Babatha’s Orchard

Last week Gloucestershire Live published an article about an “Indiana Jones” biblical scholar who made a great discovery. Usually that’s a warning to count the spoons and brace for impact. But the scholar in question is Philip Esler — just about the last name you would associate with crackpot archaeology. So what is Babatha’s Orchard about?

In the first pages of the book Esler assures us:

“There are no Arks of the Covenant, hidden temple vessels, Holy Grails, lost Gospels or Mary Magdalens here. Instead this is a tale of domestic life. It is the story of how, around 99 CE, Shim’on, Babatha’s father, unexpectedly came to acquire an irrigated date-palm orchard in his village of Maoza, on the southern shore of the Dead Sea, in the kingdom of Nabatea.” (p xvi)

Babatha’s Orchard is exciting to read because it’s real. It offers a window onto everyday life in antiquity, unencumbered by sensationalism. That window is provided by the Babatha collection, discovered in 1961 by a team of archaeologists, which are the possessions of a second-century Jewish woman including sandals, balls of yarn, key-rings, knives, bowls, waterskins, and other items — and also a pouch containing 35 legal documents. These documents are dated between 94 and 132 AD, and consist of various contracts for purchase of property, loans, weddings, and the registration of land.

Esler is concerned with the earliest four documents, Papyri Yadin 1-4, the first of which dates to 94, the other three to 99. P. Yadin 2 and 3 describe the purchase of a date-palm orchard, first by a Nabatean high-ranking official named Archelaus, second by a Judean (Jew) named Shim’on (the future father of Babatha) only a month later — but purchased both times from the same woman. Esler not only reconstructs what went on between P. Yadin 2 and 3, he also argues that P. Yadin 1 and 4 bear on the same issue. “No one seems to have asked,” says Esler, “why the first and fourth documents were found in the archive in the first place.” Why did Babatha, years later, keep copies of these legal documents? They presumably had some relevance to the orchard acquired by her father and should help make sense of that event.

The mystery of P. Yadin 1

P. Yadin 1 describes a transaction in 94 AD that at first blush seems to have nothing to do with the orchard sale (and resale) in 99. Basically a Nabatean named Muqima borrowed money from his wife’s dowry to purchase a lease of property, and to share the investment risk enlisted a partner whose name was Abad-Amanu. What no one seems to have realized before Esler is that the Abad-Amanu of P. Yadi 1 is none other than the father of Archelaus, the buyer of the orchard in P. Yadin 2 — a link that proves of “critical importance in unlocking the mystery behind these documents” (p 111).

The mystery is how Abi-adan (the woman who owned the orchard) sold the orchard to Archelaus (P. Yadin 2) and then only a month later sold it to Shim’on (P. Yadin 3). Scholars have suggested that Abi-adan annulled her agreement with Archelaus when Shim’on offered a better deal, but Esler refutes this, for there is no way Abi-adan could simply have reneged on her deal which gave Archelaus legal rights. Not to mention the extreme unlikelihood that a non-elite woman would act in such a capricious way towards a strategos (a government official charged with both civil and military duties, as Archelaus was) (p 140). No, it must have been that Archelaus himself backed out of the agreement, requesting that Abi-adan annul the contract and refund his money. But why?

Esler spots the reason under our noses in P. Yadin 1 — and the reason for which that seemingly unrelated document is in the Babatha collection to begin with. The partner of that earlier transaction, Abad-Amanu, died soon after Archelaus bought the orchard in 99, and he was Archelaus’ father. At this point the woman (Amat-Isi) was still owed money under the loan agreement with her husband Muqima and Abad-Amanu. Esler argues that Nabatean law provided for universal succession (like the legal systems of Mesopotomia, Rome, and certain Judean provinces), which means that an heir (like Archelaus) received the entire estate of the deceased (Abad-Amanu), benefits and debt included. Amat-Isi would have been calling on Archelaus to pay Abad-Amanu’s debt, and his honor as a strategos was at stake. So he appealed to Abi-adan to rescind the bargain of P. Yadin 2. That turn of fate immensely benefited the Judean (Jewish) Shim’on, who was probably passed over the first go-around in favor of the strategos, and was now waiting in the wings to buy the orchard.

The mystery of P. Yadin 4

That triggers the second mystery, the one of P. Yadin 4, which survives as a fragmentary document without any legible names, but which Esler believes to allow more restoration than scholars have realized. Through brilliant detective work he shows that P. Yadin 4 is a grant (a cross between a gift and a sale, or a transfer of property where the return wasn’t necessarily a purchase price), and indeed the very grant mentioned in P. Yadin 3. Shim’on wanted to buy a larger portion of the orchard than Archelaus did, and Abi-adan was apparently planning to acquire that extra piece of orchard from a certain “son of Lutay”, who would give it to her as a grant. In P. Yadin 4 we have exactly that: someone saying that he will grant an orchard to a female.

More sleuthing on Esler’s part makes everything fall into place, as this “son of Lutay” emerges as the likely husband of Abi-adan. He acknowledges that he is debt to her in P. Yadin 4, and that he will reduce his debt by transferring the extra piece of orchard to her (which he was currently leasing to someone else, to expire in a few months). Esler points out that when men are indebted to women, it’s almost invariably the case of husbands indebted to their wives for having drawn on the wife’s dowry. Also, back in P. Yadin 3, Abi-adan and the son of Lutay are referred to together solely by their first names, which is a familiar manner of designation suggesting a married pair.

The relevance of Nabatean culture

Like any Philip Esler book, Babatha’s Orchard is prefaced by chapters of background history and cultural cues. I hadn’t realized how egalitarian the Nabateans were compared to their contemporaries, and that the ethic apparently pervaded all the way up to the kingship. Esler cites Strabo who describes the Nabatean king as a “man of the people” who served them at banquets, and who accounted for himself at popular assemblies where his means and methods were scrutinized. That’s a humble model of kingship hard to find elsewhere in the ancient Mediterranean.

Esler accounts for this in terms of the nomadic mindset. From their earliest days (in the fourth century BC) the Nabateans jealously guarded their independence and freedom. They were able to take refuge in the desert when forces invaded, and were hard for enemies to overcome because of secret wells they could access. Fredrik Barth has explained how nomadic household leaders had a freedom that was incompatible with the hierarchical structures of agrarian societies.

“Unlike a sedentary community, which persists unless the members abandon their house and land and depart, a camp community of nomads can only persist through a continuous re-affirmation by all its members. Every day the members of the camp must agree in their decision on the vital question of whether to move on, or to stay camped, and if they move, by which route and how far they should move. Every household head has an opinion, and the prosperity of the household is dependent on his decision.” (p 38)

Even after the emergence of a sedentary lifestyle and the kingship (in the second century BC), the Nabateans retained a nomadic dimension to their existence right up into the second century AD. The king and the elites were in sync with this.

