the Dead Sea at Qumran, others to places that cannot be determined. From wherever in the wilderness they made their nest, they lived austere lives preparing for the coming of God. Thoroughly disgusted with the wickedness in the land of Judah, they had turned their backs on that wickedness to rejoin the larger body of Israel that had remained in exile ever since the Assyrians deported them. So while they consisted of the southern tribes of Judah, Benjamin, and Levi (Levites were the leaders) they never identified themselves collectively as “Judah”; the text at one point says that the sect is “in Judah”, but not actually “Judah”.

Nor, argues Staples, did these members see themselves as constituting “true Israel”, as often supposed. Israel was yet to return. These members were a vanguard — “the vanguard of a return to virtue and obedience that would eventually culminate in the restoration of the twelve tribes, with all the nations subjugated to Israel.” And yet, all the same, they were already a *part* of “true Israel”. Unlike most of the literature covered by Staples, the Dead Sea Scrolls don’t restrict the word “Israel” to the biblical past and/or the apocalyptic future; they portray the sect as already participating in the apocalyptic future — a realized eschatology made possible by following the levitical Teacher of Righteousness: “Although the full restoration has not yet occurred, the sect is the breakthrough, the leading edge of the divine moment.” Its members are already fulfilling the Deuteronomic requirements for restoration, and as such they have become the necessary atonement to trigger the restoration. They were part of “true Israel” already, but not to be strictly identified as such.

Thus, these southern tribes composing the righteous remnant will ultimately be joined by the “exiles of the sons of light from the wilderness of the peoples”, meaning the northern Israelites — the significance of which Staples believes has been widely missed in the scholarship of the Dead Sea Scrolls.

Chapter 10: Israel, Jews, and Restoration in Tobit and Judith

Tobit and Judith should IMO have been included in the bible (not just the Catholic and Orthodox), if for no other reason to ensure wider readership of some entertaining literature. They were written by Jews long after the Jewish return from Babylon (early 2nd century BCE for Tobit, late 2nd century BCE for Judith), though each story takes place before both exiles, during the Assyrian period, and in a northern Israelite setting. Staples highlights things about them that are often unappreciated.

The book of Tobit is emphatic that one should preserve one’s tribal identity by not marrying outsiders, but Staples points out the overlooked implication, that this means shunning Jews as well, for the protagonists aren’t Jewish. “If Sarah were to marry a Jewish man, that would be as much a tragedy in this narrative as if she were to marry a Gentile.” She should marry an Israelite, and in particular a Naphtali Israelite.

Basically Tobit reassures its readers that Israel’s restoration is on the way, provided that a faithful remnant of Naphtali exists to be restored. Endogamy is the key to keeping the tribe alive. The story is a survival story and a clear model for any of the twelve tribes to follow, including the Jewish ones who are the book’s audience. As in the other 2nd-Temple literature surveyed by Staples, the Jewish return from Babylon is not understood to have ended the exile. It was a “partial mercy” at best; the “times of fulfillment” await in the future, when all Israel — all twelve tribes — will be regathered and restored.

Moving onto Judith… I love that Staples calls this book an alternate-history revenge fantasy that Quentin Tarantino could have written. You know, the revisionist histories in which arch-villains get shafted: Inglourious Basterds, where Adolf Hitler is burned down in a theater by the French Jewess; and Once Upon a Time in Hollywood, where Sharon Tate is not killed by the Manson Sisters (they are instead brutally killed by the film’s protagonists). In the case of Judith, the Assyrian general Holofernes is decapitated by a Jewess whose home he is about to destroy — a ludicrous but deliciously thrilling fantasy.

There’s more. “Judith” means “Lady Jew,” but she’s actually not a Jew, rather a northern Israelite from the tribe of Simeon. She personifies “Israel” and is a stand-in for Jews who are the book’s audience. Likewise, Nebuchadnezzar is portrayed as the king of the Assyrians, but he was really the king of Babylon; he personifies the tyrants who brought down northern Israel and southern Judah, just as the Seleucid tyrants were (right before Judith was written) trying to bring down the Jewish Hasmonean kingdom (between 140 – 116 BCE). Nebuchadnezzar and the Assyrians are stand-ins for the Seleucids.

Staples suggests that the book of Judith is like I Maccabees. Just as the Maccabean military victories against the Seleucids initiated an age of righteousness, Judith’s actions — her deceit and seduction and decapitation of Holofernes — are portrayed as righteous, and also work for the benefit of Israelites (in the story), meaning for the benefit of Jews (whom the story is really about). Exceptionally, “Israel” and “the Jews” are almost (though not quite) synonymous, and Judith’s actions (like the Taliban-esque warfare depicted in I Maccabees) are portrayed in a positive light. The difference between I Maccabees and Judith is that “Israel” and “the Jews” are actually equated in the former, but made equivalent in the latter. As Staples says, the Assyrian period framing has the effect of connecting contemporary faithful Jews with their Israelite forebears. In any case, it’s an exceptional use of “Israel” in 2nd Temple literature.

Chapter 11: Israel in the Apocalyptic Literature

I’d never realized that the term “Jew” (Ioudaios) is almost completely absent from the apocalyptic literature of the 2nd Temple period — The Wisdom of Ben Sira, Psalms of Solomon, Testaments of the Twelve Patriarchs, Baruch, IV Ezra, 2 Baruch, and Testament of Moses. Staples covers all of these, and finds, in keeping with the pattern set forth in most of literature he covers in the book, that these apocalyptic texts set the reader in the “liminal space between exile and restoration of the twelve tribes”, on the brink of receiving God’s promises but unable to enter for now.

The term “Israel”, in all these texts, also matches the pattern found in most of the other 2nd Temple literature (except for I Maccabees and Judith), referring to either the unified biblical Israel of the past, the northern tribes, the “people of God” in prayer or liturgy, or the restored Israel of the future. Never “the Jews”, who are a small subset of Israel.

Staples is careful to stress particular variances across these texts. For example, the Testament of Moses is more like the biblical prophets and Josephus in the way it portrays the northern tribes as multiplying and increasing in huge numbers among the nations of their exile. IV Ezra, on the other hand, is more like Tobit, in that the gathering of Israel will not be from among the nations, but rather from more distant regions where the northern tribes had withdrawn to in order to preserve their tribal heritage.

Chapter 12: Bringing it all Together

The biggest takeaways of this book:

1. With only a couple exceptions (I Maccabees and Judith), “Israel” isn’t equivalent to “the Jews” in the 2nd Temple period. The latter is a subset of the former.

2. There’s no evidence that “Israelite” should be understood as an insider term, and “Jew” an outsider term. There are plenty of instances where “Jew” is used by insiders to refer to themselves.

3. “Israel” usually refers to either (a) the northern tribes or (b) the twelve-tribe covenant people who will be regathered and restored. (Also sometimes to (c) the unified biblical Israel of the past, or (d) the diachronic “people of God” in prayer and liturgy.)

4. “Jew” refers to the subset of Israel derived from the kingdom of Judah, either by descent, marriage, or proselytism/conversion. However, since the kingdom of Judah included other tribes (esp. Benjamin and Levi), the term “Jew” does extra duty as a tribal label and umbrella term including those other tribes.

Staples makes a pretty damn convincing case IMO, and given that most scholars assume the equivalence of “Israel” and “the Jews”, I will be watching closely for academic reviews of the book. There are none as of yet.

And yes, to bite the bullet, I’m convinced that the insider/outside distinction should be discarded. However, it may be that Jack Elliott is right for the wrong reason. On Staples’ reading, the only reason to regard Jesus as a Jew is because of the testimony that Jesus descended from the tribe of Judah (in the Gospels, Hebrews, and Revelation). But if that lineage is a Christological fiction (which isn’t unreasonable to suppose), then the historical Jesus, as a Galilean, may have descended from a northern tribe, and perhaps that’s why he refers to himself in the gospels as an Israelite but not a Jew. I can see many a historical-Jesus scholar leaning in that direction.

RIP: Tribute to E.P. Sanders

The passing of E.P. Sanders hits hard. It was exactly 32 years ago, during my trimester college break (between Thanksgiving and New Year’s) that I first read Paul and Palestinian Judaism, just “for the fun of it”, on the recommendation of a college professor who thought my view of Paul was a bit too Lutheran and I could do better. It was my first biblical-studies book that I read seriously, cover to back, and I learned immensely from it — what the field was really like, and what biblical scholars actually do in pursuing exegesis over eisegesis. I would be reading more of Sanders in the near future.

His impact on New Testament studies is almost legendary by this point. He dismantled caricatures of Judaism and reframed Paul and Jesus accordingly, and here I provide some exemplary citations. If they’re not my “favorite” Sanders quotes, they’re close to that, and I believe they largely stand the test of time.

