Review of Jonah: God’s Scandalous Mercy

Zondervan have generously sent me a review copy of Kevin J. Youngblood’s commentary, Jonah: God’s Scandalous Mercy, which is part of the Hearing the Message of Scripture series (edited by Dan Block).

The format of this series is excellent. Each chapter contains six sections:

  1. a brief statement of the main idea of the passage;
  2. a short discussion of literary context;
  3. translation and visual outline of the relevant passage;
  4. a more detailed discussion of the structure and literary form of the passage;
  5. a sustained explanation of the text; and
  6. concluding observations about the canonical and practical significance of the text, which elucidate themes and seek to bridge forward to a contemporary setting.

Youngblood’s contribution to the series is on the book of Jonah. It begins with a introduction that seeks to place Jonah within its canonical and historical context. In this regard, there are some useful comments about Jonah as part of the Book of the Twelve—an important observation given the increasing importance of understanding the ‘minor prophets’ as a single collection. I found the historical context both interesting and frustrating. On the one hand it provided some good insights about the difficulties with reading Jonah as a straight history, suggesting it would be best viewed as a non-historical genre. However, this was then subverted by characterising the difficulties as deliberate authorial ambiguity. The two claims didn’t quite seem congruent to me. I feel a chance to bring freshness to an evangelical reading of Jonah has been missed.

Nonetheless, despite this qualm, what follows is still a genuinely good commentary on Jonah. Youngblood reads the text closely with attention to Hebrew grammar, syntax, and semantics. This is all discussed in a non-threatening way that makes it largely accessible to the non-specialist (though knowledge of Hebrew will always make this easier). He makes some excellent structural observations, giving an excellent account of the text’s form. And he perceives good thematic development, picking up trajectories from elsewhere in the canon. This leads him to make modest but valid contemporary inferences from reading Jonah as Christian scripture. The one frustration I had pertained to the historical discussions. These were excellent, and yet seemed to continue the incongruence picked up in the introduction between historical difficulty and its implication for genre, and the claim of deliberate authorial ambiguity.

A few notable quotables:

God’s dealings with humanity should never be reduced to simplistic retributive formulas. The author emphasizes this with respect to God’s threatened judgement. He states God “relented concerning the disaster that he threatened.” The last phrase in that sentence (ʾăšer-dibber) stresses God’s freedom with respect to the prophetic word. God’s pronouncements through his prophets do not obligate him to courses of action from which he cannot turn. [p.141]

This is an important observation that helps balance an understanding of the Deuteronomic test of a prophet in Deuteronomy 18:21–22.

21 You may say to yourselves, “How can we know when a message has not been spoken by the LORD?” 22 If what a prophet proclaims in the name of the LORD does not take place or come true, that is a message the LORD has not spoken. That prophet has spoken presumptuously, so do not be alarmed. [NIV11]

Youngblood helpfully shows that divine faithfulness must be held together with divine freedom in the understanding of prophecy. Thus, Deuteronomy 18:21–22 is not a one-size-fits-all test (otherwise Jonah would be classified a false prophet!). It is, rather, a handy rule of thumb. Youngblood continues:

The unit loss with a restatement of God’s relenting from his wrath: “and he did not do it” (wĕlōʾ ʿāśâ). The narrative expresses God’s clemency both positively and negatively, thus conforming to the wording of the royal decree (“God may change his mind, and relent [wĕniḥam] … so that we will not perish” [wĕlōʾ nōʾbēd]). Normally, negative clauses in Hebrew narrative function as background, scene-setting devices and are relegated to the lowest rank of significance. In certain contexts, however, the fact that an event did not materialize is so critical to the plot that the negative clause receives prominence. Such is the case with 3:10e, which functions as a second rank clause, directly supporting the preceding narrative verb (wayyināḥem). [p.141]

Here is a good use of syntactical observation for rhetorical significance. This eventually leads Youngblood to reflect on the significance of God seemingly changing his mind:

