I mentioned circumcision once, but I think I got away with it.

It’s part of human nature to try and hide away embarrassing details about our lives or about what we believe. Whether that’s the baby photos your mum shows your girlfriend or boyfriend, or the awkward thing you did on holiday in Spain when you were 15 – you know which one I’m talking about. If you find it embarrassing, just hide it, or if it’s common knowledge mention as little of it as you can. Easy.

The Jewish historian Flavius Josephus was no different. In the late first century AD, he wrote a book (or rather 20 books) called Antiquities of the Jews. It’s basically a story of the Jewish people all the way from creation to the destruction of Jerusalem in 70AD. It’s a long read, but for us geeks it’s actually really interesting (just doing my job!).

Josephus is writing for Roman readers. He is a beneficiary of the last emperor of the Flavian dynasty, Caesar Domitian (he’s a bad guy, by the way). His aim is to try and show the Romans that the Jews are pretty awesome people. So he writes their history. It’s based mostly on the Bible, but with some serious additions (did you know that Moses was a General in the Egyptian Army, or that Abraham was an Astronomer? I didn’t, and I doubt they were), and omissions.

People usually get rid of things they are embarrassed about. One of those awkward things, for Josephus, is Circumcision. Romans and Greeks thought circumcision was nothing less than mutilation – a gross thing those nasty Jews did; no flint knives please, we’re Roman. Josephus had a problem. On the one hand, the Romans knew about circumcision. He couldn’t simply just say: ‘circumcision? noooo, we don’t do that. Who would do that kind of thing?’ The Romans would simply respond my mentioning the time they used communal showers after a football game with the local synagogue team. Josephus couldn’t just cut circumcision (pun intended), which is why he mentions Abraham’s covenant of circumcision from Genesis 17.

On the other hand, Josephus wanted Judaism to be respectable (Josephus himself wasn’t very respectable in other Jews’ eyes, but that’s another story). So what he could do was mention circumcision as little as possible. Briefly mention it when Abraham is told about it, and then try and brush it under the carpet. Don’t mention circumcision! I mentioned it once, but I think I got away with it… Like an embarrassed teenager who changes the awkward details in a childhood story, Josephus changes and gets rid of embarrassing mentions of circumcision in the Bible. I’ve only got through the first six books of Antiquities (give me time!), but here are some significant instances where absent foreskins are conveniently erased from the story:

  • The (genius) plan of Jacob’s sons in Genesis 34 is changed. In Genesis 34, Jacob’s sons somehow convince the men of Shechem to get circumcised. Whilst they are still in pain, Simeon and Levi wipe them out. Josephus, instead, claims that the men of Shechem were celebrating a festival.
  • The weird passage in Exodus 4, where Moses’ son (or Moses himself? The Hebrew isn’t clear) get’s circumcised is left out of Josephus’ account. No weird stories about angels and flint knives, thank you very much!
  • In Joshua 5, the Israelites go through a mass circumcision before destroying Jericho. That didn’t get past Josephus’ editor.
  • When Saul offers his Daughter Michael to David, he asks for 100 Philistine foreskins as a prize. David is a little over-enthusiastic about marrying a king’s daughter and brings him back 200. Two-for-One foreskin marriage deals? No thanks, say Josephus. Let’s replace it with 600 Philistine heads. That’s much more politically correct.

All of which seems to show that unless he really needed to, Flavius Josephus didn’t like mentioning foreskins.


Puzzling about Pistis

Ah, Greek… it promises to solve all our interpretations of the New Testament, but instead introduces far more issues. I told this to a group of students learning Greek, and by the look of horror on some of their faces, they hadn't realised it. For all its usefulness, Greek has a tendency to bring up problems which are safely hidden away under the carpet of translation.

Here is one of those issues. Those who are familiar with studies of Paul's theology will realise that one of the most thorny translation issues in Paul's letters is how to render that annoying little duo of words pistis Christou. It could mean 'faith in Christ', as most translations have it, or 'faith(fulness) of Christ' – think of the similarities between 'trust' and 'trustworthy' in English.

Tom Wright, in Paul and the Faithfulness of God, of course, deals with this little expression. Wright is strongly on the 'faithfulness of Christ' side, and explains why, using the occurance of dia pisteōs Iēsou Christou (through the faith/faithfulness in/of Jesus Christ) in Romans 3.22. Wright argues that the strongest reason for the reading 'faithfulness of…' is not gramatical, but rather narrative.