1. Covenantal Nomism (Pharisees/Rabbis’ view of the law). In 1977 Sanders unpacked rabbinical Judaism, ideas of which probably came from the Pharisees of Jesus and Paul’s day. His book rightly argued that it’s illegitimate to use Judaism as a legalistic foil. He summarized the pattern of rabbinic religion as follows:

“God has chosen Israel and Israel has accepted the election. In his role as King, God gave Israel commandments which they are to obey as best they can. Obedience is rewarded and disobedience punished. In the case of failure to obey, however, man has recourse to divinely ordained means of atonement, in all of which repentance is required. As long as he maintains his desire to stay in the covenant, he has a share in God’s covenantal promises, including life in the world to come. The intention and effort to be obedient constitute the condition for remaining in the covenant, but they do not earn it.

Only by overlooking this large pattern can the Rabbis be made to appear as legalists in the narrow and pejorative sense of the word. Their legalism falls within a larger context of gracious election and assured salvation. In discussing disobedience and obedience, punishment and reward, they were not dealing with how man is saved, but with how man should act and how God will act within the framework of the covenant. They did not think that they earned their place in the covenant by the number of commandments fulfilled. Nor did they think that the transgression of more commandments than were fulfilled would damn them.” (Paul and Palestinian Judaism, pp 180-181)

2. The Solution Precedes the Problem (Paul’s view of the law). Then turning to Paul in the same book, he famously argued that the apostle’s thought ran backwards, from “solution to plight”:

“It seems likely that Paul’s thought did not run from plight to solution, but rather from solution to plight. The attempts to argue that Romans 7 shows the frustration which Paul felt during his life a a practicing Jew have mostly been given up, and … it may be further observed, on the basis of Philip 3, that Paul did not, while ‘under the law’, perceive himself to have a ‘plight’ from which he needed salvation…

“Paul’s logic seems to have run like this: in Christ God has acted to save the world; therefore the world is in need of salvation; but God also gave the law; if Christ is given for salvation, it must follow that the law could not have been; is the law then against the purpose of God as revealed in the Christ? No, it has the function of consigning everyone to sin so that everyone could be saved by God’s grace in Christ… Since salvation is in Christ, therefore all other ways to salvation are wrong… It seems to me completely impossible to make the argument run the other way, beginning with an anthropological analysis which shows in advance that humans are bound over to sin because of the desire to save themselves.” (Paul and Palestinian Judaism, pp 443, 475)

Returning to Paul six years later, he took on the complexities of Paul’s theology, developing his “solution-to-plight” case more thoroughly. Romans 7:7-25 notwithstanding, Saul the Pharisee had no problems being righteoused by the law, as Paul the Christian now brazenly admits in Philip 3:6. Sanders believed that Philip 3:4b-6 is a key passage to understanding Paul’s critique of the law:

“Paul does not say that boasting in status and achievement was wrong because boasting is the wrong attitude, but that he boasted in things that were gain. They became loss because in his black and white world, there is no second best. His criticism of his former life is not that he was guilty of the attitudinal sin of self-righteousness, but that he put confidence in something other than faith in Jesus Christ.” (Paul, the Law, and the Jewish People, p 44)

3. Prophet vs. Teacher (the historical Jesus). Sanders was the first to convince me that the historical Jesus was less an ethical and moral teacher, and more a prophet who expected the end of the world fairly soon, and who acquired a following primarily through his success as an exorcist-healer. I liked the way he toyed with Morton Smith’s eccentric ideas of “Jesus the Magician”, clearly of the mind that Smith went too far with his thesis, but giving it more credence than reconstructions of Jesus that made him a talking-head for modern liberal ideas:

“People like neat categories, and and a good deal of attention has been focused on the question of what sort of figure Jesus was: into what category should he be placed? Morton Smith, for example, thought that Jesus should be considered more a magician than a prophet. I continue to regard ‘prophet’ as the best single category. Jesus was also, however, an exorcist. An exorcist might imitate the behavior of the person whom he intended to cure. This might include thrashing about, rolling on the floor, and the like… According to Mark 3:21 (the Beelzebub controversy], Jesus’ family tried to seize him because he was ‘beside himself’. If he had sometimes behaved in uncoventional ways, people would not necessarily have thought that he was a magician, but they would have looked at him a little strangely…

“I think that we may be fairly certain that initially Jesus’ fame came as the result of healing, especially exorcism. This is an important corrective to the common view, that Jesus was essentially a teacher.” (The Historical Figure of Jesus, pp 153-154)

I could list many more influential citations, but these are the ones that first come to mind when I think of how Sanders influenced my thinking about Jesus, Paul, and the religious world they were born into.

RIP.

Reading Roundup: 2022

Of the dozen or so books I read this year, I recommend the following seven. Four were published this year; two I was catching up on; and one of them was published five centuries ago.

1. The Critical Qur’an: Explained from Key Islamic Commentaries and Contemporary Historical Research. Robert Spencer, 2022. This is the Qur’an I keep close at hand now for ready reference. To describe it, imagine a certain translation of the Bible (say the RSV) that is footnoted with textual variants, theological commentary from Christian authorities spanning antiquity to the present, and also modern historical-critical commentary. The Critical Qur’an is a tool like that, and one that we’ve needed for a long time. Spencer’s book offers four features that are impossible to find elsewhere in a single volume: (1) Variant readings: It’s one of the first Qur’anic commentaries, if not the very first, to provide variant readings from different manuscripts, in the same way that variant readings are found in most study Bibles for the Tanakh and New Testament. (2) Tafsir commentary: Citations from mainstream Muslim exegetes (the tafsir) are provided, spanning the 8th to 21st centuries. This is highly valuable since all these theologians and jurists are held to be authoritative, and their commentary allows the reader to understand how the Qur’anic texts have been, and continue to be, understood in mainstream Islam. (3) Critical commentary: Citations from academic scholars shed light on the textual evolution of the Qur’an. (4) Clarity: This Qur’an clarifies difficult or troublesome passages, for example like the many exhortations to jihad; the words is usually translated as “strive hard” in the way of Allah — which is legitimate, since “jihad” means “strive” or “struggle” — but the primary meaning of jihad in Islamic theology is warfare against unbelievers. Importantly, the suras are explained in view of the doctrine of abrogation (the late suras of Medina supersede or take precedence over the early suras of Mecca) and that if there is any one sura that has the “final say” in mainstream Islam, it’s sura 9. This easily tops my list; see here for a full review.

2. Free Speech: A History from Socrates to Social Media. Jacob Mchangama, 2022. Absolutely required reading — a history of the world seen through the lens of free expression. I’m surprised no one thought to write a book like this before. Even free-speech gurus will learn much from it; I certainly did. Its thesis is twofold, first that free speech almost always sets in motion a process of entropy — even its most passionate defenders want exceptions made (based on what offends them), while others ultimately can’t resist the censoring impulse. Second, that free speech culture is as important as the legal apparatus of free speech — perhaps even more so. Without the former, the latter is doomed to dissolve; the abundant examples of history make this clear. Thinkers like Baruch Spinoza, John Stuart Mill, and George Orwell warned about society’s tendencies to impose conformity apart from the government, and that unwelcome ideas can be silenced, and inconvenient facts kept dark, without an official ban. This is history as it should be written, in a clear arresting framework. At every point you want to keep going, to see how societies never learn their lesson. Full review in three parts: one, two, three.

3. Castaways. Álvar Núñez Cabeza de Vaca, 1542 (English translation: 1993). Written by a Spanish explorer, this journal is a wealth of anthropological information about Native American tribes that are unattested anywhere else. It’s a fantastic read on its own right, and certainly the best book I’ve ever read about the conquistador era. Álvar Núñez Cabeza de Vaca lived among the coastal natives of Texas for six and a half years (Nov 1528 – May 1535) and then among the natives of Mexico for about a year (May 1535 – March 1536), and it’s incredible that he survived to leave us the details. He was naked for the full eight years, freezing during the cold seasons, and often lived on a diet of spiders, worms, and cacti. It’s no surprise that from the original expedition of 600 Spaniards, only he and three others survived (the only surprise being that any of them survived), mostly by being accepted among the various native tribes as witch-doctors who performed faith-healings. For a man of his times Álvar Núñez was admirable: a proud evangelical who came to accept the natives mostly on their own terms, and who was enraged when he finally reconnected to Spanish civilization in Mexico and found that his countrymen wanted to make war on the natives and enslave them. Full review here.