Special circumstances always apply in contexts where the Bible affirms that God does not repent. most of these cases are related to covenantal obligations into which God voluntarily entered. In such cases, God has chosen to limit his options and his commitment is irrevocable. Yet, one must be careful not to turn one of these affirmations into a general principle that governs the other, or to dismiss one as merely accommodative language that metaphorically attributes human qualities to God while insisting that the other is literally true… Prophecy, generally speaking, is conditional. Unilateral covenants (i.e., covenants in which God unconditionally guarantees promises solely on the basis of his character), however, such as the Davidic and Abrahamic covenants, are irrevocable. [p.143]

This is a safe explanation of the concept of God changing his mind. I’m not sure it would fully explain certain instances of this theme in the Hebrew Bible (e.g., contrast 1 Sam 15.11 with v.29 later in the same chapter), but it covers a significant amount.

Here’s a short clip from Kevin Youngblood himself talking about the commentary.

In conclusion, Youngblood’s commentary on Jonah is a commendable addition to a Christian library, particular for someone who wants to understand the text of Jonah and perhaps preach through the book.

Bible’s Attitude to Rape

I recently had the privilege of delivering a seminar for the Priscilla and Aquila Centre of Moore Theological College, looking at the Bible’s attitude to rape. In the seminar, I looked at the laws pertaining to rape in Deuteronomy 22, as well as the narratives of 2 Samuel 13 (the rape of Tamar), Genesis 19 (Lot in Sodom), Genesis 34 (Dinah and Shechem), and Judges 19 (the rape of a concubine at Gibeah).

Video of the seminar is found here below.

What language did Jesus speak?

Today witnessed a very minor verbal exchange between Pope Francis and Israeli PM, Benjamin Netanyahu, over the language Jesus spoke. Reuters reports the incident on the final day of the Pope’s visit to the Middle East:

During his comments about a strong connection between Judaism and Christianity and tolerance towards Christians in Israel, Netanyahu told the [sic!] Francis: “Jesus was here, in this land. He spoke Hebrew.

“Aramaic,” the pontiff interjected.

“He spoke Aramaic, but he knew Hebrew,” Netanyahu shot back.

The difference of opinion reignites a historic debate about the language Jesus spoke two millennia ago.

“Jesus was a native Aramaic speaker,” Israeli linguistics professor Ghil’ad Zuckermann told Reuters. “But he would have also known Hebrew because there were extant religious writings in Hebrew.”

Zuckermann added that during Jesus’ time, Hebrew was spoken by the lower classes – “the kind of people he ministered to.”

Pope Francis (R) meets Israel’s Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu (L) at the Notre Dame Centre in Jerusalem May 26, 2014 (Photo courtesy of Reuters / Alex Kolomoisky).

Jesus was evidently a native Aramaic speaker. The quotation in Mark 5.41 has Jesus address Jairus’ daughter with the words Talitha koum—an Aramaic phrase meaning, ‘Kid, get up!’ He would also have been very familiar with Hebrew, the language of most of the Jewish Scriptures. His references to the Scriptures on numerous occasions within the Gospels suggests this.

However, Jesus would also have been conversant with Greek. Galilee had one of the highest concentrations of Greek speakers in the Roman Empire outside of the Greek heartland of the Aegean. In fact, within short walking distance of Jesus’ hometown of Nazareth was the city of Sepphoris—a large Greek polis in the heart of Galilee. There is every chance that Jesus not only visited the city multiple times, but he may well have worked there in his profession as a carpenter. It was, after all, one of the largest economic centres in Galilee, and it was in the immediate vicinity of Nazareth.

The Apostle Peter?

Jesus’ disciples were also probably familiar with Greek. The hometown of apostles Simon Peter, Andrew, and Philip, was the town of Bethsaida at the northernmost point of the Sea of Galilee. In c. 2 BC it was granted status as a Greek polis and renamed Julias. Thus these three disciples, two of whom (Andrew and Philip) bore Greek names, grew up in a Greek-speaking environment. It also helps explain how Peter attained the name ‘Peter’. His original name was Simon, a good Hebrew/Aramaic name. Jesus, however, gave him the nickname ‘Kephas’, which is Aramaic for ‘Rocky’ <cue theme music to Rocky>. Paul refers to him as Kephas (or Cephas in modern English versions) in his correspondence with the Galatians and Corinthians. However, elsewhere, his name is easily translated into the Greek equivalent for ‘rock’, Peter (Greek: Petros).

