Christians and the Law

This is an article I wrote originally for Southern Cross magazine, appearing in their November 2015 issue, and also at Moore College’s Think Tank blog.


As Christians we hold the Bible to be the Word of God. We acknowledge the Scriptures are ultimately God’s idea, and that he inspired the human authors to write them for the good of those who read them (2 Pet 1:20–21). We rightly acknowledge the Bible to be the ultimate authority for the Christian life. But this poses something of a challenge: How do we rightly interpret the Bible within a modern-day setting when it was not written by or to people in the modern day? How do we take these ancient words of authoritative revelation and apply them well to contemporary situations? As our society changes and seems increasingly keen to let go of Christian mores, this becomes an ever more pressing issue.

One of the particular challenges we face in this regard is the way we bring the laws of the Old Testament to bear on the church and society today. As we read the Pentateuch (the first five books of the Bible), we encounter laws about various aspects of life, and we often appeal to these in discussions about Christian behaviour and the ethics of society at large. We recount the Ten Commandments in our liturgy as a statement of God’s righteous standards. We hold some laws as binding today (e.g. not murdering), but relinquish others (e.g. prohibitions against eating certain foods). This can create a serious dilemma, because on the surface, it looks like an arbitrary approach—a purely selective retention of those laws that suit us, and the rejection of those that don’t. Indeed, this is how many caricature our handling of Scripture. Unfortunately, in many cases, they are right. We have not thought carefully enough about interpreting Old Testament laws to ensure that we do not do so arbitrarily. We must do justice to these laws as integral parts of God’s authoritative word to us, and that means having a rationale for how we interpret them.

ten-commandments-hebrewOne method popularly espoused is to divide the Law into three categories: (1) civil laws pertaining to the life of Israel as a national entity in ancient times; (2) ceremonial laws pertaining to how Israel worshipped God at the tabernacle or temple; and (3) moral laws that indicate the ethical standards God desires of people. Under this scheme, the civil and ceremonial laws are seen as no longer applicable to Christians, because they are fulfilled in Christ. The moral laws, though, do continue to have force, since God’s standards have not changed. It therefore takes Jesus’ fulfilment of the Old Testament and the high ethical standards of believers quite seriously.

There are a few problems with this approach, however. First, the Law itself does not make this kind of threefold distinction. The laws together constitute a singular whole. While we are still permitted to divide it up for the purposes of analysis, it becomes easy to take these divisions as absolute features of the Law, rather than useful tools. It’s a bit like treating a three-room house like three distinct houses. Second, the New Testament sees Jesus as the fulfilment of the Law in its entirety, not just two portions of it. And third, the Law is an all-or-nothing proposition. Paul’s interaction with the Gentile believers in Galatia demonstrates this. When the Judaizers came to Galatia and urged the Gentile believers to undergo circumcision in order to be part of the people of God, Paul reacted strongly. He told the Galatians that if they wanted to be characterised by observing the Law, they had to keep all the laws, not just portions of them (Gal 5:3). But this would be to no avail anyway, since no one can ultimately be justified through the Law (Gal 3:11). Nevertheless, Paul also affirms that when Christians walk in step with the Spirit who has been given to them (Gal 5:16, 25) and love their neighbours as themselves, they fulfil the entire Law—not just part of it (Gal 5:24). Carving the Law up into applicable and non-applicable slices simply does not do it justice.

So how should we approach the Law as Christians? The answer to that question would take many more pages than this article allows. Nevertheless, here are some principles and ideas that are vital ‘stakes in the ground’ when considering the place of the Law today.

