Matthew 2:1-23: A Nazorean Shall Be Called

In The Master's Steps

Frequent contributor to Jerusalem Perspective, Dr. R. Steven Notley, has recently published the first volume of a new atlas of Bible lands in New Testament times entitled, In the Master’s Steps: The Gospels in the Land (Jerusalem: Carta, 2015). The atlas examines not only geographical issues related to the New Testament, but historical, literary and linguistic issues, as well. Professor Notley’s discussion in this article, which is meant to whet your appetite for this indispensable new resource, is further developed with greater detail in In the Master’s Steps: The Gospels in the Land.

Against the backdrop of looming danger Joseph is warned in a dream to take his family to Egypt to escape Herod’s murderous intentions (Matt. 2:13-15). Only when Herod was dead would it be safe to return home. When the Judean king died in his winter palace in Jericho (4 B.C.E.), Herod’s will divided his kingdom between his surviving sons (Ant. 17:188-190; J.W. 1:664-669). Contrary to Herod’s final wishes, Augustus did not award Archelaus his father’s throne. He was instead appointed ethnarch of Judea, Idumea and Samaria (J.W. 2:93; Ant. 17:317). Herod Antipas became tetrarch of Galilee and Perea in the Transjordan, while Philip was appointed tetrarch over an amalgam of districts in the north (Gaulanitis, Trachonitis, Batanaea, Panias) on the frontier with Syria.

Archelaus exceeded his father’s tyranny. The situation became so intolerable that after ten years of Archelaus’ rule a delegation of Samaritan and Jewish leaders traveled to Rome to appeal to Caesar Augustus to remove Herod’s son (Ant. 17:342-344; J.W. 2:111-113; Geog. 16.2.46; Dio 55.27.6). Augustus investigated the charges, deposed Archelaus to Gaul and appointed a Roman governor to administrate Judea from Caesarea.

Flight into Egypt by Henry Ossawa Tanner (ca. 1907), oil on canvas. Image courtesy of Wikimedia Commons.
Flight into Egypt by Henry Ossawa Tanner (ca. 1907), oil on canvas. Image courtesy of Wikimedia Commons.

At the time we encounter Joseph and his family in Egypt, Judea was still in the throes of Archelaus’ cruel grip. According to Matthew, Joseph was warned in another dream not to return to the environs of Jerusalem, which fell under the shadow of the ethnarch’s rule (Matt. 2:19-22). Instead, Joseph settled in Nazareth, a small, nondescript village perched on a chalky ridge overlooking the Jezreel Valley. Little attention is given to Joseph’s likely geopolitical reason for choosing Nazareth. The remote village lay within the boundary of Galilee, under the jurisdiction of Antipas, and beyond the murderous reach of Archelaus.

The story of the heavenly warning and the relocation to Galilee reminded Matthew of the words of the Hebrew prophets.

καὶ ἐλθὼν κατῴκησεν εἰς πόλιν λεγομένην Ναζαρέτ· ὅπως πληρωθῇ τὸ ῥηθὲν διὰ τῶν προφητῶν ὅτι Ναζωραῖος κληθήσεται.

There he made his home in a town called Nazareth, so that what had been spoken through the prophets might be fulfilled, “He will be called a Nazorean.” (Matt. 2:23; NIV)

Centuries of Christian readers have pondered the meaning of the Greek term Ναζωραῖος (Nazōraios), usually rendered Nazarene, and which Old Testament passages Matthew had in mind when he interpreted the relocation to Nazareth as a fulfillment of Scripture. Where in the Hebrew Scriptures is it expected that the Redeemer will be called a Nazarene or come from Nazareth?

Most modern readers assume that the enigmatic epithet is somehow related to the name of the Galilean village because of the similarities in their spelling, i.e. Ναζωραῖος (Nazōraios) and Ναζαρέθ (Nazareth). So, when the Greek term recurs elsewhere in the New Testament beside Jesus’ name, English translations routinely render it as a gentilic adjective, i.e. Jesus of Nazareth (Matt 26:71; Luke 18:37; John 18:5, 7; Acts 2:22; 3:6; 4:10; et passim). However, Nazareth never occurs again in conjunction with Ναζωραῖος.

Is their appearance together in Matthew 2:23 intentional or coincidental? Or stated another way, can it be that the meaning of Ναζωραῖος relates to the heavenly warning and Joseph’s care to keep Jesus out of harm’s way in the remote reaches of Galilee, rather than a play on the name of the village in which Jesus grew up?

Various suggestions have been put forward to identify the Semitic term represented by Ναζωραῖος. If we assume that the Greek word accurately characterizes a Hebrew term, then it is important to recognize that the “o” vowel in the second syllable (na⋅ZŌ⋅rai⋅os) eliminates the popular Hebrew suggestions, נֵצֶר (nētzer, “branch”) or נָזִיר (nāzir, “nazirite”). Instead, we should expect a term resembling the Hebrew passive participle נָצוּר (nātzūr, “one who is protected,” “kept”) with an attached personal pronoun to convey the sense, “One whom I have kept, protected, preserved.”

A ready solution to the riddle of Ναζωραῖος has been further obscured by the reading of Matthew’s verb in our verse, “he shall be called.” Most read it to convey the sense “he shall be named.” Yet, Matthew’s style elsewhere in the infancy narratives to name or entitle is different. He uses the fuller Greek expression “to call by the name” (Matt. 1:21, 23). Our verse, on the other hand, matches the style of Matthew 2:15, “Out of Egypt I have called my son.” In both these passages from the second chapter of Matthew, the verb “to call” means God has chosen Jesus and charged him with a divinely appointed task. In our verse, God is assumed to be the subject of the action. Matthew’s elliptical allusion is thus to a prophetic passage that describes one whom the Lord has kept, protected and called.

The key to identifying which verses Matthew had in mind is to find a passage in which the two verbs “to call” and “ to keep” coincide. This style of signaling specific Old Testament verses through the collocation of key words is a peculiar style of ancient Jewish exegesis. The Evangelist’s plural “the prophets” (cf. Matt. 1:22; 2:5, 15, 17) suggests that Matthew had more than one prophetic verse in mind. In the Old Testament there are only two verses found among the Hebrew prophets in which the Hebrew verbs to call (קרא) and to keep (נצר) coincide: Isaiah 42:6 and Jeremiah 31:6.

A cruel son of Herod remained in power in Jerusalem, and it was not yet safe to return. At the angelic warning, Joseph took Mary and Jesus to Nazareth to keep his son safe. Their relocation to the security of this remote Galilean village, where Jesus could grow to adulthood reminded Matthew of the divine care reflected in the words concerning the Isaianic Servant of the LORD:

“I, the LORD, have called you (קְרָאתִיךָ, qerātichā) in righteousness; I will take hold of your hand. I will keep you (אֶצָּרְךָ, ’etzorchā) and will make you to be a covenant for the people and a light for the nations.” (Isa. 42:6)

The scriptural pair from Jeremiah 31:6 forms a literary complex that may be a vestige of a lost homily, “There will be a day when watchmen (נֹצְרִים, notzrim) call out (קָרְאוּ, qār’ū) on the hills of Ephraim, ‘Come, let us go up to Zion, to the Lord our God.’” We have little information how the Hebrew epithet evolved and changed in the first century, but the verse in Jeremiah may have contributed to the use of the plural form of Ναζωραῖος to identify Jewish adherents to Jesus’ movement. At the end of Acts, Paul is accused of being an instigator, “He is a ringleader of the sect of the Nazarenes” (Acts 24:5b). Eventually, the term “Christian” (Acts 26:28; 1 Pet. 4:16) replaced “Nazarene” to designate the followers of Jesus. However, among Jews, including those who believed in Jesus, the term “Notzri” continued to designate Jesus and his followers. It likely came to mean one who keeps the commandments. Eusebius (305 C.E.) attests to a shift in terminology, “Previously we who are now called Christians were also called Nazarenes” (Onom. 138:24).