There is a possibility that some of Jesus’ ministry was conducted in Greek. For example, there is good reason to suggest that Nicodemus’ misunderstanding of Jesus’ words in John 3.3 is dependent on an ambiguity in Greek, but not in Aramaic or Hebrew. Jesus tells Nicodemus, ‘Unless someone is born over, he cannot see the Kingdom of God.’ The relevant term used in the Gospel here is ἄνωθεν (anōthen) Nicodemus hears this as ‘born again’, while it seems from the rest of the discussion that Jesus meant ‘born from above’. The rendering ‘born over’ captures something of this ambiguity in English.

Jesus also seems to have conversations with Greek speakers throughout the Gospels. He chats with a Greek woman from Syro-Phoencia (Mark 7.24–30), a Roman centurion (Mark 8.5–13), and the Roman Prefect, Pontius Pilate. On each occasion he might have made use of an interpreter. However, it is more likely that Jesus was able to conduct the conversation personally without an interpreter.

There is even the possibility that the famous ‘camel through the eye of a needle’ saying (Mark 10.25) is a misunderstanding of a saying in Greek. The word for ‘camel’ in Greek is κάμηλος (kamēlos), but the word for thick ‘rope’ (the type used to moor a ship to port) is κάμiλος (kamilos). There is virtually no difference in pronunciation between the two. Did Jesus perhaps say, ‘It is easier for a rope to go through the eye of a needle than for a rich man to enter the Kingdom of God’? If he originally made the statement in Greek, he may well have. If, however, he made the statement in Aramaic, there would be no such ambiguity. I guess we’ll never know.

But all this is to say that Jesus was almost definitely a comfortable speaker of Greek, in addition to his native Aramaic, and the Hebrew of the Jewish Scriptures.

Have we found a stone block from the Actual Second Temple Building?

Israeli archaeologists have discovered an unusual stone among the many making up the Western Wall in Jerusalem. The Western Wall is the only remaining structure of the Second Temple that was lavishly refurbished by Herod. The stone in question was discovered beneath the soil at the lowest foundations of the Wall. What’s so unusual about it? All the large stone blocks used in the Western Wall are ‘bossed’ masonry. That is, they have a carved margin around the edges that give the blocks a sense of depth. But this one particular stone lacks the margin, making it unique.

Eli Shukron examines bossed stones at the foundations of the Western Wall (AP Photo/Sebastian Scheiner, 2011)

So the question is why is this one stone block unbossed, and why was it buried amongst the foundations of the Western Wall? Israeli archaeologist Eli Shukron has a theory:

This stone came from the Temple Mount, from the surplus stones that were used in the construction of the Temple itself. Those stones were high-quality, chiseled and smooth, like this unusual one, which was discovered among the Western Wall’s foundations. This stone was intended for the Second Temple, and stones like it were used to build the Temple — but it was left unused. The builders of the Western Wall brought it down here because it was no longer needed up above — and this is how the other stones of the Temple looked,” he says, adding, “Anyone who passes a hand gently over this stone feels a slightly wavy texture, just like the Talmud describes.

In other words, Shukron believes that this stone block was originally meant to be part of the actual temple sanctuary building—the heart of the entire temple complex.

Is Shukron’s theory plausible?