Types of Laws

It’s useful to understand the nature of the laws we read in the Bible. There are two broad types of laws. The first are ‘apodictic’ laws, which plainly state what people must or must not do. The Ten Commandments (Deut 5:6–21) are the best examples of these. The second type are ‘casuistic’ laws. These don’t hand down a ‘do’ or a ‘do not’. Rather, they describe hypothetical cases and dispense advice on how these cases could be handled. From these cases, readers can derive principles that can be applied in other scenarios. This is important to realise, because casuistic laws are not exhaustive. They do not explore all the possible alternative situations that people might encounter. They are simply worked examples. It is easy to think that casuistic laws are simplistic, unjust, or have numerous loopholes. But this is to treat them as apodictic laws, or misunderstand them as exhaustive. Their hypothetical nature also means that understanding the ancient culture that provided the context for these laws is also invaluable. Without that context, it can be easy to misconstrue the intent of these laws.

The Old Covenant

God gave his laws to his ancient people, Israel. These laws were part of his old covenant, by which he established a particular kind of relationship: God was Israel’s ‘head of state’, and they were his national society within the land he gave them. The old covenant was about establishing and maintaining a nation, which is why laws were appropriate for ordering the covenant relationship. This is very different to our situation as Christians today. Jesus has established a new covenant in which we relate to God not as citizens towards a head of state, but as children towards a heavenly Father. We have become a family, which is why Christians relate to each other not merely as ‘neighbours’, but as ‘brothers and sisters’. While our relationships to God and each other still require order to function well, laws are actually an inappropriate means for this. A family that needs laws imposed on its relationships is not functioning in a healthy way. A family functions well when its members share an inherent identity that inextricably binds them to each other in love. Affection, more than duty, is what makes a family function well. A nation, however, requires a dutiful level of order. Understanding the different dynamics required in running a family and a nation gives us some leverage for understanding the rationale of some of the Old Testament laws, and how they may relate to us today.

The Purpose of the Law

The Law was not about saving a person unto eternal life. Rather, it was about enabling a person to be a good citizen of old covenant Israel within the land. The Apostle Paul, for example, could boast about being blameless with regards to the righteousness that comes from the Law (Phil 3:6). But this type of righteousness only allowed him to be a good ‘Hebrew of Hebrews’—a citizen of Israel, but not necessarily a citizen of heaven. This is why he counted such credentials loss for the sake of knowing Christ and having the righteousness that comes through faith in him (Phil 3:9). This is a new type of righteousness, which is apart from the Law, though the Law (and the prophets) testified to it (Rom 3:21). Only Christ is able to save unto eternal life. Christians are not under the old covenant, so we are not required to live as a national entity within a particular land. We are, instead, under the new covenant, which allows us to relate to God as our Father, regardless of our ethnicity. This means we must not impose the Old Testament Law on Christians today. It is not necessary for salvation or Christian identity. Only Christ is necessary for salvation.

Countercultural Love

hammurabi

A black basalt stele with the Code of Hammurabi.

Other cultures of the ancient Near East had law codes. The Code of Hammurabi from Babylon (c. 1750 BC) is one of the best known of these. Some laws in these codes bear a striking resemblance to those found in the Old Testament. The ‘law of retaliation’ is an example, whereby proportionate punishment is given for a crime: eye for eye, and tooth for tooth (cf. Exod 21:23–25). However, there are also some glaring differences. For example, Hammurabi’s code stipulates that no one must harbour an escaped slave, but must immediately return the slave to his master. On this front, however, God’s Law is profoundly countercultural. It stipulates that if an animal escapes from its owner, the person who finds it must do all in their power to return the animal (Deut 22:1–3). But if a slave escapes from his master, Israelites must not return the slave to his master, but allow him to live among them (Deut 23:15–16). In other words, the Law does not see slaves as property, but as human beings with an inherent right to personal freedom. This is why Israel was only ever to see slavery as a temporary measure for settling debts (Deut 15:12–15). When we consider the ancient world’s view of slaves as dispensable chattels, God’s Law is countercultural. It sows the seeds of compassion and dignity that would eventually inspire the likes of William Wilberforce to bring the institution of slavery to an end. The Law outlines Israel’s duties, but at its heart is love of neighbour. This should be a guiding principle in how we analyse it.