4. Slaying the Dragon: A Secret History of Dungeons & Dragons. Ben Riggs, 2022. If you really want the dirt on TSR, this is the book to read. My biggest takeaways: (1) “Saint” Gary Gygax was no saint, and he often lied about his supposed powerlessness and ignorance. Not only was he aware of TSR’s disastrous errors, he participated in them as they were happening. (2) Lorraine Williams was even less admirable, notwithstanding the author’s attempts to reconsider her legacy. After Gary hired her to manage the company in 1985, she managed a hostile takeover of sorts, forcing Gary out of the company by the end of the year. (Though Gary has largely himself to blame for being victimized here.) The biggest problem with Lorraine is that she wasn’t a gamer, disdained gamers (didn’t consider them social equals), treated her staff like shit, and as a result had a hard time holding onto talented writers. Genius designers kept leaving TSR for greener pastures. (3) By the middle of ’95, TSR owed its distributor Random House almost 12 million dollars, and Random House was demanding that most of this debt be paid off within two years. This was the culmination of a ponzi scheme that had been in place, going all the way back to ’79 (in Gary’s day), whereby Random House paid TSR for the products TSR gave it to distribute, whether those products sold or not. There is more here. Old-school gamers will definitely enjoy (?) this book.

5. Islam and Nazi Germany’s War. David Motadel, 2014. This won the Wiener Library Ernst Fraenkel prize, but it somehow never got on my radar until this year. It’s a study of how Nazi Germany used the Islamic religion to expand its influence and wage war. “Scholars have paid less attention to this phenomenon that one might imagine”, writes the author, and though I always knew of the Nazi-Islam bonding during World War II, I didn’t know nearly enough of the sordid details, for example that Germany’s accommodating policies with the Islamic world go all the way back to the late 1800s. The book’s thesis is that Berlin’s engagement with Islam in 1941-45 was at least as extensive as in 1914-18, if not more so. Motadel examines the way Nazi Germany promoted Islam, and the ramifications of that alliance in terms of both race/ethnicity and religion/ideology. Hitler devalued Christianity while extolling Islam; for him Christianity was soft, artificial, and weak, while Islam was a strong and a practical faith, and much more suited to the Germanic spirit. In the table talks he expressed regret over the victory of Charles Martel in 732 CE, saying that if Martel hadn’t been victorious, then the Germans would have been converted to Islam, which would have allowed the Germanic races to conquer the world. It’s intriguing that Hitler believed Islam was a superior religion, but that its Arab adherents were an inferior race. That second part was a problem for the Reich, no matter how diligently their propaganda machines tried papering over it (by upholding white supremacy in “Muslim-friendly” ways). This book is utterly fascinating and the research behind it impeccable. Full review here.

6. The Jazz-Age President: Defending Warren G. Harding. Ryan S. Walters, 2022. I can’t think of a better way to honor the 100th anniversary of Harding’s presidency. I rate him the second best president of all time for all the reasons Walters covers in his book. Harding slashed taxes and government spending, started a booming economy, and achieved world peace through international cooperation instead of war-mongering. He went to bat for African Americans, even going so far as to address a crowd in the deep south (Birmingham, Alabama) at a time when Jim Crow laws were in full swing: he insisted on the need for equal rights for blacks, many of whom listened to the speech behind a segregated barrier. He urged the passing of anti-lynching legislation, appointed liberty-conscious Supreme Court justices, and pardoned hundreds of political prisoners who had been unjustly criminalized by Woodrow Wilson during the first world war. To this day, Harding is remembered for almost none of this. After he died the scandals of his administration were uncovered — scandals that were no worse than those that plagued many other presidential administrations, and Harding didn’t even participate or gain anything from them. But for bizarre reasons, historians continue to exaggerate them. Read this book (as well as my Rescuing a Reputation) and allow the real Harding to overthrow the demonized Harding.

7. The Resurrection of Jesus: Apologetics, Polemics, History. Dale Allison, 2021. Like Allison I aspire to be led to my conclusions, not led by them, and this book is a model of such aspiration. In 400 pages it reworks and hugely expands on the 177-page essay from Resurrecting Jesus (2005), and amounts to the best treatment of Jesus’s (alleged) resurrection that I know of. It covers a lot of interesting ground, the most interesting being the arguments for the empty tomb; those arguments have been revised for both better and worse, though the overall conclusion remains intact. I reviewed those particular arguments (from chapters 6 and 8) here, but the whole book is worth going through. There’s a chapter, for example, on the rainbow body phenomenon in Buddhist thought (disappearing bodies), and parallels between stories of people who achieve the rainbow body and the stories of Jesus’s resurrection. Allison mines the fields of psychology and parapsychology in accounting for how humanity copes with bereavement and dead loved ones, while steering clear of any reductionist explanations. With regards to the empty tomb, I think he makes a plausible case both for and against, and I agree with him that the scales tip slightly — ever so slightly — in favor of Jesus’s body being gone from the tomb on Easter morning. Though what that means or implies is still anyone’s guess.

Review: The Resurrection of Jesus (The Empty Tomb Revisited)

This 400-page monograph is a reworking of a 177-page essay (that filled half a book, Resurrecting Jesus, 2005), and worth making time for if you have it. It amounts to the best treatment of Jesus’s (alleged) resurrection I know of, and covers a lot of interesting ground, but in this post I’ll restrict myself to chapters 6 and 8 (from a total of 18 chapters) which focus on the empty tomb. Allison has revised his arguments, some for the better and others for the worse, though the overall conclusion remains intact.

By way of preface, it’s interesting that Allison describes himself a multiple personality: “pious” (a church-goer who thinks theologically), “critical” (a historian who knows how intrusive theology can be), “skeptical” (about almost everything; a fan of Socrates who knew that he knew nothing), and a “Fortean” (holding that reality is full of surprises and things that resist reasonable explanation) (pp 4-5). But he wrote this book chiefly as a critical historian, trying “to be led to his conclusions rather than being led by them”, and it’s hard to find scholars with this level of integrity on the subject of the resurrection.

The empty tomb as pure legend

Allison weighs eight arguments against the empty tomb as follows:

  1. The account is only singularly attested; it comes from Markan creativity. (pp 117-119)
  2. The account is inspired by scripture, especially Dan 6. (pp 119-125)
  3. The words about the women fleeing the tomb, “they said nothing to anyone” (Mk 16:8), is a literary explanation for why no one had heard of the empty tomb before. (pp 125-127)
  4. The account involves the miraculous. (p 128)
  5. Paul knows nothing of an empty tomb, so the account must have originated after him. (pp 129-136)
  6. Mark’s original ending was not about an empty tomb. (pp 136-137)
  7. If people had visions of Jesus and had come to believe in his resurrection, it’s easy to see how an empty tomb legend would have arisen; human beings create religious fictions to justify beliefs all the time. (pp 137-138)
  8. There is remarkable precedent for — indeed, an overwhelming abundance of — legendary stories about empty tombs and disappearing bodies. (pp 138-140)

After going through each one, he concludes (with typos):

“Of the seven eight arguments just introduced, the first five six are, like Jesus’s tomb in the gospels, empty. The sixth seventh, however, cannot be blithely dismissed. Early Christians had the imaginative ability to fabricate fictions on the basis of theological convictions, and on more than one occasion they did so. One of them made up the story in Mt 27:51b-53 (the walking zombies). We can also be fairly confident that the narrative about the guard in Mt 27:62-66 is sheer fiction. The seventh eighth argument impresses me as even more formidable.” (p 140)

(The typos: In Resurrecting Jesus (2005), Allison had considered seven arguments, not eight. Now he includes the one about Mark’s original ending (#6), but didn’t revise the summary to reflect the expanded list.)

I basically agree with how he assesses the eight. The first six are unpersuasive, and I would say that (1), (4), (5), and (6) hardly merit attention at all. Arguments (2) and (3) should be taken seriously, however, and it’s nice to see that Allison has expanded his original rebuttals against them. The obvious difficulty with argument (2) — Dan 6 as the inspiration for the empty tomb — is that Daniel was still found in the den in the morning, while Jesus was not. But Allison demonstrates at length how bankrupt this sort of “parallelomania” is, not least through a personal exercise: as he was editing his work on IV Baruch, for the fun of it, he went hunting for parallels between Mark 14 and IV Baruch 5. He found nine striking similarities. “Seek and you will find. The parallels prove nothing except how simple it is, because of the far reach of coincidence, to compile parallels.” (p 123)

With regards to argument (3) — that the women in Mk 16:8 “said nothing to anyone” is an explanation as to why the tradition of the empty tomb was not well known — Allison points out that “they said nothing to anyone” trails not a command to proclaim the empty tomb but a command to tell the disciples about Jesus going before them to Galilee (p 125). The angel simply says that Jesus has been raised and his tomb is empty (Mk 16:6); it orders the women on another account entirely (Mk 16:7), and that’s what their saying nothing (Mk 16:8) is linked to. He notes further (again, expanding his original rebuttal) that Mk 16:8 is probably analogous to Mk 1:44, where Jesus tells a healed leper to “say nothing to anyone”, even though the leper will obviously have to explain himself to the temple establishment where Jesus orders him to go. “Just as 1:44 means ‘say nothing to anyone (except the priests)’, so 16:8 may well mean ‘said nothing to anyone (except his disciples)’.” (p 127)

Allison is right that arguments (7) and (8) are the only decent ones against the historicity of the empty tomb — and they are indeed perfectly plausible. Amusingly, he footnotes the evangelical William Lane Craig: “It is shocking to me that Allison could construe such a priori possibilities based on general background knowledge as constituting a respectable case against the fact of an empty tomb.” (p 140) It is not shocking to me at all, nor in the least bit surprising that Craig would react like this; he probably speaks for many evangelicals.