This becomes relevant when Esler is able to illuminate things in surprising ways. For example, in his reconstruction, Amat-Isi (the woman of P. Yadin 1) called on Archelaus to collect the debt his father owed her. But Archelaus was a strategos, and in most places in the Mediterranean, it would have been a bold if not suicidal move on the part of a woman (or non-elite man, for that matter) to risk affronting an elite. As a rule, however, the Nabateans disdained elitist superiority and didn’t go out of their way to make life difficult for “presumptuous” commoners:

“Influenced by the nomadic traditions still operative among the Nabatean elite, Archelaus was not someone filled with his own sense of importance and was not likely to hold it against Amat-Isi in the future that she had asked him for the money his father had owed.” (p 224)

Not exactly how things worked in Judea and Galilee.

The Upshot

If I could write a book like Babatha’s Orchard, I’d be very proud. Rarely can scholars piece together missing and obscured information so compellingly, and in a way that allows us to read it as a story. Esler writes that story in the final chapter — how a Jew living in Nabatea bought a date-palm orchard from a woman after a high-ranking official failed to do so — bringing to life a complex web of events, personal motives, and social relations. It’s a story one could easily get a novel from. The book is also impressive as a study for its own sake and not as a means to an end. “I am not concerned,” says Esler, “to interpret New Testament texts against a social context known from the Nabatean legal papyri. Rather, I am seeking to understand better that context itself.” That’s fresh air, and the kind of thing I’d love to see more from our New Testament scholars.

The post-script to Babatha’s story is sad. In the Jewish revolt of 135 AD, she was captured by the Romans and in all likelihood killed or enslaved. But not before hiding her collection in a cave by the Dead Sea, to await discovery in 1961. Esler’s book honors her in the best possible way.

Concession or Critique: “The Poor You Will Always Have With You”

the-woman-anointing-jesus-feetIs Jesus’ saying a concession to the fact of poverty, or a critique of its continuing presence? Ray Vaillancourt argues the latter in his recent blogpost, and I think he’s probably right.

The relevant story is that of Mk 14:3-9/Mt 26:6-13/Jn 12:1-11, in which Jesus retorts, “The poor you will always have with you”, to his disciples, who are furious over a woman’s extravagant waste. The story actually seems to suggest that the disciples were concerned about the poor on that occasion, and not Jesus. The message would then be that followers of Jesus should resign themselves to the eternal reality of poverty — as long as Christians do “something nice for Jesus”, their consciences are clean.

If that’s true, then Jesus was radically revising Deuteronomy 15, sort of like the way Paul revised the figure of Abraham in Genesis 15 (by ignoring the stipulations of Genesis 17). Paul said that circumcision and ethnic commandments did not have to accompany faith. Jesus, if he were pulling a Paul, would be saying that jubilee and other debt provisions were no longer mandatory. Here’s the full relevant passage in Deuteronomy, with verses 4-5 and 11 in bold:

At the end of every third year you shall bring out all the tithes of your produce for that year and deposit them within your own communities, that the Levite who has no hereditary portion with you, and also the resident alien, the orphan and the widow within your gates, may come and eat and be satisfied; so that the Lord, your God, may bless you in all that you undertake. At the end of every seven-year period you shall have a remission of debts, and this is the manner of the remission. Creditors shall remit all claims on loans made to a neighbor, not pressing the neighbor, one who is kin, because the Lord’s remission has been proclaimed. You may press a foreigner, but you shall remit the claim on what your kin owes to you. However, since the Lord will bless you abundantly in the land the Lord will give you to possess as a heritage, there shall be no one of you in need if you but listen to the voice of the Lord and carefully observe this entire commandment which I enjoin on you today. Since the Lord will bless you as he promised, you will lend to many nations, and borrow from none; you will rule over many nations, and none will rule over you. If one of your kindred is in need in any community in the land which the Lord is giving you, you shall not harden your heart nor close your hand against your kin who is in need. Instead, you shall freely open your hand and generously lend what suffices to meet that need. Be careful not to entertain the mean thought, “The seventh year, the year of remission, is near,” so that you would begrudge your kin who is in need and give nothing, and your kin would cry to the Lord against you and you would be held guilty. When you give, give generously and not with a stingy heart; for that, the Lord will bless you in all your works and undertakings. The land will never lack for needy persons; that is why I command you: “Open your hand freely to your poor and to your needy kin in your land.” (Deuteronomy 14:28-15:11)

As Ray notes in his blogpost, verses 4-5 supply a vision which verse 11 acknowledges won’t be realized, due to the conditional requirement: if you observe the law, then there will be no one in need. “Observing the law” in this case includes commandments like the forgiveness of debts every seven years, and the Jubilee redistribution of wealth every 49 years to clean the mounting slate of injustices. In effect, the Deuteronomy passage is saying that “If you cancel debts as required by the law, then there will be no one in need. If you don’t charge loans with interest, then there will be no one in need. If you keep the law in the spirit of Deuteronomy and the prophets (and less by the lights of Leviticus and the scribes), then there will indeed be abundance for everyone in the land.”

But that returns us to the question: was this in fact Jesus’ understanding of Deuteronomy 15, or was he, as our modern Republicans insist, spinning Deuteronomy 15 in a new lais·sez-faire way — saying in effect, “The poor you will always have, so just live with it and don’t worry.” The Republicans have a case, because if anything it’s the disciples who seem to be reinforcing Deuteronomy 15, not Jesus, who is scolding them for sticking up for the poor. The problem lies in their sincerity. Ray cites Malina and Rohrbaugh, who note that a female with free access to a dinner attended by males would be a woman of questionable reputation, and the resentful disciples are simply using poverty rhetoric to shame this woman. They’re more angry at her presumption than her wastefulness. By defending her Jesus is fending off their hypocrisy more than anything else. (Also, in the context of the larger gospel narrative, the oil she’s using isn’t a self-indulgent meal anointing, but a preparation for Jesus’ burial — a devotional act which resounds to the messiah’s honor.) In John’s version of the story, the hypocrisy is made explicit with the character of Judas, who defended the poor, “not because he cared about the poor but because he was a thief and held the money bag and used to steal the contributions”.

In other words, in retorting “The poor you will always have with you,” Jesus brings Deuteronomy 15 into the spotlight in order to hold the disciples to their word. It’s meaningless to get indignant over injustices if you’re not committed to rectifying them, or if you’re just playing the social-justice warrior to cover for self-righteousness or prejudice. The disciples were doing one or the other or both, in over-zealously faulting a woman with good intentions.

Of course, Republicans can always rely on the face-value reading of Jesus’ saying. They can claim that a new day had dawned, and Jesus dispensed with the debt provisions of Deuteronomy — just like Paul later did with the circumcision requirement of Genesis. But I think that’s a heavy lift, given that the gospel testimony is replete for activism on this point, not least in the way Jesus tells disciples to sell everything they have and give to the poor. People like Jesus and Paul were as likely to reinforce scripture as revise it. Paul revised Genesis 15/17 for the benefit of his pagan converts. Jesus reinforced Deuteronomy 15 for the welfare of the poor.