R. Steven Notley, Ph.D., is Distinguished Professor of New Testament and Christian Origins and Director of Graduate Programs in Ancient Judaism and Christian Origins at Nyack College in New York City.

Herod’s Tomb, Ehud Netzer and a Case of Mistaken Identity

In 2007, my wife and I were teaching at a small school in Bethlehem, Palestine when the news broke that Ehud Netzer had finally achieved the objective of his lifetime search: the tomb of the infamous King Herod.

Solomon's Pools. (Photo courtesy of the author.)
Solomon’s Pools. (Photo courtesy of the author.)

When we first arrived in the Holy Land, my wife and I toured as many sites as we could on both the Israeli and Palestinian sides of the border. One of the great things about working in Palestine was that we were able to tour sites in the Palestinian Territories that most American tourists never visit, such as Hebron and Jericho. There are even many sites in and around Bethlehem to which many tourists never travel, such as Solomon’s Pools, David’s Well, and the Shepherds’ Fields. The Herodium became one of my favorite off-the-beaten-path sites in the Bethlehem area. So at the time of Netzer’s announcement, I already knew my way around the Herodium well, having been there on several occasions.

Shepherds' Fields outside Bethlehem. Christmas Eve 2006. (Photo courtesy of Lauren Asperschlager.)
Shepherds’ Fields outside Bethlehem. Christmas Eve 2006. (Photo courtesy of Lauren Asperschlager.)

Whenever we had family and friends from the U.S. visit us in Bethlehem we tried to include the Herodium on the itinerary. The Herodium was a great place to bring people who were exploring the Holy Land for the first time, to introduce them to this man, Herod, of whom they have heard so much. I always felt that the site spoke eloquently to visitors of both the brilliance and madness of Herod the Great.[1] At the site of the Herodium, Herod built a mountain where there was none, turned it into a fortress, and there on the edge of the Judean wilderness decked it out with gardens and pools and every trapping of the most lavish luxury the Roman empire could offer.

Pool at the base of the Herodium. For a sense of scale, the person standing in the pool is about 6 feet tall. (Photo courtesy of Lauren Asperschlager.)
Pool at the base of the Herodium. For a sense of scale, the person standing in the pool is about 6 feet tall. (Photo courtesy of Lauren Asperschlager.)

According to Josephus, the Herodium was a symbol of Herod’s humiliation as well as of his triumph.[2] Early in his career, Herod had been forced to flee Judea when his chief rival for power, Antigonus, heir to the Hasmonean dynasty, gained the upper hand with the backing of the Parthian empire. As he fled Jerusalem to the safety of Masada, Herod was harassed along the way by the Jewish inhabitants of Judea. Josephus records that:

…at a distance of sixty furlongs from the city [i.e., Jerusalem] [the Judeans] brought on a regular action which was prolonged for a considerable time. Here Herod eventually defeated them with great slaughter; and here subsequently, to commemorate his victory, he founded a city, adorned it with the most costly palaces, erected a citadel of commanding strength, and called it after his own name…. (J.W. 1:265; Loeb)

The Herodium. (Photo courtesy of the author.)
The Herodium. (Photo courtesy of the author.)

After the massacre of the Judeans, Herod reached Masada in safety. From there he made his way to Egypt and thence to Rome where the senate declared Herod king of Judea. Then, with the backing of Rome, Herod returned to Judea to wrest his kingdom from Antigonus whom the Parthians had proclaimed king. It was on the spot of his humiliating flight from Jerusalem that Herod built the impressive fortress that commemorated his victory. In describing this fortress, Josephus notes that it was built on “an artificial rounded hill”:

The crest he [Herod] crowned with a ring of round towers; the enclosure was filled with gorgeous palaces; the magnificent appearance of which was not confined to the interior of the apartments, but outer walls, battlements, and roofs, all had wealth lavished upon them in profusion. He had, at immense expense, an abundant supply of water brought into it from a distance, and provided an easy ascent by two hundred steps of pure white marble; the mound, though entirely artificial, being of a considerable height. Around the base he erected other palaces for the accommodation of his furniture and his friends. Thus, in the amplitude of its resources this stronghold resembled a town, in its restricted area a simple palace. (J.W. 1:419-421; Loeb)

View of the interior of the mountain palace-fortress at the Herodium. (Photo courtesy of Joshua N. Tilton.)

Before Herod died, he left instructions that his body was to be interred at the Herodium, and according to Josephus these wishes were carried out (J.W. 1:673; Ant. 17:199). But the exact location of Herod’s tomb had remained a mystery, and many scholars even doubted the veracity of Josephus’ report. Ehud Netzer, on the other hand, giving credit to Josephus as a reliable historian, was determined to find the location of Herod’s tomb at the Herodium.

Synagogue at the Herodium. (Photo courtesy of Joshua N. Tilton.)
Synagogue at the Herodium. (Photo courtesy of Joshua N. Tilton.)

Prior to Netzer’s discovery, I naively ventured to bring a group of my Palestinian students to the Herodium for a field trip. Looking back, bringing a group of unruly high school kids to a site in their own backyard that is a hotly contested symbol of the struggle between two people groups was probably a foolish idea. At the time, though, I was still new in town (both in Bethlehem and in teaching) so what did I know? A few weeks (yes, weeks!) after the field trip, I received a call from an Israeli police officer who was investigating a disturbance of some of the antiquities in the bowels of the Herodium. After a few hours with the Israeli detective, I felt like I had gotten my first real taste of the animosity that exists in this tense situation between Palestinians and Israelis. At the heart of the issue was the allegation that one of my students had moved “a very old log.” The Israeli detective did not know much English and I don’t know much Hebrew. But from what I could understand, the detective must have been referring to some ancient lumber that had been discovered at the Herodium.

Balistia stones at the Herodium. (Photo courtesy of Joshua N. Tilton.)
Ballista stones at the Herodium. (Photo courtesy of Joshua N. Tilton.)

According to Josephus (J.W. 4:555), Jewish rebels had taken refuge in the Herodium during the revolt of 70 C.E. The lumber that was now the subject of a police investigation was thought to have been brought to the site by the Jewish rebels. I apologized profusely on behalf of my students and made a mental note not to bring my Palestinian students to any more Israeli archaeological sites. To this day I don’t know whether my students were in fact involved or if they had been wrongly accused.

Despite all this, maybe even partly because of all of this, the Herodium was one of my favorite sites. As I barreled down the dusty road out of Bethlehem in the school’s Hyundai minivan toward the Herodium the day of Netzer’s announcement in 2007, all of these scenes flashed through my mind. Now Herod’s tomb had finally been found! Would it be open? Would they be allowing tourists in? Would they arrest me on site for my involvement in the infamous “Historical Log Plot”? I didn’t know, but I was bound and determined to find out.

Summit of the mountain palace-fortress near the area where Herod’s tomb was discovered. (Photo courtesy of Joshua N. Tilton.)

When I arrived on the scene at the Herodium the place was abuzz with excitement. Not only were they allowing people onto the site and up to the entrance of Herod’s tomb, but Ehud Netzer himself was actually there! He was standing near a dark, gaping hole in the side of the man-made mountain that made my imagination run wild.

A crowd began to gather around the hastily erected fences and barricades, and Netzer took notice of us. (A few years later, when I heard about the fall that eventually took Netzer’s life, I sadly remembered those slipshod safety measures.)