This countercultural aspect of the Law is not just about Israel being different to other nations for the sake of being different. As we’ve seen, Israel shared some laws in common with its neighbours. Rather, it is about establishing practices and policies that reflect the justice, righteousness, and love of God. The Law aims to treat people as persons in relationship with others. This is not the same as treating people individualistically—as singular units without reference to others. It is about promoting personhood and relational wellbeing. This is why it bids the powerful of society to use their power in loving service of the weak, usually characterised as the fatherless, the widow, and the migrant (e.g. Deut 10:18). In an ancient society that lacked many of the social and political infrastructures that we enjoy in the West today, this was a crucial message.

Same God, Different Context

The God who gave Israel the Law is the same God who has spoken and acted in Jesus Christ. We worship the same deity whom old covenant Israel worshipped (or, rather, should have worshipped). But while God himself has not changed, our understanding of God is, in fact, different to the understanding Israel had. In Old Testament times, God was still in the process of revealing himself. This is why he kept sending prophets to Israel, and why Israel had to keep adapting to this unfolding revelation. We, however, live after the completion of God’s revelation in Christ. The Law was not God’s final word—Christ was. Failing to take Christ into account is like interrupting God mid-sentence, and not letting him speak. It can be presumptuous and lead to misunderstanding.

So as we interpret the Old Testament Law, we must appreciate the difference in historical and theological context between Israel and ourselves. We must feel the difference between ‘BC’ and ‘AD’. Yet we must also recognise that God has not changed. This means we should be able to see a consistency between the Law given to Israel and what God requires of us today, but this consistency is situated in the character of God, not in the laws themselves. Although we (technically) no longer have the institution of slavery, the laws on slavery should still speak to us of a God who values human dignity and freedom, and which places people above economics. And while we are in a different salvation-historical context to old covenant Israel, there are some things that have not changed. For example, human nature is still the same. Our capacity for sin, our biological composition, and our personal limitations are unchanged. While our context may be different to old covenant Israel’s, our need for God and his revelation has not changed.

The change in historical and theological context demonstrates that the Law is not a timeless revelation. It was, rather, a revelation in history. Paul describes the Law as Israel’s tutor, put in place until Israel’s time of maturity and fulfilment arrived—the time of Christ (Gal 4:1–7). The Law is, therefore, not binding on Christians today as Law. But this does not mean the authority of God’s Law has expired. The Law remains the word of God as it ever was, for it still speaks to us of the God we worship, and of our forebears in the people of God. But it speaks to us today as prophecy and wisdom, rather than as Law. It testifies to the God whom we know today as our Father. It testifies to his righteousness, justice, and love. It provides us with the framework for understanding God’s dealings with his people in ages past, and in so doing, still provides us with wisdom on what is pleasing to God. The Law is like a tall tree whose shadow has moved through the day. It now casts a different shadow on a different landscape, but it is the same tree as it was in the morning. As such, we can affirm the truth of Paul’s words to Timothy when it comes to the Law: ‘All Scripture is breathed by God and is useful for teaching, rebuking, correcting, and training in righteousness, so that the person of God may be complete, equipped for every good work’ (2 Tim 3:16–17).

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The Only Skeletal Evidence For Crucifixion In The Ancient World

“The Romans practiced crucifixion – literally, “fixed to a cross” – for nearly a millennium. It was a public, painful, and slow form of execution, and used as a way to deter future crimes and humiliate the dying person. Since it was done to thousands of people and involved nails, you’d probably assume we have skeletal evidence of crucifixion.  But there’s only one, single bony example of Roman crucifixion, and even that is still heavily debated by experts.”

Thus writes Kristina Killgrove in a great little article for Forbes exploring the evidence for the gruesome but significant practice of crucifixion in the Roman world. In particular, she presents the only scientifically attested historical artefact of crucifixion: the heel bone of first century Jewish man, Yehohanan ben Hagkol, with nail still intact.

You can find the whole article at:

This One Bone Is The Only Skeletal Evidence For Crucifixion In The Ancient World – Forbes.

