Monday, December 5, 2022

Was Jesus acting as King of the Jews during the Feast of Tabernacles?

In John 7:14-15, we are told that "about the midst of the feast [of Tabernacles] Jesus went up into the temple, and taught. And the Jews marvelled, saying, 'How knoweth this man letters, having never learned?'" From the reaction, it is clear that Jesus' teaching involved reading from the scriptures, and I have argued that the passage he read was likely Malachi 2:1-3:1.

Today I became aware of another possibility: Every seven years, during the Feast of Tabernacles (Sukkot), the king -- when there was a king -- was supposed to stand up in the temple and read from Deuteronomy. We are told in Mishnah Sotah 7:8 that Herod Agrippa (who reigned AD 41-44, just after the time of Christ) did this.

How is the portion of the Torah that is read by the king recited at the assembly, when all the Jewish people would assemble? At the conclusion of the first day of the festival of Sukkot, on the eighth, after the conclusion of the Sabbatical Year, they make a wooden platform for the king in the Temple courtyard, and he sits on it, as it is stated: “At the end of every seven years, in the Festival of the Sabbatical Year” (Deuteronomy 31:10).

The synagogue attendant takes a Torah scroll and gives it to the head of the synagogue that stands on the Temple Mount. And the head of the synagogue gives it to the deputy High Priest, and the deputy High Priest gives it to the High Priest, and the High priest gives it to the king. And the king stands, and receives the Torah scroll, and reads from it while sitting.

King Agrippa arose, and received the Torah scroll, and read from it while standing, and the Sages praised him for this. And when Agrippa arrived at the verse in the portion read by the king that states: “You may not appoint a foreigner over you” (Deuteronomy 17:15), tears flowed from his eyes, because he was a descendant of the house of Herod and was not of Jewish origin. The entire nation said to him: Fear not, Agrippa. You are our brother, you are our brother.

And the king reads from the beginning of Deuteronomy, from the verse that states: “And these are the words” (Deuteronomy 1:1), until the words: “Hear, O Israel” (Deuteronomy 6:4). And he then reads the sections beginning with: “Hear, O Israel” (Deuteronomy 6:4–9), “And it shall come to pass, if you shall hearken” (Deuteronomy 11:13–21), “You shall tithe” (Deuteronomy 14:22–29), “When you have made an end of the tithing” (Deuteronomy 26:12–15), and the passage concerning the appointment of a king (Deuteronomy 17:14–20), and the blessings and curses (Deuteronomy 28), until he finishes the entire portion.

The same blessings that the High Priest recites on Yom Kippur, the king recites at this ceremony, but he delivers a blessing concerning the Festivals in place of the blessing concerning forgiveness for iniquity.

Is it possible that Jesus read from Deuteronomy in the Temple during the Feast of Tabernacles, thus implicitly taking on the role of King of the Jews?

The first thing is to consider is the date. Was it a Sabbatical Year when Jesus taught in the Temple? Well, John 2:20 tells us that the first Passover of Jesus ministry was the 46th year of the construction of the Temple of Herod, which historians estimate to be around AD 27-29. This was after Jesus was baptized by John, and Luke 3:1-2 tells us that John didn't begin baptizing until the 15th year of the reign of Tiberius, which year began in September of AD 28. Passover is in March or April, so the best estimate for the first Passover of Jesus' ministry would be AD 29. After that, one more Passover is mentioned (John 6:4) and then the Feast of Tabernacles we are presently considering. Assuming there were no other intervening Passovers left unmentioned by the author, we can estimate that Jesus preached in the Temple in the fall of AD 30.

The Sabbatical Year in Agrippa's reign ended in AD 42, so the previous two Sabbatical Years would have ended in AD 35 and AD 28. Thus, based on such (admittedly spotty) chronological information as we have, it was not a Sabbatical Year when Jesus preached in the Temple.

Turning to the details in the Mishnah, we are told, rather confusingly, that the Torah reading took place "at the conclusion of the first day of the festival of Sukkot, on the eighth." What does "on the eighth" mean here? Sukkot is a seven-day festival, running from 15 to 21 Tishrei, so there is no eighth day of Sukkot, and no day of Sukkot is on the eighth of the month. And in any case, how could the eighth come "at the conclusion of the first day"? Anyway, we are told that Jesus appeared in the Temple "about the midst of the feast" -- and whatever the Mishnah is trying to say, it pretty clearly isn't talking about the middle of the festival. So even if it had been the right year for the king to read from Deuteronomy, it wasn't the right day.

Finally, the Mishnah describes a rather elaborate ceremony: The attendant gives the Torah scroll to the deputy high priest, who gives it to the high priest, who gives it to the king. In the absence of a king, some other "leader of the Jews" (someone of Nicodemus's class) would do the honors. It seems highly unlikely that some random Galilean rabbi would have been able to waltz in, take the Torah scroll, and read -- at least not on this special day.

I'm not sure how access to the scrolls would have been managed on other days. The Jews' surprise at discovering that Jesus is literate makes sense only if he has just read from the scriptures. Quoting bits of scripture from memory -- well, any Jew could do that, even John the Baptist, who lived in the desert and ate bugs.

In Luke 4:16-21, Jesus stands up in a synagogue, and "there was delivered unto him the book of the prophet Esaias," from which he proceeds to read. This was a local synagogue in Nazareth, though, and even there someone had to "deliver" the scroll to him. Would it have been as easy as that in the Temple itself, during a major festival? I guess the answer to that must be yes, since Jesus did read from the scriptures in the Temple. Perhaps during the less important middle days of the feast, the scrolls were made available to any rabbi who wished to preach.

All in all, I think Jesus' reading from the scriptures in the Temple during Sukkot was supposed to hint at his identity as Messiah -- but only in a broad way. Since it was not the correct year, nor the correct day, I don't think there would be any need for him to read from the correct book, Deuteronomy. I therefore stand by my earlier proposal that the book he read from was Malachi.

Wednesday, June 15, 2022

Ye shall seek me, and shall not find me (Notes on John 7:28-36)

Jesus is preaching in the Temple at the Feast of Tabernacles. The people of Jerusalem have cast doubt on his Messianic claims because "we know this man whence he is: but when Christ cometh, no man knoweth whence he is" (John 7:27).

[28] Then cried Jesus in the temple as he taught, saying, "Ye both know me, and ye know whence I am: and I am not come of myself, but he that sent me is true, whom ye know not. [29] But I know him: for I am from him, and he hath sent me."

It is not clear if the people were audibly criticizing Jesus while he was teaching, or if we are to understand that he knew their thoughts be supernatural means.

We are told that Jesus is widely believed to be the son of Joseph (John 6:42), born in Nazareth and not Bethlehem (John 7:42). When the people say "we know this man whence he is," Jesus agrees -- "Ye both know me, and ye know whence I am." This strongly implies (contra Matthew and Luke) that Jesus really was the son of Joseph, born in Nazareth.

Jesus seems to concede that they know his parentage and place of birth, but that they still do not know fully "whence he is." This is because he was sent by God and is therefore "from" God. Since they do not know God, they cannot truly be said to know where Jesus is from. This is how Jesus reconciles the facts about himself with the expectation that "when Christ cometh, no man knoweth whence he is": the Messiah is sent by God, and comes in a time when no man truly knows God.

This rejoinder seems to rely very heavily on the specific wording of the criticism, playing on a possible ambiguity of "whence he is." It does not address the possible biblical sources of the criticism, about being of unknown "generation" (Isa. 53:8), coming "with the clouds of heaven" (Dan. 7:13), or coming "suddenly . . . to his temple" (Mal. 3:1). This makes me think that the belief that "no man knoweth whence he is" had some other source -- perhaps an oral tradition, or perhaps some biblical text modern commentators have not yet noticed.

The Jewish expectation that the Messiah would be "unknown" is put in the mouth of Justin Martyr's Jewish interlocutor in the Dialogue with Trypho (c. AD 155-160). It is unclear whether the dialogue really took place and how closely the "Trypho" character reflects the views of the historical rabbi for whom he is named, but it seems likely that an apologetic text would, for practical reasons, address current beliefs, even if the dialogue itself is a fictional device.

In Chapter 8 of the dialogue, Trypho says,

But Christ -- if he has indeed been born, and exists anywhere -- is unknown, and does not even know himself, and has no power until Elias come to anoint him, and make him manifest to all. And you, having accepted a groundless report, invent a Christ for yourselves, and for his sake are inconsiderately perishing.