Entrance to Herod's tomb. (Photo courtesy of the author.)
Entrance to Herod’s tomb. (Photo courtesy of the author.)

In the midst of all the excitement, Netzer took time to answer our questions. For some reason, Netzer seemed to take special notice of me. I felt so special! Who was I to draw the attention of this man? I fumbled through my mind trying to think up pertinent questions that didn’t make me sound like a moron. I noticed that as I spoke, people paid attention. They turned and waited patiently as Netzer responded. I started to think maybe I was a lot smarter than I had originally thought.

Doug with Netzer
Ehud Netzer (center) and author, Douglas Priore (right), at the Herodium in 2007. (Photo courtesy of Amanda Priore.)

Eventually the meeting broke up. We all went our separate ways. I drove back to Bethlehem by way of Ruth’s Field and the Shepherds’ Fields. Maybe I had a knack for this stuff. Maybe I should go back and see if Ehud Netzer wanted me to volunteer in the afternoons after school. I looked at my face in the rearview mirror—windblown hair, rugged beard. I could be an archaeologist! I already had the look. I was even wearing my snazzy Harvard polo!

Traditional site of Ruth's Fields. (Photo courtesy of the author.)
Traditional site of Ruth’s Fields. (Photo courtesy of the author.)

My sister has all the brains in my family. She went to Wellesley College and then to Harvard Divinity school. I wish I could say that I got all the good looks in exchange, but that would be a stretch. One thing I did get, though, was a Harvard polo shirt emblazoned with that famous Ivy-League logo in honor of my sister’s achievements.

Domed ceiling of the tepidarium (warm room) in the bath house at the Herodium's mountain palace-fortress. (Photo courtesy of Joshua N. Tilton.)
Domed ceiling of the tepidarium (warm room) in the bath house at Herod’s mountain palace-fortress. (Photo courtesy of Joshua N. Tilton.)

As my eyes fell on the polo shirt, so did my hopes of being a world-famous archaeologist. I slowly realized the reason why my questions were so valued, and why Netzer himself made his way deliberately around the circle to stand near me and explain things to me in vivid detail. Standing there in my Harvard polo from my sister, they all thought I was a distinguished representative from one of the world’s most prestigious universities.

Despite the hit to my ego, I will always remember the chance I had to meet Ehud Netzer. My false pretenses notwithstanding, I found Netzer to be wise, personable and kind. I can only hope I represented Harvard University with dignity and aplomb.

Lower palace of the Herodium as seen from the summit of the fortress. (Photo courtesy of Joshua N. Tilton.)
Pool complex at the Herodium as seen from the summit of the palace-fortress. (Photo courtesy of Joshua N. Tilton.)


  • [1] For a recent overview of the life of Herod the Great, see Daniel R. Schwartz, “Herod the Great: A Matter of Perspective,” in Herod the Great: The King’s Final Journey (ed. Silvia Rozenberg and David Mevorah; Jerusalem: Israel Museum, 2013), 34-43.
  • [2] See Ehud Netzer, “Herodium,” in Herod the Great: The King’s Final Journey (ed. Silvia Rozenberg and David Mevorah; Jerusalem: Israel Museum, 2013), 126-161.

Jesus the Galilean, a Stranger in Judea?

Over a year ago Justin Taylor of the Gospel Coalition (not the Justin Taylor, SM of Hebrew University) posted a blog summarizing seven differences between Judea and the Galilee during the Time of Jesus. The summary was from R.T. France’s The Gospel of Matthew.[1] While I agree with France’s so-called lament that NT scholars know little about the world of “first-century Palestine,” we should be careful not to carry on long-standing myths about the world of 1st century Judaism that do not bear out in archaeological or historical sources.

While there were differences between Galilee and Judea these differences seem limited to geographical realities and particular interpretations regarding the commandments. We should not presume, however, that the ancient Jewish communities’ lack of monolithic (or unilateral) unity is equal to a stark separation in thought, language, and even race.[2] Unfortunately, if Taylor’s summary of France is correct, his list of differences between Galileans and Judeans does not take into account the full weight of archaeological and historical evidence. Much of this regarding the Galileans is the mistaken notion that in the days of Simon to Judah Aristobulus, the Maccabean kings repopulated the Lower Galilee on the western side of the lake with Itureans who were forcefully converted to Judaism. In that sense, the Jews of Galilee were distinctly different than their Judean counterparts. The Galileans Jews were thus uneducated, agrarian groups of commoners who were looked down upon by the educated and wealthy southerners. Thus, Jesus’ Galilee, and Jesus himself, was part of society that descended from forced converts who spoke differently and were lax concerning the observance of the law. At a minimum it separates Jesus (philosophically, religiously, and culturally) from the religious and cultural center of Jewish life in the 1st century. That minimum is too heavy a price to pay!

So I will deal briefly with Taylor’s seven points and what is France’s final result. Taylor’s comments appear italicized with a corresponding JT. My comments will appear below the quote.

1. Racially

JT: …the area of the former Northern Kingdom of Israel had, ever since the Assyrian conquest in the eighth century B.C., a more mixed population, within which more conservative Jewish areas (like Nazareth and Capernaum) stood in close proximity to largely pagan cities, of which in the first century the new Hellenistic centers of Tiberias and Sepphoris were the chief examples.

First, “racially” is intentionally provocative and furthers the assumed chasm between Galilee and Judea. Let me just add that all of these seven points are closely intertwined and really should be spoken of as a unit which defines the cultural/religio-historical reality of the Galilee in the first century CE. But we will proceed with the points as they have been presented.

To this point, archaeology has shown that after the Assyrian conquest of the Galilee, the population of the Galilee declined. At sites that have been excavated throughout the Galilee there is a lack of continuation of settlement between the 8th and 5th century BCE.[3] In fact, Aviam has shown that while in the larger cities—like Sepphoris and Tiberias—there was a mixed population of Jews and Gentiles, while smaller villages, which in the Lower and Upper Galilee were predominantly Jewish, maintained closed communities.[4] Aviam concludes, “There were apparently no pagan temples or communities in the rural areas of Eastern Upper Galilee and Lower Galilee.”[5]

Excavations of Sepphoris have shown that during the time of Jesus the city had a vibrant Jewish population—a city that Joseph, a craftsman, and Jesus would have went to work and even perhaps visited the market. One of the indicators of Sepphoris’ Jewishness is the discovery of numerous ritual immersion pools—though scholars have debated their identification (Hanan Eshel[6] , Ronny Reich[7] ). Wherever one stands on this debate, Meyers and Chancey have noted the following: “Unfortunately, some scholars have misperceived Sepphoris as a center of Greco-Roman culture in the time of Jesus on the basis of finds from the centuries after Jesus. Sepphoris was indeed a thriving and growing city in the early first century C.E., but the evidence for Hellenistic culture is limited. As for the city’s population, the overwhelming majority were Jews. Gentiles, if they were present at all, were a small and uninfluential minority.”[8] More recently Chancey adds that the evidence for Gentiles in Sepphoris of the first century CE is actually quite small.[9] So, a Hellenistic center, Sepphoris was not! In addition, archaeological studies in Tiberias, founded by Herod Antipas in 20 CE,  shows the presence of pagans and their temples. Tiberias’ absence from the New Testament is perhaps the result of the city’s foundation being laid on a cemetery. The archaeological record, however, still indicates a  Jewish presence.

2. Geographically

JT: Galilee was separated from Judea by the non-Jewish territory of Samaria, and from Perea in the southeast by the Hellenistic settlements of Decapolis.

