Tuesday, December 29, 2009

New Family Picture!

Front row: Anna, 5 (soon to be adopted); Caleb, 6; Andrew, 5.
Middle row: Ian, 8; Barbara, 27 (or at least she still looks like it); Gary, 41; Harley, 6 (soon to be adopted).
Back row: Nathan, 13; Daniel, 9; Josiah, 14.

We took these pictures recently for our annual Christmas picture. As usual, my wife bought me a new coffee mug with the picture wrapped around it. I always like handing the mug to the baristas at Starbucks and getting their reaction: "Is this your family? How beautiful!"

Tuesday, December 22, 2009

Herod Remembered

Herod wanted to be remembered for something else.

He wanted to be remembered as the man of influence - friend of Julius Caesar, Mark Antony, and Augustus. He wanted to be remembered as a political prodigy: governor of Galilee by age 25, Roman governor of Coele-Syria, tetrarch of Judea. He wanted to be remembered as "King of the Jews" - a title bestowed on him by a vote of the Roman Senate, despite the fact that he was neither royal nor Jewish. He wanted to be remembered as a successful commander: he defeated the brigand Ezekias in his youth, and he commanded a Roman legion to reclaim Israel from the Parthian empire.

Herod wanted to be remembered for his public works. He had a thousand Levites trained as stone masons to totally refurbish the Temple. He built aqueducts, baths, fortifications, hippodromes, theatres, amphitheatres and gymnasiums, not only in Israel but in other nations. He built a shrine to Augustus and allowed a statue of himself to be erected in another temple - not something that endeared him to his Jewish subjects. He built the port and city of Caesarea Maritima, still an amazing feat.

Herod wanted to be remembered for his generosity towards his subjects. He twice reduced taxes, once by one-third and once by one-fourth. During a famine, Herod sold the silver in his palace to provide food for his people.

Herod wanted to be remembered for his protection of Jews throughout the Roman Empire. Because of Herod's influence with Augustus, Jews throughout the Empire gained official protection: they could not be compelled to appear in court on the Sabbath; they were exempt from having to participate in Roman religious rituals; and shipments carrying their annual head-tax to the Temple were protected by Roman law and Roman might.

But Herod is remembered for none of these things by most people. Instead, Herod is remembered only for how he responded to the baby Messiah. His brutality in killing the baby boys of Bethlehem was unfortunately entirely consistent with his character. Although Herod killed many, those who could make a more legitimate claim to kingship than Herod were his special targets. He killed most of the remnants of the previous royal dynasty, the Hasmoneans, including his own wife and sons. It is not surprising that Herod would also try to kill the offspring of an even older dynasty, the Son of David.

By the way, don't get your Herods confused. Herod the Great was king of Israel (40-4 BC), and is famous for trying to kill the baby Jesus (Matt 2:16). Herod Antipas, his son, was tetrarch of Galilee (4 BC - AD 39), and is famous for executing John the Baptist (Matt 14:3-12) and interrogating Jesus (Luke 23:6-12). Herod Agrippa I, grandson of Herod the Great, ruled over Israel (AD 37-44), and is famous for executing James the son of Zebedee and being eaten by worms (Acts 12). Four other family member show up in the NT: Archelaus, ethnarch of Judea, son of Herod the Great (4 BC-AD6, Matt 2:22); Herodias, granddaughter of Herod the Great and wife of Herod Philip and Herod Antipas (Matt 14:1-12); Herodias' daugher; and Herod Agrippa II, tetrarch of Iturea (Acts 25:13-26:32).

The picture: a coin minted under Herod the Great.

Monday, December 21, 2009

Shroud Discovery in Jerusalem

Archeologists have found the remains of a leper from the early first century and his burial shroud in Jerusalem (see also this video at Ben Witherington's blog). In first-century Jerusalem, bodies were normally interred in a family tomb wrapped in a shroud; then, a year later, the bones were placed in a small ossuary (or bone box) and reinterred in the tomb. This means that shrouds were unlikely to remain in the tomb. But this man was never placed in an ossuary; archeologists speculate that the family decided not to reenter the tomb because of the man's leprosy.

