What did Jesus look like?

This is a neat little piece of research by Joan E. Taylor for the ASOR (American School of Oriental Research) blog. To read the whole thing, you’ll have to sign up as a Friend of ASOR, which is free and painless—even a joy, if you’re into archaeology.You’ll generally only get a monthly notice for their blog. It’s worth it just for this blog article!

Here’s the link:

What did Jesus look like? – ASOR Blog.

‘Why should I study Hebrew?’

I’m often asked by people going to theological college or seminary, “Why should I study Hebrew?’ Less often, they ask, “Why should I study Greek?”

They’re good questions. Vital questions.

To answer, I want you to imagine this scenario.

You’ve just arrived at university, bright-eyed and bushy-tailed. You’re there to study French literature. In fact, it’s been your dream for a few years now to study French literature. You love French culture. You’ve travelled to Paris and fallen in love with the place. You adore French cuisine. Now you want to sink your teeth into the masterpieces that French authors have produced. So you’ve enrolled in the course, bought all the books, and checked your timetable. You’re ready to begin.

And so the day finally arrives. You find the classroom. You walk in, find a seat, and try to get comfortable. But you find yourself shuffling in your seat with nervous anticipation.

Then the Professor walks in.

Your excitement piques even more. At last, you’re actually fulfilling that long-held desire to immerse yourself in French literature.

Bonjour!’ says the Professor.

Bonjour!’ you respond, perhaps a little too enthusiastically.

The Professor proceeds to hand out a schedule for the semester. As you scan down the list, you see that each class is a feast of French classics: Alexandre Dumas, Victor Hugo, Jules Verne, Gaston Leroux, Paul Verlaine… C’est formidable!

The wide smile on your face grows even wider. This is going to be such a treat!

Once all the schedules have been handed out, the Professor gathers everyone’s attention. He clears his throat, and begins to address you all.

“Everybody,” he says, “I want you to know that I actually don’t know any French. I do know bonjour, of course, and how to say escargot properly,” he chuckles, “as well as a handful of other words I’ve picked up here and there. But I don’t actually know the language. Nevertheless, we’re going to have a great time together studying French literature.”

The smile that had beamed across your face now flees.

“This is the ‘Professor?'” you ask yourself. “How is he going to teach us French literature if he doesn’t even know French? He’s not an expert! How are we supposed to trust him if he can’t even read the French for himself? Is this what I signed up for?”

are-you-serious-wtf-meme-baby-face

The moral of the story?

If you’re going to be teaching people from a pulpit, interpreting the word of God for them, unpacking its meaning, its significance, and ensuring its positive impact on them, then do the responsible thing and learn the word of God in its original languages. Congregations will be looking to you as their expert who is not just willing but also able to read rightly and teach tightly the Scriptures. Do not sell them short!

For some reason seminary students often don’t need convincing about the value of learning Greek for New Testament study, and yet they do need substantial persuasion to learn Hebrew for the benefit of Old Testament study, not to mention Aramaic for the small portions of it in the Old Testament. 

A friend of mine who pastors a congregation told me of a young man in his church who was heading off to study at a theological college. This young man approached my friend for advice on making a choice: should he study Greek when he got to college, or should he study Hebrew? My friend’s response was legendary: “Well,” he said, “when you finish college and get up into your pulpit, do you want to be wearing only your shirt, or only your pants?”

It is incumbent on those who would be teachers to give their best efforts to the task, so as to honour the God whose Scriptures they are handling, as well as the congregations they are serving. Yes, we have the Bible translated into English and other languages, but there is always some loss in translation. If there weren’t, we might not ever need to hear another sermon again: we could just read our English translations all by ourselves, and never have to meet up regularly. But God has appointed some to be teachers in his Church as a means of blessing his Church with the full measure of the knowledge of the Son of God. This is why not all people are encouraged to be teachers, but also why we go on meeting together with teachers to lead us.

No one who reads from a translation of the Bible is somehow less faithful for doing so than someone who reads from the original languages. The suggestion is preposterous! I want to say, “Thank God for our Bible translators!” But the fact that we need translators tells us just how important it is to have people who do know the original languages. Without them, people are missing out.