1) The Samaritans are not necessarily Jewish. While there still remains some question as to their origin, they may have originated in part from the northern tribes that were destroyed during the Assyrian conquest in the 8th century BCE. They accept, however, a Pentateuch that is very similar to the Jewish Pentateuch albeit with certain alterations that place the Samaritan holy place in Mount Gerizim (Samaria). For all intents and purpose, their traditions closely parallel many of the Jewish holidays and celebrations.[10] It is true however that Jews and Samaritans, since the days Hasmoneans, had a tense relationship.

2) Decapolis: It does not appear that the Decapolis, a federation of 10 Greco-Roman cities, existed during the days of Jesus and historical sources indicate that this federation is known in different formations only after the First Jewish Revolt (66-73 CE). Notley comments, “We simply do not know what the genesis was for the origins of the Decapolis. It may have stemmed from the desire of these cities to define themselves in contradistinction to the neighboring regions heavily populated with Jews, who had recently rebelled against Rome.Use of the term in the Gospels may reflect the period in which the individual writings were composed (i.e. post-70 CE), because there is no corroborating evidence to suggest that the Decapolis was known in the days of Jesus.”[11]

3) In reality, Taylor’s summary of France is simply a geographical description of the Holy Land in the days of Jesus (except of course from the Decapolis). We know, however, that rites of pilgrimage significantly narrowed the geographical differences between the Galilee and Judea. Three times a year—Passover (Pesach), Pentecost (Shavuot), and Feast of Booths (Sukkot)—Jewish communities would set up caravans to make a pilgrimages to Jerusalem.[12] Jesus, though a Galilean is presented in the Gospels as coming to Jerusalem during these Holy Days (e.g., John 10:22). When he was a child he visited the holy city with his parents every year (Luke 2)—a tradition he likely kept during his adult years. Furthermore, Jesus’ last journey to Jerusalem was not simply the time of his crucifixion and resurrection; it was also Passover—one of the holidays that Jesus appeared to observe on a yearly basis. So, in this case, the Galileans, at least according to the Gospels, would feel comfortable in Judea and in Jerusalem. Some of this comfort is related to the fact that many of the Jewish Galileans descended from Judeans who migrated from the south to repopulate the Galilee during the Hasmonean period. Additionally, historical sources indicate that many of the priests who serve in Jerusalem’s Temple lived in the Galilee. We even have evidence in the plain of Genosar (in the Galilee) of wealthy priests who may have played a role in controlling the Temple. So, it is clear that  Judeans are welcomed in the Galilee and vice versa.

3. Politically

JT: Galilee had been under separate administration from Judea during almost all its history since the tenth century B.C. (apart from a period of “reunification” under the Maccabees), and in the time of Jesus it was under a (supposedly) native Herodian prince, while Judea and Samaria had since A.D. 6 been under the direct rule of a Roman prefect.

This administrative difference does not necessarily affect the Jewish  identity of the Galileans. At the end of the day, although Antipas was in control of Galilee (since the death of his father Herod) and generally a procurator (e.g., Pilate) was in control of Judea, Rome was in control. From the documents available to us, it does not seem that the administrative reality had much of an effect on the religious identity of Jewish communities in either the Galilee or Judea.

4. Economically

JT: Galilee offered better agricultural and fishing resources than the more mountainous territory of Judea, making the wealth of some Galileans the envy of their southern neighbors.

Unfortunately, this is stated with no reference to either France or any ancient sources. While there were surely wealthy Jewish Galileans, Jerusalem was no stranger to wealth. Discoveries from the Second Temple period in what is now Jerusalem’s Old City (known as the Herodian quarter) have revealed massive palatial homes, which were apparently occupied by the Jerusalem priests and other wealthy inhabitants. Surely, the ability fish—to which 16, or so, first century harbors have been identified—and the fertile soil of the Galilee (e.g. the Beth Netofa Valley) would have brought wealth to some,  I am not sure that we have any evidence for a general wealth that was “envied” by the Judeans. Moreover, had their been any “envious” feelings between Judeans and Galilean, we should not presume that it was widespread or common, especially when we are lacking evidence for such a thing.

5. Culturally

JT: Judeans despised their northern neighbors as country cousins, their lack of Jewish sophistication being compounded by their greater openness to Hellenistic influence.

Not so. Greco-Roman life and architecture existed in a number of places through the Land of Israel, especially in major cities. In fact, as the archaeological record has shown, within major cities there was a co-existence between Jews and Gentiles. Josephus remarks that within the Holy City of Jerusalem there was an amphitheater and a theater—clear signs of Hellenistic influence upon a city. Josephus remarks further that these Hellenistic elements were not in line with Judaism (Ant 15:268). But in Galilean villages, those communities that were Jewish appear to be closed communities—in other words they maintained their Jewish cultural distinctions, some of which they shared with their Jewish communities in the south. Furthermore, those Jewish communities appear to makeup a significant geographical chunk of the Lower and eastern Upper Galilee—that is on the western side of the lake. Archaeologically speaking, the Gentile communities on the western shore of the sea of Galilee seem to form a ring of sorts around the Jewish villages that occupy a large portion of the western shore. The southern most border of this ring is the Jezreel valley (or Mt. Tabor), on the eastern end is the Gentile city of Beth-Shean, the western boundary is the village Chabulon located near the coastal city of Akko-Ptolemais (which was a large Gentile city), with the northern border being made up by Baqa (Peqi’in) and Thella (northeastern).[13]

The map gives one idea of the Jewish/Gentile border on the Western side of the lake. This is adapted from Aviam, “The Borders,” 13. The Jordan River and the Sea of Galilee form a boundary of sorts. There are also Jewish sites on the eastern side of the lake, especially in certain parts of the Golan (e.g. Gamla).
The map gives one idea of the Jewish/Gentile border on the Western side of the lake. This is adapted from Aviam, “The Borders,” 13. The Jordan River and the Sea of Galilee form a boundary of sorts. There are also Jewish sites on the eastern side of the lake, particularly in certain parts of the Golan (e.g. Gamla).

6. Linguistically

JT: Galileans spoke a distinctive form of Aramaic whose slovenly consonants (they dropped their aitches!) were the butt of Judean humor.

Dialectal differences between the Galileans and Judeans in the Second Temple period are not necessarily an easy thing to assess. Furthermore, much of this information is taken from Rabbinic literature. The problem with this methodology is that New Testament scholars fail to note that there was a considerable linguistic shift after the Bar-Kokhba revolt (132-135 CE), nearly 100 years after the death and resurrection of Jesus.[14] Therefore, we cannot simply use post-Bar Kokhba evidence to determine the linguistic nature of the Galilee in the first century. In fact, Turnage has noted from the evidence available that the linguistic nature of the Galilee was tri-lingual (Hebrew, Aramaic, and Greek) where Hebrew—though both Aramaic and Greek were known and used—would have been the primarily language in use.

7. Religiously

JT: …the Judean opinion was that Galileans were lax in their observance of proper ritual, and the problem was exacerbated by the distance of Galilee from the temple and the theological leadership, which was focused in Jerusalem.

Schiffman answers this succintly: [W]e find no evidence of widespread laxity in the Galilee in tannaitic times or later. On the contrary, our study finds time and again that tannaitic sources attributed to the Galileans a higher degree of stringency in halakhic observance than to the Judeans… [I]n most cases, the Galileans were more stringent in regard to the law than their Judean coreligionists. Other instances indicate that differences of practice were minor or resulted from distance from the Temple. In no case did the sources portray the Galileans as lenient or less observant.[15] Safrai has also noted this Galilean stringency to halakhic matters.[16] The stringency that is reported of the Sages from Galilee in the Rabbinic period probably developed and was influenced by the Galilean sages of the Early Roman period.[17]

France’s conclusion as quoted by Taylor

JT:…even an impeccably Jewish Galilean in first-century Jerusalem was not among his own people; he was as much a foreigner as an Irishman in London or a Texan in New York. His accent would immediately mark him out as “not one of us,” and all the communal prejudice of the supposedly superior culture of the capital city would stand against his claim to be heard even as a prophet, let alone as the “Messiah,” a title which, as everyone knew, belonged to Judea (cf. John 7:40-42).