“God is all for immigration”: A fundamentalist-Bible proof

hqdefaultOver ten years ago, Pastor Steven Anderson proved from the bible that God is all for immigration (May 7, 2006). It’s interesting that this sermon is being recirculated online in view of the current “Muslim ban”, which deserves a few comments before getting to Anderson’s argument.

Some are defending Trump’s executive order by noting that it isn’t really a ban on Muslims entering the country, but only a moratorium (temporary halt) on immigration from seven particular jihadist hotspots. While that is correct, it’s not the most compelling justification, given that Saudia Arabia isn’t on the list, even though it spends millions of dollars promoting jihadist warfare all over the world, and even though most of the 9/11 hijackers came from there. Not a single American has been killed by a citizen of any of the seven banned countries in 40 years, so the question is why do we need a moratorium for proper vetting to occur?

On the other hand, Trump’s critics aren’t always on the ball. Their claim that places like Saudi Arabia, the United Arab Emirates, Egypt, and Lebanon were excluded from the order because of Trump’s business interests is highly questionable. The list of seven countries was established in laws signed by Obama in the last two years, and Trump’s executive order does not even list the seven countries by name except (obviously) Syria. It simply refers to the “countries referred to in section 217(a)(12) of the INA, 8 U.S.C. 1187(a)(12).” All Trump did was lift a preexisting template. I’m not saying it’s a good one, and I don’t support a moratorium in any case — not even against a place like Saudi Arabia. It’s just not a proper way of dealing with refugee plights, and I believe it’s also an ineffective counter to the (very real) jihad threat. But let’s not spin-doctor Trump’s motives either.

On to Anderson’s sermon…

The sermon is noteworthy because Anderson is a renowned hate-preacher (at least when it comes to gay people) and he is so hardcore in his fundamentalist beliefs that he has been disowned by most other fundies. So when he goes out of his way to condemn Donald Trump as an “abomination to the Lord”, and that anyone who supports Donald Trump is “wicked as hell” (see here), and on top of that defends the rights of immigrants in the eyes of God, with assertions that Muslims or anyone else should be able to come and practice their religion in the U.S. without any governmental interference — well, that’s rather saying something.

Here is his biblical proof:

**** God is all for immigration****. “Everyone in America is an immigrant,” says Anderson, “except for the Native American Indians,” and so anyone opposing immigration sets themselves against God’s will. Against those who say that the less people we have, the better off we are, God’s wisdom says that the more people we have, the better off we are (Proverbs 14:28). God, moreover, specifically tells his followers to welcome and love the immigrant:

  • “The stranger (immigrant) that dwells with you shall be as one born among you, and you shall love him as yourself.” (Leviticus 19:34).
  • “You shall neither vex a stranger nor oppress him, for you were strangers in the land of Egypt.” (Exodus 22:21; cf.23:9; Leviticus 19:33).
  • Ruth wondered why she should receive grace, given that she was an immigrant from Moab. Yet Boaz took care of her anyway, and told others to treat her well. (Ruth 2:10-16)

Anderson offers the following caveats:

1. Immigrants must obey the laws of the land. God, in other words, doesn’t approve illegal immigration. Natives and immigrants are bound by the same laws: “You shall have one manner of law, as well for the stranger as for one of your own country” (Leviticus 24:22). No double standards are allowed.

2. Immigrants must learn the language of the land. Anderson appeals to the example of Nehemiah, who went ballistic over immigrants who couldn’t speak native Hebrew: “I saw Jews who had married women of Ashdod, Ammon, and Moab; and half of their children spoke the language of Ashdod, and they could not speak the language of Judah. And I contended with them and cursed them and beat some of them and pulled out their hair; and I made them take oath in the name of God, saying, ‘You shall not give your daughters to their sons, or take their daughters for your sons or for yourselves.'” (Nehemiah 13:23-25)

3. Immigrants can practice their religion, but they must respect the religion of the land. Anderson is a staunch libertarian: “Immigrants should have freedom of religion, and to practice whatever religion they want. If they want to be a Muslim, that’s fine. God bless them, I don’t want them to be forced to be a Christian, I’m totally against that. I’m 100% for religious freedom.” But he also believes they must respect Christianity in the way immigrants had to respect the Israelite faith in Old Testament times: “When they start blaspheming the religion of the land, they cross the line (Leviticus 24:16). They can practice whatever religion they want, but they have no right to come here and badmouth the religion of the land, or to try and change it.”

Anderson says, “I’m probably the most non-racist person you’ve ever laid eyes on in your life. I’m not racist at all. If half of this nation was Hispanic, or if 75% of this nation was Hispanic, or if 99% was Hispanic, or black, or anything, I would be thrilled. But what I’m against is when they say, ‘I don’t want to be like an American with freedom. I want to bring my culture and my language and change your country, so it can be like the hell-hole that I came from.'”

That last may not be the most diplomatic way of putting it, but for a fundamentalist of Anderson’s stripe, his biblical case for immigration is, on whole, rather impressive. I certainly wouldn’t object to hearing it preached from more pulpits across the nation.

Thrown into the Sea: Recovering the Exodus

horse-and-the-riderThe song about “the horse and the rider thrown into the sea” (Exodus 15:21) was a Sunday school favorite when I was growing up. It’s ridiculously cheesy but gave me thrills to imagine a pissed-off deity raining destruction down on slavers and despots. Even at that age I had the bloodthirsty streak that would find its outlet in horror and war genres. Today my interest in the exodus is more secular and esoteric. I have believed there is little historical basis to the biblical origin of Israel, because archaeology has nothing to show for it. But it depends on when, as much as where, you look for the evidence.

Until recently I had looked in the time of Ramesses II, as most scholars do. Let’s review the options.

Option (a): Ramesses II (c. 1250 BC)

The common view is based on Exodus 1:11 and 12:37, a literal reading of which places the exodus in the time of Egypt’s 19th dynasty under Ramessess II. Because there is zero archaeological confirmation of an exodus and military invasion of Canaan during Ramesses’ reign, the following alternative theories have been offered to explain Israelite origins in the 1250-1100 period.