I’ve heard some ministers who took Hebrew at seminary say they no longer use it, see no ongoing value for it in their ministry, or in hindsight think that learning Hebrew was too much effort for too little return—that it was time they could have spent better studying other things. But that makes me wonder whether they’re continuing to give the Scriptures their all. The Scriptures are the basis of all theological endeavour. Not everyone has the opportunity to learn Hebrew or Greek, but knowing them allows the teacher to weigh up the decisions made by others about the meaning of Scripture—be they other Bible translators, theologians, other ministers, the leaders of their Bible study groups, the TV documentary host, or the person on the street. And this is an ongoing task that is never finished. While the Scriptures don’t change, the situations we find ourselves in do. And so we need to continue understanding and interpreting the Scriptures for these new situations. One of the mottos of the Reformation captures this need nicely: semper reformanda (‘always reforming’). If a teacher is not actively examining and weighing up the Scriptures against ever changing situations, relying instead on what others say or translate, then they have fallen into a false sense of security. They have actually begun to congeal in a tradition. Teachers should be capable of continual, close examination of the Scriptures. Knowing ‘Shalom’, ‘Hallelujah!’, and the meaning of ‘Yom Kippur’ doesn’t cut it.

“I can still have a fruitful ministry without the original languages,” you might say. True. But which doctor would you go to: the one who has a full waiting room, a soothing voice, and gives you a jellybean at the end of the consultation, or the one who has all the paraphernalia to diagnose you and write you a correct prescription?

For the sake of your future congregations and the God whose Scriptures you will authoritatively interpret for them, give the original languages your best shot and don’t give them up once you’ve graduated. That’s when you’ll use them the most! Knowing the original languages won’t guarantee you’ll be a better speaker, but it will mean you know the Scriptures better. By all means, polish up your speaking skills, but for God’s sake make sure you know what you’re talking about. Know it well! God demands much of his teachers, so you should demand much of yourself, too.

So if you’re heading to theological college and have the opportunity to study Hebrew and Greek, please have a very good reason for not doing so. “It’s not for everybody,” or “It’s not really necessary,” just aren’t really good enough for would-be teachers. Both God and his flock, whom you will shepherd, deserve your best efforts.

Related: Why Learn Biblical Hebrew?

Why did Jesus die?

For Good Friday, I’m reissuing a post I wrote a few years ago. And appropriately, this Good Friday (April 3rd) is exactly 1982 years to the day since the death of Jesus.


I really enjoy the ‘rock opera’ Jesus Christ Superstar by Andrew Lloyd Webber and Tim Rice. Despite its somewhat apocryphal take on the events leading up to Jesus’ death, one of the things it tries to do is explore the reasons why Jesus, about whom there was so much excitement, ended up dead on a Roman cross. In the climactic title song, Judas asks of Jesus,

Did you mean to die like that — was that a mistake?
Or did you know your messy death would be a record breaker?

There are a numbers of ways we could answer the question ‘Why did Jesus die?’ On the historical level, we can say that Jesus was caught between the crunching gears of apocalyptic messianic expectation, Jewish temple politics, and Roman imperial intrigue. On the theological level, there is so much more to say.

On the Sunday before his death, Jesus entered Jerusalem riding a donkey to the frenzied cheers of his followers. It was a provocative messianic stunt, aimed at fulfilling the image of the returning Davidic King in Zechariah 9.9. And his followers were not blind to its significance. Their cry of ‘Hosanna!’ was a slogan meaning ‘To the rescue!’ Here was the Davidic messiah coming to his royal capital to overthrow the current order, free his people, and establish the new Kingdom of God. The following day, in a brash act prefiguring the end of the old order, Jesus marched into the temple complex and overturned the tables of the moneychangers and opened the pens holding sacrificial animals for sale. A small riot seems to have ensued. By doing this symbolic act, Jesus was clearly stating that he believed the temple and the authorities that ran it were no longer in favour with God. Time was rapidly running out — the time of judgement and the dawn of a new era were now imminent. Jesus was, in other words, playing the part of an apocalyptic prophet.