This is interesting -- the idea that the Messiah would not even know himself until he was anointed by Elijah. The Synoptics identify John the Baptist with Elijah. This identification is not present in the Fourth Gospel (in fact John specifically denies being Elijah in John 1:21), but it is interesting in the context of this Jewish expectation that John first says "there standeth one among you, whom ye know not" (John 1:26) and then later identifies this person as Jesus, saying, "I knew him not: but that he should be made manifest to Israel, therefore am I come baptizing with water" (John 1:31). John believed that his role was to make the unknown Messiah known -- perhaps even to himself?

Was anointing part of John's baptismal ceremony? It is never explicitly mentioned as such, but ceremonial washing and anointing go hand in hand in the Old Testament (e.g. Ex. 29:4-7).

Later, in Chapter 44, Trypho makes this curious comment (the brackets are not mine but the translator's).

For we all expect that Christ will be a man [born] of men, and that Elijah when he comes will anoint him. But if this man appear to be Christ, he must certainly be known as man [born] of men; but from the circumstance that Elijah has not yet come, I infer that this man is not He [the Christ].

According to Trypho here, the Jewish expectation was not that the Messiah was to be of unknown birth or parentage; on the contrary, "he must certainly be known as man born of men." It seems likely that this was a genuine Jewish expectation, since Justin (a proponent of the Virgin Birth) would have gained nothing by putting it in the rabbi's mouth.

If the Dialogue with Trypho is any guide to the beliefs of Jesus' contemporaries, "when Christ cometh, no man knoweth whence he is" means not that the Messiah would be a man of mysterious origin, that no one would know where he was born or who is parents were; but that until Elijah actually anointed him, no one would be able to predict who he would be. It would come as a surprise to everyone, including the newly anointed Messiah himself! The meaning of the criticism may have been: This man (presumed not yet to have been anointed by Elijah and thus not yet the Messiah) is already famous, and there are already lots of rumors that he may be the Messiah; but we know that the true Messiah will "come out of nowhere," a previously unknown figure suddenly elevated to that position by Elijah.

Why was it believed that Elijah would anoint the Messiah? The only hint of this I can find in the Old Testament is in Malachi.

Behold, I will send my messenger, and he shall prepare the way before me: and the Lord, whom ye seek, shall suddenly come to his temple, even the messenger of the covenant, whom ye delight in: behold, he shall come, saith the Lord of hosts. . . . and he shall purify the sons of Levi (Mal. 3:1, 3).

There are two messengers here: The first prepares the way for the second, and this second is "the Lord" (ha-adon), possibly the Messiah. Later in Malachi, we read,

Behold, I will send you Elijah the prophet before the coming of the great and dreadful day of the Lord: And he shall turn the heart of the fathers to the children, and the heart of the children to their fathers, lest I come and smite the earth with a curse (Mal. 4:5-6).

Reading these two passages in light of each other, it is natural to conclude that the first messenger is Elijah, and that "the great and dreadful day of the Lord" is the coming of the second messenger, the Messiah.

Which of the two "shall purify the sons of Levi"? Perhaps it is Elijah. (I discuss this vis-à-vis the idea that Elijah would baptize in my notes on John 1.) Malachi 2 holds up the patriarch Levi as an example of righteousness and enjoins the priests (a subset of the "sons of Levi") to return to the ways of their great ancestor. Thus, purifying the sons of Levi could involve turning "the heart of the children to their fathers," which is what Elijah is to do. In the Torah, mere Levites (descendants of Levi but not of Aaron) were purified by water, but priests (descendants of both Levi and Aaron) were both washed and anointed. Thus we might conclude that Elijah will be washing and anointing people and preparing the way for the Messiah. Since the Messiah must himself be anointed (that being what the word messiah means), it is natural to assume that Elijah would do it.

Since Malachi 3-4 is the source of this whole "return of Elijah" thing, Malachi 3:1 remains the only convincing source of the idea that the Messiah would appear "suddenly" and not be known in advance.

As usual, Jesus is not really interested in "Bible-bashing" or refuting his critics on their own terms. He could have said, "Actually, no one knew who I was until Elijah -- who is John -- discovered me, and here I am appearing suddenly in the Temple just as prophesied." Instead, he only uses the criticism as a point of departure, and zeroes in on what is really important: You don't accept me because you don't know God.

[30] Then they sought to take him: but no man laid hands on him, because his hour was not yet come.

The Greek could mean that they tried to seize him but couldn't, or that they wanted to seize him but didn't dare. I think the latter reading is more probable. Jesus continues teaching after this, apparently still in the Temple. There is no indication that he ran away, or that anything happened to stop those who were trying to take him. My reading is that they wanted to arrest him right away but thought, as the chief priests are reported to have said on another occasion in the Synoptics, "Not on the feast day, lest there be an uproar among the people" (Matt. 26:5, cf. Mark 14:2).

The author adds, though, that the real reason Jesus was not yet arrested was providential: "his hour was not yet come." Only the Fourth Gospel has these references to Jesus' hour or time not yet having come. In John 2:4, Jesus is at first unwilling to provide wine for wedding guests because his "hour is not yet come"; however, he ends up providing the wine miraculously anyway, seemingly right away. In John 7:6-8, he says he's not going to the Feast of Tabernacles because his "time is not yet come," but he ends up going anyway a few days later. Here (John 7:30) and in John 8:20, Jesus' arrest and execution are providentially postponed until his hour has come.

It is evident that the timing of everything Jesus did was extremely important, and that a few days (going to the feast) or even hours or minutes (providing wine) could make a difference.

[31] And many of the people believed on him, and said, "When Christ cometh, will he do more miracles than these which this man hath done?" 

[32] The Pharisees heard that the people murmured such things concerning him; and the Pharisees and the chief priests sent officers to take him.

The basis of the people's belief was simple: He did lots of miracles, so he must be the Messiah. Why did the Pharisees so confidently disbelieve? Because they were steeped in scripture and the interpretative traditions that had grown up around it, and they had a long list of highly specific expectations regarding the Messiah. We saw this in John 6:30, where they could still say "What sign showest thou?" after witnessing miraculous healings and the feeding of the 5,000, because Jesus had not yet produced the omer of manna their fathers ate in the wilderness, a specific requirement derived very indirectly from Deuteronomy.

I feel this has the makings of a good bell curve midwit meme.

[33] Then said Jesus unto them, "Yet a little while am I with you, and then I go unto him that sent me. [34] Ye shall seek me, and shall not find me: and where I am, thither ye cannot come."

It seems inarguable that v. 33 refers to Jesus' coming death and subsequent ascent to Heaven. What, then, is meant by v. 34?

Since recent references to the Jews "seeking" Jesus (vv. 1, 25, 30) have referred to their seeking to kill or lay hands on him, the most natural reading is, "I'm going somewhere where you won't be able to catch me." As William W. Phelps wrote after the assassination of Joseph Smith, "Traitors and tyrants now fight him in vain . . . Death cannot conquer the hero again." Upon reflection, though it's a pretty strange thing to say before one’s death, to the very people who are going to have one killed. "You'll never be able to kill me -- I mean, you will, but only once! After that, you'll never be able to kill me again!" More to the point, why would anyone even be seeking to kill Jesus after he had already been publicly executed and was known to be already dead? He rose from the dead, true, but his enemies didn't believe that. He made several private appearances to his disciples after his resurrection, but he wasn't waltzing around Jerusalem as a public figure, inviting a second round of attempts on his life. There were plots to kill the risen Lazarus (John 12:10) but none to kill the risen Christ.

Another possible reading is that the same Jews who now want him dead will later have a change of heart and seek him as disciples, to follow him and be saved -- but that it will be too late. That can't be right, though. Repentance is always possible, and "he that seeketh findeth" (Matt. 7:8, Luke 11:10). Also, empirically, it doesn't appear that any of the Jews who plotted against Jesus had a change of heart after his death and resurrection. And if they had, the example of the anti-Christian Pharisee Saul of Tarsus, who became Saint Paul, suggests that they would have been forgiven and accepted as disciples.

Perhaps Jesus means that they will not seek him, Jesus of Nazareth, as such, but rather "the Messiah" (who is Jesus, though they do not recognize him as such). In the catastrophes to be poured out on Judaea in the decades after Jesus, particularly the sacking of Jerusalem and the destruction of the Temple in AD 70, the Jews will cry out for the Messiah to come and save them -- but no Messiah will come, because he already came, and they rejected him. This interpretation is strengthened when Jesus repeats this statement in the next chapter: "I go my way, and ye shall seek me, and shall die in your sins: whither I go, ye cannot come. . . . for if ye believe not that I am he" -- i.e., that I, Jesus, am the Messiah -- "ye shall die in your sins" (John 8:21, 24).