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A Seal of King Hezekiah

The Hebrew University of Jerusalem has announced the discovery of an ancient ‘bulla’ (a clay seal with a personal stamp impressed upon on it) bearing the name of Hezekiah, King of Judah. This is not the first seal bearing Hezekiah’s name to come to light. Nonetheless, it is an exciting find, especially since it was found in situ.

 

The Discovery

This particular bulla was originally found in 2009 during soil sifting at the excavations on the Ophel ridge to the immediate south of Jerusalem’s Temple Mount. The soil was part of ancient garbage debris that had been dumped between buildings in the northern section of ancient Jerusalem (Iron II). Eilat Mazar, head excavator at the site, interprets a nearby building as a royal storehouse.

Excavators initially misunderstood the writing on the bulla, reading the name as ‘Hezekiah [son of] Malkiah’. It was only recently, after a second check, that the writing on the bulla was deciphered more precisely and the personal name reinterpreted.

 

The Bulla

Measuring just 13 x 12 mm, the bulla itself is small enough to rest on a fingertip. The writing is, therefore, almost microscopic. An excellent photograph by Ouria Tadmor, however, provides good resolution for analysis.

 

 

The front (obverse) is clearly stamped by a personal seal that includes writing and iconography. The rear (reverse) reportedly bears the impressions of two cords that were held in place by the bulla. This suggests the bulla probably sealed a document of some kind. Unfortunately, the document is now lost—presumably a papyrus of some kind, which probably did not survive antiquity.

 

The Writing

The obverse has two registers, one each on the upper and lower extremities of the seal. The letters are Palaeo-Hebrew, and conform to the epigraphic style we see on a number of seals that can be dated to approximately the early seventh century BC. There is some damage in the upper register, and it is difficult to make out the letters on the far left side of both registers. The words are separated by a small but discernible dot, which is a common practice.

Taking these factors into account, we can offer the following transcription (partially or fully damaged letters are in orange):

לחזקיהו.אח
ז.מלך.יהדה

Belonging to Hezekiah [son of] Ah-
az, King of Judah.

The Hebrew word for ‘son of’ (בן) is omitted. Such an omission was common practice in seals, which were too small to host many letters.

The name is clearly reconstructed to Hezekiah, son of Ahaz. More than this, he is specifically given the title ‘King of Judah’. The word ‘Judah’ appears to be incomplete. The daleth (ד) is only partially visible and the final latter, he (ה), is missing altogether. However, some of Hezekiah’s other seals clearly give the name of the kingdom of Judah in full as יהדה (yehudah). Therefore, we can be confident that the stamp itself did have the fuller spelling of ‘Judah’ on it, but this particular bulla lacks it because of the way the stamp was impressed into the clay.

hezekiahs-seal-3

Drawing of a scarab beetle bulla of Hezekiah. The top line reads יהדה (‘Judah’), and the bottom line reads לחזקיהואחזמלך (‘belonging to Hezekiah [son of] Ahaz, king’).

 

King Hezekiah

Hezekiah, son of Ahaz, is known from both biblical and Assyrian sources. The exact dates of his reign are debated, but 715–687 BC are the most commonly espoused dates. The Bible tells us that Hezekiah’s father, Ahaz, made the kingdom of Judah a vassal to the Assyrians, against the advice of the prophet Isaiah (Isa 7–8). Ahaz did this in order to procure Assyrian help against an alliance of Damascus and Israel that was threatening him. This set the dominoes toppling that would see both Damascus and Israel fall to the Assyrian armies and be absorbed as provinces into the Assyrian imperial structure. Hezekiah may have been co-regent for a time with his father, Ahaz, but he at least reigned in his own right just after the downfall of the kingdom of Israel in 722 BC.