The empty tomb as historical

Allison weighs eight arguments for the empty tomb as follows, and in this case he ranks them from least to most persuasive:

  1. The view combated in Mt 28:11-15 — that the disciples robbed the tomb — shows that everyone agreed the tomb was empty. (pp 141-142)
  2. The early Christians gave no attention to the tomb of Jesus, which is strange in light of Jewish veneration for the burial places of prophets and martyrs. Only an empty tomb accounts for this lack of veneration. (pp 142-145)
  3. Paul’s language in I Cor 15 assumes an empty tomb. (pp 144-145)
  4. Visions of Jesus without an empty tomb would not trigger a resurrection belief. (pp 145-146)
  5. The early Christians could not have gotten away with preaching the resurrection of an individual (a wacky idea) in Jerusalem unless, at the very least, the tomb of that individual was known to be open and empty. (pp 146-150)
  6. Apologetic interests, if present in the resurrection narratives, are undisclosed. (pp 150-152)
  7. The empty tomb account of Mark 16:1-8 (like Jesus’ baptism in Mk 1:9-11) undergoes so much apologetic glosses and expansions in the other gospels, that it looks a historical memory that couldn’t be ignored, rather than something invented. (pp 152-153)
  8. In a culture where women were seen as inferior to men, and the testimony of women was viewed as unreliable, the early Christians would not have invented female witnesses to the empty tomb. (pp 154-162)

Again, Allison includes a new argument (#7) for a total of eight, and concludes:

“Of our two options — that a tomb was in fact unoccupied or that a belief in the resurrection imagined it unoccupied — the former, as I read the evidence, is the stronger possibility. The two best arguments against the tradition — the ability of the early Christians to create fictions and the existence of numerous legends about missing bodies — while powerful, remain hypothetical and suggestive, whereas the best two arguments for the tradition are concrete and evidential: (a) the short enigmatic story in Mk 16:1-8, which invited so much revision and expansion, looks like a memory Christians sought to upgrade, and (b) the involvement of Mary Magdalene and the women commends itself as nonfiction.” (p 162)

I don’t know about this. I would rank the eight arguments much differently. The two that impress me the most are (3) and (4), not (7) and (8). Let’s go through them (and simply acknowledge that (1), (2), (5), and (6) hardly deserve attention).

Regarding argument (3): The testimony of Paul counts more in favor of an empty tomb than Allison allows. The fact that Paul mentions a burial — “that Christ died for our sins according to the scriptures, that he was buried, and that he was raised on the third day according to the scriptures (I Cor 15:3b-4) — implies to me an allusion to the empty tomb. If Paul believed that Jesus had died and ascended into heaven without his body being resurrected, then Jesus’s burial is irrelevant and intrusive. (Paul would have probably just said, that Christ died for our sins according to the scriptures, and that he was raised on the third day according to the scriptures”.) To go from “burial” to “resurrection” evokes a tomb being filled and then emptied.

Regarding argument (4): It’s strange that Allison has backpedaled and relegated this to (4), where in Resurrecting Jesus (2005) it was high on his list of persuasive power. He actually still does believe in its persuasive power and argues for his own variant of it; he just doesn’t like the way it’s been deployed by its chief advocate, Tom Wright. He says, “I wish to be perfectly clear here. At the end of the say, I am not far from Wright on this matter. Belief in Jesus’ resurrection was the upshot of three stimuli: pre-Easter eschatological expectations, encounters with the postmortem Jesus, and the empty tomb. That is, I do not believe that the appearances themselves did the trick. Nonetheless, I don’t believe that Wright’s argument, in the form that he offers it, should carry the day.” (p 146) I agree that Wright’s logic is flawed (as it almost always is), but Allison acknowledges the idea itself — that post-Easter appearances alone would have doubtfully triggered a resurrection belief — is solid, and so it deserves to be ranked higher. Allison just wants to distance himself from Wright as much as possible (and who can blame him).

As for arguments (7) and (8), I’m nonplussed. They depend on the criterion of embarrassment, and we all know how slippery that goes. (7) is actually the stronger one, on which Allison writes:

“We have here a phenomenon found elsewhere in the Jesus tradition, in places where a memory invited embellishment because a fact seemed problematic. That Judas, one of the twelve, betrayed Jesus was a source of potential embarrassment and so begged for elucidation. We accordingly find texts emphasizing that Jesus was not surprised, that the devil must have possessed Judas, that everything happened in accord with scripture, and that the betrayer came to a miserable end.

Matters are similar with Jesus’s baptism. That Jesus [the “sinless savior”] submitted to a ritual of repentance and forgiveness under the Baptist’s supervision raised uncomfortable questions. The tradition rose to the challenge…

What we find in Jesus’s baptism and Judas’s betrayal is what we find with the story of the empty tomb. Everywhere we discern attempts to head off possible objections and answer difficult questions. It is natural to suppose that, in all three cases, we have a historical memory that invited apologetic massaging.” (p 153)

Maybe. But this business is tricky. “Apologetic massaging” can occur over something that was invented to begin with. What was embarrassing decades after Jesus’s death (when the gospels were written) might not have been as difficult to accept at earlier stages of the movement. I lean towards the view that “embarrassing” accounts in the gospels — rare as they are — may slightly reduce the likelihood that the accounts were invented out of whole cloth, but I’d never rest my case on it without stronger supplements.

And argument (8) is not stronger by a long shot, though Allison has certainly doubled down on it. He sees the testimony of the women who saw the empty tomb to be revealing, in a male-dominated world like the ancient Mediterranean where women had little credibility. It’s thus difficult to believe the gospel writers would have invented “inferior women” being the star witnesses at the empty tomb. But I don’t think the two Marys and Salome would have been embarrassing in the least.

A patriarchal culture can be very welcoming of female heroes. Witness Judith (who decapitated Holofernes, for Christ’s sake), Deborah, Ruth, and other scriptural legacies. The Christian movement was generally favorable to women (by contemporary standards); for every “misogynist” text in Paul’s letters there is one praising the proactive roles of women in his church. It’s true that the legal testimony of women was often deemed worthless in antiquity, but a courtroom setting has no relevance to the empty tomb stories. I see no reason to suppose the accounts of women at the tomb were much embarrassing, if at all.

So here’s how I would re-rank Allison’s eight arguments for the historicity of the empty tomb, from least to most persuasive (the numbers in parenthesis are his rankings):

  1. (8) In a culture where women were seen as inferior to men, and the testimony of women was viewed as unreliable, the early Christians would not have invented female witnesses to the empty tomb.
  2. (1) The view combated in Mt 28:11-15 — that the disciples robbed the tomb — shows that everyone agreed the tomb was empty.
  3. (2) The early Christians gave no attention to the tomb of Jesus, which is strange in light of Jewish veneration for the burial places of prophets and martyrs. Only an empty tomb accounts for this lack of veneration.
  4. (5) The early Christians could not have gotten away with preaching the resurrection of an individual (a wacky idea) in Jerusalem unless, at the very least, the tomb of that individual was known to be open and empty.
  5. (6) Apologetic interests, if present in the resurrection narratives, are undisclosed.
  6. (7) The empty tomb account of Mark 16:1-8 (like Jesus’ baptism in Mk 1:9-11) undergoes so much apologetic glosses and expansions in the other gospels, that it looks a historical memory that couldn’t be ignored, rather than something invented.
  7. (3) Paul’s language in I Cor 15 assumes an empty tomb. (pp 144-145)
  8. (4) Visions of Jesus without an empty tomb would not trigger a resurrection belief.

What Allison considers the strongest argument I think the weakest (red), and what he considers second strongest I hold to be a moderately fair argument (bold italics). Two of the ones he regards as unpersuasive I do find persuasive (bold) — and so does he, actually, or at least the last one (“visions without a tomb”), as soon as he comfortably distances himself from Wright’s version of it. Here’s how he unpacks it in a later chapter, in a manner different from Wright.

Allison vs. Wright

Allison asks: If Jesus preached apocalyptic woes (which I agree he did), and if at some point he expected to suffer and even die during the eschatological trial (which I think likely), and then, on the last day, to participate in the resurrection of the dead at the same time as everyone else (agreed, only logical), then what might we expect his disciples to think in the days immediately following the crucifixion?