For the remainder of the week, the temple authorities worked to arrest Jesus. After trying unsuccessfully to discredit him publicly, and fearing the incendiary riot that a public arrest would probably spark, they managed to arrest him on the sly by bribing Judas Iscariot, a member of Jesus’ inner circle. A summary Jewish trial ensued. In fact, it was probably an illegal trial, since it was held during the midnight hours within the house of the High Priest, Caiaphas. It seems that those present tried to pin the charge of treason on Jesus by implicating him for threats against the temple, the institution that stood at the heart of Jewish identity and piety. This would be akin to charging someone today with a plot to blow up the White House. Given events earlier in the week, one would have thought it would be easy to implicate Jesus. However, the Gospels tell us that the witnesses brought forward could not agree, and therefore Jesus could not definitively be found guilty. However, the High Priest, Caiaphas, used another strategy. He asked Jesus if he was the Son of God. In asking this, Caiaphas was probably not asking Jesus whether he believed he was the second person on the Trinity. Rather, he was asking Jesus whether he believed himself to be the messiah — the son of David who was to sit eternally on the throne of Israel, for the son of David in the Hebrew Bible was also seen as the ‘son of God’ (see 2 Samuel 7.14). Jesus’ response implied that he did believe this. But even more than this, Jesus appealed to the image of the Son of Man in Daniel 7 — an apocalyptic image of God’s chosen one who would bring about the end of the world order and establish God’s eternal kingdom. In the eyes of the authorities, this was an admission of revolutionary intent. Jesus was found guilty.

Since the Jewish authorities at this time were unable to exact the death penalty (it had been revoked by Rome a few decades earlier), Jesus was hurried off to the Roman Prefect, Pontius Pilate. Politically, Pilate was fighting battles on two fronts. On the one hand, Pilate was probably a protégé of Aelius Sejanus, who had been running the Roman Empire for a few years while the emperor, Tiberius Caesar, enjoyed a leisurely lifestyle on the Italian isle of Capri. However, in October, AD 31, Sejanus was executed for conspiracy against the emperor. Anyone connected to him was now also under suspicion. Pilate, therefore, would have had to watch his steps very closely to demonstrate unambiguously that he was loyal to Tiberius Caesar. On the other hand, though, Pilate had to maintain face and an air of authority over those he governed. In the years before Sejanus’ ignominious death, Pilate had thrown his weight around in various displays of power. Amongst those he needed to keep in check were the Jewish temple authorities. One of the ways he had managed to do so was to plunder the temple’s treasury for public works, and to keep the High Priest’s ceremonial garments under lock and key in the Antonia Fortress. These measures were belittling to the Jewish temple authorities and told them in no uncertain terms who was boss.

So, on the morning of Friday, April 3rd, AD 33, the Jewish authorities brought Jesus to Pilate to seek the death penalty for him. Normally, it would appear that the Jewish authorities were in the position of grovelling subordinates, and thus for Pilate to agree to the death penalty would simply be a show of his own authority. However, Pilate also had to contend for his own reputation now that he was in the spotlight after Sejanus’ death. He could not afford to show any weakness before those he governed, and acquiescing to their request could now be interpreted as just such a weakness. And yet, he could not be seen to be letting a potential revolutionary go free either. That would endanger his standing with the emperor. Accordingly, Pilate attempted to hand the decision over to someone else — to Herod Antipas, tetrarch of Galilee and Perea, who was in Jerusalem at the time. However, the move backfired. Jesus was returned to Pilate, who now had to make a decision. Not wishing to imply that he was vulnerable or susceptible to weakness, Pilate himself questioned Jesus, flogged him in a display of Rome’s discipline, and was then on the verge of releasing him. By thus overriding the request of the Jewish leaders for the death penalty, Pilate was stamping his authority over them. However, Caiaphas and his comrades were not stupid. They now held the trump card. John’s Gospel tells us that the Jewish authorities said to Pilate, “If you release this man, you are not Caesar’s friend” (19.12). They were implying that if he were to release Jesus, Pilate would be letting an insurrectionist go free to destabilise one of the imperial provinces that Tiberius governed directly (as opposed to consular provinces, which were governed via the Roman Senate). This would implicate Pilate as a traitor to the emperor. To put it another way, the Jewish authorities were asking Pilate, “Whose skin do you want to save: this nuisance from Nazareth’s, or your own?”

Checkmate!

Pilate summarily ordered the execution of Jesus. He was led outside the city walls of Jerusalem with two other condemned criminals, and was barbarically nailed to a cross and left to die a searingly painful death. The charge against him? Jesus of Nazareth: King of the Jews.

