Insights from Israel, Palestine, and Jordan

Migdal Synagogue (2015 Jan 01)

Migdal Synagogue (2015 Jan 01)

Just yesterday I returned from a two week group tour of historical sites in Israel, Palestine, and Jordan. Hosted by the Society for Biblical Studies (SBS) and led by my friend and library director, Tom Phillips, it struck a nice balance of academic and spiritual interests. Many traditional religious sites were extraordinary and moving to behold, and these included the Western Wall, the Dome on the Rock and Al-Aqsa Mosque, the Church of the Resurrection / Holy Sepulchre, the Church of the Nativity, the Church of the Annunciation, the Church at Capernaum, St. George’s Church at Madaba (the location of the Madaba Map), and others.

In terms of educational value, Jerash (Gerasa) in modern day Jordan was the most profound. Unlike most ancient Roman cities, this one was not built over with later or modern construction, so the bulk of the city’s layout and many of its buildings were able to be unearthed and reconstructed. While walking its streets, I gleaned several insights into New Testament texts, insights that may find their way into journal articles as time and opportunity affords.

Sephoris/Zippori was also fascinating in that it played host to the editing of the Mishnah (the most sacred text in Judaism next to the TaNaKh) and, as the closest major city to Nazareth, may have been a destination or even a work location for Jesus. It is instructive here to remember that the Greek word in Mark 6:3 (tekton), usually translated as “carpenter” in English, can just as easily and plausibly be rendered as “builder,” “craftsman,” or even “artisan.” In other words, Jesus may just as likely have been a stone mason or mosaicist as a carpenter, and the roads, buildings, and mosaics of Sephoris and nearby smaller towns (Capernaum, Migdal) may well have been places where Jesus plied his trade.

The site at Migdal, where a synagogue was first discovered in 2009, was just recently opened to visitors. While the site was technically closed on New Year’s Day, an archeologist from the Israeli Antiquities Authority happened to be working on site that day and gave our group an expert tour. He dated the synagogue’s construction no later than 29 CE (the date of a coin in the building’s foundation) and its destruction during the early phases of the Jewish War (ca. 67-68). Since the site was not built over in later years, it is one of the best-preserved and most credible candidates for the earliest synagogue yet discovered. Christian historians and pilgrims will find the site fascinating because of its potential connections to Mary Magdalene (Migdal = Magdala, Mary’s possible hometown), obviously a very popular figure in Christianity through the ages and today, as well as its potential connections to Jesus himself. The Roman Catholic church has built a beautiful church on the site which features the Magdalene and other early Christian women (Luke 8:1) prominently. The altar, designed in the shape of a boat, has as its mast a cross. Looking past the altar to the Sea of Galilee through a huge window, participants in worship will feel as if they are floating in one of the stories set there. The site, along with the hotel currently being constructed there, will almost certainly be a very popular destination for myriads of visitors (scholarly and religious) in coming years.

– Mark Bilby

Leuven Symposium on the Sources of Luke-Acts: Paper Summaries

Here is the promised summary of the papers from the recent three day symposium at KU Leuven entitled, “Luke on Jesus, Paul and Christianity: What Did He Know?” Again, most of these presentations will likely be published in a proceedings volume late in 2015. I sent out a draft of these summaries to the presenters and received slight corrections from some. Additional corrections from the other presenters are most certainly welcome.

Christoph Heil of Graz showed that Q does not really fit the description of a “narrative Gospel” and explored the ways in which Luke sought to improve upon the narrative deficiencies of Q.

Manfred Lang of Halle-Wittenberg, using a definition of a “source” as a text used to gain knowledge of the past, contended that Acts only clearly shows the use of the LXX as a source. In other words, Luke was more of a theologian than an historian.

Andries Zuiderhoek of Gent explored ancient practices of munificence and showed how Luke’s depiction of Jesus simultaneously draws upon these conventions and subverts them regarding the inclusion and treatment of the poor as recipients of benefaction.

Vadim Wittkowsky argued that parallels between Acts 12 and Mark reflect not merely a literary but also a personal relationship between the evangelist Luke and the evangelist Mark.

John Kloppenborg of Toronto showed how Luke’s geographical knowledge varies widely, from non-existent or vague in Palestine, to modest on the Levantine coast, to superb on the Eastern Aegean coast. This knowledge runs parallel to that of several ancient geographers and maps, making them possible sources of some or much of Luke’s geography.