While Ahaz was content to be an Assyrian vassal, it appears Hezekiah was not. Instead, Assyrian sources tell us he took the political risk of meddling in Philistine affairs. The Bible portrays Hezekiah centralising his power (including the cult of Yahweh) in Jerusalem, thereby extending his sovereignty over his kingdom more directly. This provoked the ire of the Assyrian king, Sennacherib, who invaded Judah in c. 701 BC. Sennacherib claims to have destroyed 46 cities of Judah and deported their survivors. He even depicted the siege of Judah’s second largest city, Lachish, on the walls of his palace. The Bible tells us that Hezekiah tried to bribe Sennacherib with treasure from the temple in Jerusalem, and even appealed to Egypt for military help. However, all this failed. In his annals, Sennacherib claims to have cooped Hezekiah up in Jerusalem like a bird in a cage.

Surprisingly, Sennacherib did not end up taking Jerusalem. The fact that Hezekiah provoked the unrestrained wrath of Assyria, experienced the full-scale barbaric invasion of his country, which brought Judah to the very brink of destruction, only to emerge still on the throne in an unscathed Jerusalem (there is no layer of destruction or evidence of Assyrian siege in the relevant archaeological strata) with the Assyrian armies returning to Mesopotamia is perhaps one of the greatest stories of political survival against the odds in history. It’s no wonder the Bible attributes this to the divine intervention of Yahweh himself and gives Hezekiah a generally glowing report card.

 

Iconography

In the centre of the bulla is a sun disk. It emits six rays and has a set of wings that curve gently downwards in a posture of protection. The imagery of a winged sun disk is ubiquitous in the ancient Near East. It can be found in Egyptian, Assyrian, Persian, and Ptolemaic iconography. The sun usually is a cipher for the chief deity of the culture to which the owner of the seal belonged. In Assyria and Persia, the disk is often augmented with the depiction of a personal figure—the god Asshur in the case of Assyria, and the god Ahura Mazda in Persian depictions. However, no such personal depiction of a deity is seen in the sun disk here.

There are two options for interpreting the sun disk here.

First, it might be depicting the sun god, showing Egyptian influence. To that end, we note that on the right side of the bulla we see the ankh, the Egyptian symbol for life. The faint vestiges of a second ankh are just visible on the far left side of the bulla also. Hezekiah is known to have appealed to Egypt for military assistance against Sennacherib, though this was unsuccessful. Thus, in his anti-Assyrian stance, Hezekiah may well have absorbed Egyptian influence. Some of his other seals display a scarab beetle, which is clearly influence by Egyptian iconography. Furthermore, we know that in the early sixth century BC—a century after Hezekiah—the sun god was worshipped in the Jerusalem temple, though the practice is condemned in Ezekiel 8.16–18. This particular understanding of the iconography has explanatory power, though it is at odds with the biblical depictions of Hezekiah as an avowed exclusive Yahwist.

The alternative option is to understand the sun disk as a compatible cipher for Yahweh, the national deity of Israel and Judah, and patron deity of the Davidic dynasty in Jerusalem. While it is clear that Hezekiah did adopt Egyptian iconography, this does not necessitate his own worship of Egyptian deities. The compatibility of such iconography with Yahwistic religion is seen in a couple of places in the Bible. For example, Psalm 84.12 [84.11 Heb] says, ‘For sun and shield is Yahweh God; favour and glory does Yahweh give.’ In Malachi 4.2 (3.20 Heb), Yahweh declares, ‘But for those who revere my name, the sun of righteousness will rise with healing in its wings’. This verse probably refers to the winged sun disk as a symbol of Persian authority, as the Persians often depicted their deity Ahura Mazda that way. The Persians were also content to identify Ahura Mazda with certain ‘compatible’ deities of their subject peoples, Yahweh being one such deity. Malachi, then, most likely sees Yahweh’s blessing on his devotees as coming through Persia’s favour. The iconography of Persia is, therefore, baptised into Yahwism in such a way that it provides a compatible cipher for Yahweh’s own favour. The iconography on this bulla may well be doing the same thing: using common Egyptian symbols in the service of Yahwism.

faravahar

Relief of a sun disk with depiction of Ahura Mazda from the ruins of Persepolis.