Jesus later says much the same thing to his own disciples: "Little children, yet a little while I am with you. Ye shall seek me: and as I said unto the Jews, 'Whither I go, ye cannot come'; so now I say to you" (John 13:33). The crucial difference is that he only says, "ye shall seek me" -- without adding "and shall not find me" or "and shall die in your sins."

In fact, "Ye shall seek me, and shall not find me" may well be an allusion to Jeremiah.

For thus saith the Lord, That after seventy years be accomplished at Babylon I will visit you, and perform my good word toward you, in causing you to return to this place. . . . Then shall ye call upon me, and ye shall go and pray unto me, and I will hearken unto you. And ye shall seek me, and find me, when ye shall search for me with all your heart. And I will be found of you, saith the Lord: and I will turn away your captivity, and I will gather you from all the nations, and from all the places whither I have driven you, saith the Lord; and I will bring you again into the place whence I caused you to be carried away captive (Jer. 29:10-14).

In Jeremiah, "seek me and find me" refers to the Israelite exiles in Babylon praying to be returned to their homeland and God answering their prayers. After the destruction of Jerusalem in AD 70, the Jews must have prayed similar prayers, and their hope must have been that "the Messiah" would deliver them -- but those prayers were not answered.

[35] Then said the Jews among themselves, "Whither will he go, that we shall not find him? will he go unto the dispersed among the Gentiles, and teach the Gentiles? [36] What manner of saying is this that he said, 'Ye shall seek me, and shall not find me: and where I am, thither ye cannot come?'"

Roger Hathaway maintains that the word gentile in the Bible never means "any non-Israelite" and often specifically refers to the Israelites.

The Greek word, "ethnos" (,θvoς) means exactly the same as the Roman word, "gens." When "ethnos" (,θvoς) was used by Jesus or others, they didn't mean "non-Jews;" they meant "those of our own ethnic group: Israelite tribes." Occasionally the word referred to some other specific ethnic group, but it never meant "all nations of the world other than the Jews!"

When I first read v. 35 above, I thought it was a bit of evidence in favor of Hathaway's theory. If we understand gentile in the usual way, as meaning "non-Israelite," then the Jews are wondering if Jesus will go the those Israelites who are dispersed among the non-Israelites -- and teach the non-Israelites! Surely he would teach the dispersed, not the gentiles themselves; and if not, why mention the dispersion at all? Using Hathaway's understanding of gentile, though, they are wondering if he will go to those among their own Israelite ethnos who are dispersed and teach them. A much easier reading!

This led me back to Hathaway's article, linked above, to see if he mentioned John 7:35. Au contraire, it turns out.

The Gospel of Mark uses the word "gentile" only two times and those passages are already covered above, in Matthew. Luke uses the word five times and most are repeats of uses in Matthew. John never uses the word in his Gospel.

Checking the original Greek, I see that this is true. The word translated Gentiles in the KJV is Ἕλληνας -- "Greeks," a word which definitely can't mean "Israelites." So much for that idea!

Reference works say that the word was used broadly to refer to anyone who spoke Greek, even those who were not ethnic Greeks. Some dictionaries specify that it referred only to Greek-speaking non-Jews, but it doesn't seem as if that can be true. The only way v. 35 makes sense is if Greeks included Greek-speaking Israelites of the diaspora. (Even in Palestine, there seems to have been a great deal of Greek influence. We find plenty of Greek names in Galilee and Judaea -- Andrew, Philip, Nicodemus -- and of course the New Testament itself was written in Greek.)

It is interesting that these skeptics would have guessed that Jesus was going to go abroad and teach the dispersed Israelites in Greece and elsewhere. This suggests that they were thinking in Messianic terms despite themselves, since bringing the dispersed back to Israel was supposed to be one of the main missions of the Messiah.

Wednesday, June 8, 2022

When Christ cometh, no man knoweth whence he is (Notes on John 7:25-27)

Jesus is in Jerusalem, having made a surprise visit in the middle of the Feast of Tabernacles, despite his general policy of "not walk[ing] in Jewry, because the Jews sought to kill him" (John 7:1). He is preaching in the Temple and has just read a biblical text, possibly Malachi 2:1-3:1.

[25] Then said some of them of Jerusalem, "Is not this he, whom they seek to kill? [26] But, lo, he speaketh boldly, and they say nothing unto him. Do the rulers know indeed that this is the very Christ? [27] Howbeit we know this man whence he is: but when Christ cometh, no man knoweth whence he is."

When Jesus said the Jews were trying to kill him, he was ridiculed: "Thou hast a devil: who goeth about to kill thee?" (John 7:20). Here we see that they did in fact know that people were trying to kill him. The fact that Jesus does not seem to be afraid, and that no one is doing anything to stop him, makes them think that perhaps he is the Messiah and that the rulers know it.

What was the scriptural basis for the belief that "when Christ cometh, no man knoweth whence he is"? Commentaries generally cite Isaiah 53:8, Daniel 7:13, and Malachi 3:1 as possible sources.

Isaiah 53:8 says of the Suffering Servant figure, "who shall declare his generation?" The word translated as generation is at least as vague in Hebrew as in English. It could mean his ancestry, his contemporaries, or his descendants; or it could refer to an "age" or period of time, either in the past or the future. "Who can say who his ancestors are?" is one possible reading among many. More importantly, though, the Suffering Servant of Isaiah 53 was not generally understood by Jews to be the Messiah, who was expected to be a triumphant king. The Ethiopian eunuch in Acts 8 thought Isaiah might be referring to himself; the medieval rabbi Rashi thought the nation of Israel as a whole was the Suffering Servant. Not until the Christians reinterpreted the idea of the Messiah in the light of Jesus' actual life did anyone think of the Messiah as someone who would suffer. I don't think the Jews of Jesus' time would have disqualified an otherwise promising Messiah claimant for not fitting the description in Isaiah 53.

Daniel 7:13 reads in part, "I saw in the night visions, and, behold, one like the Son of man came with the clouds of heaven" -- implying that the Son of Man would just appear out of the clear blue sky, rather than being born, growing up, etc. However, Daniel's Son of Man, like Isaiah's Suffering Servant, was not universally understood to be the Messiah. The text of Daniel 7 itself seems to interpret the Son of Man -- the last of five symbolic figures that represent kingdoms -- as "the saints of the Most High" rather than as a specific individual. Some rabbis, including Rashi, do interpret the Son of Man as the Messiah, though.

What did Jesus' contemporaries think about the Son of Man? This passage from John 12 perhaps sheds some light on the question.

[23] And Jesus answered them, saying, "The hour is come, that the Son of man should be glorified. [24] Verily, verily, I say unto you, Except a corn of wheat fall into the ground and die, it abideth alone: but if it die, it bringeth forth much fruit. . . ."

[34] The people answered him, "We have heard out of the law that Christ abideth for ever: and how sayest thou, 'The Son of man must be lifted up?' who is this Son of man?" (John 12:23-24, 34)

Jesus strongly implies that the Son of Man will die, and the people protest that "Christ abideth for ever" -- so they apparently assumed that the Son of Man was identical to the Messiah. Their final question, "Who is this Son of man?" -- not "How can the Messiah die?" -- suggests that they were also open to other interpretations of Daniel's prophecy, though. They're saying, in effect, "Well, if the Son of Man is going to die, he can't be the Messiah. If he's not the Messiah, who is he?"

Because the Son of Man prophecy is not unambiguously about the Messiah, it seems that failure to fit its description would also not be disqualifying.

That leaves -- how appropriate! -- Malachi 3:1. Those who have read my last couple of posts will know that I first speculated, based on indirect textual evidence, that Jesus might have read part of Malachi 2 (I suggested vv. 1-10) in the Temple.  Later, after rereading Malachi and realizing how appropriate the rest of the chapter and Malachi 3:1 were, I revised my hypothesis to include those verses. This speculation had nothing to do with John 7:27, and I did not connect the two at all. Then as I was writing the present post, I checked several Bible commentaries and discovered that Malachi 3:1 just happens to be one of the three verses commonly cited to explain the expectation that "when Christ cometh, no man knoweth whence he is."