Dan Smith of Huron University College contended that the various speech-events in Acts, a series of failures and successes, collectively picture Christianity as an esteemed philosophy at home in prominent cultural centers but not in synagogues.

Cilliers Breytenbach of HU-Berlin drew upon epigraphical evidence regarding Roman roads to show how the so-called Southern Galatian hypothesis is not necessary to make sense of the geographical dilemmas between Paul’s travels in his letters and in Acts.

My presentation was next, but I provided in a previous blog post a full abstract of the paper and a summary of the conversation that followed.

Tom Phillips of Claremont School of Theology argued that Acts obtained the idea of Paul’s citizenship in response to Pliny the Younger and his pioneering legal precedent regarding the treatment of Christian citizens. He also pointed out how Pliny’s influence may unravel other knots in Acts, including the geographical problems and oddity of the Spirit’s instruction to avoid Bithynia.

Giovanni Bazzana of Harvard focused on continuities and discontinuities between ethics of wealth and poverty in Q and Luke. While both texts represent a sub-elite class, a shift from village to urban settings occurs from Q to Luke. Luke also incorporates Jewish topoi of almsgiving.

Michelle Christian of the University of Toronto showed how ancient numerical and accounting practices lend insight into Luke 19:12-27 and Acts 19. Both reflect a Lukan tendency to exaggerate (rather than diminish) numbers in a way typical of the large-scale accounting practices of elites. This contrasts with Luke’s depiction of actual coinage and precise amounts when speaking about persons of lower social classes.

Jens Herzer of Leipzig argued that close affinities exist between Acts and 2 Timothy and Titus, similarities that suggest Luke as amaneunsis of the two latter texts and his identity as traveling companion of Paul. 1 Timothy should instead be understood as a later composition unrelated to this author.

Markus Oehler of Vienna thoroughly analyzed the references to places throughout Luke and Acts, comparing the two. Among the more notable observations was that the location and character of the upper-room is quite ambiguous and that caution should be exercised in regard to a geographical analysis when theological concerns are foremost.

Dieter Roth of Mainz, in anticipation of his soon-forthcoming critical edition of Marcion’s Evangelion, demonstrated that some of the recent arguments of Vinzent and Klinghardt are detached from that text. He hinted that Marcion’s text may show a working knowledge of the redacted/canonical text of Luke, which runs counter to Tyson’s anti-Marcionite hypothesis.

– Mark Bilby

Leuven Symposium on Luke-Acts: Personal Summary on Acts and Pliny

This past Friday concluded a three day symposium at KU Leuven entitled, “Luke on Jesus, Paul and Christianity: What Did He Know?” Organized by Joseph Verheyden and John Kloppenborg, it brought together a wide array of fine scholars who explored the sources and intertextualities of Luke and Acts. Most of the papers will likely be published as an edited collection, probably late in 2015. In an upcoming post, I will include a brief summary of each conference paper, but I am giving the presenters a chance to comment on my summaries before I do that.

In the meantime, I will take the liberty of summarizing my own paper and discuss its response. Here is the abstract:

A movement is afoot among scholars to situate the Acts of the Apostles in the 2nd century. An important test case for this thesis (whether to reject, to support, or to nuance it) is the relationship between Acts and the letters of Pliny the Younger, in particular his correspondence with emperor Trajan about Christians. A close comparison of the two texts reveals parallels notable for their analogical imitation, volume, frequency, order, distinctiveness and coherence. These parallels include: 1) marketplace disruption as the impetus for arrest and trial, 2) the presiding official’s abjection over the spread of Christian influence, 3) a puzzled response at the accused and official inquiry made to a political superior, 4) direct appeal to the emperor as a sacred custom, 5) the use of the term Christian as a opprobrium by a Roman official during a trial, 6) considerable vexation about the application of the Christian label, 7) survival predicated upon paying homage to the public gods, 8) official pressure for the accused to face actual charges in a proper trial, 9) the presiding official’s ridicule of Christian citizens as mindless, and 10) the remittance of Christian citizens to the capital for trial. Both even 11) know a lawyer with the uncommon name of Tertullus who represents an anti-Christian party. Finally, an intertextual relationship enhances interpretability, clarifying Acts rather than obscuring it. This correspondence would indeed have been available and known to someone writing in western Asia Minor in the 110s or subsequently. The earliest history of the interpretation of both texts also dovetails. In sum, it is probable that Acts depends on Pliny’s correspondence with Trajan. Moreover, in its broader cultural, social and historical context, Acts not only presumes Pliny’s letters but is situated in the very world brought about by them.