The press release from Dov Smith (Hebrew University, Jerusalem) suggested the two ankh signs on the bulla might be connected to Hezekiah’s recovery from a life-threatening illness, depicted in 2 Kings 20.1–8 and Isaiah 38. The logic was that Hezekiah’s earlier seals contained scarab beetles rather than a sun disk, and were devoid of any ankh signs. The sun disk is suggestive of healing (cf. Mal 4.2 [3.20] mentioned above) and the ankh is a clearly a symbol of life.

As tantalising as the suggestion is, we must urge caution. First, to my knowledge there is nothing that allows us to date the scarab bullae specifically earlier than this sun disk bulla. So the dating is speculative. However, we have only three possibilities for ordering the respective bullae: either (1) the scarab bullae are earlier; (2) the sun disk bulla is earlier; or (3) the bullae are contemporary. So the suggestion is not implausible—just uncertain. But, secondly, the dramatic survival of Hezekiah and Jerusalem in the face of Sennacherib’s invasion is just as plausible an explanation of this seal’s iconography. The symbols might even be multivalent, since Hezekiah had more than one close call in his lifetime—especially if we remember the threats to Jerusalem during the reign of his father, Ahaz. Therefore, the suggestion in the press release is not wildly speculative—it’s a plausible suggestion. However, it’s not the only one.

 

The Significance of Authenticity

This bulla is significant because it was found in situ. That is, archaeologists found it in the course of excavation in Jerusalem. This is different to the other bullae of Hezekiah, which were not found in situ, but rather turned up on the antiquities market from unknown sources. When that happens, we have no way of verifying the authenticity of these bullae, and therefore, we can only make provisional evaluations of them at best. Since this new bulla was found in situ during a controlled dig, we can be confident about its authenticity. And this allows us to say with a far greater degree of confidence that the other bullae purportedly from Hezekiah’s personal seals are probably also authentic.

Two such bullae in particular deserve mention. They are, for all intents and purposes, identical to this ‘new’ authenticated bulla, though they first came to late in the 1980s and 1990s. We have, therefore, three practically identical bullae displaying the same configuration of iconography and with the exact same inscription, and one of them is positively genuine. It’s almost certain, then, that all three are genuine. The unprovenanced bullae were discussed in an article by Robert Deutsch titled ‘Lasting Impressions: New Bullae Reveal Egyptian Style Emblems on Judah’s Royal Seals’, published in Biblical Archaeology Review 28.4 (2002), 42–51, 60.

Furthermore, the discovery of this ‘new’ bulla in the excavations at the Ophel ridge in Jerusalem confirms that we are dealing with strata related to the Judean monarchy in Iron II, and the historical significance of Hezekiah. While these were not really in serious doubt, we still see here a positive corroboration between a number of sources. The authenticity of this bulla sees a very neat intersection between ancient literary sources (Assyrian annals, the Bible) and archaeological artefacts.

 

 

 

 

 

The #weekwithoutcoffee and the #warongeorge

GAwwcThis last week I’ve been in Atlanta at the annual conference for the Society of Biblical Literature. And since Australia has some of the best coffee on the planet (for example, just 50 metres from my office is my ‘coffice’—Handcraft Specialty Coffees), it’s always hard going to America, where they don’t seem to have discovered coffee yet. It’s like most people in America are caught in a kind of Matrix, and very few people know that it’s all an illusion.

And so I had a #weekwithoutcoffee.

For some perverse reason, this provoked people around the world into a #warongeorge (I’m blaming Sam Freney). Suddenly, my Facebook timeline was flooded with pictures of beautiful, lovely, delicate, smooth coffees (real coffees!), while I battled through with Christmas-laced Starbucks.

I’m now back home in Sydney, and the ordeal has come to an end.

Now of course it was all in good fun, and I must say that I had plenty of laughs. And so, it seems, did many others.

So here’s the situation: I was away from my home and family, suffering without coffee, and forced to have something when I really would have preferred something else that I really liked. And I did it because I was seeking to engage further in biblical studies.