  • Peaceful Infiltration. In The Settlement of the Israelites in Palestine (1925), Albrecht Alt proposed that instead of the conquest out of Egypt described in Joshua 1-11, there was a gradual influx of nomads with their flocks from the eastern deserts into the central hill country. The infiltrators searched for pasturage and eventually settled the sparsely populated areas between urban centers. In other words, the stories of Joshua 1-11 are myths.
  • Peasant Revolt. In “The Hebrew Conquest of Palestine” (1962) and The Tenth Generation: The Origins of the Biblical Tradition (1973), George Mendenhall argued that the origin of Israel was neither the result of a military invasion nor peaceful settlement, but a peasant revolt. Self-identified Israelites grew out of the indigenous shepherds, peasants and farmers rebelling against their Canaanite overlords. A small group of Semitic slaves may have escaped from Egypt and provided the catalyst to all of this, which would be the kernel of truth behind the war stories of Joshua 1-11.
  • Agricultural Resettlement. In The Bible Unearthed (2001), Israel Finkelstein (with coauthor Neil Asher Silberman) maintained there was no military invasion, peaceful infiltration, or peasant revolution. Israel emerged directly from within the Canaanite society of the lowlands, when it came into conflict with the Canaanite centers of the hill country. The emergence of early Israel was an outcome of the collapse of Canaanite culture, not its cause, coming mostly from within. In other words, the early Israelites were Canaanites themselves.

It’s worth noting that Alt was a pacifist, Mendenhall a hard leftist who wrote in the wake of the Cuban revolution (1953-59), and Finkelstein has gained voice in a time of increased sensitivity for modern Palestinians (=”ancient Israelites”) who are deemed to have as much claim to the land as Jews (=”Canaanites”). Which isn’t to say that biases rule out the theories, only that these readings cut against the grain of the text and carry meanings in an age where ideas about military conquests and national invasions are increasingly out of favor.

For years I accepted Mendenhall’s view. I was taught it in my Old Testament class back in 1989, and it seemed a reasonable alternative. True, I was aware of the artificiality of a “peasant Israel”, since in antiquity blood ties were everything and trumped social-class bonds. (For the latter-day Jesus to base his religious family on social kin at the expense of biology is one thing; for an entire nation to emerge on the premise of social-class kinship is quite another.) But unlike the other two theories, it at least takes the text of Joshua with some seriousness. The point is that all of these theories exist because there is literally not a shred of archaeological confirmation for an exodus or military invasion in the period of Ramesses II.

What’s surprising is how popular this option remains when the text never refers to the person of Ramesses. Exodus 1:11 refers to the city of Ramesses, in the same way that Genesis 47:11 speaks of the land of Ramesses. No biblical scholar believes that Gen 47:11 refers to the actual time of Ramesses, but when it comes to Exodus 1:11 they suddenly do. One is just as much an anachronism as the other. For clarity, the biblical writer of Genesis and Exodus used the current name of the city for the benefit of people living in his time (the seventh century BC). They would have known the location by the name of Ramesses but probably not the older name of Goshen or Avaris. It’s no different from Americans saying that Dutch colonists founded the city of New York, even though they founded it as the city of New Amsterdam (in 1625), which later became New York (in 1664).

Option (b): Thutmose III (1446 BC)

If we forget Ramesses II and take I Kings 6:1 at face value, then the exodus happened in 1446 BC — the favored theory of evangelical scholars. The Pharaoh in 1446 was Thutmose III and he was basically the Napoleon of ancient Egypt, mightier than even Ramesses II (though less of a megalomaniac), who prosecuted countless military campaigns and made Egypt into a true empire under the 18th dynasty. Historians call his reign the strongest epoch in Egypt’s history. That doesn’t sound like an era in which a prophet and his Yahweh-god brought Egypt to its knees. (Though who am I kidding: to an evangelical, the humbling of the mightiest pharaoh would resound to God’s glory all the more.)

Those who like this option tend to manufacture questionable evidence. Consider Thutmose’s campaign to destroy all images of his stepmother Hatshepsut, who had not only reigned as a female pharaoh but as his own co-regent in his youth. Most Egyptologists ascribe his crusade to sexist pride: this Napoleon king would not have wanted to be recorded for posterity as the man who ruled for an entire 20 years under the thumb of a woman. He rewrote Egyptian history to liberate his own, and to portray a smooth succession of male rulers. The evangelical scholars, however, suggest a different reason. They claim that Hatshepsut was Moses’ Egyptian stepmother — the bold young queen who supposedly drew Moses from the Nile (Exod 2:5-10). If that’s true, and she raised Moses as her own son in the royal court (Acts 7:21), then after the Reed Sea calamity, Thutmose would have returned to Egypt on a vicious crusade to erase her foul memory from every corner of Egypt and remove all possibility of her spirit ascending to the afterlife.

It’s a rather silly theory. For one, I doubt there is any historical basis to the legend of the baby Moses rescued from the Nile. No one knew or cared who Moses was when he was a baby. Like the infancy narratives of Jesus, it’s a story ascribing honor to a prophet-nobody who became somebody. Thutmose’s crusade to wipe out Hatshepsut’s images is perfectly understandable for the reason Egyptologists tell us, and is no different from other efforts in Egypt’s history to obliterate memories of objectionable pharaohs (like the heretic Akhenaten, kings with questionable lineage, etc.).

The most relevant piece for this dating option is the battle of Jericho. Evangelicals feel confident dating it to around 1400 BC — in other words, to about 40 years after the exodus (on the 1446 option) as the bible implies. In her archaeological dig in the 1950s, Kathleen Kenyon dated the destruction of Jericho to around the 1550s BC. But in his article, “Did the Israelites Conquer Jericho? A New Look at the Archaeological Evidence” (1990), Bryant Wood re-dated the destruction of Jericho from 1550 to 1400, primarily on the basis of pottery analysis (Kenyon also based part of her analysis on pottery, so go figure). Wood has not gained support for his view outside the wishful-thinking of evangelical circles. All the pottery experts have dismissed his claim, and later analyses in the ’90s confirmed that Jericho was destroyed during the late 1600s or 1500s, basically as Kenyon said. Which takes us to the next option.

Option (c): Dudimose (c. 1650 BC)

Either of the above two options — the skeptical (a) or the evangelical (b) — puts the exodus in the New Kingdom period (1539-1069 BC), for which there is no evidence (Wood’s protest about Jericho notwithstanding). There is however a string of evidence that spans the Middle Kingdom (2060-1649 BC) and Second Intermediate Period (1649-1539) which is widely ignored in scholarship. David Rohl is the lead proponent of this view. Among the evidence he considers, there is:

First, the archaeological record of Semitic/Asiatic populations found at Avaris (the name of the city before it became Ramesses) in the 1800s-1600s. Based on the Ramesses theory, scholars had looked for evidence of the Israelite sojourn in either the 1400s-1200s (assuming a 215-year sojourn), or the 1600s-1200s period (assuming a 430-year sojourn), and never found anything. But everything that archaeologists have unearthed at the earlier site of Avaris indicates the people came from Canaan. They were shepherds and traders who began settling in the delta around the mid-1800s.