Here are a few points on which to reflect:

  1. As the report on Israel Hayom states, Shukron ‘led the Antiquities Authority’s effort to expose the foundations of the Western Wall in the Jerusalem Archaeological Park, an effort that was funded by the Elad non-profit organization.’ Elad, also known as the Ir David Foundation, exists for the purpose of strengthening the Jewish connection to Jerusalem. In other words, it is not a scholarly organisation, but a political one. The interpretation of finds that come from Elad-sponsored efforts must bear this political aim in mind, and realise that there is almost always an alternative interpretation. In this particular case, interpreting a stone block as being from the temple sanctuary building could easily be seen as a political claim to the Temple Mount, which currently hosts the Islamic holy places of the Dome of the Rock and the al-Aqsa Mosque.
  2. It seems clear now that the Western Wall was not built during the reign of Herod himself. As Shukron and his colleague, Ronny Reich, observe, coins found in the soil used to cover the structures over which the Western Wall was built were minted in the time of Valerius Gratus, the Roman Prefect of Judea from AD 15–26 (the predecessor of Pontius Pilatus). In fact, the coins can be pinpointed to AD 17/18, giving us a date for the beginning of construction at the Western Wall. Shukron and Reich argue the wall was then completed in the time of Agrippa I (AD 41–44) or Agrippa II (48–66). However, the sanctuary building at the top of the temple complex was begun by Herod long before this in 19 BC. John 2.20 states that the temple took 46 years to build. This probably refers to the building of the sanctuary itself rather than the entire complex. Construction throughout the complex continued right up until AD 62—just four years before the outbreak of the Jewish Revolt would eventually see the destruction of the temple complex. So if the sanctuary took 46 years to build, and began in 19 BC, we can date its completion to AD 28. This overlap allows the possibility that a stone intended for use in the sanctuary ended up buried with the foundations of the Western Wall. Shukron’s theory is possible.
  3. As possible as Shukron’s theory is, a key question is why more such stones have not been found. Is it possible that there was a surplus of only one single stone block from the materials used to build the sanctuary? Could surplus stones not have been used in other peripheral structures around the temple complex? Eilat Mazar, director of the City of David excavations, says, “It is hard to construct a theory on the basis of a single stone. If another stone or two like it should be found in the future — and that could happen — that will be a somewhat stronger basis for Shukron’s theory that the stone came from a surplus that had been intended for the Temple of the type that had been used to build it.”
  4. Shukron notes the high quality of the stone when surmising it came from the temple building. Yet perhaps it came from another building within the temple complex, rather than from the sanctuary building itself. After all, the temple complex was enormous and, well, complex. There were numerous courtyards, rooms, and gates throughout it. There is every possibility that the stone had been intended for use in one of these peripheral structures.
  5. Another plausible theory is that the stone in question was a surplus block not from the sanctuary at the top of the complex, but from the Western Wall itself. Perhaps the stone was not needed in the construction of the wall, and so the masons did not bother carving the bossed effect, and ended up burying it rather than trying to haul it elsewhere. These were, after all, giant blocks of stone that took considerable effort to move in a pre-mechanised world.

So have we found a stone from the temple sanctuary in Jerusalem? Maybe, but we just can’t be sure because at present we have no way to corroborate or falsify the claim. What is almost certain is that it derives from the temple complex as a whole, but the stone’s original purpose is debatable. If we had some other stones from the temple sanctuary itself, we would be able to make direct comparison. But such a comparison is currently impossible. Our dilemma reminds us of the words of one particular Jewish figure who lived at the time of the temple’s construction: ‘Do you see these great constructions? Not one stone will be left here on another that will not be demolished!’ (Mark 13.2)

The extensive Holyland model (scale 1:50) of first century Jerusalem includes the temple complex as it would have looked at its completion. Pictured here is the large sanctuary building and surrounding courtyards. The Jerusalem temple was the largest sacred compound of its day.

Map of modern-day Jerusalem’s Old city, showing the location of the tunnel in which excavations at the base of the Western Wall of the Temple Mount are being conducted.

 


Quotes and information about the recent find came from Israel Hayom.

HT also to Antonio Lombatti.

Have we found the remains of the last Hasmonean King?

Could this be the jawbone of the last Hasmonean king of the Jews, Antigonus II Mattathiah, and one of the nails used to crucify him?