In the scheme of things, though, my suffering over the last week was meagre when you compare it to:

  • Syrians and Iraqis who are being forced to flee their homes in fear of their lives, often being separated from loved ones, or having them violently torn from their embrace, and with little hope of ever returning home;
  • people who suffer from Prader Willi Syndrome (PWS) who, despite being able to eat and drink certain things, are neurologically unable to feel ‘full’, and instead feel constant hunger, meaning they would desperately love to eat or drink what they really crave (some of my best friends have children with PWS);
  • students who, for financial reasons, have to leave family behind while they go to another city or country in order to further their studies in Bible and theology, before eventually returning home to make a difference to their communities (many of the students I have the privilege of teaching at George Whitefield College in Cape Town are in this very situation).

So here’s the deal:

If you either participated or enjoyed (!) the #weekwithoutcoffee and the #warongeorge, I would dearly love you to support one of the following causes by making a donation:

  1. The Archbishop’s Syrian Refugee Appeal (Anglicare)
  2. The Prader Willi Syndrome Association of NSW
  3. George Whitefield College in Cape Town, South Africa*

You can pick one of the three, or all of the three. The amount you donate is totally up to you. You might, for example, like to donate a week’s worth of your coffee budget (or more!). But any amount would be fantastic.

GAwwcoverThen, if you do support one of these causes (or even if you don’t, actually), I want you to post a picture of a cup of coffee on Facebook or Twitter with the hashtag #makethecoffeecount and a link to this webpage (wp.me/p13v4V-m4), so that others can participate too. It would be great to drum up some good support for these causes.
So please join me and let’s make my #weekwithoutcoffee and the #warongeorge actually count for something.

 


* Donation is made in South African Rand (ZAR).
AUD $1 = approx. ZAR 10.
US    $1 = approx. ZAR 14

anglicare7e234b_715fcd5fd1a44baa9aeef6ab63717f59  GWClogo

 

Antiochus IV’s Acra Fortress in Jerusalem Has Purportedly Been Found

History has remembered the Seleucid king Antiochus IV Epiphanes (175–164 BC) as one of the greatest villains of antiquity. In 167 BC, he outlawed Judaism, desecrated the Jerusalem temple by sacrificing swine on its altar, and set up an image of himself in the guise of Zeus in its courts. His persecution was the culmination of the pressure that Hellenism was exerting over Judea at the time. This pushed conservative Jews to breaking point, and sparked the Maccabean Revolt. Under the leadership of Judas Maccabeus, the Jewish nation successfully overthrew Seleucid sovereignty and established a Jewish commonwealth that lasted a century until the arrival of Rome’s celebrity general, Pompey (63 BC).

A coin (tetradrachm) of Antiochus IV minted in Acco-Ptolemais (c. 167 BC)

As part of his program to control Judea and provide a better launching platform for operations against Ptolemaic Egypt, Antiochus constructed a fortress in Jerusalem. This fortress was known as the ‘Acra’, from the Greek word ἄκρα (akra), meaning ‘citadel’ or ‘summit’. The term is seen in the word ‘Acropolis’, which means ‘fortified city’ or ‘city on the summit’. 1 Maccabees 1.33–36 gives us this account of Antiochus’ construction of the Jerusalem Acra:

Then they fortified the city of David with a great strong wall and strong towers, and it became their citadel. They stationed there a sinful people, men who were renegades. These strengthened their position; they stored up arms and food, and collecting the spoils of Jerusalem they stored them there, and became a great menace, for the citadel became an ambush against the sanctuary, an evil adversary of Israel at all times.

The Acra, then, housed a garrison of Seleucid Greek soldiers, and their cache of weapons. It was approximately 250 x 60 m in area, and towered tall enough to provide a vantage point for all activities being conducted in the Jewish temple. Understandably, it was viewed by conservative Jews as a symbol of oppression.

The exact location of Antiochus’ Acra has been a subject of debate. If it afforded a good view into the temple courts, it would seem to have been located either to the immediate north or west of the temple. Yet nothing has been forthcoming in excavations and surveys.