Evangelicals who advocate the Thutmose theory can fudge here by accepting this 1800s-1600s evidence and extending it down to the 1400s, on the assumption of a 430-year sojourn. But the dig at Avaris doesn’t show Semitics/Asiatics that late, and the idea of a 430-year sojourn has always been a problematic reading of the bible. The textual evidence for a 215-year sojourn outweighs it. Most sources (Septuagint, Samaritan Pentateuch, Josephus) are unanimous in stating that the 430 years began only with Abraham’s arrival in Canaan, with Jacob’s arrival in Egypt marking the start of a 215-year sojourn. The archaeological record supports this.

By the reign of Sobekhotep III (26th ruler of the 13th dynasty, 1755-1751), the size of the Semitic population had grown. The archaeology shows a huge expansion of Avaris and more than twenty other sites containing Canaanite pottery. Around this time also comes evidence for slavery, with graves of skeletons showing signs of malnutrition and stress, and also an increase in infant graves, from a typical 25 percent rate to 50 percent — and on top of that, an increase in the remains of females who made it into adulthood as compared to male remains. This would align with the biblical account of male infants being put to death. There are also papyrus documents of the time which show that about half the domestic and estate slaves were Semitic, and it was probably even more than half since many of the Asiatic settlers had married native Egyptians and given their children Egyptian names.

Second, the account from a third century BC Egyptian chronicler, Manetho, who describes God (in the singular) “smiting” the Egyptians in the reign of Pharaoh Tutimaos (Greek for Dudimose). God smote the Egyptians in some way, which left them powerless so that foreigners could take over Egypt without bloodshed. The only time that happened was with the Hyksos, who brought the Middle Kingdom to and end and took over Egypt in the Second Intermediate period of 1649-1539. Manetho evidently understands the exodus (in which God wiped out the Egyptian forces at the Reed Sea) to have preceded the Hyksos takeover, which would be in the reign of Dudimose (c. 1653-1649).

Some Egyptologists say there were two pharaohs by this name, Djedhetepre Dudimose and Djedneferre Dudimose (Dudimose I and Dudimose II), while others say it was the same king who changed his prenomen mid-reign. If the former is true, then the exodus pharaoh is Dudimose II. Whichever is true, the evidence from excavations at Avaris indicate that the eastern delta suffered a calamity in Dudimose’s time, and the Asiatics picked up and left. Pits were found with bodies tossed in on top of each other, many face down. They apparently died from plague, and perhaps it was this mystery plague that was turned into God’s act in the tenth plague of Egypt. Which takes us to the next piece of evidence.

Third, the 13th-century Ipuwer Papyrus, containing the incomplete literary work called The Admonitions of Ipuwer which has been difficult to date. At first it was thought to be written around 2181-2060 BC, during the First Intermediate period and the time of civil war. But in 1966 John Van Seters made a strong case for dating it to the end of the Middle Kingdom on the eve of the Hyksos takeover. Of interest are the remarkable similarities between the catastrophes described in the Admonitions and the ten plagues of the bible. The parallels are usually dismissed since a 1600s date of composition precedes the date of the exodus by centuries. But if the exodus didn’t happen in either 1250 or 1446, but around 1650, then it’s right on the nose with Ipuwer. Here are the parallels.

Ipuwer Papyrus Exodus
Plague sweeps the land. Blood is everywhere with no shortage of the dead.

Egypt has fallen to the pouring water. And he who poured water on the ground seizes the mighty in misery.

The river is blood. As you drink of it, you lose your humanity and thirst for water.

There was blood throughout all the land of Egypt. (Exod 2:6)

Yahweh said, “Take some water from the Nile and pour it on the ground. The water you have taken from the river will turn to blood on the dry land.” (Exod 4:9)

All the water in the Nile turned to blood. The fish in the river died and the river stank, so that the Egyptians could not drink from it. (Exod 7:20-21)

Gates, columns and walls are consumed by fire. Lower Egypt weeps.

Gone is the grain of abundance. Food supplies are running short. The nobles hunger and suffer. Upper Egypt has become a wasteland. Grain is lacking on every side. The storehouse is bare. Women say, “Oh that we had something to eat!”

All animals, their hearts weep. Cattle moan and are left to stray, and there is none to gather them together.

Fire ran along the ground. There was hail, and fire mingled with the hail, and the hail smote every herb of the field, and broke every tree of the field. (Exod 9:23-25)

The flax and the barley were ruined. All the livestock of the Egyptians died. The locusts covered the surface of the ground until the land was devastated. And they devoured whatever was growing in the fields and all the fruit of the trees. (Exod 9:31, 9:6, 10:15)

“The hand of the Lord is upon thy cattle which is in the field, and there shall be a very grievous sickness. Gather thy cattle, and all that thou hast in the field.” And he that did not fear the word of the Lord left his servants and cattle in the field. (Exod 9:3,19,21)

What can we do about it? All is ruin.

Those that had shelter are now in the dark of the storm. The whole of the delta cannot be seen.

Pharaoh’s servants said to him, “Let the people go, that they may worship Yahweh their god. Do you not yet understand that Egypt is on the brink of ruin?” (Exod 10:7)

For three days there was thick darkness throughout the land of Egypt. (Exod 10:22)

Children are dashed against the walls. The funeral shroud calls out to you before you come near. He who buries his brother in the ground is everywhere. Wailing is throughout the land mingled with lamentations.

The slave takes what he finds. What belongs to the palace has been stripped. Gold, lapis, lazuli, silver, and turquoise are strung on the necks of female slaves. See how the poor of the land have become rich while the man of property is a pauper.

At midnight the Lord struck down all the first-born in the land of Egypt. And there was a great wailing in Egypt, for there was not a house without its dead. The Egyptians were burying those of their own people whom Yahweh had struck down. (Exod 12:29,30, Num 33:4)

The Israelites did as Moses had told them, and they asked the Egyptians for silver and gold jewellery and for clothing. Yahweh had given the people favor in the sight of the Egyptians that they let them have what they asked. So they plundered the Egyptians. (Exod 12:35-36)

And fourth, the destruction of Jericho, which as we saw was dated by Kenyon and her later supporters between the late 1600s and mid 1500s. If the exodus was c. 1650, then the battle of Jericho would be c. 1610, which fits the time frame. But that’s not all. Kenyon’s findings were rather amazing: (1) Jericho was apparently destroyed by an earthquake, which matches the biblical legend of the walls falling down flat (Joshua 6:20); (2) Jericho was also destroyed by a massive conflagration, leaving ash several layers thick, which supports the account of Israelites burning Jericho to the ground (Joshua 6:24); (3) cave tombs at Jericho show multiple and simultaneous burials, which Kenyon had suggested as some kind of catastrophe or plague being responsible for, and which could be the same plague that the Israelites carried from weeks before (Numbers 25:1-9); (4) abundant supplies of unused grain were found in home storage jars, which supports the biblical testimony that the siege wasn’t long at all, only seven days (Joshua 6:15); (5) there could even be evidence for Rahab’s house — in a poor part of the town Kenyon found the only excavated part of the wall that did not collapse, with houses built into the wall just like Rahab’s (Joshua 2:15). The archaeological pattern of Jericho fits the biblical stories to a tee. But it’s where scholars refuse to look — in Egypt’s 2nd Intermediate Period, not the New Kingdom of the 18th or 19th dynasties.