He reasons like this: in 3.2, Paul says that Jews were entrusted (episteuthēsan) with God's oracles. They were meant to be a light to the nations (see 2.17ff). Paul asks, 'does their lack of faithfulness make God unfaithful?' Of course not! Paul, Wright says, is dealing with two problems: (1) all of humanity is sinful; (2) Israel has failed in their commission to be a light to the nations. The question, then, is how is God going to sort out the problem of sin through Israel in order to remain faithful to his covenant.

The answer, Wright explains, is the 'faithfulness of the Messiah,' referred to in 3.22. Christ's faithfulness as the true Israelite means that God can be faithful to his promise to bless the nations through Israel despite their failure to follow their mandate. Pistis Christou, for Wright, is about Christ's faithfulness, as Israel's Messiah, to God's commission. This faithfulness brings about justification.

Wright and the “Plight”

I'm making my way through N. T. Wright's shibboleth of a book, Paul and the Faithfulness of God, and in due time I'm sure I'll post some kind of summary/review up here (if I can summarise 1500+ pages). One issue which Wright deals with, which I was reading about just now, is the issue of the problem, or plight, to which the Gospel of Jesus the Messiah is a response – i.e. what is it that is wrong in order for Jesus to be a solution.

Wright argues extensively that Paul's understanding of the plight was remolded around Jesus and the Spirit. Prior to his “conversion,” Paul was aware of an extensive problem (Wright disagrees with Sanders that Paul had no sense that anything was wrong before encountering Jesus). As a good Second-Temple pharisee, he would most likely have seen pagan idolatry and unfaithful Israelites as the key problem. Paul's encounter with the risen Jesus, though, forced him to reassess the situation: things were actually far, far worse than he had ever thought.

For one, if the problem necessitated the death of the Messiah, then it was a far greater problem than he had previously imagined. The problem, in light of Jesus, clearly didn't just apply to gentiles; it also plagued “faithful” Israel itself. Secondly, the resurrection of the messiah pointed beyond pagan idolators as the issue to be dealt with. Rather, Sin and Death themselves were to be defeated. Finally, the experience of the Spirit and its renewing power led Paul to conclude that the human heart itself was also a problem which needed to be overcome.

These issues all come to a head in the classic description of the human plight, Romans 1.18-2.16. In light of the conclusions we have noted above, Wright offers his take on this thorny little passage. And thorny it is; in fact, the thorn really comes down to one small Greek word: γαρ (for). The transition between the previous passage and this one reads as follows:

For I am not ashamed of the gospel, for it is the power of God for salvation to everyone who believes, to the Jew first and also to the Greek. For in it the righteousness of God is revealed from faith for faith,as it is written, “The righteous shall live by faith.” For (γαρ) the wrath of God is revealed from heaven against all ungodliness and unrighteousness of men, who by their unrighteousness suppress the truth. (Rom. 1.16-18)

'For.' One word; so many interpretations. It's meaning is not that obvious. In what sense is the revelation of the Gospel logically linked to the revelation of God's wrath? Some say that it isn't and suggest that we shouldn't load any logical force onto the γαρ. But this, as Wright insists, does not fit with Paul's usual use of the term (as well as its multiple uses in this passage itself). No, there is some logical relationship between the revelation of God's wrath and the revelation of the Gospel.

One point which Wright insists on is that the wrath referred to in v.18 is future. It is not the 'giving over' which is described in the ensuing verses. Paul, in Wright's view, reserves the word wrath for God's future judgement over his creation, not a present revelation of that anger. So wrath, then, is not something (at least in this passage) which we see around us, but something which will be poured out on the day of judgement. But how is that future wrath revealed in the Gospel?

For Wright, the key is that it is precisely in this Gospel that Paul realised the extent of the human problem. The typical Jewish critique of paganism in 1.18-32 (see Wisdom of Solomon, for example) is turned in its head in 2.1 as Paul argues that the very critic of pagan idolatry is guilty of the same sin. The Gospel, as Paul insists in 2.16 makes it clear that God will judge the secrets of humans' hearts, not just immoral pagans. Shortly put, by encountering the risen Jesus, Paul realised that the dramatic solution which God had put in place meant that the problem ran through all people, not just immoral gentiles. As Wright puts it,

It was not enough to say, with many Jewish thinkers before and after Paul's day, that all humans had an 'evil inclination', a yetzer hara', which must be kept in check by the 'good inclination', the yetzer hatob. That was just the surface noise, but underneath there lay a much deeper problem, the disease of sin itself. (p.769)

Josephus and “smoothing-over” History

Josephus is a fascinating read, whether his Wars of the Jews, vividly describing the invasion and subjugation of Judea in 66-70AD, or his Antiquities of the Jews, in which he tells the story of the Jewish people. He is also quite helpful, as well, for finding out what people in his days may have done with Scripture and with history.