But now, it seems, the riddle has been solved.

Archaeologists excavating in the Giv’ati Car Park in the City of David (just south of the Old City of Jerusalem) have uncovered what they believe to be the remains of the Acra fortress. While the ruins have been exposed for some time now, archaeologists have only recently been able to understand their configuration properly. They are now quite confident that they have indeed located the Acra. Furthermore, this makes complete sense of the reference in 1 Maccabees to its location in the ‘City of David’.

Excavations at the Giv’ati Car Park, Jerusalem—the location of the Acra.

The surprising thing about this is that the Acra was located on ground that was a good deal lower than the Temple Mount. Yet, we must realise that the Temple Mount in the second century BC was lower than its current level. The Second Temple was renovated on a monumental scale by Herod the Great (beginning in 19 BC), and he built the massive retaining walls that achieved the levels we can observe today. But before Herod’s renovation, the temple was most likely sitting at a lower altitude (albeit on the same spot). In any case, the Acra was located at a lower altitude. Therefore, it must have been quite an imposing tower to provide the garrison with its vantage point into the temple complex.

The Acra is a very significant find, as it dominated the landscape of Jerusalem at a critical time of its ancient history. It will be interesting to see if archaeologists can determine whether construction of the Acra in 167 BC compromised previous levels of occupation (‘strata’) from earlier historical periods.

What eventually happened to the Acra?

Judas Maccabeus was able to take Jerusalem and besieged the Acra in the course of his campaign. Yet the garrison managed to hold out for quite some time. With the Greco-Syrian soldiers watching on, Judas rededicated the temple in December 164 BC (or January 163 BC, depending on calendrical calculations). This was the origin of the festival of Hanukkah. Judas and his successors, his brothers Jonathan and Simon, managed to fortify Jerusalem effectively against the garrison, eventually winning complete freedom for the Jewish nation. Simon besieged the garrison and starved them out in 142 BC. Josephus tells us what Simon then did with the Acra in Antiquities 13.6.7:

He… cast it down to the ground, that it might not be any more a place of refuge to their enemies, when they took it, to do them a mischief, as it had been till now. And when he had done this, he thought it their best way, and most for their advantage, to level the very mountain itself upon which the citadel happened to stand, that so the temple might be higher than it. And, indeed, when he had called the multitude to an assembly, he persuaded them to have it so demolished… so they all set themselves to the work, and levelled the mountain, and in that work spent both day and night without any intermission, which cost them three whole years before it was removed, and brought to an entire level with the plain of the rest of the city. After which the temple was the highest of all the buildings, now that the citadel, as well as the mountain whereon it stood, were demolished.

Here’s a news clip with some good visuals of the excavations.

Here is Israeli archaeologist, Doron Ben Ami, speaking about the discovery of the Acra:

You can also read further articles on the discovery by clicking the following links:

http://greekcurrent.com/a-2000-year-old-greek-fortress-has-been-unearthed-in-jerusalem/

http://www.reuters.com/article/2015/11/03/us-archaeology-jerusalem-idUSKCN0SS1GD20151103?feedType=RSS&feedName=lifestyleMolt

Aerial view of Jerusalem today. The Givati Car Park, where the Acra was discovered, is located in the very centre of the picture.

Prophets and Prediction

My friend, Tim Bulkeley, has written a brief but punchy and accurate blog post about prophets and prediction. In my opinion, he hits the nail on the head. Read it! Consider it!

If you don’t, well… you’ve been warned!

You’ll find the blog post here:

Prophets and prediction: when conservatism and Bible clash | Sansblogue.

Philistines from the North?

Recently, people have been asking Prof. Aren Maeir, excavator at the ancient site of Gath (Tell es-Safi), about a news article that claims the Philistines originated in southern Turkey. His answer: No, they didn’t.

Read the longer (but still brief) answer here:

Philistines from the North? | The Ackerman Family Bar-Ilan University Expedition to Gath Official (and Unofficial) Weblog.