New Chronology: The Work of David Rohl

But it’s not that simple, because this string of evidence — for the sojourn, exodus, and conquest — creates as many problems as it solves when pushed back to the 1800s-1600s. It would mean that a lot of other biblical events (the Philistines, the period of the judges, David’s reign, the consecration of Solomon’s temple, etc.) need be pushed back too, and there is no justification for such a massive realignment of biblical chronology. On the other hand, there are good reasons to revise Egyptian chronology, and this is what scholars like David Rohl have been doing since the 1990s. In his revision, the Middle Kingdom and 2nd Intermediate Period get reassigned from the 1800s-1600s to the 1600s-1400s, which means that the sojourn, exodus, and conquest — which, per the evidence above, align with those Egyptian periods — don’t end up getting pushed so far back after all.

To list all the reasons for Rohl’s revisionist project would demand multiple blogposts, but for now here’s a significant one: the problem of equating the biblical Shishak (925 BC) with Pharaoh Shoshenk I (the first pharaoh of the 22nd dynasty). The equation was made back in the 1820s by Jean-Francois Champollion, and it has become a thrice-damned unmovable mountain in our chronology of the ancient world. They are very doubtfully the same pharaoh. The biblical Shishak conquered Judah and plundered Jerusalem (I Kings 14:25-26; II Chronicles 12:1-12). Shoshenk did not. In the 1880s, it was found that Champollion was wrong in translating the hieroglyphics in Shoshenk’s campaign relief as “Judah the Kingdom”. It actually reads “Hand of the King”, has nothing to do with Judah, and in fact the campaign relief indicates that Shoshenk avoided Judah on his military campaign in (northern) Israel. Of the fifteen fortresses strengthened by Rehoboam to resist attack from the direction of Egypt, only one (Ajalon) appears on Shoshenk’s campaign list, and it’s the one directly on the route crossing the hill country north of the Judean border. Shoshenk was going to battle the armies of Aram-Damascus, who were plundering northern Israel and encroaching on his sphere of influence — not to attack the people of Judah. But since the 1880s everyone has kept assuming that he was Shishak. Virtually all of our Egyptian chronology, and thus of the ancient world, hangs on this biblical date of 925 BC connected to the probably wrong pharaoh. (As far as the real identity of Shishak, Rohl argues that he was a king of the 19th dynasty, not the 22nd; that’s three centuries off right there.)

In Rohl’s revised chronology, historical events get adjusted by on average 2-3 centuries by a massive re-evaluation of all the data. Here’s a snapshot of his revised timeline of the Middle to New Kingdoms of Egypt, from our conventional (C) dates to his new (N) ones.

Middle Kingdom
12th dynasty: 1938-1802 (C) –> 1803-1632 (N)
13th dynasty: 1802-1649 (C) –> 1632-1439 (N)

2nd Intermediate Period
14th-17th dynasties (Hyksos and rival Thebans): 1649-1539 (C) –> 1439-1202 (N)

New Kingdom
18th dynasty: 1539-1292 (C) –> 1202-962 (N)
19th dynasty: 1292-1190 (C) –> 962-866 (N)

So the pharaoh of the oppression, whom Rohl believes to be Sobekhotep III, reigned c. 1755 in our conventional chronology, and c. 1545 in the revised chronology. Dudimose, the pharaoh of the exodus, reigned 1653-1649, which translates to 1450-1446. This means that the exodus actually did happen in 1446, as the evangelicals claim (I Kings 6:1 is correct after all), but not in the time of the New Kingdom’s 18th dynasty, rather two centuries before, at the end of the Middle Kingdom’s 13th dynasty. The conquest of Canaan moves from c. 1610 to c. 1410, which again makes the evangelicals technically right, but profoundly wrong in how they align biblical events with the rest of the world.


I’m not urging overnight conversions to the new chronology or the acceptance of every new dating period fixed by Rohl (of which there are hundreds). But the project does deserve to be taken seriously. In a documentary called Patterns of Evidence (2014), Israel Finkelstein is interviewed and scorns revisionist efforts, saying that the margin of error for our conventional dating is surely no more than ten years. But that’s not true. All you have to do is pick up a book written by an Egyptian specialist, for example Toby Wilkinson’s Rise and Fall of Ancient Egypt (2010), which in the first pages provides a timeline of all the dynasties from 2950 to 30 BC. The timeline is prefaced by a warning that the margin of error for the dates is “within a century or so” for the period of 2950-1300 BC. In other words, for at least the period we’re concerned with (prior to 1300 BC), this historian acknowledges the margin of error to be at least a century. That’s a revealing admission, and I suspect Wilkinson is low-balling the figure, considering some of the flimsy foundations on which our chronology rests. David Rohl’s shifts of two to three centuries don’t seem so radical in this light.

At the very least, I’m persuaded to abandon the peasant-revolt theory in favor of a traditional conquest. Not in a maximalist way, to be sure. The bible is full of legendary embellishment. But if I’m skeptical of the bible, I’m just as skeptical of hyper-skepticism.

Reading Roundup: 2016

This was a really good year for books. Read all of these if you can make time.

mythandalusianparadise_frontcover_final1. The Myth of the Andalusian Paradise, Dario Fernandez-Morera. If you can only make time for one book on my list, pick this one. It’s a milestone in putting to bed the biggest academic myth of our time, and comes from a Harvard scholar, the last place you’d expect on this subject. We’ve been taught that Muslims, Christians, and Jews co-existed fruitfully under an enlightened Islamic hegemony in medieval Spain, where the reality is the opposite. Christians and Jews were treated horribly under Islam. As dhimmis they were subject to degrading laws that made life barely tolerable. Medieval Spain was a society in which the abuse of non-Muslims, slaves, and women was written into law and sanctified by holy writ. Even at its most prosperous the Caliphate of Cordoba was never a tolerant or humane society. None of this should be controversial, but university presses are a bit paralyzed; they want to avoid the charge of “Islamophobia” and so present Islamic domination (of even centuries ago) as relatively benign. The idea of Christian dhimmis being content under Islamic rule is as much a fantasy as that of American blacks happy as slaves in the antebellum south since their masters made them “part of their family”. Had there been no Islamic conquest, and Visigoth Spain was left to grow and interact with eastern Christianity, the Renaissance would have happened much sooner.