Antigonus II Mattathiah was an ambitious man. He was an active opponent of Antipater and Herod, the Idumean father and son pair who attempted to gain control of Judea, Samaria, and Galilee in the mid to late first century BC. Eventually, with Parthian backing, Antigonus II became King of the Jews in 40 BC. His alliance with the Parthians, however, put him out of favour with the Romans, who were attempting to maintain control of the region against the Parthian threat. As a result, Rome awarded kingship over the Jewish nation to Herod in 39 BC. And so, for the next couple of years, Antigonus and Herod wrestled for control of the Jewish nation.

Antigonus’ grip on power rapidly slipped, and in 37 BC Herod gained control of Jerusalem. He captured Antigonus and dispatched him to Antioch for Roman justice at the hands of Herod’s Roman patron, Mark Antony. Jewish historian Josephus (AD c.100) claims Mark Antony had Antigonus beheaded (Ant 15.8–10):

Now when Antony had received Antigonus as his captive, he determined to keep him against his triumph; but when he heard that the nation grew seditious, and that, out of their hatred to Herod, they continued to bear good will to Antigonus, he resolved to behead him at Antioch, for otherwise the Jews could no way be brought to be quiet. And Strabo of Cappadocia attests to what I have said, when he thus speaks:—“Antony ordered Antigonus the Jew to be brought to Antioch, and there to be beheaded; and this Antony seems to me to have been the very first man who beheaded a king, as supposing he could no other way bend the minds of the Jews so as to receive Herod, whom he had made king in his stead; for by no torments could they be forced to call him king, so great a fondness they had for their former king; so he thought that this dishonorable death would diminish the value they had for Antigonus’s memory, and at the same time would diminish the hatred they bare to Herod.”

Josephus’ account is corroborated by his Roman contemporary, Plutarch. However, later Roman historian, Dio Cassius (early third century AD), claims a slightly different end for Antigonus (Roman History 49.22.6):

These people [i.e. the Jews] Antony entrusted to a certain Herod to govern; but Antigonus he bound to a cross and flogged, — a punishment no other king had suffered at the hands of the Romans, — and afterwards slew him.

Dio Cassius’ testimony leaves open the possibility that Mark Antony tortured Antigonus by crucifixion ‘and afterwards slew him’ by beheading him. If this is the case, then we may have found some of the remains of Antigonus.

Ariel David of Haaretz provides the details. Is he right? Here are the main highlights of David’s article:

In 1970, a rock-cut tomb was discovered by workers building a private house in Jerusalem’s Givat Hamivtar neighborhood. Inside the two-chambered burial, dating back to the first century BCE, archeologists found a decorated ossuary – a limestone box containing the bones of the deceased – and an enigmatic Aramaic inscription affixed to the wall.

“I am Abba, son of Eleazar the priest,” proclaimed the 2,000-year-old text. “I am Abba, the oppressed, the persecuted, born in Jerusalem and exiled to Babylon, who brought back Mattathiah son of Judah and buried him in the cave that I purchased.”

[...] Now. new research indicates that the initial interpretation of the find, that has long been dismissed, may have been right all along. This view identifies the Abba cave as the final resting place of a key figure in Jewish history: Mattathiah Antigonus II, the last king of the Hasmonean dynasty…

[...] Historians initially came up with the Antigonus II theory based on the names on the inscription and the tomb’s unusual features. Abba’s boastful claim and the painstakingly decorated ossuary, considered by archeologists one of the finest ever found, pointed to an important personage.

At the same time, the cryptic text, the fact that the ossuary lacked any identifying inscription and that it was found buried in a niche under the floor of the cave suggested that Abba may have acted in secret, which is consistent with the persecution the Hasmoneans and their followers suffered after the fall of Mattathiah.

[...] The theory that Abba may have retrieved the Hasmonean king’s body from Antioch… and secretly buried it in his family tomb received a boost in 1974, when Nicu Haas, Israel’s top physical anthropologist at the time, discussed his analysis of the bones found inside the ossuary on Israeli television.

[...] Haas said he had identified the bones of at least two individuals, one older and one a young adult, around the age of 25, who had suffered a horrific death. Three nails where found in the ossuary with pieces of hand bones attached to two of them, suggesting the victim had been crucified.