He suggests that some followers of Jesus simply gave up the cause (as often happens in failed millennial movements), while others, especially his closest circle of disciples, revised their expectations to fit what happened (as also often happens in failed millennial movements). But it was a re-interpretation laid over real-world circumstances: “Once they had the report of an empty tomb, and once a few had reportedly seen Jesus, they could begin to believe that God raised him, and that the general resurrection had commenced.” (p 203)

Prior to Jesus’s execution, this is what Jesus and the disciples expected:

1. Present and immediate future: Eschatological tribulation; suffering and death for the saints, including Jesus

2. Further future: Resurrection of the dead, including Jesus; triumph of the Son of Man; judgment; eternal kingdom

Soon after Easter, this is how the disciples now saw the salvation scheme:

1. Past: Suffering, death, and the resurrection of Jesus

2. Present: Tribulation, suffering, the persecution of saints

3. Future: Resurrection of the dead; return of the Son of Man; judgment; eternal kingdom

In other words, though there was a mismatch between events and expectations, the disciples forced a fit between the two to their satisfaction. Out of real-world circumstances they created two resurrections: their messiah’s a few days after his martyrdom, and the general resurrection later on. It took the empty tomb and postmortem visions to trigger this revision — not because people are incapable of dramatic revisionism without such triggers (as Wright claims), but because people usually resort to such creativity (without real-world triggers) to cope with broken dreams.

And that’s really the point, as I see it: that the disciples’ dreams hadn’t been broken. Maybe the ones who fell away and returned to their homes felt crushed, but for the core group, the crucifixion, while demoralizing, would have been taken as part of the apocalyptic drama: suffering/death had to precede the kingdom, just as Jesus taught them. They would have gone on hoping for the apocalypse, at which point they and Jesus would have been resurrected together. The empty tomb (coupled with visions) threw a wrench in the works, and caused them to conclude that Jesus had been resurrected prematurely.

Modest Results

Like Allison I don’t think we can be too confident about this stuff, and he’s right that a decent case can be made for the empty tomb as legend or history (the epileptic seizures this causes to pious Christians notwithstanding). For me, the latter is more persuasive by a small but healthy enough margin… though I don’t know that it really means anything. That Jesus’s tomb was empty, historically, could just as easily mean his corpse was stolen or moved, regardless of what fantastical event the disciples ascribed to it. Whatever happened to the body, thanks to the empty tomb, we have this thing today called Christianity.

The Omicron Variant in Mark 7:19

In his recent sermon, “Purging All Meats”, Pastor Steven Anderson takes a razor to the many “blasphemous” bible translations that portray Jesus as declaring all foods clean in Mark 7:18b-19. The King James Bible (of course) is the absolutely holy and correct translation, which reads:

“Do ye not perceive, that whatsoever thing from without entereth into the man, it cannot defile him? Because it entereth not into his heart, but into the belly, and goeth out into the draught, purging all meats?”

The context is everything that proceeds these verses in Mark 7, where the subject is not kosher but handwashing and the transfer of impurity. Here is Jesus is saying that it is not what goes into the body that renders someone impure, but rather the impure things residing in a person’s heart — and that anything eaten which is impure doesn’t enter one’s heart, but rather exits the body, going out into the latrine. In other words, if you take in something bad, it’s eventually going out into the toilet anyway, and you’ll get over it.

That’s how the term “cleansing all the foods” is translated in the King James Bible: the process of purging into the latrine. But most other translations have Jesus doing the “cleansing”, and by going so far as to have him declare all foods or meats clean. Thus the NIV:

“Don’t you see that nothing that enters a person from the outside can defile them? For it doesn’t go into their heart but into their stomach, and then out of the body.” (In saying this, Jesus declared all foods clean.)

Or the RSV:

“Do you not see that whatever goes into a man from outside cannot defile him, since it enters, not his heart but his stomach, and so passes on?” (Thus he declared all foods clean.)

This radical statement on the part of Jesus is put parenthetically by the translators — which is no surprise, since it’s a non-sequitur. Again, the issue throughout Mark 7 isn’t dietary regulations. It’s handwashing and the transfer of impurity. But in these non-KJV translations, Jesus is adding this radical addendum that it’s okay to eat non-kosher foods.

People may wonder what’s at stake here. For Pastor Anderson, the issue hinges on two things: (1) making sense of the context of Mark 7 (which again has nothing to do with Jewish dietary laws), and (2) preserving Testamental boundaries. Regarding the second, he says:

“There is no New Testament until Jesus dies on the cross. It doesn’t start in Mark 7. So how can Jesus be ending the dietary restrictions before he dies on the cross? I would love for anyone to try to defend this to me. I would love for anyone to try to defend Jesus telling people to eat things against the law of Moses before he dies on the cross. Have fun trying to defend that, because it’s crazy and it’s totally wrong. These modern Bible versions are way out to lunch on this.”

The good pastor then proceeds to explain the translation issue with regards to the “omicron variant”. Here’s his explanation, which you can listen to around the 25:33-33:50 part of the youtube video:

“Now normally I wouldn’t go this deep into a subject like this, but I’m gonna go a little deeper on this translation issue of this passage, just because it involved the omicron variant. This is the omicron variant in Mark 7:19. Now I’ve already explained to you where the modern versions got their stupid interpretation — how they took this ‘purifying all foods’, or ‘purging all meats’, and turned it into this parenthetical statement of, ‘Jesus is saying you can eat anything’, instead of leaving it in the quotation where it belongs.

But not only that, the Greek text underlining the King James Version of the Bible is the Textus Receptus, or the Received Text — the one that’s been passed down and used for centuries. The one that’s tried and true. Versus a new reconstructed text based on the Nestle-Aland, which is on, like, it’s 28th edition. And they’re coming out with a 29th edition very soon. Now look, we believe in the Textus Receptus, that the Holy Spirit has been using for centuries. We’re not part of the Bible-of-the-Month Club, digging up some old manuscript and saying, ‘Well maybe this is the original.’

So here’s the thing. There are two letters in the Greek alphabet that are really similar to one another. One is ‘omega’, the other is ‘omicron’. One is a ‘big O’, the other a ‘little o’. In the Textus Receptus you have the little o (omicron) at the end of this word, which means that it’s a neuter word, which means that the ‘purifying’ cannot be applying to Jesus, because Jesus isn’t a neuter person; he’s a dude. So if you have the right Greek text, you would NEVER come up with this crazy interpretation that Jesus is saying ‘all meats are pure now’. You can only have that interpretation with the corrupt modern Greek texts. The omicron isn’t referring to JESUS, it’s referring to the PROCESS of going out the draft. Going out the draft is what is purging all meats. That process is neuter, as the omicron implies.

But in the corrupted texts, the omicron is changed to an omega, which now makes it masculine. Now even with this masculine word, it still doesn’t have to refer to Jesus, because it could refer to the draft, which is masculine. My point is that because of this omicron variant in Mark 7:19, you could never get this dumb interpretation that came from the corrupted Greek texts. But even if you had their corrupted Greek texts, you’d still have to be an IDIOT to think that this is saying that Jesus is making all meats clean, when that has NOTHING to do with the context, and it’s not right in the timeline, because Jesus hasn’t died on the cross yet.

I want to drive home how bad these modern versions are, and how they ruin doctrine. Because if you have a Jesus who is just ignoring the Mosaic Law, telling you to ignore it, telling you not to quibble about it, just do what you want… folks, that is not the Jesus of the Bible. The Jesus of the Bible said, ‘I came not to destroy the law and the prophets, I came to fulfill.’ The Jesus of the Bible got up and said, ‘When the Pharisees tell you to obey the law of Moses, they’re right about that.’ He didn’t get up and say, ‘Hey dude, we need to get free! Eat whatever you want, man!’

That’s not what he’s saying in Mark 7:19. He’s saying that if you eat something contaminated, it’s not going to hurt you, whereas stealing will contaminate you; adultery will contaminate you; fornication will contaminate you; blasphemy will contaminate you. But is eating without washing your hands going to contaminate you? No, because worst-case scenario, you take in something bad, it’s going into the toilet anyway eventually, and you’re going to be okay, you’ll get over it.”

There you have it. A Sunday-morning textual criticism lesson from our dear Pastor Anderson. Watch that omicron variant! These days it’s bringing people down in more ways than one.