marginal2. A Marginal Jew: Probing the Authenticity of the Parables, John Meier. If Meier is right, and unfortunately I think he is, then the parables aren’t the guaranteed voice of Jesus. Of the 32 stories, we can salvage perhaps four — yes, only four — with confidence: The Mustard Seed (God’s rule was already at work in human activity, and however small that seemed now, it would bear fruit on a huge scale in the end), the Great Supper (a warning that one’s place in the kingdom can be taken by those who never had any right to it), the Talents (along with sovereign grace and reward comes the possibility of being condemned in hell for refusing God’s demands contained in his gifts), and the Wicked Tenants (Jesus knew what awaited him if he confronted the Jerusalem authorities, and he accepted a destiny of irreversible martyrdom). All other parables, even the long-standing cherished ones — The Good Samaritan, The Prodigal Son, The Leaven, The Sower, The Seed Growing Secretly, The Laborers in the Vineyard, The Unmerciful Servant, The Shrewd Manager, The Pharisee and the Toll Collector, The Unjust Judge, The Friend at Midnight, The Rich Fool, The Rich Man and Lazarus — either shout a later creation, or can at best be judged indeterminate. Meier shows that the dominant view is a house of cards: there is no warrant for giving the parables pride of place in the teachings of Jesus. Full review here.

moh_and_cha_revisited3. Mohammed and Charlemagne Revisited: The History of a Controversy, Emmet Scott. The premise of this book is that without Muhammad, Charlemagne would have been inconceivable. Meaning that if not for the Islamic invasions of the seventh century, the medieval world as we know it would not have appeared. There would have been no “Holy” Roman Empire, and Western Europe would have remained fairly Roman under the continued influence and communication from Constantinople. The Viking raids wouldn’t have occurred, nor would there have been crusades or inquisitions. Without the Islamic example of slavery, contact with Indians in the new world may have unfolded differently, not to mention Europe’s relations with sub-Saharan Africa. That was Henri Pirenne’s thesis 80 years ago, and Scott improves on it with special attention to the archaeological record. It’s clear that the barbarian invaders weren’t mindless destroyers or ineffectual hold-outs, but rather they adopted Roman civilization to the extent that classical culture not only thrived but revived over against the deterioration of the third-fifth centuries. This state of affairs wouldn’t change until the second quarter of the seventh century, with the jihad invasions of the East, Middle-East, and North Africa. And from the ravages of Islam would rise Charlemagne’s Holy Roman Empire in response. This is essential reading for understanding the genesis of medieval Christendom. Full review here.

night-comes4. Night Comes: Death, Imagination, and the Last Things, Dale Allison. I make a point of reading everything by Dale Allison, even when it goes outside my comfort zone. He’s a solid historical critic and well-rounded thinker that makes him equipped to tackle big theological questions. This book is about death and how we cope with the idea of it. The first chapter is a meditation on the fear of death, how we push for longevity, and how our increased longevity has effected our perception. In the days of Jesus, for example, life would have looked different if you could only hope to make it to 30 instead of 80. (Imagine, says Allison, how Jesus’ prohibition against divorce will look to a 500-year old Christian, if science ever gets us that far.) The second chapter deals with the resurrection, suggesting that no matter how physical (like the gospels) or spiritual (like Paul) we favor the idea, there’s no neat answer to the objections against both, though Allison leans more in favor of Pauline discontinuity between the old and new bodies. Modern cremation and organ donation, not to mention our increased detachment to the physical remains of loved ones, means that corpse-like resurrection becomes less important to modern Christians. The next chapter is about judgment, with a fascinating discussion of near death experiences and “life reviews”, which according to survivors forced them to watch the replay of their entire lives in an instant, and to grasp the consequences of everything they’ve done. Then there are chapters on the question of an afterlife. Like many of Allison’s books, Night Comes unnerves you no matter what you believe.

atheist-muslim5. The Atheist Muslim, Ali Rizvi. This book is the best example I know of how to criticize religion — and with a razor when necessary — without attacking people in the process. Rizvi begins with Thomas Jefferson who launched the first U.S. international war against Islamic jihadists who were for no apparent reason attacking U.S. ships sailing into the Mediterranean. Jefferson wanted to know why, and in the words of the Muslim ambassador, they were simply doing as Muhammad commanded, that it was the Muslim right to wage war on all nations who didn’t acknowledge Islamic rule, and to make slaves of all they could take as prisoners, and that every Muslim who died in battle for this cause would go to paradise. This was two centuries ago, long before ISIS or Al-Qaeda, the Iranian revolution, modern drone strikes — and long before any established “U.S. foreign policy”, which is not what calls forth jihadist warfare in any case. Rizvi refutes false dichotomies (with zingers like “saying that culture is the problem and not religion is like saying, ‘It’s not falling out of the airplane that kills you, it’s the ground.’”), and suggests that what makes the Qur’an so dangerous is that it combines the worldly violence of the Old Testament with the afterlife violence of the New. His chapter on free speech, and the necessity of defending even hate speech, is unassailable. This is a book that anyone can and should learn from, even if you don’t particularly identify with atheism (as I don’t). Full review here.

chaos6. Harnessing Chaos: The Bible in English Political Discourse since 1968, James Crossley. I like the use of 1968 as a benchmark. I was born that year and it probably says something about me. Crossley calls it “the key moment of historical chaos” that triggered huge cultural shifts worldwide. Fury over Vietnam. Flower power. Hippies and drugs. And the backlash to all of this. Crossley focuses on the impact of this chaos in the U.K. and on four evolving English views of the bible: (1) the Cultural Bible of western heritage and literature, (2) the Liberal Bible of democratic thought (freedom of conscience, rights, and consensus against tyranny), (3) the Neoliberal Bible of Margaret Thatcher (individualism, free trade, the priority of the market and individual responsibility against state power for the common good and elimination of poverty), and (4) the Radical Bible of liberation theology (socialism and revolutionary transformation). It’s an excellent chronicle of how politicians and public figures use the bible, and confirms my long-standing opinion that the Judeo-Christian tradition is saturated with ideas that lend themselves to both socialistic and individualistic values in almost equal measure. Be sure to get the revised (2016) version, which improves on the 2014 with a chapter covering the past two years, especially David Cameron’s speeches upholding the Neoliberal Bible while Jeremy Corbyn’s invoke the Radical Bible. I’d love to see Crossley write a book like this focused on American politics.

seven myths7. Seven Myths of the Crusades, Alfred Andrea & Andrew Holt (editors). This was published in 2015 but I read it this year. If you want to know what specialists say about the crusades without reading dense tomes this is exactly the book for you. It’s easily accessible and grounded in peer-reviewed scholarship. It corrects longstanding myths about the crusades, like being greedy unprovoked attacks on a benign Muslim world (the Christian holy wars were defensive responses to Muslim conquests of Christian land, and they were economically suicidal expeditions), anti-Jewish (the church never preached a crusade against the Jews, though some crusaders turned things in this direction), or the western equivalent of the Islamic jihad (jihad is a permanent state of being, tied to the warlord example of Muhammad; the crusades were unique events requiring the papal approval, voluntary, tailored for medieval knights whose profession was sinful to begin with, and they were never seen as essential to Christianity). It’s an economical book that packs useful information in short space, and to my surprise, many people have thanked me for recommending it. Further notes about the book here.