On the surface of things, it seems that Jesus was in the wrong place at the wrong time — a victim of circumstance, crushed by political machinations that were far bigger than he could humanly control. Some have pointed to the apocalyptic outlook that Jesus had, in wanting to draw the old order to a close and establish a new order, concluding that it was idealistic, unreal, and fraught with danger — that his beliefs and motivations just got him in too deep. Indeed, one can understand why most of his followers abandoned him and became so disillusioned by his death. He was an apparent failure. All the expectation surrounding him had come to nought, and like so many others before him, he fell foul of theauthorities and lost his life because of it.

But history also tells us something else. It tell us that not long after these events, Jesus’ followers reassembled and began boldly proclaiming that on the Sunday after his death Jesus had emerged from his tomb alive again. And despite attempts to silence them by the very same authorities who had Jesus arrested and killed, they continued to proclaim the resurrection of their master. He had not been a failure. He had been a fulfiller. He had indeed brought the old era to an end and inaugurated a new one, but had done so in a way that no one had anticipated: through his death. The Acts of the Apostles tell us that on one occasion, after being reprimanded by the Jewish authorities, Jesus’ followers prayed to God affirming, “In this city, both Herod and Pontius Pilate, along with the Gentiles and the people of Israel, conspired against your holy servant,Jesus, whom you anointed, doing what your hand and your plan had predestined to take place” (Acts 4.27–28). This had been no accident of history. In fact, this was what God had been mobilising all of history towards: the death and resurrection of Jesus. It was a moment of supreme fulfilment. This was the central moment of human history that held significance for every man, woman, and child who has ever lived or ever will live. The final bell on the old order, characterised by sin, death, hate, hostility, and human failure, had sounded. The new era offorgiveness, life, love, peace, and reconciliation was now dawning. Jesus had not only met expectations, he far exceeded them.

So why did Jesus die? There are so many things we could say to unpack the significance of Jesus’ death and his resurrection. The Apostle Paul puts it succinctly well, though, in Romans 4.25: “He was handed over for our transgressions, and raised for the sake of our justification.” And our response? Paul again captures it well in Galatians 2.20: “The life I now live in the body, I live by faith in the Son of God, who loved me and gave himself for me.”

Related: Why the Tearing of the Temple Curtain is a Bad Thing

New Perspectives on the Philistines by Aren Maeir

Aren Maeir (Bar Ilan University) heads up the excavation team at Tell es-Safi (the site of ancient Gath). Not only is he one of the world’s leading experts on the ancient Philistines, he’s also a really nice guy, and a would-be pirate (just call him ARRRen).

Aren Maeir beside a Philistine altar excavated at Tell es-Safi (ancient Gath)

Aren recently presented a lecture at the College de France in Paris, in which he discussed the most recent archaeological evidence that has led us to update our understanding of Philistine origins, culture, and interactions with the Israelites. It’s fascinating stuff, and a must for those wanting to get up to speed with where research is currently at.

The lecture is in the clip below. Please also check out Aren’s blog on the excavations at Gath here: https://gath.wordpress.com/

Enjoy!

Codex Vaticanus (B) Online

Great news! The Vatican Library has digitised Codex Vaticanus (also known by the siglum ‘B’). Vaticanus is one of the most important biblical manuscripts. It is an uncial manuscript that dates to the mid-fourth century and contains almost the entire Christian canon in Greek, including most of the Apocrypha.

The high quality digitised images of the whole codex can be found at the following URL:

http://digi.vatlib.it/view/MSS_Vat.gr.1209

This is a great resource for study of biblical texts. The Vatican Library and the University of Heidelberg, which also contributed to the project, are to be congratulated for bringing this project to fruition and making the resource freely available.

A page from Codex Vaticanus showing the end of 2 Thessalonians and the beginning of Hebrew.

Theological College and the New People of God

Over January I was privileged once more to teach at the summer school of George Whitefield College in Cape Town, South Africa. I’ve written a short blog piece for them titled Theological Education and the New People of God.

BeFunky_diversity-1.jpg-53029_213x213The new academic year is upon us. In my brief visit to GWC for the annual language Summer School, I’ve seen new students arrive, as well as old students and faculty return. One of the joys in this is seeing the diversity of people coming to the college. I’m reminded that when the gospel is preached, the Spirit draws people from all nations into Christ’s church to the glory of God the Father.

Click HERE to read the rest.