There are several interesting details about the find. DNA tests showed that the man had both Hansen's disease and tuberculosis. When the Bible uses the word "leprosy," is is using the generic term for a wide range of skin diseases, and does not necessarily refer to Hansen's disease - but this man had Hansen's disease.

The leper's shroud was in two pieces - one for the head, and one for the body. This matches the burial practice for both Lazarus (John 11:44) and Jesus (John 20:5-6). This gives another reason to doubt the genuineness of the Shroud of Turin (the supposed burial cloth of Jesus), since it was a single cloth, not separate head and body cloths.

The leper's shroud was a simple weave of wool and linen. Although some scholars are pointing out that this is another difference from the Shroud of Turin, my first thought was wondering why they used an unkosher cloth. Mixing any two kinds of cloth was forbidden in the Torah (Lev 19:19), and a linen-wool weave was specifically forbidden (Deut 22:11).

The picture: a diagram of the "Shroud Tomb" showing where the remains and shroud were found.

Thursday, December 17, 2009

Augustine on Greek

Last in my series of quotes about learning Greek:

"But why did I so much hate the Greek, which I studied as a boy? I do not yet fully know. . . ." "Difficulty, in truth, the difficulty of a foreign tongue, dashed, as it were, with gall all the sweetness of Grecian fable. For not one word of it did I understand, and to make me understand I was urged vehemently with cruel threats and punishments..."

-Augustine, Confessions, 1.12.19-1.14.23

The picture: title page of Erasmus' Lucubrationes, 1516; Augustine is at middle right.

The Real St. Nicholas

It's hard being a professor's kid. When my kids ask me if Santa Claus is real, I answer, "Of course. Here's his picture." And I show them this picture of the actual St. Nicholas, bishop of Myra (AD 280-346), historical basis of the Santa Claus legend (take off the "ni" from his name and you can see how we got "Claus").

The photo is a reconstruction from Nicholas' skull, made by a forensic anthropologist. Nicholas was briefly disinterred in the 50s, and high-quality photographs of his remains were eventually used to create a 3-D image of his face. Nicholas was Greek, so his complexion is a little more olive than the rosiness of modern Santa Claus.

Nicholas had a broken nose, which may be related to accounts that he was imprisoned and tortured during Diocletian's persecution of Christians in AD 303. Like most other bishops of his time, he was present at the Nicene Council.

There are all sorts of interesting stories about St. Nicholas: he gave dowries to poor girls to save them from prostitution; he appealed on behalf of unjustly condemned men; and my personal favorite: he slapped the heretic Arius in the face at the Nicene Council.

Of course, you should probably take all of this with at least a little grain of salt, since legends tend to accumulate around saints and their remains - but I think I like Nicholas of Myra better than the fat man at the North Pole!

As good old St. Nick would say, Kala Christougenna!

Tuesday, December 15, 2009

Christmas Myths

Here is a list of my favorite Christmas myths - traditional parts of the Christmas story that we assume to be true, but they are not found in our two accounts of Jesus' birth in Matthew and Luke.

Mary rode on a donkey and Joseph walked to Bethlehem? No donkey mentioned in the Bible. Maybe they had one, maybe not. The reason that a donkey and ox are always depicted in manger scenes goes back to the middle ages, when the two animals were placed in the scene as symbols of Isaiah 1:3.

Mary gave birth the night that they arrived? "While they were there, the days were completed for her to give birth" (Luke 2:6). Sounds like they arrived some time before. They were smart enough not to make a 9-month-pregnant woman travel!

Joseph delivered the baby? Almost impossible in their culture. Joseph is from Bethlehem (Luke 2:3-4), so he has plenty of extended family. His female relatives likely served as midwives.

No room in the inn? This myth is understandable, since our Bibles say "inn" (Luke 2:7). However, the Greek word is kataluma, which more likely means "guest room" (Luke 22:11, Mark 14:14). Jews in general did not stay in inns, and it is unlikely that Bethlehem had an inn. Since Joseph had family in Bethlehem, Luke probably meant that there was no space in their guest room. Perhaps the family did not give Joseph and Mary their best reception, since Mary got pregnant before they got married?