Here is the text of the verse in question:

Behold, I will send my messenger, and he shall prepare the way before me: and the Lord (ha-adon), whom ye seek, shall suddenly come to his temple, even the messenger of the covenant, whom ye delight in: behold, he shall come, saith the Lord of hosts (YHWH sabaoth).

The King James Version, and many other translations, translates the Tetragrammaton (YHWH) as "the LORD," using all capitals to distinguish this from the common noun lord (adon), which can refer to human lords as well as to God. For example, Psalm 110 begins, "The LORD (YHWH) said unto my Lord (l'adoni) . . . ." In the KJV, both instances of Lord in Malachi 3:1 are in all caps, so I had always assumed that it was the Tetragrammaton both times. But in fact the first instance is literally "the Lord," ha-adon. There are only six instances of adon with the definite article ha in the Bible. The other five are all in Isaiah, and are all used in the phrase ha-adon YHWH sabaoth (KJV "the Lord, the LORD of hosts"). Malachi 3:1 is the only reference to ha-adon which does not immediately identify him with the Lord of Hosts. The Lord of Hosts also appears in this verse, but as if a separate figure: "he shall come, saith the Lord of hosts" -- not "I shall come." The characterization of ha-adon as "the messenger of the covenant" also seems incompatible with his being the Lord of Hosts. Men and angels can be messengers of God, but how could God himself be anyone's messenger?

On the other hand, who else could ha-adon be but the Lord of Hosts? The two titles are inextricably linked, the former never occurring without the latter; and of whom but God himself could we say that the Temple was "his temple"? As for the "messenger" reference, we might compare it to the Old Testament concept of the "theophanic angel" ("angel" and "messenger" being the same word in Hebrew), the "angel of the Lord" which is somehow also the Lord himself. There are many instances of this in the Bible, but the most famous is in Exodus:

And the angel of the Lord appeared unto him in a flame of fire out of the midst of a bush: and he looked, and, behold, the bush burned with fire, and the bush was not consumed. . . .

God called unto him out of the midst of the bush, and said,  ". . . I am the God of thy father, the God of Abraham, the God of Isaac, and the God of Jacob."

And Moses hid his face; for he was afraid to look upon God (Ex. 3:2, 4, 6).

From a Christian perspective, Malachi 3:1 is a supremely appropriate verse to apply to Christ -- who was both the Messiah, the messenger of God, and in some sense God himself -- one with God and yet distinct from God -- an ambiguity which Malachi seems to capture perfectly. And since this whole conversation is taking place after Jesus suddenly appeared unexpectedly in the Temple, it would be supremely ironic if the Jews' reason for dismissing him was that he did not fulfill Malachi 3:1 -- the very verse he was at that moment fulfilling!

That's from a Christian point of view, though. The question is whether the Jews of Jesus time would have seen Malachi 3:1 as a Messianic prophecy at all. Rashi understands ha-adon to be God himself, not the Messiah (only in Christianity are the two in any sense one and the same), but Rashi lived centuries after Christ. Might Jesus' contemporaries have understood ha-adon to be the Messiah?

Let's go back to Psalm 110, which I briefly referred to above. In the Synoptics, Jesus apparently takes it for granted that the Jews will understand "my Lord" (adoni) to be the Messiah.

[35] And Jesus answered and said, while he taught in the temple, "How say the scribes that Christ is the son of David? [36] For David himself said by the Holy Ghost, The Lord said to my Lord, Sit thou on my right hand, till I make thine enemies thy footstool. [37] David therefore himself calleth him Lord; and whence is he then his son?" (Mark 12:35-37; cf. Matt. 22:42-45, Luke 20:41-44)

Normally, if David said "my Lord," we would assume that a sovereign king could have no lord but God himself. Here, though, "the LORD" and "my Lord" are clearly separate characters, and so the Jews of Jesus' time took the latter to be the Messiah. Might they have assumed the same about Malachi 3:1? Doesn't "he [ha-adon] shall come, saith the LORD of hosts" imply a distinction in much the same way that "the LORD said to my Lord" does?

I'm undecided, but I do find it very attractive to think that at this point in the Gospel, Jesus has just quoted Malachi 3:1, is fulfilling Malachi 3:1, and is being dismissed because of Malachi 3:1!

Monday, June 6, 2022

Reasons to think Jesus read Malachi 2:1-3:1 in the Temple

This is an expansion of the argument made in my last post. We know (from John 7:14-15) that around the fourth day of the Feast of Tabernacles, Jesus stood up in the Temple in Jerusalem and read from the Bible. I hypothesized that he read from Malachi 2. Having read over Malachi more closely, I would now like to propose that he read from Malachi 2:1 to 3:1. He may have read more, but I think those are very natural starting and ending points. (There were no chapter divisions in Jesus' time, and Malachi 2-4 is one extended discourse, so there would be nothing unnatural about reading what is in our Bibles a whole chapter plus one verse of the next.)

Here is the text I propose that Jesus read, interspersed with commentary giving my reasons.

[2:1] And now, O ye priests, this commandment is for you.

Jesus is in the Jerusalem Temple, where the priests work.

[2] If ye will not hear, and if ye will not lay it to heart, to give glory unto my name, saith the Lord of hosts, I will even send a curse upon you, and I will curse your blessings: yea, I have cursed them already, because ye do not lay it to heart.

The priests are enjoined to give glory to the Lord. In Jesus' commentary, he says, "He that speaketh of himself seeketh his own glory: but he that seeketh his glory that sent him, the same is true, and no unrighteousness is in him" (John 7:18).

[3] Behold, I will corrupt your seed, and spread dung upon your faces, even the dung of your solemn feasts; and one shall take you away with it.

"Solemn feasts" refers to Passover, Pentecost, and the Feast of Tabernacles (see 2 Chron. 8:13). It is during the Feast of Tabernacles that Jesus is reading this. When the priests are corrupt, the feast has no more value than "dung."

 [4] And ye shall know that I have sent this commandment unto you, that my covenant might be with Levi, saith the Lord of hosts. [5] My covenant was with him of life and peace; and I gave them to him for the fear wherewith he feared me, and was afraid before my name.

This is a reminder that the Levitical convenant is about "life and peace," not the legalism insisted on by those who criticized Jesus for healing a man on the Sabbath.

[6] The law of truth was in his mouth, and iniquity was not found in his lips: he walked with me in peace and equity, and did turn many away from iniquity.

Jesus' commentary: "he that seeketh his glory that sent him, the same is true, and no unrighteousness is in him" (John 7:18). (Unrighteousness and iniquity are alternate translations of the same Greek word.)

[7] For the priest's lips should keep knowledge, and they should seek the law at his mouth: for he is the messenger of the Lord of hosts. [8] But ye are departed out of the way; ye have caused many to stumble at the law; ye have corrupted the covenant of Levi, saith the Lord of hosts. [9] Therefore have I also made you contemptible and base before all the people, according as ye have not kept my ways, but have been partial in the law.

The religious authorities of Jesus' time also "corrupted the covenant" and "caused many to stumble at the law," using the scriptures to attack Jesus and his good works.

[10] Have we not all one father? hath not one God created us? why do we deal treacherously every man against his brother, by profaning the covenant of our fathers?

Jesus' critics wanted to kill him because he "said also that God was his Father, making himself equal with God" (John 5:18). Jesus defuses that accusation by reminding them that Malachi said God is the Father of us all. Later, when Jesus calls the Jews children of the devil, they say, "we have one Father, even God" (John 8:41). It would be curious for them to say such a thing so soon after condemning Jesus for saying "that God was his Father." However, if Jesus had recently quoted this passage from Malachi in his defense, the Jews' response makes more sense: "Children of the devil? Don't you remember reading Malachi in the Temple?" The specific phraseology, "we have one Father," makes an allusion to Malachi even more likely.

[11] Judah hath dealt treacherously, and an abomination is committed in Israel and in Jerusalem; for Judah hath profaned the holiness of the Lord which he loved, and hath married the daughter of a strange god. [12] The Lord will cut off the man that doeth this, the master and the scholar, out of the tabernacles of Jacob, and him that offereth an offering unto the Lord of hosts.

Here Malachi extends his critique beyond the priests to "the master and the scholar" -- corresponding to the scribes and Pharisees of Jesus' day -- and talks about cutting them off "out of the tabernacles of Jacob." The Feast of Tabernacles -- celebrated by building temporary "tabernacles" or booths and staying in them for a week -- is obviously the perfect occasion to read this.