This is not the case. While we must assess for the development of cultural distinctions between Galilee and Judea, we must also take into account how the two Jewish revolts affected these areas. They would have precipitated significant communal shifts, therefore we need to be careful reading Rabbinic opinions back into the Second Temple period without a close examination. That being said, if handled correctly one gets an opportunity to see in Rabbinic literature how Tannaitic literature to some extent develops from the early Roman period. This includes, Galilean stringency to the observance of the Law and the fact that many of our most respected rabbis were originally from the Galilee. Furthermore, the pilgrimage festivals, Jesus’ desire to be in Jerusalem (as well as his family’s yearly journeys to Jerusalem), and the Pharisaic presence in the Galilee suggest that there is a close connection between these two geographical locations.

Taylor’s final point:

JT: This may at first blush sound like interesting background material that is not especially helpful for reading and interpreting the gospels. But Mark and Matthew have structured their narratives around a geographical framework dividing the north and the south, culminating in the confrontation of this prophet from Galilee and the religious establishment of Jerusalem.

Coming this far, we must re-imagine Taylor’s final statement. Noting the geographical differences present in Matt and Mark (not so much in Luke) may be heavy-handed, since it does not seem to effect many of the stories, if any stories, in the Gospels. When Jesus enters Jerusalem, especially in Luke, it is his overwhelming popularity that prevents the priestly elite from getting a hold of him (Luke 19:48). The popularity is not only from Galileans who have traveled to Jerusalem, but from Judeans as well. In fact those that cried over Jesus during the crucifixion are referred to as the “daughters of Jerusalem” (Luke 23:28). Those who are said to weep were Jerusalemites crying over the death of a Galilean. So we have clear evidence in the Gospels that a Galilean finds acceptance, and was in fact “at home,” in Jerusalem, and Judea.[18] Thus, it is clear that Jesus the Galilean, and by extension the Galileans, generally speaking, did not find Jerusalem to be an alien city—neither an Irish man in London, or an Englishman in New York—religiously, culturally, or linguistically. Apart from Jesus, such can be seen in the book of Acts. In the early chapters of Acts, the members of The Way frequent the Temple in Jerusalem and as we move through out the book it appears the early church has centralized themselves in Jerusalem. This suggests that Jesus, the Galilean, was not the only one that felt comfortable in Judea, his disciples felt the same.

We should attribute any differences between Galileans and Judeans, especially what we have recorded in historical documents, primarily to issues of opposing halakhic opinions. Various halakhic opinions should not be understood, however, as a point of stark division in Judaism but rather a point of intra-Jewish discourse. The disagreements that Jesus often finds himself in are generally matters of Torah observance. To suggest that the aforementioned seven points stand is to misread the evidence that we know with the unnecessary consequence of tearing Jesus from his proper place in Jewish culture.

  • [1] (NICNT, Grand Rapids: Eerdmans, 2007)
  • [2] As you will see below “race” is a term used by France. It is an unfortunate term that I do not think best describes the differences between Galilee and the Judea
  • [3] Mordechai Aviam, “The Hasmonean Dynasty’s Activities in the Galilee” in Jews, Pagans and Christians in the Galilee—35 Years of Archaeological Excavations and Surveys: Hellenistic to Byzantine Period (Rochester: University of Rochester Press, 2004), 41.
  • [4] See Aviam’s discussion of the Jewish and Gentile border in “Border between Jews and Gentiles in the Galilee” in Jews, Pagans, and Christians, 9-21
  • [5] “Borders between Jews and Gentiles in the Galilee” in Jews, Pagans, and Christians, 17.
  • [6] “They are not Ritual Baths” BAR 26/4 (Jul/Aug, 2000).
  • [7] “They are Ritual Baths” BAR 28/2 (Mar/Apr, 2002).
  • [8] Mark Chancey and Eric Meyers, “How Jewish Was Sepphoris in the Time if Jesus” BAR 26/04 (July/Aug, 2000).
  • [9] “The Myth of a Gentile Galilee” The Bible and Interpretation (Feb, 2003). See also, idem, The Myth of a Gentile Galilee (SNTSM 118; Cambridge: Cambridge University Press, 2004).
  • [10] “Samaritans” Encyclopedia Judaica (vol. 17; New York: Thomas Gale, 2007 ), 718-737.
  • [11] Anson Rainey and Steven Notley, The Sacred Bridge: Carta’s Atlas of the Biblical World (Jerusalem: Carta, 2005), 362.
  • [12] See Shmuel Safrai, “Pilgrimage in the Time of Jesus”; also, idem, Pilgrimage in the Time of the Second Temple (Jerusalem, 1985 [Heb.]); Mordechai Aviam, “Reverence for Jerusalem and the Temple in Galilean Society,” in Jesus and the Temple: Textual and Archaeological Explorations (Minneapolis: Fortress Press, 2014), 123-144.
  • [13] Aviam, “The Borders,” 13. These boundaries are based on Josephus’ description of when he comes to the Galilee to fortify certain cities and prepare for war with Rome.
  • [14] Marc Turnage, “The Linguistic Ethos of the Galilee,” The Language Envoronment in First Century Judea: Studies in the Synoptic Gospels vol. 2 (JCP 26; Leiden: Brill, 2014); cf. also Kutscher, A History of the Hebrew Language, 115-116.
  • [15] Lawrence Schiffman, “Was There a Galilean Halakhah?” in The Galilee in Antiquity (New York and Jerusalem: Jewish Theological Seminary, 1992), 144–45.
  • [16] Safrai, “The Jewish Cultural Nature of Galilee in the First Century” in The New Testament and Jewish-Christian Dialogue, Immanuel 24/25, 174–80; See the JP version.
  • [17] Turnage, “Linguistic Ethos,” 173.
  • [18] For the record it should be noted that the word Ἰουδαία (Judea) and its various forms appear sparingly in the Synoptic Gospels and not as some sort of foreign territory separated from the Galilee.

Measure For Measure

Transcribed and Edited Jerusalem Bible Study

As the topic for this Bible study, I have chosen Midah KeNeged Midah, which means “measure for measure.” A longer version of this mishnaic Hebrew idiom is במידה שאדם מודד בה מודדין לו (Bamidah she’adam moded ba, modedin lo; m. Sotah 1:7, Codex Kaufmann), which may be translated “by the measure that a man measures, they measure to him.” In Jewish literature the rabbis often referred to this principle simply as מידה כנגד מידה (Midah KeNeged Midah). In English, people say, “What goes around comes around,” or “He reaped what he sowed.” These two pithy sayings express the same idea. Moreover, most of us have witnessed circumstances where the principle seems to have operated perfectly. Consequently, even today Midah KeNeged Midah remains part of modern western thinking.

I will start with several simple examples from the Bible in order to demonstrate that, as a principle, Midah KeNeged Midah has a biblical basis. The rabbis who lived centuries after the last book of the Old Testament was written did not invent Midah KeNeged Midah. They certainly furthered the development of the idea, but they did not first suggest it. Midah KeNeged Midah is a very old concept that finds expression in ancient Mediterranean and Near Eastern literature other than the Bible. In the Old Testament, examples of this principle appear in nearly every book.