Jesus was born in a stable? No stable is mentioned in the Bible. "She laid him in a manger" (Luke 2:7). Peasant homes sometimes had feeding troughs dug into the dirt. Some animals were kept in the house for safety. They probably kicked out the animals and used the manger for the baby because it was convenient and warm. Perhaps this was a "sign" to the shepherds because it showed that the Messiah was born as a peasant, rather than in the Herodium, Herod's nearby palace that overshadowed Bethlehem. (By the way, Herod's tomb was discovered in the Herodium just a few years ago).

Swaddling clothes are for dead bodies, symbolizing the coming death of Christ? No, the Greek word sparganao (Luke 2:7) merely means to wrap in cloths, and is not used elsewhere to refer to the cloths for dead bodies.

The Star of Bethlehem was some astronomical phenomenon? The star described in Matthew 2 does thing that real stars don't do - like change positions and hover over a particular house. Stars were regarded by ancients as supernatural, and that seems to be what Matthew is saying about this particular star.

Three kings from Persia came to visit? Matthew doesn't give a number. And they were magoi, astrologers and advisors to kings, not kings themselves. They may have been from Persia. In Greek "the east" is the same word as Anatolia, so it is possible that they are wise men from Anatolia rather than from Persia - but that's not certain (see Ben Witherington's blog on this).

The wise men came that night? We don't know exactly when they arrived, but it was some time between one month and two years after his birth (Matthew 2:16). The magoi came to a house, not a stable (Matthew 2:11). It must have been at least a month later, because Joseph was still poor when Jesus and Mary were presented at the Temple (after 33 days, Lev 12:1-3). They offered two turtle-doves instead of a lamb, which was only allowed in the case of poverty (Lev 12:6-8). If the wise men had already come, then Mary and Joseph would not have been poor.
Medieval and renaissance art often portrayed the shepherds and wise men at the stable, but that is because artists of the time would put all the related events in one scene with no concern for chronology. Nativity scenes sometimes included the annunciation, although that happened nine months earlier.

Gold, frankincense and myrrh symbolize... ? Various versions of this Christmas myth circulate - that they symbolize kingship, deity and death, or prophet, priest and king. But all three were appropriate gifts for a king, and were very expensive.

Herod killed hundreds of babies? Population estimates of Bethlehem make it likely that Herod's soldiers killed a dozen or so baby boys. Those who doubt that Herod was evil enough to do this should read Josephus' account of Herod's last years. In his attempts to preserve his throne, Herod killed court members, wives and sons. Caesar Augustus famously said about Herod that it was better to be his pig (hus) than his son (huios). On his death bed, Herod ordered the execution of every tribal patriarch in his realm to make sure that all would mourn at his funeral (fortunately, this command was not carried out).

Jesus was born on December 25, AD 1? The exact date of Jesus' birth is unknown, but was not December 25. The first time his birthday was mentioned was in the late second century, and it was given as November 18, but that's not certain either. Jesus must have been born before March of 4 BC, because that's when Herod the Great died. 5 BC seems likely, although maybe it was as early as 7 BC.

The picture: The Vigil of the Shepherds, by Benozzo Gozzoli, 1459.

Thursday, December 10, 2009

Greek Wordle for the Gospel of John

Here's another Wordle for the Gospel of John, this time based on the Greek text. It's a little less useful than an English Wordle, because the various cases of nouns and tenses of verbs all show up as separate words. Still looks cool!

This wordle was constructed at wordle.net.

I also have wordles of the Gospel of John in English here and here.

Wednesday, December 9, 2009

In the Beginning Was the Wordle...

Another Gospel of John Wordle from wordle.net.

In Wordle, the size of a word represents how often it occurs. Other details (font, color, layout) are randomly organized by the Wordle program.

To make this Wordle, I dumped the full text of John (in the NASB) into the Wordle website. To make sure that words like "see" and "saw" were not listed separately, I did a "find and replace" to put the most common verbs in John in the present tense.

What I like about this Wordle is that it displays what is important in the Gospel of John. Look at the prominent people: Jesus, Father, disciple, world, Jews, man. Look at the main actions: come, believe, know, see, give, go.