Pastor Anderson: The Illegal Immigrant as a Role Model

Pastor Steven Anderson is a curiosity to say the least. He’s a true fundamentalist — the only one I’ve ever encountered — who takes every part of the Bible at its word, impartially, regardless of what tribe that aligns him with. So he’s a right-wing LGBT-hater (since the Bible says the sodomites deserve to die, in both the Old and New Testaments) but a left-wing immigrant lover (since the Bible says to welcome to the resident alien among you). He’s a right-wing climate change denier (because the book of Revelation spells out the world’s fate much differently) but a left-wing granola when it comes to respecting the earth (not littering or polluting, not driving the car to work, and eating organic and health foods). He’s an anti-vaxxer but aggressively pro-mask (per Lev 13:45), and throughout the year of 2020 railed from the pulpit against Covidiots who refused to wear masks or distance socially. He condemns Zionism with as much fervor as Islamic jihadism. He thinks Democrats are wicked, but Republicans in some ways more so, and that Donald Trump in particular is the “most degenerate man to ever sit the Oval Office”. He even preached (in Oct 2016 and Oct 2020) that it might just be well if Hillary and Biden, wicked as they are, won the elections. You can say this for him: Anderson follows the Word no matter where it takes him, and he has lost church members because of it.

Perhaps no sermon illustrates Anderson’s ability to surprise more than his defense of the illegal alien. Here are the bullet points:

  • (1) Don’t oppress the foreigner. According to the Bible, “You shall neither vex a stranger or oppress him, for ye were strangers in the land of Egypt” (Exodus 22:21; 23:9). You should, in other words, know what it’s like to be a foreigner, because you were foreigners who came from Egypt.
  • (2) One law for everyone — alien and citizen alike. “You should have one manner of law: for the foreigner as well as for one of your own country.” (Leviticus 24:22; Exodus 12:49). Many Christians today say that foreigners shouldn’t have the same rights as American citizens. But that’s not what the Bible teaches. If cruel and unusual punishment should not be inflicted on the citizen, then it shouldn’t be inflicted on the non-citizen; if the native has the right to not be searched without a warrant, then the stranger has the same right; if the citizen has freedom of religion, then so does the foreigner; if one has the right to a speedy jury trial, so does the other. These are Biblical principles that we should institute in the United States.
  • (3) These rights come from the Creator and have nothing to do with citizenship. Even the Declaration of Independence says that “all men are created equal, that they are endowed by their Creator with certain unalienable rights”. Man-made laws should simply reinforce what the Creator intended.
  • (4) The illegal alien should be our role model. The illegal aliens crossed an imaginary line. Get over it. They’re not mostly violent criminals. You say, “But it’s not fair, they don’t pay taxes, and they’re not documented!” Look, we should all strive to be undocumented. Let the illegal alien be our model. It’s almost like this mentality of “since I’m a slave, everyone else should be one too”, or “if I have to have a social security number and pay all these taxes, then everyone else should suffer with me”. It’s ridiculous logic. We should all be undocumented and not be carrying around so much paper and ID.
  • (5) Illegal aliens pay taxes anyway. They may not pay federal income tax, but they pay almost every other kind of tax. They pay sales taxes; if they rent they pay property taxes indirectly; if they drive a car they pay gas tax. When they use a phone, they pay taxes on their phone bills.
  • (6) Illegal aliens are being scapegoated, when in fact they help the economy. What’s really happening is that the government is stealing our money and giving it to the bankers and the military industrial complex. Those are the real thieves. Illegal immigrants are the scapegoat as to why the economy is messed up. In reality illegal aliens help the economy. They come here and spend money, and use businesses and use services.
  • (7) The problem of welfare. There’s only thing that’s sort of a problem with the illegal immigrants is that they get some free stuff. But even that’s misleading, because no one should be getting free stuff. When you hear these Republican politicians say, “There should be a lifetime ban on illegal immigrants getting welfare,” no, here’s what we really need: a lifetime ban on anyone getting any welfare. These Republicans are just changing the issue. The problem has nothing to do with immigrants. It’s welfare, for anyone.
  • (8) Bring them all in. Now look, I do believe that those who come here should learn to speak English and assimilate to this culture, just as I would have to learn Spanish if I moved to Mexico. You don’t just demand that everyone know your language. But let me tell you something: I’m all for as many people as possible immigrating to this country. Bring them all in, I say. Jump the border, so what?
  • (9) Immigrants are not bad people, and in some ways better than Americans. You say, “But they’re bad people!” No, in some ways they’re actually better people than Americans. Do they have their own problems? Sure, but so do we. Let me tell you, whenever I went on the Spanish TV channel, and I was ripping on the homos, at least more of their viewers were actually on my side than when I went on the English-speaking TV channel. Are there criminals amongst them? Of course, but there are criminal American citizens too.
  • (10) Don’t get brainwashed, by either the left or the right. Now you say, “Pastor Anderson, you’re a flaming liberal Democrat”. Look, you need to get past the false left-right paradigm. You have to be careful that you don’t get brainwashed by either the left-wing politicians or the right-wing ones, and that you read the Bible to figure out what you believe. And on the subject of the foreigner, the stranger, the Bible is clear: God says they should be treated the same.
  • (11) Who would respect the imaginary line anyway? If you were the one living down in Mexico, and struggling to survive, what would you do? Are you really not going to cross that imaginary line? Or would you just cross it, if that’s what’s going to be the best thing for your family?

So there you have it. An argument that illegal immigrants should have the same rights as U.S. citizens — straight from the lips of that preacher who is banned from 34 countries because of his hard-core preaching against sodomites. I can’t help but love the irony of someone who is so welcoming of illegal aliens, but is not welcomed abroad in turn.

Is it the End of A Marginal Jew?

Looks like it, unfortunately.

Thirty years ago, in the fall of 1991, the Anchor Bible released the first volume of John Meier’s A Marginal Jew: Rethinking the Historical Jesus, which quickly became an ambitious project. Subsequent volumes were released in 1994 (Jesus’s relation to the Baptist, his meaning of the kingdom, his miracles), 2001 (his “opponents”, like the Sadducees and Pharisees), 2009 (his relation to the Torah), and 2016 (the parables). The final volume would examine Jesus’ self-designations (messiah, Son of Man, Son of God) and his last days in Jerusalem. It looks like that one may not be written. Meier has had health issues since the publication of volume 5, and when I contacted Yale last week about further developments, I was told there are no longer any additional Marginal Jew volumes under contract.

If this is indeed the end of A Marginal Jew — and I wouldn’t want to see anyone finish the series except Meier — then, on the one hand, it’s disappointing. It would have been nice to see Meier’s take on the Jerusalem end game. Then again, maybe it’s just as well. The classic criteria of authenticity (embarrassment, multiple attestation, etc.) have become increasingly obsolete, and A Marginal Jew has been a ’90s project on borrowed time, extending into the 21st century. I have less faith in the criteria than I used to. Still, I like the way Meier applied them. If there was ever any objective application of the criteria, it’s to be found in A Marginal Jew. I wish Meier well and hope he gets better. As a 30-year celebratory look-back, I summarize some of his findings in the five volumes. Meier’s historical Jesus is a plausible one, a prophet who expected a future kingdom to arrive, like his mentor the Baptist, with some modifications; who had a strong reputation of being an exorcist-healer; who was largely Torah-obedient, with a few exceptions; and whose parables have been overvalued and overblown in the imagination of modern scholars.

Miracles: 15 out of 31. Meier pronounces half of the miracle tradition historical. Remember that by “historical”, Meier doesn’t mean that the miracle in question necessarily happened as a supernatural event, nor even that it necessarily happened. There are no ontological judgments and his goals are modest. An historical event is an event that was known during the course of Jesus’ lifetime; reports of the event circulated in the earliest days. Obviously that increases the likelihood that the event happened (in some way), but not necessarily. Meier breaks the miracles into four general categories, and some pass the test better than others:

  • Exorcisms? Yes, with a capital “Y”. Meier judges 5 out of 7 exorcist accounts to be historical. The possessed boy (Mk 9:14-29/Mt 17.14-21/Lk 9.37-43a) and Mary Magdalene (Lk 8:2) are judged to be historical with a strong level of confidence. The demoniac at Capernaum (Mk 1:23-28/Lk 4.33-37), the Gerasene demoniac (Mk 5:1-20/Mt 8.28-34/8.26-39), and the blind & mute demoniac (Mt 12:22-23a/Lk 11:14) are judged to be likely historical. The mute demoniac (Mt 9:32-33) and the Syrophoenician woman (Mk 7:24-30/Mt 15:21-28) are judged to be unhistorical. Jesus was so renowned as an exorcist that he was accused of being in league with demonic powers, for “casting out demons with the aid of demons” (Mk 3.22-27).
  • Healings? Yes, though perhaps not to the degree the gospels imply. 6 out of 15 healings are deemed historical: the paralyzed man let down through the rooftop (Mk 2:1-12/Mt 9.1-8/Lk 5.17-26), the sick man by the pool of Bethseda (Jn 5:1-9), the blind beggar (Mk 10:46-52/Lk 18:35-43), the blind man of Bethsaida (Mk 8:22-26), the deaf mute (Mk 7:31-37/Mt 15.29-31), and (with some reservations) the centurion’s servant (Mt 8:5-13/Lk 7.1-10/Jn 4.46b-54) are judged to be likely historical. The other 9 healing accounts in the gospels are judged either non-liquet (indeterminate) or unhistorical.
  • Raising the dead? A strong yes. 3 out of 3. The daughter of Jairus (Mk 5:21-43/Mt 9:18-26/Lk 8:40-56), the son of the widow at Nain (Lk 7:11-17), and Lazarus (Jn 11:1-45). (Again, whether Jesus actually brought these people back from the dead isn’t an issue for A Marginal Jew. The conclusion is that accounts that he did so circulated during his lifetime.)
  • Nature miracles? No. Of the 6, Meier does make a case for one of them — the feeding of the multitude with bread and fish (Mk 6:32-44/Mt 14.13-21/Lk 9. 10b-17 /Jn 6.1-15). But by his own concessions, the glaring influence of the Elisha miracle and the Last Supper/eucharist traditions effectively make the judgment non-liquet (indeterminate). The other 5 nature miracles are shown to be blatantly unhistorical. The cursing of the fig tree (Mk 11:12-14,20-21/Mt 21:18-20) is the only vindictive miracle attributed to Jesus and works purely in the Markan context of the temple’s destruction. The fish catch (Lk 5:1-11/Jn 21:1-14) is a post-resurrection story that has been turned into an apostolic commission (to leave all things, including “the catch”, to follow Jesus). The walking on water (Mk 6:45-52/Mt 14:22-33/Jn 6:16-21) is not a “sea rescue” that would cohere with Jesus’ means of using power to help those in need; it squares with the agenda of the early church toward a high christology that makes Jesus the functional equivalent of God; it has an epiphanic thrust saturated with Old Testament allusions. The same is true for the calming of the storm (Mk 4:35-41/Mt 8:23-27/Lk 8:22-25); it’s not a sea-rescue, since the disciples aren’t in mortal danger; it’s another epiphany-like wonder meant to evoke astonishment; its Christological message transcends and reverses the events in Jonah (where sailors avert God’s wrath by throwing Jonah overboard into the storm). And finally, the water-to-wine at Cana (Jn 2:1-11) is transparently unhistorical, since if we subtract from the story everything that John would have likely invented plus everything that raises historical problems, the entire story vanishes.

Law Disputes: 2 ½ out of 6. Meier finds most of the Torah disputes in the gospels to be unhistorical and a reflection of later church controversies, as Gentiles became part of the Christian movement. Jesus was a devout Israelite, respected the Torah, kept it, and reinforced it. But he also occasionally rescinded it (in the cases of divorce and oath-taking), in view of God’s in-breaking power. (Christological ideas about Jesus fulfilling the law, as in Mt 5:17, are easily dismissed as a church creation.)

  • Condemned Divorce? Yes. Though Jesus’ prohibition against divorce (Mk 10:2-12/Mt 19:3-9; Mt 5:32/Lk 16:18; I Cor 7:10-11) didn’t technically violate a Torah commandment (he was forbidding what Moses allowed rather than what Moses commanded), it obviously called the Torah into question, and because the prohibition was so socially outrageous (all Mediterranean societies considered divorce to be the natural and necessary way of things), it would have been perceived by many as an attack on the law, nuances notwithstanding. Jesus dared to say that a man who duly follows the Torah in properly divorcing his wife and marrying another woman is in effect committing adultery — a serious sin against the Decalogue. That would have been considered an effective attack on the law. Meier grounds Jesus’ motive in eschatology, but Jesus may also have been trying to protect the economic well-being of families, especially women’s families.
  • Prohibited Oaths? Yes. Jewish teaching never prohibited oaths entirely. Ben Sira warns against frequent swearing, and Philo says to avoid it whenever possible, but even they don’t dare forbid what the Torah commands in two cases: for a person who loses goods entrusted (Exod 22:9-10) and for a wife suspected of adultery (Num 5:11-31). If Jesus prohibited oaths as reported in Mt 5:34-37, and as implied in Jas 5:12 — which Meier finds historical — then he went further than anyone else on record, and abrogated the Torah.
  • Sabbath Disputes? Not really, no. According to Meier, none of the sabbath-healing accounts which call forth dispute are historically reliable. At best, we get a window onto the historical Jesus in the traditions of Mt 12:11/Lk 14:5, and Mk 2:27. When it came to endangered animals, the historical Jesus sided with peasants against the Essenes and (possibly) the Pharisees. When it came to endangered people, he sided with peasants against a murky position of the Essenes (or other sectarian influence). The motive, again, was eschatology: the roots of the sabbath lie in creation, but a creation, in his view, was soon to be restored, and that meant the sabbath had to serve the good of humanity, rather than vice-versa. But most of the sabbath controversies seem to reflect later church conflicts.
  • Purity/Kosher Conflicts? No. The famous passage of Mk 7:1-23/Mt 15:1-20 tells us virtually nothing about the historical Jesus, says Meier, with the possible exception of the qorban saying of Mk 7:10-12. On whole it’s a much later creation. There is no evidence for any Jewish group in the pre-70 period urging laypeople to wash their hands before eating meals, and as for keeping kosher itself, that governed everyone’s daily living. To abolish it would have obliterated the basic distinction between clean and unclean, not to mention an essential part of Jewish identity. Add to this the fact that no gospel ever reports Jesus or the disciples eating forbidden food, and a case for the authenticity of Mk 7 in general, and Mk 7:15 in particular, becomes an uphill battle. If Jesus had revoked the Torah’s food laws, he would have been reviled and distrusted by virtually every Jew in Palestine. And of course Paul is unable to cite Jesus in a case like Rom 14:14 (“we know that no food is unclean in itself”), unlike the case of divorce, for which he can cite Jesus.
  • Commandments about Love? Yes and no. Yes, to the command to love God and one’s neighbor (Mk 12:28-34/Mt 22:34-40/Lk 10:25-28), and to the command to love enemies (Mt 5:44b/Lk 6:27b). No, to the command to love one another (Jn 13:34, 15:12,17). John’s commandment to love one another implicitly opposes Mark/Matthew/Luke’s commandments to love one’s neighbors and enemies. For John there is no greater love than self-sacrifice for one’s friends, and indeed, for him and his community, love of neighbors and enemies isn’t even on the radar screen. (Note: Meier isn’t saying that Jesus would have objected to the idea of loving “one another”, family and friends, only that Jesus didn’t explicitly teach this or stress the idea. The commandment is only in John, which as a sectarian gospel has a fierce agenda to not love one’s enemies. The commandment, in other words, was born in a community that was hostile to outsiders.)
  • The Golden Rule? No. The Golden Rule (Mt 7:12/Lk 6:31) fails the criteria miserably. It was common wisdom found in the Greco-Roman world, usually expressed in the more negative form, “Don’t do to others what you wouldn’t want done to you.” Essentially, a person decided how he or she wanted to be treated and then made that the standard for treating others. Not only does it fail every single criterion of authenticity, it’s inconsistent with Jesus’ demands stated elsewhere, and thus unable to meet even the bare-bones standard of coherence. Jesus had no use for a Golden-Rule like ethic of reciprocity. He says, rather, that “if you love those who love you, what credit do you gain?”, and that “if you give loans to those from whom you hope to receive payment, what credit do you gain?”, etc. “The clash between the Golden Rule and Jesus’ withering blast against a morality of ‘I’ll scratch your back if you scratch mine’ is as astounding as it is little noted by Christians”. Yes, Jesus could have been inconsistent, but there are understandable inconsistencies and not-so-understandable ones, and this is the latter. The Golden Rule is best understood as entering the tradition at a later date as the Christian movement grew and became mainstreamed. It becomes a near apologetic strategy to argue that Jesus actually taught it.

The Parables: 4 out of 32. “The last thing I expected,” says Meier, “when I began writing A Marginal Jew was that I would one day decide that most of the parables cannot be shown with fair probability to go back to the historical Jesus. The historical-critical method is an equal-opportunity offender. I may not now suddenly retreat from or discard this method simply because I don’t like the outcome in the case of the parables.” (Volume 5, pp 20, 230-31) Here is that dismal outcome, the four stories which Meier can justify tracing back to Jesus.

