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.


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)

Upcoming book on the body

I have just submitted my contribution to the forthcoming book, Joan E. Taylor, ed., The Body as Cultural Entity in Biblical, Early Christian and Jewish Texts (London: Bloomsbury, T&T Clark, 2014), to be published on 27th February 2014. The title of my chapter will be ‘“How are the Dead Raised?” The Bodily Nature of Resurrection in Second Temple Jewish Texts’ and the abstract is as follows:

The idea of resurrection as an eschatological phenomenon in early Judaism has received a large amount of scholarly attention over the last few decades. However, disagreement still persists over whether resurrection necessarily entailed a belief in the raising of a body, or whether the concept could refer to the raising of a disembodied soul or spirit. These disagreements, though, can often stem from an a priori view of what constitutes the human body. By offering a brief survey of the most salient references to resurrection from non-canonical early Jewish writings, this chapter argues that, if we avoid importing anachronistic assumptions on the nature of the body onto an ancient text, the evidence from Second Temple Jewish writings suggests that resurrection was, in fact, always thought of as a bodily event, and not a way of speaking of disembodied immortality.

I doubt many of you will want to fork out £60 on a 192-page book. I'll see whether it will be possible to upload a prepub version on to this blog.


The Image of God and idolatry

It’s been a while since I’ve posted anything here – lot’s of things going on and nothing distilled enough to warrant a post. I’m currently editing a chapter on bodily resurrection for a book on the body in ancient Jewish and Christian texts and am reading through George Van Kooten’s Paul’s Anthropology in Context for a bit more background material. I came accross a fascinating observation (not of direct relevence to my chapter) that I had never noticed before concerning the image of God in Genesis 1.26-27. I had understood, for a while, the idea of humankind as being created in God’s image in relation to ancient Temple narratives  (earth is God’s temple and mankind is the image of the God to whom that temple is dedicated). However, Van Kooten drew my attention to the potential anti-idolatry aspect of this;  I had never understood it in terms of opposing the worship of images.

Van Kooten (Paul’s Anthropology, pp.3-4) writes:

At the same time, both [Gen. 1.26-27 and Ezek 1] can be read as polemicizing against the cult of images, a theme which also occurs elsewhere in the Jewish scriptures. Isaiah, for instance, criticizes the fabrication of pagan idols because there is no likeness … for God…

… It is not unlikely that the assertion that man is created ‘in God’s image […]’ could bear anti-idolatrous overtones, as the term ‘image’ … is one of the terms used to refer to idols (Num 33.52; 2 Kgs 11.18; 2 Chron 23.17; Ezek 7.20, 16.17, 23.14; Amos 5.26). It can scarcely be a coincidence that the notions of man as the (only) image of God, and of God as appearing in the likeness of man occur precisely in writings related to the Priestly Source, which is characterized by its reformulation of ‘the message of the Pentateuch according to a theology of monotheistic holiness and the importance of the cult’ (Milgrom).

I found the observation fascinating. Isaiah 40-55’s mocking of inanimate images and idols takes on a new dynamic when we understand the biblical idea of humans themselves being in the image of God. The taunt isn’t simply a ridiculing of the idea of making an inanimate god, but of the sheer stupidity of creating a dumb and lifeless image when humans themselves are in the image of God – there is already an image in God’s temple; don’t put a lifeless one there!

Early Judaism: A Comprehensive Overview

I've just received my copy of Early Judaism: A Comprehensive Overview edited by John J. Collins and Daniel C. Harlow and it looks like a great resource to have for anyone interested in early Judaism. Although I did my MA dissertation on afterlife beliefs in ancient Judaism, I only became familiar with a small subsection of the vast literature of the time (ca. 330 BC to 135 AD). I'm trying to make my way through all the relevant primary Jewish texts in due time, but this little book looks like it's going to be incredibly helpful in giving a framework to understand the basics of early Judaism. It claims to be the most up to date and comprehensive introduction to the subject and a quick scan of the essays inside suggests that this will become an oft-used reference guide for me.

The Slaughter of the Innocents – did it happen?

For some reason (for which I am very grateful) my university has not yet shut down my access to online journals. So when I found out that R. T. France had written an article in Novum Testamentum vol 21 (April 1979) on the historicity of the slaughter of the innocents in Matthew 2, I rushed online to download the article (as any self-respecting theology geek would have). Since scholars, by and large, consider the birth narratives of Jesus in Luke and Matthew to be largely fiction, I was interested to see what evidence France would bring forward to support the historicity of the slaughter of the innocent children in Matthew 2.16-18.

There are precedents, both in Jewish and Pagan traditions, for great heroes being rescued at their birth (e.g. Moses, Augustus, Romulus and Remus…) So the question here is: did Matthew simply invent the story of Herod’s slaughter in order to fit this mold. If he did, we need to ask ourselves why the story took this particular form and why he used these particular scriptural precedents.

In terms of possible precedents in Jewish tradition that Matthew could have drawn from, the only earliest one, France argues, is Moses’ story. Matthew does indeed make Jesus typologically “the new Moses.” However, that does not do justice to the present form of the story as there are a few rough edges we wouldn’t expect if Matthew had simply invented the story in order to have Jesus as a new Moses (for one, why make Jeremiah 31.15 the scriptural basis? – see below).

France deals with the episode in two steps. From a literary point of view, he asks whether it is more likely that Matthew invented a story to fit in with his scriptural quotations and allusions (in this case Jeremiah 31.5) or whether he took a preexisting tradition and found support for it in scripture. Although many scholars have assumed that Matthew invented the story on the basis of Jeremiah 31.15 (which, for those of you who don’t know, has nothing to do with Jesus in its original context – it’s about the Babylonian exile), France suggests that this is a difficult position to hold. Why on earth would Matthew find a passage which has nothing to do with the Messiah and invent a story from it. However, it is quite easy to imagine him knowing of a story surrounding Jesus’ birth and then seeking to make sense of it scripturally.

France concludes that on a literary level, Matthew is far more likely to have given scriptural support to a preexisting tradition rather than creating a tradition out of (frankly) a very obscure and unrelated scriptural passage. With hindsight, Jeremiah 31.15 fits in with Jesus’ story and there are reasons why Matthew may have chosen this passage, but it would be odd to imagine Matthew gravitating towards such a passage in order to invent a story about a Messiah.

The second step in France’s argument is to look at the historical plausibility of the event. It is true that the event is not attested to by Josephus, who is our main informant on the activities of Herod the great, and one would certainly expect him to record Herod killing thousands of children (as he had a bit of a penchant for flying off the handle due to paranoia). However, the idea of this episode describing the slaughter of 100s or 1000s of babies is more due to Christian tradition than Matthew’s account. The most reliable estimates have the whole population of Bethlehem at around 1000 during the time of this event. This would equate to roughly 10 to 20 boys under two. This is quite likely, then, the kind of sporadic event which Josephus would not have been aware of. However, the idea of Herod actually doing this is incredibly plausible. To give a couple of examples of Herod’s temperament, he slaughtered three of his sons because he was paranoid about them plotting to take over the throne. Elsewhere, Josephus records that Herod planned on having all the Jewish nobility slaughtered at his death in order to make sure there was genuine mourning when he passed away (fortunately, this didn’t happen). This is the kind of guy you could imagine having 10-20 babies killed on a whim.

France honestly admits that outside of the fact that this story fits in with Herod’s character, there is no external evidence for the slaughter of the innocents in Matthew 2. However, in his view, it is easier to explain Matthew’s use of scripture for this event if he was using a story which had some basis in reality. Thus, the historicity of this event should not be dismissed a priori.