paul-behaving-badly8. Paul Behaving Badly: Was the Apostle a Racist, Chauvinist Jerk?, E. Randolph Richards and Brandon J. O’Brien. For an evangelical book I have to admit it handles Paul pretty evenly. The authors apply the idea of a “trajectory hermeneutic”, where biblical principles that initially have little effect produce significant change over time. So if Paul required women to be submissive and dress appropriately in certain contexts, he also considered women to be his missionary colleagues, not to mention deaconesses, which means that his teaching was at least in a direction of liberating women. Same with slavery: in antiquity it was the natural backbone of society, with rigid lines between slaves and masters, and Paul could never have condemned the institution and be taken seriously. But he did teach that slaves and masters were brothers on equal footing in the Christian family, and because of that, masters can’t assault their slaves with impunity. Paul at least pushes in a direction of protection and liberation of slaves. On the subject of homosexuality, Paul’s trajectory is in the negative direction. In Roman culture homoerotic sex may have shamed the passive male, but it celebrated the dominant (penetrating) one. Paul condemned both active and passive roles, pushing in a direction of more restriction rather than liberation, even concluding — though the authors frankly avoid this unpleasant point — that sodomites are “worthy of death”. On whole this is a balanced treatment that helps one understand the importance of trajectory hermeneutics, and why it’s not the case that scriptures are malleable to the same degree, or in the same direction, on any issue.

assholes.jpg9. Assholes: A Theory of Donald Trump, Aaron James. Now that Trump has been elected, this book is more sobering than entertaining. On the one hand, it’s true that much of Trump’s success owes to American anger with the establishment, income inequality, leftists who make honest discussions (about free speech, Islam, etc.) difficult, and other things. That’s understandable; he’s an outsider to a system that has failed us. But he isn’t a competent or humane outsider. He’s an asshole, and recognized as such even by his fans. How does an ass win the presidency? “To sum up my answer,” says James, “he flashes between different asshole types, boorish one moment, self-aggrandizing the next, then bullshitting, all while managing to be very entertaining. Trump is a stunning, even likable showman. His display of the asshole arts — as schoolyard bully, or cutdown boxer — is unrivaled, and its own spectacle. The question is then why enough of us are not flatly revolted. My answer is that we — most of us — really like an ass-clown. We are drawn to him even in revulsion, and his supporters forgive or overlook his transgressions. Our pleasure in the spectacle leaves us unsettled in our feelings and him free to do pretty much as he likes.” He’s about to plant his worthless ass in the Oval Office, so get ready for the worst next month. Full review here.

Is anti-abortion biblical?

bibleNot directly, no. But it arguably aligns well with biblical beliefs.

Chris Heard, a rather strong anti-abortionist, sums it up like this:

“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 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 — hardly of help to the anti-abortionist cause.

Heard does believe that a biblical case can be made for anti-abortion, but that it would have to be a “cumulative theological case” rather than a direct case based on proof texts. I think he’s probably right (for the record, I’m as pro-choice as they come), and history speaks for itself. The Jews and Christians of antiquity were known for despising infanticide and abortion.

In fact, in the book I recently reviewed, Mohammaed & Charlemagne, Emmet Scott revisits the historical claim that Constantine 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 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 (NT) pacifism are. It’s more biblical in the way that anti-racism or (NT) separation-of-church and state is. A convincing case can be made for it by building on related biblical ideas, but the platform doesn’t span the bible.

The Five “Biggest” Myths about Jesus

jesusThe Daily Beast has a fun article by Candida Moss on the five “biggest” myths of Jesus. She gets most of it right except for one.

1. Jesus wasn’t tall and white. “He was a socially and politically disenfranchised man with tanned skin who was living under the hand of an oppressive foreign government. He didn’t enjoy the privileges of white men today.”


2. Jesus wasn’t the messiah the Jews expected. “First-century Jews, most of whom were eagerly anticipating the arrival of the messiah, had a number of opinions about what that messiah would be like. Most were hoping for a military or political leader who would overthrow the Jewish authorities and become a ruler like King David.”

Basically yes. Other options included a priestly messiah, prophetic messiah, and heavenly arch-angel messiah (see John Collins’ The Scepter and the Star). In the gospels Jesus is presented as a variant combo of the prophetic and heavenly arch-angel.

(X) 3. Jesus wasn’t a pacifist. “Even if he wasn’t the political messiah people hoped for, he wasn’t a 1960s hippie either. In fact, he explicitly says, ‘Do not think that I have come to bring peace to the earth’ (Matt 10:34). Sure, he tells Peter to put away his sword when the temple guards come to arrest him in the Garden of Gethsemane, and he announces ‘Blessed are the peacemakers’ during the Sermon on the Mount, but his overturning of tables in the Temple during Passover week has to be read as an act of aggression. In the Gospel of John he actually uses a whip to drive people out of the Temple.”

Frankly this is silly. As presented in the sources Jesus certainly stands as a pacifist. Mt 10:34 is a blatant metaphor about severing family blood ties in favor of fictive kin, and so obvious that not even the crusading theologians of the medieval period tried using it to justify the holy wars (they got pretty creative in distorting biblical passages but didn’t bother attempting with this one). And if Jesus used a whip to drive out the money-changers, that hardly disproves he was a pacifist.

4. Jesus wasn’t that concerned about family, but was strongly opposed to divorce. “Jesus identifies his followers, rather than his biological relatives, as his family, and instructs his disciples to leave their old [families] behind and follow him. The one place Jesus is truly supportive of marriage is when it comes to divorce.”

Check. Many of us implicitly (and regardless of our religion) subscribe to the philosophy of “love your families and hate your enemies”, but Jesus was known for “love your enemies” and “hate your families” (Lk 14:26).

5. Historians know almost nothing about who Jesus was. “There have been a number of best-selling and shocking books about Jesus of Nazareth that purport to tell us who Jesus actually was. The historians writing these books purport to peel back the layers of history and deliver a biography of the real Jesus. These are entertaining, iconoclastic, and sometimes well-written reads, but they’re something of an intellectual hoax. Many of the criteria employed by scholars work with assumptions about ancient society and Jesus’ place within it, but…it is often impossible to evaluate whether Jesus’ words and deeds were plausible, embarrassing, commonplace, or radical.”

I’m afraid I have to agree. I’ve been increasingly less confident in efforts to reconstruct a reliable historical Jesus (beyond a bare-bones apocalyptic prophet). I’m glad to see William Arnal’s The Symbolic Jesus cited: “Historical portraits of Jesus don’t matter because ‘the Jesus who is important to our own day is not the Jesus of history but the symbolic Jesus of contemporary discourse.'” Though I’d put it a bit differently. Historical portraits always matter, but at least we shouldn’t “need” a historical Jesus to ground any of our contemporary agendas.