In Antiquities 11.68, Josephus omits a bunch of names from the biblical account of Ezra 2. Josephus’ warrant for doing so?

I do not think it proper to recite particularly the names of those families, that I may not take off the minds of my readers from the connection with historical facts and make it hard for them to follow the coherence of my narration.

Basically, Josephus wants the story he is telling to read well; so, unlike modern historians (though some could learn a lesson from this), he passes over particular details in order to make his account more readable. History, for Josephus, has to be readable as a coherent narrative (I can almost hear the squirming of post-modern deconstructionists…)

It is not only omitting details that Josephus, and I assume many other ancient historians, did. It is also “smoothing over” things and rearranging thing that aren’t straightforward in his sources. A couple of examples:

Josephus’ source for the story of Cyrus the great sending the Jews back in 539-38BC to rebuild the temple in Jerusalem is patently Ezra 1. In Ezra 1.2-3, the author writes:

“Thus says Cyrus king of Persia: The LORD, the God of heaven, has given me all the kingdoms of the earth, and he has charged me to build him a house at Jerusalem, which is in Judah. Whoever is among you of all his people, may his God be with him, and let him go up to Jerusalem, which is in Judah, and rebuild the house of the LORD, the God of Israel—he is the God who is in Jerusalem.

If it is a verbatim quote from Cyrus (there are good reasons to think that it at least in spirit goes back to Cyrus – cf. the Cyrus Cylinder) then Cyrus claimed that Yahweh had told him to rebuild the Temple. Most likely, this is simply Persian political propaganda (he does the same kind of thing with the Babylonian God as well). This is all the more clear from Isaiah 45.4-5, the prophet claims (of Cyrus):

For the sake of my servant Jacob, and Israel my chosen, I call you [i.e. Cyrus – cf. 45.1] by your name, I name you, though you do not know me. I am the LORD, and there is no other, besides me there is no God; I equip you, though you do not know me

Historically speaking, it is unlikely that Cyrus was a Yahweh-worshipper. He simply had good political skills (which were, of course, ordained by God). Isaiah 45 supports this – Cyrus does not know Yahweh.

Josephus, though, in a brilliant smoothing-over of history, combines that two accounts and claims that Yahweh had been reading Isaiah and realised that it spoke of him:

This was known to Cyrus by his reading the book which Isaiah left behind him of his prophecies (Antiquities 11.5)

Cyrus turns from (most-likely) a shrewd, divinely-yet-unconsciously-guided ruler to an avid reader of Israel’s Scriptures. Josephus seems to have reworked a few details together to produce a coherent readable narrative.

A second and final example. In Ezra 4 there is an account of how the first exiles who returned from Babylon met opposition when they were rebuilding the temple; their opponents frustrated their work until the reign of Darius (519BC). In Ezra 4.7-23, the author includes a letter in which Judea’s enemies denounce their building work to the Persians. The problem? The letter is written to Artaxerxes, who reigned from 465BC, not Cyrus the current ruler. Also, there is only mention of the walls being rebuilt, which is not what happened in the late 6th century BC. The letter in 4.7-23 is clearly from the time of Nehemiah’s rebuilding of the walls (in 445BC), not Zerubbabel’s rebuilding of the Temple (538-516BC).

Josephus, though, is trying to write a nice, coherent and easy-to-read account. So he simply claims that the letter was written to Cambyses (Cyrus’ successor) and keeps adding references to the temple. Compare Ezra 4.12 and Josephus, Antiquities 11.22:

be it known to the king that the Jews who came up from you to us have gone to Jerusalem. They are rebuilding that rebellious and wicked city. They are finishing the walls and repairing the foundations. (Ezra 4.12)

It is fit, O king, that you should know that those Jews who were carried to Babylon are come into our country, and are building that rebellious and wicked city, and its market places, and setting up its walls, and raising up the temple (Antiquities 11.22)

Spot the difference. Josephus has simply changed a few details in the text to make it fit with the flow of the narrative much more. A very tempting thing to do when you are trying to write a readable narrative.