[13] And this have ye done again, covering the altar of the Lord with tears, with weeping, and with crying out, insomuch that he regardeth not the offering any more, or receiveth it with good will at your hand. [14] Yet ye say, Wherefore? Because the Lord hath been witness between thee and the wife of thy youth, against whom thou hast dealt treacherously: yet is she thy companion, and the wife of thy covenant. [15] And did not he make one? Yet had he the residue of the spirit. And wherefore one? That he might seek a godly seed. Therefore take heed to your spirit, and let none deal treacherously against the wife of his youth. [16] For the Lord, the God of Israel, saith that he hateth putting away: for one covereth violence with his garment, saith the Lord of hosts: therefore take heed to your spirit, that ye deal not treacherously.

The references to "covering violence with a garment" and "dealing treacherously" are relevant to the plot to kill Jesus.

[17] Ye have wearied the Lord with your words. Yet ye say, Wherein have we wearied him? When ye say, Every one that doeth evil is good in the sight of the Lord, and he delighteth in them; or, Where is the God of judgment?

[3:1] Behold, I will send my messenger, and he shall prepare the way before me: and the Lord, whom ye seek, shall suddenly come to his temple, even the messenger of the covenant, whom ye delight in: behold, he shall come, saith the Lord of hosts.

The Synoptic Gospels all agree in seeing the first part of Malachi 3:1, about the "messenger" who "shall prepare the way," as a prophecy of John the Baptist (see Mark 1:2, Matt. 11:10, Luke 7:27). And then -- "the Lord, whom ye seek, shall suddenly come to his temple." What better verse to be read by Jesus, in the Temple, to which he had come "suddenly," surprising the people, who did not even know he was in Jerusalem.

This would be a perfect place for Jesus to stop. Or perhaps he would pause, let the implications of that last verse sink in, and then add just one more.

[2] But who may abide the day of his coming? and who shall stand when he appeareth? for he is like a refiner's fire, and like fullers' soap:

Malachi warns that the corrupt priests and scholars who think of themselves as "seeking the Lord" should be careful what they wish for. As C. S. Lewis put it in Miracles,

There comes a moment when people who have been dabbling in religion (“Man’s search for God”!) suddenly draw back. Supposing we really found Him? We never meant it to come to that! Worse still, supposing He had found us?

This whole post is speculation on my part, of course. We are not told what text Jesus read -- but I don't think there's anything else in the Old Testament that fits the context as perfectly as this. 

Sunday, June 5, 2022

Jesus preaches the Bible in the Temple (Notes on John 7:14-24)

Jesus is in Jerusalem for the Feast of Tabernacles. He went to the feast secretly, after first telling his brothers that he wasn't going, and didn't make a public appearance until the middle of this seven-day celebration.

[14] Now about the midst of the feast Jesus went up into the temple, and taught.

[15] And the Jews marvelled, saying, "How knoweth this man letters, having never learned?"

From the reaction, it is clear that Jesus' teaching involved reading aloud from the Torah or other scripture.

The literacy rate among Jews of Jesus' time was very low -- estimates are generally in the neighborhood of 3% -- and was probably nearly zero in a small town like Nazareth. The Talmudic Tractate of the Scribes explains how Torah readings are to be done in a town with only one literate citizen (he reads seven times, rather than having seven people read), so that was apparently not an uncommon situation. If Jesus had been a carpenter (Mark 6:3) or a carpenter's son (Matt. 13:55), his illiteracy would have been taken for granted.

The Gospel offers no answer to the Jews' question. I suppose the text is trying to imply that Jesus was miraculously able to read without having been taught. It is also possible that he had been taught to read (perhaps by someone who recognized him as an extraordinary child) but that this was not public knowledge. Another possibility is that he was not reading at all but reciting from memory texts that he had surely heard read in the synagogue many times. (This is apparently what John the Baptist did; he quoted Isaiah, but in a way that suggests he was illiterate.)

It will of course be tempting to try to deduce precisely what text Jesus read in the temple, though this is probably a fool's errand.

[16] Jesus answered them, and said, "My doctrine is not mine, but his that sent me. 

Jesus says, just after surprising his audience by reading from the Bible, that his teachings are not his own but God's. This implies that the text he chose showed that the distinctive teachings for which he was being criticized were actually not new but were in the Bible.

At this time Jesus is under attack for healing a cripple on the Sabbath and telling him to pick up his mat and walk, violating the injunction to "bear no burden on the sabbath day" (Jeremiah 17:21). Worse, Jesus defended himself by saying, "My Father worketh hitherto, and I work" (John 5:17) -- a reply which seems to reject the whole principle of not working on the Sabbath and "said also that God was his Father, making himself equal with God" (John 5:18).

My best guess, then, is that Jesus read from the second chapter of Malachi.

[1] And now, O ye priests, this commandment is for you.

[2] If ye will not hear, and if ye will not lay it to heart, to give glory unto my name, saith the Lord of hosts, I will even send a curse upon you, and I will curse your blessings: yea, I have cursed them already, because ye do not lay it to heart.

[3] Behold, I will corrupt your seed, and spread dung upon your faces, even the dung of your solemn feasts; and one shall take you away with it.

[4] And ye shall know that I have sent this commandment unto you, that my covenant might be with Levi, saith the Lord of hosts.

[5] My covenant was with him of life and peace; and I gave them to him for the fear wherewith he feared me, and was afraid before my name.

[6] The law of truth was in his mouth, and iniquity was not found in his lips: he walked with me in peace and equity, and did turn many away from iniquity.

[7] For the priest's lips should keep knowledge, and they should seek the law at his mouth: for he is the messenger of the Lord of hosts.

[8] But ye are departed out of the way; ye have caused many to stumble at the law; ye have corrupted the covenant of Levi, saith the Lord of hosts.

[9] Therefore have I also made you contemptible and base before all the people, according as ye have not kept my ways, but have been partial in the law.

[10] Have we not all one father? hath not one God created us? why do we deal treacherously every man against his brother, by profaning the covenant of our fathers?

This is one of the few possible references to God as Father in the Old Testament. My own reading is that "one father" referred to is Abraham, not God. The other reading is also possible, though, and in any case Jesus was not exactly a stickler for "original intent." Later during this same visit to Jerusalem, when Jesus calls the Jews children of the devil, they retort, "we have one Father, even God" (John 8:41). It would be appropriate if they were throwing Jesus' own proof-text back at him.

[17] If any man will do his will, he shall know of the doctrine, whether it be of God, or whether I speak of myself.

A closer translation would be "If any man wants to do his will." The noun and verb translated will are forms of the same Greek word (θέλῃ τὸ θέλημα αὐτοῦ ποιεῖν). You don't have to do God's will in order to know of the doctrine, which is fortunate, since none of us consistently does God's will; you just have to want to do God's will. Once you have that sincere intention to do the will of God, God will enable you to know what that will is.

[18] He that speaketh of himself seeketh his own glory: but he that seeketh his glory that sent him, the same is true, and no unrighteousness is in him.

This is another reason for my choosing Malachi 2 as Jesus' probable text. Malachi has the Lord insist that the priests "give glory unto my name" (Mal. 2:2) and holds Levi up as an example because "the law of truth was in his mouth, and iniquity was not found in his lips." The word translated iniquity is ἀδικία in the Septuagint, the same word translated unrighteousness in John 7:18.

[19] Did not Moses give you the law, and yet none of you keepeth the law? Why go ye about to kill me?"

[20] The people answered and said, "Thou hast a devil: who goeth about to kill thee?"

Malachi wrote, "Why do we deal treacherously every man against his brother, by profaning the covenant of our fathers?" (Mal. 2:10). Jesus calls his antagonists out for breaking the Law of Moses by treacherously going about to kill him.

This is one of the few references to demon possession in the Fourth Gospel. "Thou hast a devil" clearly means something like, "You're crazy." The insincerity of this retort is evident a few verses later, when the people ask each other, "Is not this he whom they seek to kill?" (v. 25).

[21] Jesus answered and said unto them, "I have done one work, and ye all marvel. [22] Moses therefore gave unto you circumcision; (not because it is of Moses, but of the fathers;) and ye on the sabbath day circumcise a man. [23] If a man on the sabbath day receive circumcision, that the law of Moses should not be broken; are ye angry at me, because I have made a man every whit whole on the sabbath day? [24] Judge not according to the appearance, but judge righteous judgment."