Consider Exodus 22:22-24: “The foreigner do not oppress, and do not mistreat him because you were foreigners in the land of Egypt.” The verses continue: “Any widow and orphan you will not oppress, and if you oppress them…I will become angered, and I will kill you with a sword. And your wives will become widows and your sons will become orphans.” This passage contains a typical example of Midah KeNeged Midah. Here God warned the Israelites through the prophet Moses that if they oppressed the widows and orphans, God would exact punishment by making their wives widows and their children orphans. In other words, if Israel mistreats its widows and orphans, God will visit the oppressors’ families and make their married women widows and children orphans, so that they will experience the same hardships that they had inflicted on others.

Apart from the principle of Midah KeNeged Midah, I find this passage interesting because it represents one of a number of verses where God identifies with the socially oppressed. In Evangelical-Charismatic preaching and teaching this subject has not received sufficient attention. Perhaps we have recoiled away from this subject because of an immature response to liberal Christian groups whose “gospel” has become defined almost exclusively in terms of social work and relief efforts. An ideal model would be for us to have a high view of Jesus’ lordship coupled with a clear vision for the expansion of his kingdom. Such a vision would include, out of necessity, an enduring burden for the poor. When a person mistreats the oppressed, it is as if he or she has mistreated God himself. The Bible expressly states that God is the defender of the down-trodden, and he does not remain indifferent to their sorrows and suffering.

Let us look at another example in Judges 1:5-7. The Israelites had just overcome their enemies in battle. In the course of the fighting, they had pursued Adoni Bezek and captured him. To punish this enemy king, the Israelites cut off his thumbs and big toes, to which he replied, “Seventy kings with their thumbs and their big toes cut off used to gather up scraps under my table. Now God has paid me back for what I did to them.” Here is an excellent example of Midah KeNeged Midah. This king had amputated the thumbs and big toes of other kings he had captured, and now the Israelites meted out the same punishment to him. Perhaps the Israelites knew about Adoni Bezek’s past cruelty. Nevertheless, the wretched king himself interpreted this as God’s justice. God repaid him with exactly what he had done to others.

A third example may be found in Obadiah 1:15: “The day of the Lord draws near on all of the nations. As you have done, it will be done to you. Your dealings will return on your own head.” This represents quite an explicit statement of Midah KeNeged Midah. Just as the nations have done, it will be done to them. In other words, the nations will reap what they have sown.

Let me offer a final example from the Old Testament before we address post-biblical texts. I find this example particularly interesting because it affects New Testament theology. In Deuteronomy 32:21 Moses is depicted giving a lengthy exhortation to the Israelites. (Lengthy exhortations by Moses are characteristic of Deuteronomy.) Verse 21 says, “They have made me jealous with that which is not a God, they have angered me with their vanities.” Note God’s solution to the problem: “Therefore I will make them jealous with those who are not a people and with a foolish nation I will provoke them.” By running after false gods, the Israelites provoked God to jealousy. In fact, the Hebrew verb kinuni carries the idea of jealousy between a man and wife. If we read about the Sotah (a woman suspected of infidelity, cf. Numbers 5:11-31) in rabbinic literature, kinuni is used in reference to the husband when he suspects infidelity or has feelings of jealousy about his wife. Here, the Israelites provoked God to jealousy through their idolatrous practices. How will God respond? Midah KeNeged Midah: He will make his people (i.e., the Israelites) jealous with those who are not a people (i.e., the Gentiles).

The Apostle Paul added a layer of significance to this verse when he alluded to it in his epistle to the Romans. In the Septuagintal translation of Deuteronomy 32:21 and Romans 11:11 the same Greek verb appears. That Greek verb is παραζηλῶσαι (parazaelosai; cf. GNT 3rd ed., p. 560). Paul wrote Romans 11 to help Jewish and non-Jewish believers in the church work toward a mutual understanding of their new relationship to one another and to the larger broader Jewish community. Paul himself did not fully comprehend the relationship of the early church to the pre-rabbinic Jewish community. Should we expect to understand more than Paul did? What does Paul offer as a final conclusion? “For God has shut up all in disobedience that he might show mercy to all. Oh, the depth of the riches both of the wisdom and knowledge of God! How unsearchable are his judgments and unfathomable his ways!” (Rom. 11:32-33) We as Christians must live with the tension that God’s unsearchable judgments and unfathomable ways sometimes generate. Being westerners, children of modernity, and citizens of the technological age, we are people who traffic in data and answers based on that data. Being timely is more important than being accurate. Our culture conditions us to prefer having some answer, rather than living with the tension of not having an answer. This cultural phenomenon plays itself out in theological discussions, too.

In Romans 11:25 Paul used the word “mystery.” When I encounter a mystery in the Biblical text, what is my duty? Am I required to explain it? No, my job is to be obedient. Paul says here that we are to stimulate jealously among the Jews. We who were once not a people, a foolish nation, are to arouse emotions of jealously. During the time of Paul’s ministry, Jews were preaching the gospel of the Kingdom of Heaven to other Jews (Acts 19:8, Acts 20:25, Acts 28:31). Jews were speaking to other Jews about Jesus. It was an intra-Jewish event. By the beginning of the second century a much different situation had developed. The church had become overwhelmingly non-Jewish. What was Paul’s advice to non-Jews who accepted Jesus’ lordship? Paul hoped that they would arouse jealously among the Jewish community. God had made a foolish nation a precious people alongside the Jewish community.

In Deuteronomy 32:21 the Israelites provoked God’s jealously with that which was not a God, and, therefore God promised to provoke them with “those who are not a people,” whom Paul identified as Christians of non-Jewish descent. That is our job description. It is not a very flattering one, since in the verse we are described as “foolish.” The parallelism in Deuteronomy 32:21 suggests a link between idols, i.e. false gods and us, i.e. a false people.

When we interact with the Jewish community, we ought to ask ourselves, “Is my conduct of such an order that it would arouse jealousy?” In other words, is the manner in which I live a favorable witness to the resurrection of Jesus? Are people seeing my good works and blessing God for them (cf. Matt. 5:16)? Do my Jewish friends and acquaintances utter a prayer of thanksgiving to God for pouring out his spirit on a once foolish, uncircumcised person? When interacting with the Jewish community, perhaps we need to follow more closely Paul’s good advice.

Sadly, down through the centuries, Christians have not taken to heart what Paul wrote. Christian literature, both ancient and modern, both Catholic and Protestant, contains insensitive and at times abusive remarks directed against the Jewish people and their faith (cf. W. Whiston’s ed. of Josephus, p. 31 and J. Lightfoot on Mt. 8:30, p. 168. Also RTB, p. 23 and JerPers no. 51 and R. Wilken, John, Chrysostum and the Jews). Certainly, Paul would have protested against “the wild branches” demeaning “the natural branches.”

Let us move forward in time and consider an example from the Apocrypha. The apocryphal book Tobit belongs to the Catholic Bible. I have a high view of scripture—the bigger the canon, the better. I embrace the Catholic, Protestant, and Greek Orthodox canons. I would encourage any serious student of the New Testament to read an English translation of the Apocrypha and the Septuagint. The writers of the New Testament sometimes quoted from the Septuagint. It served as the canon of the early church. Its canonical status remained predominant until Jerome translated the rabbinic canon from Hebrew to Latin. His Latin translation became known as the Vulgate. Centuries later, the Reformers further helped undermine the Septuagint’s prestige in the West. In the wake of the Reformation, Protestant scholars began to prefer the Hebrew Masoretic text of the Old Testament, which the rabbis had canonized over the Septuagint and Vulgate.