Haas also identified clean cuts on the man’s second vertebra and lower jaw, indicating he had been decapitated with a sword or other sharp object. These findings were consistent with Mattathiah’s age and with the account of his execution given by ancient historians Josephus Flavius and Dio Cassius who recount that Marc Antony had the king crucified, scourged and beheaded.

With Haas’ analysis, all the pieces of the puzzle seemed to fall into place. But then… Haas… spent the last 13 years of his life in a coma and never published his findings on the cave.

The bones were passed on for analysis to Patricia Smith, an anthropologist from the Hebrew University. While agreeing that the remains included the skull fragments of a young man, she concluded that the cut jaw belonged to the elderly person – and that this individual was a woman. In her report, published in 1977 in the Israel Exploration Journal, she also dismissed the idea that crucifixion had occurred because the nails had not passed through the bones.

[...] Based on Smith’s analysis, the Hasmonean hypothesis was abandoned…

In a paper published last year in the IEJ, Yoel Elitzur, a Hebrew University historian… notes that in Jewish texts and manuscripts the name Abba and Baba were often used interchangeably. He identifies Abba as the head of a family mentioned by Josephus as the “the sons of Baba” and described as being supporters of the Hasmoneans long after Herod had taken power.

Elitzur also speculates that following Haas’ accident, Smith may have received a disorganized mix of bones including remains from other sites, leading to a possible mistake in identifying the person with the cut jaw as a female.

[...] In yet another twist of this puzzling cold case, Haaretz can reveal that researchers did not return all the bones for reburial in the cave.

Some key remains, including the nails and the cut jaw and vertebra, were sent for safekeeping to Tel Aviv University anthropologist Israel Hershkovitz and remained untouched in his lab for years.

After reading Elitzur’s paper, Hershkovitz re-examined the remains. He analyzed the nails using an electron microscope, determining that they did break the bones of the hand, as would occur in crucifixion. This itself is a blow to skeptics, since Romans rarely crucified women, Hershkovitz said.

He also doubts Smith’s finding that the time-worn jaw belonged to a woman.

[...] Hershkovitz has been trying to extract DNA from the jaw in order to confirm whether it belonged to a man or a woman. Though that would not confirm Mattathiah’s identity, it would give weight to all the other evidence that points to him, he said.

“Once you remove the idea that the cut mandible belonged to a woman, you are left with all the other elements that prove that this is Mattathiah,” he said. “In this case, the writing was literally on the wall.”

60 Royal Mummies from the 14th century BC

Archaeologists from Basel University working in Egypt have stumbled upon the burial chamber of almost 60 mummies purported to belong to ancient Egypt’s 18th Dynasty. This is one of Egypt’s more well known dynasties, claiming the likes of Ahmose (credited with ousting the Hyksos from Lower Egypt), the imperial expansionist Thutmose III, the heretic Pharaoh Akhenaton (Amenhotep IV), and his son, the modern celebrity, Tutankhamun.

The mummies discovered are specifically from the time of father and son, Thutmose IV and Amenhotep III.

The official press release from the University of Basel, which conducted the excavations, states:

The scientists discovered mummified remains of at least 50 people in the center chamber and in three side chambers. Based on inscriptions on storage jars, Egyptologists were able to identify and name over 30 people during this year’s field season. Titles such as “Prince” and “Princess” distinguish the buried as members of the families of the two pharaohs Thutmosis IV and Amenhotep III who are also buried in the Valley of Kings. Both pharaohs belonged to the 18th dynasty (New Kingdom) and ruled in the 14th century BC.

This is a remarkable find. Eric Cline (George Washington University) is hoping that among the mummies might be found some of Amenhotep III’s Mitannian and Babylonian wives. We’ll have to wait and see. But in any case, we have here not only a valuable insight into this period of Egyptian history, but also the actual remains of people who once lived and walked in this incredible part of the earth so long ago.

Ahram Online also has a brief new article about the find.