This passage from Malachi also says religious leaders have "caused many to stumble at the law" and "corrupted the covenant of Levi." Part of the Levitical law is that when a baby boy is born, "in the eighth day the flesh of his foreskin shall be circumcised" (Lev. 12:3) -- even if the eighth day happens to be the Sabbath, even though circumcision is "work."

It is not clear if the parenthetical remark is Jesus' own or that of the author, but the fact that circumcision was not "of Moses, but of the fathers" was a key part of the rabbinical justification for performing circumcisions on the Sabbath. The command to circumcise on the eighth day, though reiterated by Moses, was originally given to Abraham as part of an "everlasting covenant" (Gen. 17:7).

And God said unto Abraham, "Thou shalt keep my covenant therefore, thou, and thy seed after thee in their generations. This is my covenant, which ye shall keep, between me and you and thy seed after thee; Every man child . . . that is eight days old shall be circumcised among you, every man child in your generations" (Gen. 17:9-12).

The rabbinical reasoning was that the Sabbath was not instituted until Moses, and so the commandment to Abraham could not have included any exception for the Sabbath. Since it was an "everlasting covenant," it could not have changed later; therefore, babies born on the Sabbath could and must be circumcised on the Sabbath, even though this violated the ban on "work."

Jesus' point is that the circumcision exception shows that the Sabbath laws are not absolute and can be overridden by higher duties. Malachi has God say of Levi, "My covenant was with him of life and peace." Surely healing a man who needed healing was in keeping with the overall purpose of the Law, even if it violated some legalistic details. One should keep in mind that the original complaint was not that Jesus had healed on the Sabbath, but that he had commanded the healed man to carry his mat. Jesus tries to shift the focus of attention from this insignificant point to the bigger picture.

I have to say I'm feeling pretty confident about this Malachi 2 guess. I began this post with no idea what text Jesus read and little expectation of figuring it out, but now I honestly can't think of anything that fits the context better than Malachi 2.

Tuesday, May 31, 2022

Jesus arrives late for the Feast of Tabernacles (Notes on John 7:1-13)

I find this episode confusing, which is one of the reasons I've delayed writing about it for so long. I'll give it my best shot.

[1] After these things Jesus walked in Galilee: for he would not walk in Jewry, because the Jews sought to kill him.

"These things" -- feeding the 5,000, walking on water, the Bread of Life discourse -- all took place in Galilee, not "Jewry" (Judaea), but the crowd that witnessed these things apparently included "Jews" (Judaeans) who had followed him from Jerusalem after witnessing his miracles there. They would not try to kill him in Galilee, where he was among his own people and they themselves were strangers, but they would be bolder if he returned to Judaea.

Or perhaps "these things" refers to earlier miracles wrought in Jerusalem. Later, when Jesus does after all return to Jerusalem for the Feast of Tabernacles, he says to the hostile crowd, "I have done one work, and ye all marvel" (7:21), and what follows makes it clear that he is referring to his healing of a man at Bethesda on the Sabbath.

Although I don't know enough Greek to suggest this with any confidence, perhaps μετά is here being used in the sense of "with, among" rather than "after." Perhaps the correct reading is, "As he was doing these things (feeding the 5,000, walking on water, etc.), Jesus walked in Galilee, for (ever since the healing at Bethesda) he would not walk in Judaea, because the Judaeans sought to kill him (for breaking the Sabbath)."

Or perhaps this whole verse has been transposed from its proper place in the text? As I have noted before, John 5 ends with Jesus in Jerusalem (and the Jews there seeking to kill him), and then John 6 begins with his crossing the Sea of Galilee, which is nowhere near Jerusalem.

[2] Now the Jew's feast of tabernacles was at hand.

[3] His brethren therefore said unto him, "Depart hence, and go into Judaea, that thy disciples also may see the works that thou doest. [4] For there is no man that doeth any thing in secret, and he himself seeketh to be known openly. If thou do these things, shew thyself to the world."

[5] For neither did his brethren believe in him.

The Feast of Tabernacles was (together with Passover and Pentecost) one of the Three Pilgrimage Festivals, when all Jews who were able were expected to make a pilgrimage to the Temple in Jerusalem.

The advice to "go into Judaea, that thy disciples also may see the works that thou doest" seems strange, since John 6 (which takes place in and around Galilee) is full of references to Jesus' disciples being with him. (Simon, Andrew, Philip, and Judas are mentioned by name.) It seems that his disciples "followed" him in a very literal sense, accompanying him in all his peregrinations. He must have had other disciples as well who stayed in Judaea, and his brothers must have meant "that they disciples there also may see" -- and I see that many modern translations insert that word.

As Mark tells the story, when Jesus began preaching, working miracles, and drawing crowds, his friends and family "went out to lay hold on him: for they said, He is beside himself" (Mark 3:21). Not believing that Jesus was who he said he was, they very understandably wanted to stop him from embarrassing the family by making a public spectacle of himself. In the Fourth Gospel's account, we have the opposite situation: Jesus is lying low in Galilee, and his unbelieving relatives are urging him to make more of a public spectacle -- to "go into Judaea" and "shew thyself unto the world."

What could their motive have been in urging this? I can think of three possibilities:

1. They just wanted to get rid of him. They lived in Galilee, and their brother was embarrassing them, so they wanted to get him out of Galilee. I don't think this is a plausible reading. First, they must have known that the Judaeans wanted to kill him, and it seems unlikely that they would have sent their own brother to his death. Second, they were encouraging him to go to Judaea during the feast, at a time when all the Jews went to Judaea -- "shew thyself unto the world," they said. If it was embarrassing to have Jesus raising a ruckus in Galilee, how much more embarrassing to have him do so before all Jewry -- including all their friends and neighbors, who would come back to Galilee full of talk about Jesus! Finally, they themselves also intended to go to Judaea for the feast; they were urging Jesus to go with them. If their motive was to save face by hushing up their brother's scandalous claims about himself, they would have said the opposite of what the Gospel records them saying; they might have said something like, "I know you're supposed to go to Jerusalem for the feast, but the Judaeans want to kill you. I think you'd better just stay here in Galilee and keep a low profile, and we'll go to the feast without you."

2. They were calling his bluff, or trying to use reverse psychology. They were trying to cure Jesus of his "delusions" by pushing them to their natural conclusion and forcing him to realize that he didn't actually believe what he was saying about himself. "You're the Messiah, are you? Well, in that case, you should have no problem waltzing into Jerusalem and announcing that fact to the Pharisees and the Roman governor, right? What's that, you're afraid they might kill you? You don't actually believe you're the invincible Messiah after all? Yeah, that's what we thought." I can't rule out this reading, but it doesn't sit well with me.

3. They believed, at least tentatively, that Jesus was the Messiah and were genuinely troubled by his reluctance to go to Jerusalem. They were urging him to do what they thought the Messiah ought to do, and to prove thereby that he was in fact the Messiah. In this reading, "neither did his brethren believe in him" might be better translated as "even his brethren had doubts," or "even his brethren lacked confidence in him." They didn't disbelieve him in the sense of thinking he was an impostor or mentally ill, but they couldn't understand why he was hanging around in some Galilean backwater instead of going to Jerusalem to announce his identity and claim the throne of David.

It is this third reading that seems most likely to me. Although we never hear anything else about Jesus' brothers in the Fourth Gospel, his brother James is later referred to as an apostle (Gal. 1:19); and Jude, the author of the epistle, may also have been Jesus' brother (see Jude 1:1, Mark 6:3); so it appears that his brothers were not out-and-out unbelievers but merely struggled with doubt at times, when Jesus' behavior seemed inconsistent with what the Messianic prophecies had led them to expect.

[6] Then Jesus said unto them, "My time is not yet come: but your time is alway ready. [7] The world cannot hate you; but me it hateth, because I testify of it, that the works thereof are evil. [8] Go ye up unto this feast: I go not up yet unto this feast: for my time is not yet full come."

[9] When he had said these words unto them, he abode still in Galilee. [10] But when his brethren were gone up, then went he also up unto the feast, not openly, but as it were in secret.

This is the second time in this Gospel we see Jesus refusing to do as requested, saying it is not his time yet, and then almost immediately doing it after all. The first instance of this in in John 2; when Jesus' mother informs him that there is no wine, he replies, "Woman, what have I to do with thee? mine hour is not yet come" (v. 4) -- a reply which his mother ignores, telling the servants to do whatever Jesus says, and Jesus proceeds to provide wine miraculously. Did he work this miracle despite the time not being right, because his mother had asked him to? Or was his idea of "the right time" so specific that hours or even minutes after his mother's request the time was right?