I am not making any value judgment. I am happy to have the Masoretic text as our canonical text. I am also happy to have the Septuagint and Vulgate as our canonical texts. From my perspective, the more canon the better. More canon, means more scripture, which leads to greater opportunity for generating profitable teaching.

Tobit 4:7 says, “Do not turn your face away from any poor man, and the face of God will not be turned away from you.” This represents another very simple example of Midah KeNeged Midah. It is also another example of God’s identification with the poor and socially oppressed. Turning away from a poor person is like turning away from God. The writer of Tobit understood God as identifying one hundred percent with the poor. Hence, according to him, God simply mirrors back toward us our treatment of them. Here we have (from a Protestant perspective) a post-Biblical, pre-rabbinic text that employs Midah KeNeged Midah.

The rabbis were excellent readers of the text. In fact, when reading the ancient rabbinic commentaries, I marvel at how closely the rabbis read their Bible. As a general principle, they reflect in their commentaries the same trends or tendencies that they saw in the Bible. Thus, just as Midah KeNeged Midah is found throughout the Bible, it is also found throughout the literature of the rabbis. The rabbis noted the obvious examples of Midah KeNeged Midah, a few of which we have just surveyed. Yet they found scores of other examples, some of which are very subtle. They delighted in finding the more obscure examples of a principle like Midah KeNeged Midah. They loved mining the Bible for all of its richness.

Consider the following rabbinic examples of Midah KeNeged Midah, where I will give half of the equation, so that the reader may supply the other. How did God ultimately punish Pharaoh and his army? He drowned them (Ex. 14:28). Why were the Egyptians punished by water? The answer may be found in Exodus 1:22: The Egyptians had drowned the infant sons of Israel in the Nile. Do Christians read the Bible in a manner, so that this application of Midah KeNeged Midah emerges clearly from the narrative? Have the rabbis interpreted the text responsibly? Upon hearing their interpretation, we respond, “Yes, that is right.” The rabbis have forced us to go back and reflect on the Biblical narrative. By forcing us back to the text, they have succeeded in large measure to achieve what they set out to accomplish—to compel the community of faith to re-think continually the biblical text.

The rabbis faced great challenges in their day to ensure that the Bible remained a living text. They had to compete with the Roman circus and the theater just like we must compete with football and MTV. We could learn a lot from the rabbis by noting the way in which they successfully kept the Bible a meaningful, relevant book among the Jewish people. They did an excellent job for which they should be applauded.

Consider another example. I will give half of the equation, and the reader may give the other. When Samson met his demise, he was blinded (Jdg. 16:21-28). The Philistines put out his eyes. How does this example of Midah KeNeged Midah work? The second part of the equation may be found in Judges 16:1, where in the story of Delilah, Samson saw her. In other words, he lusted with his eyes, so ultimately he was punished through that with which he sinned. Is this responsible interpretation? Or have the rabbis gone too far? In the end, they have forced us to re-read the story of Samson.

Consider a third example. What caused Absalom’s untimely death? While fleeing on a donkey, he rode under a tree and one of the limbs caught his hair. Why did he meet his demise through his hair (2 Sam. 18:9)? Absalom had beautiful hair (2 Sam. 14:26), and the rabbis claimed it to be the seed of his pride, which eventually blossomed into open rebellion against his father, King David. Have the rabbis stretched the text, or is this a responsible interpretation? Perhaps before answering that question, we need to go home and read that story again.

Is there any biblical personality who seems to defy the principle of Midah KeNeged Midah? The rabbis viewed Midah KeNeged Midah as a principle that God had built into the operational structure of the universe (Jubilees 4:31). Can we think of anybody who seems to circumvent this principle?

Please turn to Deuteronomy 9:20-21: “And the Lord was angry enough with Aaron to destroy him…” The verse speaks about Aaron, the brother of Moses, the brother of Miriam, the high priest, a leader of the people, the maker of the golden calf. Is Aaron a saint or something less? The New Testament has little to say about Aaron. Acts 7:41 mentions that the Israelites “made a calf and brought a sacrifice to the idol, and were rejoicing in the works of their hands.” Does Acts 7:41 agree with the details of Exodus 32?

Why did God punish Aaron by forbidding him to enter the Promised Land. Is it because he oversaw the construction of the golden calf? No! It was because Aaron disobeyed God along with Moses at the waters of Meribah (Num. 20:24). For that he was punished with the same punishment which Moses received. Both were forbidden to cross the Jordan River (Num. 20:12). But was Aaron punished for the golden calf? No! Were the people punished? Yes! By whom were they punished? Moses called out, “Whoever is for the Lord, come to me!” Who gathered around Moses? The Levites rallied around Moses. In other words, the clan of Aaron meted out the punishment. Something is very odd.

I am reminded of another story where Miriam spoke against Moses (Num. 12). Was only Miriam involved? No! Miriam and Aaron spoke against Moses, but the Lord smote only Miriam with leprosy, and she had to wait outside the camp seven days. Nothing happened to Aaron. He merely watched his sister turn white as snow. Aaron presents a challenge for biblical expositors whether they be ancient or modern.

In post Biblical Jewish literature much effort was expended to deal with Aaron’s apparent immunity from the principle of Midah KeNeged Midah. The sages and their successors, the rabbis, tried to reconcile Exodus 32, Numbers 12 and Deuteronomy 9:20-21 with God’s treatment of Aaron. They had two options for bringing Aaron’s case in line with the demands of Midah KeNeged Midah. Either he was punished and we simply need to find the mode of punishment in the text; or contrary to what appears in the biblical narrative at first glance, Aaron did nothing wrong, and in reality conducted himself in a noble way. The second approach, what I will call the whitewashing of Aaron’s character, emerged as the prevailing solution in rabbinic literature (Leviticus Rabbah 10:3 – parable). As we already saw in Acts 7:41, Aaron was not singled out for any misconduct. In his speech, Stephen implied that the blame rested with the Israelites. The record of Stephen’s speech is consistent with the rabbinic trend of removing culpability from Aaron.

Taking a biblical principle like Midah KeNeged Midah and pushing its application to the limits is characteristic of rabbinic interpretation. The rabbis enjoyed pushing the “exegetical envelope” to the point of bursting. Let me give two examples where they pushed the limits of Midah KeNeged Midah to the very edge.

In Numbers 12:15, Miriam’s sudden case of leprosy caused the entire camp of the Israelites to hold up for seven days. In fact, the rabbis claimed that God himself, the Divine presence, the ark of the covenant, the priests, the Levites, the Israelites, and the seven clouds of glory all waited for Miriam—a rather impressive waiting list! The rabbis viewed this as an example of Midah KeNeged Midah, namely, that all of the parties named above, God among them, waited for Miriam when she had leprosy. They waited a week for Miriam to become ritually pure.

What noble deed had Miriam done that warranted everyone waiting for her? The answer may be found in Exodus 2:4. After Moses’ Mother had set him afloat in the Nile, Miriam waited to see what would happen to her infant brother. Here we discover the toehold in the text which allowed the rabbis to apply Midah KeNeged Midah. Since Miriam waited for Moses, the savior of Israel, God and the Israelites waited for her. Is this responsible interpretation or has the “exegetical envelope” been ruptured? Indeed the limits have been stretched to the point of bursting. Nevertheless, we have been driven back to the text and forced to reexamine it.

Allow me to give one more example from rabbinic literature, one of which I am particularly fond. First, however, I will need to give some background information. In a talmudic text about a sage named Abba Hilkiah, who was the grandson of Honi the circle drawer, we find the following story.