Wright on the Bible for First-century Jews

Brilliant quote from Paul and the Faithfulness of God:

The Bible was not merely a source of types, shadows, allusions, echoes, symbols, examples, role-models and other no doubt important things. It was all those, but it was much, much more. It presented itself as a single, sprawling, complex but essentially coherent narrative, a narrative still in search of an ending. And one of the central features of the implicit story in the mind and heart of a first-century Pharisee, sectarian or revolutionary was the weight of that continuing narrative, the responsibility to take it forward, the possibility that all its threads might now come together, that the rich tapestry of Israel's history would disclose its full pattern at last, that the faithfulness of the one true God would be revealed to them but also through them. (p.116)

Philo, Bultmann and reading the Scriptures

I've been thinking about Hermeneutics recently (what our method is for understanding texts). I've been making my way through Anthony Thiselton's monster book, New Horizons in Hermeneutics. Thiselton has a chapter in which he speaks about early allegorical interpretations of the Scriptures. He cites the well-known example of Philo of Alexandria. Philo was a hellenistic Jew who used allegorical interpretation of the Old Testament. For example, he read the account of Abraham's migration from Ur as an account of the soul's departure from the body. The reason he does this, Thiselton claims, is to give the Biblical text a universal meaning, a meaning divorced from its historical and cultural context. Sandmel (quoted by Thiselton) writes, 'The grand Allegory enables Philo to transform Scripture into the nature and experience of every man.'

Thiselton compares this way of interpreting scripture to the program of the 20th-century German NT scholar Rudolf Bultmann. Bultmann went through a process of demythologizing the Gospels, that is, he turned time-and-cultural specific language into timeless ideas. Jesus, after this process, was no longer a Jewish prophet but a teacher of existential, spiritual truths. Needless to say, Bultmann is not popular amongst conservative evangelicals for this.

That being said, there is a small irony in the evangelical rejection of Bultmann's agenda, as Tom Wright highlights. We very much desire, as evangelicals, to show how the Bible is relevant nowadays. In order to do this, though, we sometimes take the Gospels out of their historical, Jewish context and apply them directly to our lives. The irony of this process, though, is that we can end up being guilty of doing what Bultmann and Philo were doing to a greater extent. By removing the Gospels from their particular, Jewish context, we uproot them from their story and cultural background and can make them say things they never actually meant. For anyone who is tempted to think that we just need to take the Bible on its own without worrying about the historical context of the accounts, this should be a trenchent warning.


Resurrection and Translation

It’s pretty much taken for granted (for good reasons) in the scholarly world that resurrection did not feature prominently within the beliefs of Ancient Israel, but rather was a late development, becoming explicit in the canon only in Daniel 12.2. However, the development of this belief, particularly in the 3rd-2nd century BC, clearly influenced some Jews’ understanding of the Hebrew Scriptures. The Septuagint (LXX), the 3rd-2nd century BC Greek translation of the Hebrew Bible, contains a few instances in which a text which did probably not refer to resurrection immediately is translated in such a way that it unequivocally does. I was reading Job 19 this morning; 19.25-26 reads as follows in the Hebrew:

ואני ידעתי גאלי חי ואחרון על־עפר יקום׃

ואחר עורי נקפו־זאת ומבשׂרי אחזה אלוה:

I know that my redeemer is alive and afterwards he shall stand upon the dust

And after my skin has been destroyed in this way, from my flesh I shall see God

No particularly strong reference to resurrection here, but you can see how some may take it that way. In the LXX, the matter is much clearer, though:

οἶδα γὰρ ὅτι ἀέναός ἐστιν ὁ ἐκλύειν με μέλλων ἐπὶ γῆς. ἀναστήσαι τὸ δέρμα μου τὸ ἀνατλῶν ταῦτα· παρὰ γὰρ κυρίου ταῦτά μοι συνετελέσθη

For I know that the one who will release upon the earth is eternal, to raise my flesh which endures these, for from the Lord these things were accomplished for me.

That’s a very rough translation (no doubt, Greek specialists will have some quibbles), but it’s obvious that the translator has clearly interpreted the Hebrew of Job as a reference to resurrection. As the familiar phrase goes: ‘a translation is an interpretation.’