  • The Mustard Seed. The meaning of Mk 4:30-32/Mt 13:31-32/Lk 13:18-19/Thom 20, from Jesus’ lips, was that God’s rule was already at work in his preaching and healing activities, and that however small his mission seemed at the moment, there was an organic connection between it and the visible coming of God who would set things right on the last day.
  • The Wicked Tenants. Jesus’ version of Mk 12:1-11/Mt 21:33-44/Lk 20:9-18/Thom 65 was the dark story of Mk 12:1-8 that offered no hope of consolation: the son is murdered, his corpse dishonored, and the murderous farmers remain in possession of the vineyard. This later called forth the two different correctives — first the punishment of the farmers in Mk 12:9, then vindication of the son by making him the “cornerstone” or keystone of the new state of affairs in Mk 12:10-11 (which obviously refers to the resurrection). “It’s nigh impossible that the primitive form of the parable in Mk 12:1-8 was composed by some believer in Christ in the early post-Easter period of the church”. But from Jesus it makes sense. He was saying that he knew full well what awaited him if he pursued his confrontation with Jerusalem authorities, and that as an Elijah-like prophet of the end times, he accepted his destiny of martyrdom. His parable ended with his anticipated death at the hands the temple authorities (the vineyard tenants), and that was the end, period, with no reversal of the injustice.
  • The Great Supper. The common core of Mt 22:2-10/Lk 14:16-24/Thom 64. Meier shows that the Lukan version has almost as much redaction as the Matthean (all the more impressive given that he is a Q-advocate), and when all redactions are removed, Jesus’ story tells of a bunch of people who refuse to attend a banquet to which they were specially invited; their insulted host reacts in a most pissed-off fashion, by sending out surprise invitations to virtually anyone, no matter how undeserving, who can be found in the streets. Jesus, according to Meier, was warning observant Jews that their place in the kingdom can be taken by those who socially or religiously marginalized, including even Gentiles.
  • The Talents. Like the Great Supper, the story of Mt 25:14-30/Lk 19:12-27 is an unusual example of a parable preserved not by Q (assuming it existed) but in the separate streams of M and L. Jesus told it as an exhortation-plus call to the disciples. Along with sovereign grace, serious demand, and superabundant reward comes the possibility of being condemned in hellfire for refusing the demand contained in the gift.

See my reviews of volume 4 and volume 5 for more detail.

Anti-abortion in Texas, the Bible, and the Middle Assyrian Laws

The new Texas abortion law took effect last week, prohibiting abortions after the presence of a fetal heartbeat is detected, which can occur as early as six weeks into a woman’s pregnancy (exceptions for medical emergencies only). About 85 to 90 percent of women who get an abortion in Texas are at least six weeks into their pregnancy, so this law will have serious impact. It violates Roe v. Wade, which prohibits states from banning abortion before a fetus is viable, typically around six months (not weeks) of pregnancy. The law also has a draconian provision that allows private citizens to sue those who perform or aid the abortion in violation of the law, providing for at least $10,000 for each successful suit. That the Supreme Court has declined to get involved isn’t encouraging, and when you add to this the Mississippi abortion case to be heard by the Court, I seriously wonder if Roe v. Wade will be overturned next year.

American anti-abortionists tend to be Christian, and it’s worth revisiting what the bible says on the subject. Chris Heard, an anti-abortionist himself, summed it up many years ago:

“Let me be completely clear and honest: I despise abortion. I think that a biblically-informed valuation of human life leads one in that direction. But I also object to bad exegesis. There is no biblical proof-text against abortion. Deuteronomy 30:19 (“choose life”) has nothing to do with abortion; it has to do with being party to God’s covenant with Israel. Psalm 139:13-18 is less relevant to the issue than most people think; a careful reading of that psalm reveals that the “mother” in whose “womb” the psalmist was known by God is Mother Earth (notice the parallelism between “my mother’s womb” and “the depths of the earth” in the inclusio of vv. 13-15). Exodus 21:22-25 is very difficult, but it certainly does not speak directly to abortion; at most, it relates to an accidentally induced miscarriage, though it may refer to a premature birth. That interpretive decision is crucial, and I’m not sure how to resolve it. As far as I can tell, the only biblical passage that I know of that directly mentions a practice like we would think of as abortion curses a man who did not practice it on the fetal Jeremiah (Jeremiah 20:14-18).”

Indeed, in the Jeremiah passage the prophet curses the day he was born and laments the fact that he was not aborted, which is hardly of help to the anti-abortionist cause.

The Exodus passage, however, may be resolvable, in a way that both helps and undermines the anti-abortionist cause. It’s an assault-and-miscarriage law, which on the face of it does seem to support the idea that late-term abortions are murder, while implying that early-term abortions are mere property crimes against the father. In the former case, the proper redress is execution or mutilation (eye for an eye, etc.). In the latter case, the proper redress is financial compensation. The key lies in what the text means by “harm following” the premature birth, and by “harm not following” the premature birth. Richard Carrier writes:

“If a fully-formed fetus comes out, meaning a viable baby who dies from the premature birth, that’s ‘harm follows,’ and anything else is equivalent to a mere miscarriage, in which case ‘harm does not follow.’ No viable baby was lost. This makes clear that only what we would call a late term abortion is murder; and indeed, the Bible doesn’t really even say that as such, since this is an involuntary abortion (an assault), but it’s reasonable to assume Jewish courts would deem a woman who sought an abortion as then the one committing the crime—either a property crime against her husband if she aborts before the third trimester, or murder if afterward. So this passage does support declaring late-term abortions murder; but it actually is declaring all other abortions permissible — all you need do is compensate the father for the resulting financial loss and (maybe) pay a tax. Essentially, as worded, women could legally pay their husbands and the state to let them have an abortion. That’s God’s law.”

That’s a reasonable inference, though hard to be too confident about, since the bible never generally speaks about abortion. Brian Rainey in fact notes the revealing contrast between the vague biblical view and the clear-cut Assyrian one:

“There is an abortion ban in the Middle Assyrian Laws, Tablet A (MAL A), a law code from ~1076 BCE that predates the Bible. It’s the earliest known abortion ban in the world, I believe. Like the Bible, MAL A contains laws about what should happen when a physical assault results in accidental miscarriage (§21, 50-52). These laws are similar to Exodus 21:22-25. MAL A’s harsh anti-abortion law immediately follows its accidental miscarriage laws:

If a woman aborts her fetus by her own action…they shall impale her, they shall not bury her. If she dies as a result of aborting her own fetus, they shall impale her, they shall not bury her. If any persons should hide that woman because she aborted her fetus…[And the text breaks off]” (§53, Roth’s translation).

It seems that MAL A, like Texas’s recently passed anti-abortion law, encourages snitching on people who have abortions, though sadly the text is broken so we don’t get details.

The Bible has an assault-and-accidental-miscarriage law in Exodus 21:22-25. But unlike MAL A, an anti-abortion law does not follow it. Clearly, such a law would have been conceivable. The Bible could’ve done what MAL A did and included an explicit anti-abortion law, but didn’t.”

Which is revealing. Relative to their neighbors, the ancient Israelites weren’t so aggressively anti-abortionist.

I’m strongly pro-choice and don’t look to the bible for guidance on the subject. But I recognize that many Christians do seek biblical justification for their point of view — both pro-choice and anti-abortion believers — and I’m sympathetic to those on either side who operate out of a code of empathy. With Chris Heard, I believe that any biblical case for anti-abortion would have to be a “cumulative theological case”, rather than a direct case based on proof texts, since the specific texts of the bible are virtually useless except perhaps for Exodus 21 (which both supports and undermines an anti-abortionist argument). More revealing is the reputation of early Jews and Christians, who were known in antiquity for despising infanticide. Constantine may have even adopted Christianity, at least in part, to halt the population decline in the Roman empire. As early as the end of the first century, people like Tacitus and Pliny the Younger complained about the problem of childlessness and the common view of children as a burden; baby girls were especially unwanted and discarded. The only groups in the empire that were increasing by normal demographic process were the Christians and the Jews (in no small part because they extended the sanctity of life to children, infants, and probably the unborn), and Constantine may have been trying to capitalize on this.

Anti-abortion, in other words, is not biblical in the way that homophobia, post-tribulation eschatology, and New Testament pacifism are. It’s more biblical in the way that anti-racism is. A convincing case can be made for it by building on many cumulative biblical ideas. A pro-choice position, on the other hand, has a more uphill battle, but certainly not an impossible one. It could rely on the general silence of abortion in the bible, argue that Exodus 21 implies that only late-term abortions amount to murder, and perhaps extend arguments based on the Torah’s wider concern for widows and orphans, the poor, etc. — women and children, in other words, who end up suffering the most when abortion is not a legal right.

With regards to the particular lawsuit provision of the Texas law, I find it appalling that anyone in Texas can sue anyone else who performs or aids an abortion after 6 weeks. It also puts the conservative justices (except for Clarence Thomas) in an awkward position, since they recently ruled that a lawsuit doesn’t have standing unless direct concrete harm to the plaintiff can be proven. Thomas rightly dissented with the liberals, blasting his fellow conservatives for overturning a precedent that goes back to America’s founding: federal courts had never required plaintiffs to demonstrate direct concrete injury. But now that this is the judicial precedent, the conservative justices (aside from Thomas) should be condemning the Texas law on their own logic. In any case, I can’t see a biblical base for this draconian lawsuit provision, let alone a constitutional one.