As we read later in this chapter (v. 14), Jesus finally appeared "about the midst of the feast" -- meaning around the fourth day of this seven-day festival. Is that because his time was "full come" by then? What difference could it possibly make whether he showed up for the festival on time or three days late?

My best guess is that the delay had to do with the fact that Judaeans sought to kill him for healing on the Sabbath. The first and last days of the seven-day Feast of Tabernacles were Sabbath-like observances on which all work was forbidden, but work was permitted on the other five days. If Jesus, with his reputation as a healer, had arrived in Jerusalem on the first day of the feast, there would doubtless have been people there in need of healing, and he would have to heal them or else refuse to do so. Refusing to heal on the first day of the feast would look like a concession that the Pharisees were right, that it had been wrong to heal on a day when work was forbidden by the Law of Moses. On the other hand, healing on that day, brazenly repeating the offense for which "the Jews sought to kill him," could have put his life in danger -- and, as Bruce Charlton has recently discussed, it was important for Jesus to die at the right time, staying alive until his mission had been accomplished. Jesus may have judged that he was relatively safe during the feast -- in the Synoptics, those who plot his death say, "Not on the feast day, lest there be an uproar of the people" (Mark 14:2, Matt. 26:5) -- but openly healing on a mandatory day of rest might have been pushing his luck a little too far.

Against this interpretation, we have the fact that Jesus did again heal on the Sabbath during this visit to Jerusalem (John 9:14). This was after he had already been in Jerusalem for several days, though, publicly saying provocative things and defending his earlier Sabbath healing. That he was able to get away with this was taken as evidence that he was the Messiah: "Then said some of them of Jerusalem, 'Is not this he, whom they seek to kill? But, lo, he speaketh boldly, and they say nothing unto him. Do the rulers know indeed that this is the very Christ?'" (vv. 25-26). When, days later, Jesus finally provoked the Jews to the point that they took up stones to stone him (John 10:31), he "escaped out of their hand" (10:39). This escape was probably possible in part because in the preceding days he had impressed the crowd and built up enough good will that a substantial portion of the citizenry were on his side. If he had appeared on the first day of the feast and immediately started flagrantly breaking the Law of Moses, the reception might have been rather different.

This is all speculative, of course, but it is the only interpretation that makes sense to me. I think Jesus was constantly walking the razor's edge, pondering precisely how provocative he could afford to be and going that far and no further, at least until his mission was accomplished and he could submit to death.

[11] Then the Jews sought him at the feast, and said, "Where is he?"

[12] And there was much murmuring among the people concerning him: for some said, "He is a good man": others said, "Nay; but he deceiveth the people."

[13] Howbeit no man spake openly of him for fear of the Jews.

Here is more evidence that it was important for Jesus to make his appearance at precisely the right time and in the right way. Everyone was anticipating his arrival and wondering what he would say and do. He delayed his arrival, letting the anticipation build up, and then appeared in the Temple preaching from the Bible -- an appearance calculated to defuse the accusation that he flouted the authority of Moses.

Sunday, May 29, 2022

The parentage and birth of Jesus in the four gospels

As the title of this blog indicates, I consider the Fourth Gospel ("of John") to be by far the most authoritative. Of the Synoptics, I consider Mark the most trustworthy, accepting the textual evidence that it is the oldest of the three and that Matthew and Luke are dependent on it.

The idea that Jesus had no biological father but was miraculously born of a virgin occurs only in Luke and Matthew. Let's look at what each gospel has to say about Jesus' parentage and birth.


The Fourth Gospel refers several times to "the mother of Jesus" but never names her. His father is apparently dead or otherwise out of the picture by the time Jesus' ministry begins, because he never appears in the story.

Jesus is twice identified as "the son of Joseph," with no indication that Joseph was his father in anything other than the ordinary sense of that word. After becoming a disciple of Jesus, Philip tells Nathanael,

We have found him, of whom Moses in the law, and the prophets, did write, Jesus of Nazareth, the son of Joseph. (John 1:45)

This indicates that Jesus was known publicly, and presumably identified himself, as the son of Joseph. Philip was willing to accept the son of Joseph as the Messiah; he did not expect the Messiah to lack a human father.

Later, Judaeans ("Jews") who had followed Jesus to Galilee said,

Is not this Jesus, the son of Joseph, whose father and mother we know? how is it then that he saith, I came down from heaven? (John 6:42)

As far as the public knew, there was nothing at all unusual about Jesus' parentage. They knew who his father and mother were, and his father was Joseph.

The only possible hint that Joseph may not have been Jesus' biological father comes from this interchange with the "Jews."

They answered and said unto him, "Abraham is our father."

Jesus saith unto them, "If ye were Abraham's children, ye would do the works of Abraham. But now ye seek to kill me, a man that hath told you the truth, which I have heard of God: this did not Abraham. Ye do the deeds of your father."

Then said they to him, "We be not born of fornication; we have one Father, even God" (John 8:39-41).

Bruce B. commented,

I've heard people say that this statement was Jesus' opponents referring to his illegitimacy through Mary's "sin" (as they would have assumed). That it represented an escalation of the verbal sparring that was taking place in this passage.

I don't know if this is true.

It's possible that "We be not born of fornication" was a dig at Jesus, who they supposed was born of fornication, but I think it's more natural to read it as a response to Jesus' implication that they were not true children of Abraham. They meant that each of the fathers recorded in their genealogy was the real father, and therefore they were biological descendants of Abraham. The idea that Jesus was widely considered to be "born of fornication" and not Joseph's true son seems to be inconsistent with his being called "Jesus, the son of Joseph, whose father and mother we know."

The Fourth Gospel also contains Jesus' most explicit identification of himself the the "Son of Man." Jesus always speaks of the Son of Man in the third person, and it appears as if his disciples did not conclude until after the Resurrection that he had apparently been referring to himself all along. Even in the Fourth Gospel, confusion about the Son of Man is evident: "How sayest thou, 'The Son of man must be lifted up?' Who is this Son of man?" (John 12:34). However, I think the following passage establishes beyond doubt that Jesus did in fact see himself as the Son of Man.

Then Jesus said unto them, Verily, verily, I say unto you, Except ye eat the flesh of the Son of man, and drink his blood, ye have no life in you. Whoso eateth my flesh, and drinketh my blood, hath eternal life; and I will raise him up at the last day (John 6:53-54).

Son of man -- singular of children of men -- was simply an expression meaning "man." It is far from being the only way of expressing "man," though, and it is curious that Jesus should have adopted that particular label for himself if he was the only man in the history of the world to whom it did not literally apply.

Of course Jesus also repeatedly called himself the Son of God and referred to God as his Father -- more so in the Fourth Gospel than anywhere else. A literal interpretation of this -- as meaning that Jesus had been miraculously begotten by God himself, in the same way that Alexander was rumored to have been miraculously begotten by Zeus -- is the only ground in the Fourth Gospel for supposing a Virgin Birth. However, I think the Gospel makes it tolerably clear that such expressions are not literal. This is most clearly expressed in the prologue:

But as many as received him [Jesus], to them gave he power to become the sons of God, even to them that believe on his name: which were born, not of blood, nor of the will of the flesh, nor of the will of man, but of God (John 1:12-13).

Here it is stated that anyone who receives Jesus can become a Son of God -- though obviously, as Nicodemus pointed out (John 3:4), no man can "enter the second time into his mother's womb, and be born" to a different biological father. This passage also refers to being "born of" God -- an expression which, taken literally, would make God the mother rather than the father. I believe this makes it clear that being the "Son of God" has nothing to do with the circumstances of one's biological conception or birth.

Near the end of the Gospel, Jesus tells Mary Magdalene, "go to my brethren, and say unto them, I ascend unto my Father, and your Father; and to my God, and your God" (John 20:17). Bruce Charlton has suggested that he said this because Mary was his wife and thus God's daughter-in-law. However, the word translated your is plural and refers to Jesus' "brethren." Whether he meant his biological brothers or his disciples, the implication is clear: that God was their Father, too, and that therefore having God as one's Father does not preclude having an ordinary biological father as well.

All in all, nothing in the Fourth Gospel supports the idea of a Virgin Birth. It does not prove that Jesus was not born of a virgin, of course, but if the Fourth Gospel were all we had, we would never suppose that he had been.