Essentially, this was a modestly edited version of a presentation I gave at SBL in 2009. That presentation, made on the last day of the conference and lightly attended, seemed to go over the heads of most in the audience, probably because a 2nd century date for Acts was a relatively new idea at that point in time.

This conference was different in many ways. I had a full 45 minutes to present, followed by 30 minutes of discussion. Some of the world’s best New Testament scholars were in attendance. A complementary case for Acts having an historical (though not literary, per se) relationship to Acts was made by my colleague, Tom Phillips, based on an SBL presentation he made in 2010. Over the past five years, the number of scholars entertaining a 2nd century setting for Acts has grown, and several of the conference attendees voiced their view that Acts belonged to a Hadrianic timeframe.

So, with these many advantages, I felt that my argument was heard and taken seriously. That is not to say, however, that everyone was instantly persuaded. Some expressed a hesitant acceptance, others pointed out possible issues and problems to consider, and still others said that they were not convinced, but would continue to consider the case I made.

As I said in the introduction to the presentation, the argument that Acts depends on Pliny (even if second-hand or as an oral tradition) is probably a fairly controversial idea to most scholars today. That said, I felt that my paper received a sympathetic and critical hearing, and I could not ask for anything more than that!

– Mark Bilby

Resolving a WordPress Hack

An unscrupulous person in China was able to use a WordPress plugin to redirect my blog to his site. I’ve been able to restore the site to its original state. It may take some time for various search engines (Google, Yahoo, Bing, etc.) to recrawl the site and have reliable descriptions tied to their results.

– Mark Bilby

Rumor Has It: Oddities in the Initial Chemical Testing of the Gospel of Jesus’ Wife (GJW)

A rumor is floating around at this year’s SBL among scholars close to the events of the initial publicizing of the Gospel of Jesus’ Wife fragment. Namely, the claim is that the initial chemical analysis was done in a quick and unconventional manner (comparing the GJW fragment with the Gospel of John fragment from the same collection) by someone at MIT (apparently Timothy Swager) who happens to be a close friend of the husband of Karen King. This is merely hearsay at this point and has not been substantiated in a peer-reviewed publication. Still, it should be examined by those close to the situation and either confirmed or debunked. If the rumor is debunked, this blog will make due note of it.

– Mark Bilby

Gospel of Jesus’ Wife: Summary of Developments

In an article for The Atlantic this past Monday (Nov. 17), Joel Baden and Candida Moss wrote a wonderful, thorough account of scholarship and mass media developments related to the Gospel of Jesus’ Wife and related texts.

The upshot is that the scholarly consensus is that the text is a forgery, but that the mass media is still tending to maintain its authenticity.

My sense is that Karen King’s hesitancy to accept the evidence of forgery is probably a significant factor in the ongoing play of the mass media narrative.

See the full article here.

– Mark Bilby

Jesus, the Scandalously Good Nuclear Family Dad

Scandal breaks yet again… Newspapers and television reports around the world are touting a new book that asserts that Jesus married the Magdalene and had two kids, and his kids’ names are about to be disclosed for the first time in history.

The most apt response so far is by Diarmaid MacCulloch, as quoted in the Washington Post, “It sounds like the deepest bilge.” Jacobovici has a long history of profiting off of ridiculous theories about archeological findings and literature, and this is apparently the latest attempt.

Besides the obvious, a couple quick clarifications should be made to the reports circulating.

The media is reporting that Jacobovici and Wilson are claiming as their main proof an Aramaic text from the British Library. If the images flashed on the screen of the ABC report are any indication, we are looking more precisely at a Syriac text. We will have to await the identification of the text for a proper response from Syriac experts.

They are also claiming that a story about Joseph and Asenath is in fact a mysterious, symbolic parable about Jesus and Mary Magdalene. If they are referring to the apocryphal narrative of Joseph and Asenath, this is quite a novel and unfounded interpretation. Battifol and others have asserted a Christian, rather than Jewish, provenance to that text, but to my knowledge no scholar has ever claimed it was a parable of the relationship of Jesus and the Magdalene. Again, we should await a response from experts on that text, if in fact that is the text in question.

While the reports hype up the “controversy” around this, the plot seems to me quite predictable and trite. According to these supposedly radical reconstructions, Jesus fits quite nicely into a modern Western nuclear family role of the good dad who saves the woman he marries, has kids, and lives happily ever. That Jesus isn’t scandalous at all, but rather quite respectable. It’s quaint and picturesque, but unfortunately has nothing to do with the historical Jesus.

– Mark Bilby


A reader pointed me to a more thorough response by Robert Cargill that deals especially with the absurd allegorical reading of the Syriac story of Joseph and Asenath as an historical parable about Jesus and the Magdalene:

Update 2:

Here is an ably written piece by Greg Carey debunking the whole charade.

12 years of fermentation

When working recently on my profile, I decided to upload my MA Thesis from 2002 on the doctrine of election and predestination in early Christianity. Over the past two years, while working on other projects, I did make an effort to shop this thesis around to a couple publishers, who did not express an interest. I personally did not have much of an interest in doing the kind of heavy revising that I would want to do to make it more appealing and to bring it up to my current standards of academic research and writing. (There’s nothing quite so humbling as reading one’s work as a student, especially one’s very preachy work as a seminary student.)

That said, I would like it to be part of the scholarly and even popular conversation today about election and predestination, particularly for the sake of ecumenical dialogue among various Christian traditions (esp. Catholics, Orthodox, Reformed, and Wesleyan-Arminian). I’ll leave it to others to decide whether it makes a significant contribution to the topic and discussion. If download counts are any indication, then it is already making a bit of splash, ranking in the top 3% of all texts downloaded from Those interested can download the thesis in its entirety from this page.

When re-reading it, I happened upon a quote that seemed quite poignant, the seed of the idea that eventually became the Rethinking Arminius conference in 2012 and the Reconsidering Arminius book just released by Abingdon.

Arminius does not sever himself completely from the Augustinian heritage. He
still tends to picture the elect in terms of those persons who will finally inherit salvation, equating election with salvation. In this vein, he expresses uncertainty about whether the elect can indeed fall away from grace, basically leaving open the question of the possibility of forfeiting election. He also follows the conventions of his day in thinking about election mainly from an eternal vantage point, though his intuition prompted him to reject the supralapsarian option as contrary to the goodness of God. Though Arminius did not wholly diverge from the Augustinian and Calvinist heritage, he managed to avoid the trap of determinism. This re-envisioning of election and predestination set a precedent for the Dutch Remonstrants, persisting into the Anglican and then Wesleyan tradition. Some persons within the Reformed tradition, like Richard Müller, have started to see the importance of Arminius in historical theology, as well as his close affinity to the Reformed tradition of his day. Though the sharpness of Arminius does not equal the genius of Calvin, perhaps the time is ripe for both Calvinists and Wesleyans to explore his theology in its own right, and to let him invite both groups to a table of mutually informing and beneficial dialogue. (p. 179)

– Mark Bilby


New Publication: Reconsidering Arminius

I wasn’t expecting it to be released until December, as the Abingdon and Amazon pages note, but just yesterday a copy of Reconsidering Arminius appeared on my desk, courtesy of our cataloging librarian here at the Claremont School of Theology. Sometimes Christmas does come early!

This volume was co-edited by me, Keith D. Stanglin, and Mark H. Mann, and it pulls together conference papers, as well as later/additional contributions. The conference was entitled Rethinking Arminius and was held in 2012. I’ll append an abstract below.

The theology of Dutch theologian Jacob Arminius has been misinterpreted and caricatured in both Reformed and Wesleyan circles. By revisiting Arminius’ theology, the book hopes to be a constructive voice in the discourse between so-called Calvinists and Arminians.

Traditionally, Arminius has been treated as a divisive figure in evangelical theology. Indeed, one might be able to describe classic evangelical theology up into the 20th century in relation to his work: one was either an Arminian and accepted his theology, or one was a Calvinist and rejected his theology. Although various other movements within evangelicalism have provided additional contour to the movement (fundamentalism, Pentecostalism, etc.), the Calvinist-Arminian “divide” remains a significant one. What this book seeks to correct is the misinterpretation of Arminius as one whose theology provides a stark contrast to the Reformed tradition as a whole. Indeed, this book will demonstrate instead that Arminius is far more in line with Reformed orthodoxy than popularly believed, and show that what emerges as Arminianism in the theology of the Remonstrants and Wesleyan movements was in fact not the theology of Arminius, but rather a development of and sometimes departure from it.

This book also brings Arminius into conversation with modern theology. To this end, it includes essays on the relationship between Arminius’ theology and open theism and Neo-Reformed theology. In this way, this book fulfills the promise of the title by showing ways in which Arminius’ theology–once properly understood–can serve as a resource of evangelical Wesleyans and Calvinists doing theology together today.

– Mark Bilby