The Fourth Gospel mentions Joseph by name but not Mary. In Mark, the reverse is true.

"Is not this the carpenter, the son of Mary, the brother of James, and Joses, and of Juda, and Simon? and are not his sisters here with us?" And they were offended at him. (Mark 6:3)

The fact that Jesus is identified as the son of his mother, rather than of his father, does imply that his biological father's identity may have been unknown. Another possibility is that his father had died when Jesus was young, so that he was more closely associated with his mother -- much as Hiram of Tyre was called "the widow's son."

Note that Mary is the mother not only of Jesus but of James, Joses, Juda, and Simon. Later in the Gospel, reference is made to "Mary the mother of James the less and of Joses" (Mark 15:40), "Mary the mother of Joses" (Mark 15:47), and "Mary the mother of James" (Mark 16:1). It seems highly unlikely that this is a different woman -- it would be just a bit too much of a coincidence if Jesus just happened to be have a female follower with the same name as his mother who also happened to have two children with the same names as his brothers!  Assuming this is the same Mary, why is she not identified in these passages -- where she witnesses Jesus' crucifixion and then visits his tomb -- as the mother of Jesus, that surely being the most relevant fact about her in this context? Is the text possibly trying to hint that Mary may not have been his real mother at all? There may have been an expectation that the Messiah would appear mysteriously, without human father or mother. "We know this man whence he is," said the citizens of Jerusalem, "but when Christ cometh, no man knoweth whence he is" (John 7:27).

Now that I've noticed this, the idea does seem to have some support elsewhere in Mark.

And the multitude sat about him, and they said unto him, "Behold, thy mother and thy brethren without seek for thee."

And he answered them, saying, "Who is my mother, or my brethren?"

And he looked round about on them which sat about him, and said, "Behold my mother and my brethren! For whosoever shall do the will of God, the same is my brother, and my sister, and mother" (Mark 3:32-35).

These are just faint hints, of course, but insofar as the Gospel of Mark hints at anything unusual about Jesus' parentage, it is not so much a matter of a virgin birth as of having no ordinary birth at all.

Matthew and Luke

These are the only two gospels that tell the story of the conception and birth of Jesus, and there is virtually no overlap between their two accounts.

In Matthew's version of the story, Joseph finds Mary pregnant and plans to break off the engagement, but an angel appears to him in a dream and tells him to go ahead and marry her, because "that which is conceived in her is of the Holy Ghost" (Matt. 1:20). He is also told by the angel to name the child Jesus. Jesus is born in Bethlehem in Judaea, apparently because that was where his parents lived. A year or two after his birth, magicians from the East come looking for the newborn "King of the Jews," having followed a new star. Herod the Great determines to kill this potential rival, and Jesus' family flees to Egypt for safety. An angel again appears to Joseph in a dream to inform him of the death of Herod, and they return to Israel. Finding that Herod Archelaus, Herod the Great's son, now rules Judaea, they settle instead in Nazareth in Galilee.

In Luke's version, Joseph and Mary are already living in Nazareth when the angel Gabriel appears -- to Mary, not Joseph -- and tells her that she will miraculously conceive while still a virgin and that she should call the child Jesus. (The text of the Hail Mary is mostly drawn from Luke.) Later they have to travel to Bethlehem for a census because Joseph's distant ancestor King David was from there, and Jesus is born during their stay there. He is laid in a manger, visited by shepherds, etc. -- the traditional "Christmas story" (with the exception of the "wise men") is from Luke. They stay in Judaea for a short time to do the traditional ceremonies associated with the birth of a firstborn son, and then they return to their hometown of Nazareth.

These are two completely different stories. All they have in common in this:

  1. Mary became pregnant as a virgin, while engaged but not yet married to Joseph, and an angel said (to someone!) that the conception was "of the Holy Ghost" and that the child should be named Jesus.
  2. "Jesus of Nazareth" was actually born in Bethlehem, not Nazareth.
On the one hand, the many differences between the two nativity stories obviously casts doubt on all the details. It appears as if there were several different legends and rumors in circulation about the birth of Jesus, making it less likely that any particular one of those stories is true. On the other hand, the differences are evidence that the stories told by Matthew and Luke are textually independent -- that neither copied from the other -- giving added weight to the points on which they are in agreement.

That there should be various stories in circulation explaining how Jesus was actually secretly from Bethlehem is not surprising at all. There was an expectation that the Messiah would be from Bethlehem, and one of the arguments against Jesus' messianic claims was that he was not from there. The Fourth Gospel reports:

But some said, "Shall Christ come out of Galilee? Hath not the scripture said, That Christ cometh of the seed of David, and out of the town of Bethlehem, where David was?" (John 7:41-42).

The Fourth Gospel lets this criticism go unanswered -- it never says that Jesus actually was from Bethlehem -- but it is only natural that rumors to that effect would spread through the early Christian community. I therefore do not think Matthew and Luke's (mutually contradictory) stories about the birth in Bethlehem have much value as evidence that Jesus really was born there. I assume that he was born in Nazareth.

As for the other point they have in common, it's not surprising that people would take "Son of God" literally and conclude that Jesus could not therefore be the biological son of Joseph. I do find it intriguing, though, that both Matthew and Luke have Mary conceiving as a virgin, before her marriage was consummated, but apparently that was normal for people who were secretly the sons of gods. Similar rumors circulated about Alexander, as reported by Plutarch: "The night before that on which the marriage was consummated, the bride dreamed that there was a peal of thunder and that a thunder-bolt fell upon her womb," meaning that Zeus was the true father of the child.

In Matthew's case, he tells us that Jesus was born of a virgin "that it might be fulfilled which was spoken of the Lord by the prophet" in Isaiah 7:14 -- "Behold, a virgin shall be with child, and shall bring forth a son, and they shall call his name Emmanuel" (Matt. 1:22). In context, though, Isaiah was clearly talking about a child (named Immanuel, not Jesus!) who was to be born during the reign of Ahaz of Judah, more than seven centuries before Christ; and the word that means "virgin" in Greek has the more general meaning of "young woman" in the original Hebrew of Isaiah. This is not a Messianic prophecy and does not say there will be a virgin birth.

Not -- let me be clear -- that that necessarily invalidates Isaiah 7:14 as having anything to do with Jesus. I can hardly blame Matthew for finding that verse and noticing its applicability to Christ, without reference to the authorial intentions of Isaiah himself -- because it's exactly the sort of thing I do all the time! It would not be a "prophecy" in the strict sense but a synchronicity. If Matthew had not done so first, I could easily see myself discovering it: "In Isaiah's prophecy of the overthrow of Rezin and Pekah, he predicts the birth of a child named Immanuel. When the Septuagint translation was made centuries later, but still long before the birth of Christ, they translated it in such a way as to suggest that Immanuel would be born to a virgin. And what does the name Immanuel mean in Hebrew? 'God is with us.' What are the chances?"

The question is which came first for Matthew, the "prophecy" or the fulfillment? Did Matthew already know that Jesus had been born of a virgin, and then find that this was foreshadowed in Isaiah? Or did he read Isaiah in Greek, find that a virgin birth had been prophesied, and assume that therefore Jesus had been born of a virgin?

This is Matthew, so I tend to assume the latter. The key to Matthew's method is the episode where Jesus rides into Jerusalem on the backs of two animals, an ass and her colt, the author explaining that "this was done, that it might be fulfilled which was spoken by the prophet, saying . . . thy King cometh unto thee, meek, and sitting upon an ass, and a colt the foal of an ass" (Matt. 21:4-5). Jesus very obviously did not ride two animals at once like some kind of circus performer -- or if he had done such an outlandish thing, the other gospel writers would have noted it as well. Therefore, for Matthew, fulfilment of Old Testament prophecy is a premise, not a conclusion. Jesus fulfilled prophecy; therefore, he must have ridden an ass and a colt, in accordance with a ridiculously literal reading of Zechariah 9:9. (Had Matthew had access to the works of Kipling, he would surely have concluded that Bobby Wick divided into two Bobby Wicks when he "became an officer and a gentleman"!) Every time Matthew writes "This was done that the prophecy might be fulfilled," we should read it as, "I assume this to have been done, on the grounds that prophecy -- translated into Greek, ripped from context, and interpreted literally -- must be fulfilled."

My conclusion for now is that I lack any positive belief in the Virgin Birth. It could be true, but I haven't seen any good reason to think so.

Was Jesus acting as King of the Jews during the Feast of Tabernacles?

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