Once the Rabbis sent to Abba Hilkiah a pair of scholars that he should pray for rain. When they came to his house they did not find him at home. They went to see him in the field and found him ploughing the ground. They greeted him, but he did not heed them. Towards evening he was picking up sticks of wood and, on his way home, carried the sticks on one shoulder and his cloak on the other. The whole way long he did not put on his shoes, but when he had to cross the water he put them on. When he came across thorns and shrubs he lifted up his garments… (Ta’anit 23 a-b; Malter ed., p. 346).

Notice Abba Hilkiah’s behavior regarding his shoes and garments. He was very conscious about damaging them or subjecting them to unnecessary wear and tear. Later in the story, the pair of scholars questioned Abba Hilkiah about his behavior regarding his shoes and garments. He replied, “The entire way I could see [what I was stepping on], in the water I could not see…the one [a scratch on the skin] heals up, the other [a tear in the garment] does not heal up.” From this story we gain a glimpse into the daily life of Jews in antiquity. Apparently, garments and shoes were not as easily acquired as they are today. Consequently, people were more conscious of the manner in which they treated them.

Keeping this background information in mind, we will examine 1 Samuel 24:4 and 1 Kings 1:1 to see if we can discover how Midah KeNeged Midah applies to these two verses. In 1 Samuel 24:3 we read that Saul entered a cave to use as a bathroom. What did David do as Saul was relieving himself? He sneaked up and clipped his garment. Here is the proof from the biblical text that David had a low regard for clothing. He had been the type of teenager who walked on the road with his sandals on, went through the thickets without lifting his robe, and when he arrived home his Mom would say, “What have you done to your clothes!” That was the type of young man David was, and according to Midah KeNeged Midah, he paid the price later in life.

As an old man King David had a problem. According to 1 Kings 1:1, his clothes no longer kept him warm. Why? Because he did not have a high regard for clothing as was demonstrated by his damaging of Saul’s garment. These are wonderful verses for mothers to use when trying to teach children to treat shoes and clothes with more respect.

Moreover, look at 1 Samuel 24:5-6. How did David feel after doing this dirty deed? He felt guilty! He must have heard his mother’s words echoing in his head, “Take care of your clothes!” In verse 5 somebody said to David, “Today the Lord your God has given you your enemy into your hand.” If David had accepted the advice of those around him, he would have killed Saul. So why should he feel guilty about clipping Saul’s garment? I could understand feeling guilty about killing Saul, but clipping his robe? I think that it had something to do with his mother. I am simply suggesting that the biblical text itself offered the rabbis an opportunity to make a clever and delightful application of Midah KeNeged Midah. No matter how odd a midrashic interpretation may sound, almost always a toehold exists in the text.

Applying the principle of Midah KeNeged Midah in a mechanical manner can lead to problems. In the world of the sages, Midah KeNeged Midah came to be viewed as a principle built into the order of the universe. The widespread acceptance of the principle meant that it was sometimes recklessly applied.

Several years ago, Randall Buth preached before the Narkis Street Congregation in Jerusalem, Israel a delightful sermon from the Parashah Re’ey (Dt. 11:26-16:27). One of the points he made in his sermon had to do with poor people (see Sermons from Narkis, 44-45). In the Torah we find the following paradigm: If we are obedient to God, we will be blessed and not experience want. But then Deuteronomy 15:7 says, “If there are any poor among you.” We must be careful not to slide into a type of thinking that reasons that a person suffers poverty because he or she deserves it. Yet as Buth pointed out in his sermon, the Bible commands us to be generous to the poor. God commanded the Israelites to extend an open hand to the needy (Dt. 15:8).

We who are God’s people should be open minded, non-judgmental, generous people. Consistently applying Midah KeNeged Midah in a mechanical manner and avoiding the temptation of being critical and judgmental are mutually exclusive options. We must be very careful to guard our thinking and not allow ourselves to apply recklessly Midah KeNeged Midah

In Avot 2:6, Hillel apparently made a remark while passing by some water and seeing a corpse floating in it. He said, “Because you had drowned others, they drowned you, and those who drowned you, will they themselves be drowned.” Interestingly, Joseph Hertz in his excellent commentary (p. 34) wrote, “Hillel seems to have known the person whose skull it was, and he had been a brigand.” Why did Hertz, the distinguished Chief Rabbi of England, offer that little comment? If Hillel had not personally known this man, he would have recklessly applied Midah KeNeged Midah. To paraphrase Jesus, all who live by the sword, will die by the sword. But, it is not correct to assume that all that die by the sword lived by the sword. There is a subtle, but significant difference between these two propositions. Human nature works against our efforts to keep that subtle difference in focus.

In Matthew 6:12, an excerpt from the Lord’s Prayer, Jesus said that his disciples must forgive others in order to be forgiven by God—Midah KeNeged Midah. Thus, Jesus endorsed and employed this principle. When we forgive others, God forgives us. When we show mercy to others, God shows mercy to us. When we are gracious to others, God is gracious to us. When we bless others, God blesses us. Each of these represents a responsible application of Midah KeNeged Midah.

In Matthew 7:1-2a, Jesus applied Midah KeNeged Midah in reference to judging and giving charity: “Do not judge lest you be judged. For in the way you judge, you will be judged.” Matthew 7:2b continues: “By your standard of measure, it will be measured to you.” Here Jesus essentially paraphrased the Hebrew idiom that I quoted at the beginning, “Bamidah sheadam moded ba, modedin lo.”

A most significant passage for evaluating Jesus’ method of application of Midah KeNeged Midah is Luke 13:1-5. Luke alone recounted a remarkable incident about some who reported to Jesus about the Galileans “whose blood Pilate had mingled with their sacrifices.” Jesus responded, “Do you suppose that these Galileans were greater sinners than all other Galileans? Jesus then added a second example about a tower that had fallen in Siloam. (Today tourists visiting The City of David can see the base of the Hasmonean Tower, which may have resembled the tower to which Jesus referred.) Jesus said, “Do you suppose that those eighteen on whom the tower of Siloam fell were worse culprits than all men who live in Jerusalem?” In the light of the culture and context, what Jesus said challenged his audience because many of them viewed sickness or tragedy as the consequence of wrong doing. Jesus was cautioning against the temptation of assuming that the victims of the tower’s collapse had done something wicked, so as to deserve a violent death as a form of divine punishment. Jesus warned not to entertain such thoughts. “Do not think that these Galileans were worse than any other Galileans!” Sweeping, general applications of Midah KeNeged Midah are theologically immature and irresponsible. The principle has limitations, and when Christians apply it recklessly, they run the risk of scarring people emotionally. Illness and tragedy may befall any of us, not because we deserve it, but because we live in an imperfect, unpredictable world. Hence, Jesus’ call to repent now, lest we unexpectedly face our creator today (Flusser, Jesus, pp. 101-102).

How did Jesus apply the principle of Midah KeNeged Midah in his teachings? This is a good opportunity to introduce a principle that I have formulated for interpreting Jesus’ teachings. I call it the principle of “what-I-don’t-want-to-hear,” or, for broader application, the “what-we-do-not-want-to-hear” principle. This principle is useful for interpreting the synoptic Gospels, because although some sayings of Jesus are difficult to understand—even more are difficult to obey. When reading the synoptic Gospels, I have noticed that Jesus often said what I would rather not hear. So, if we read a teaching of Jesus, and our response is, “My human nature resists that,” or “I don’t want to hear that,” our interpretation is probably more or less accurate.

Some of the things Jesus emphasized in his teachings stand as strong warnings to those who belong to the community of faith. Jesus made statements about not lapsing into prideful judgmentalism, and becoming centripetal in one’s thinking. Jesus taught that our attitude toward other people—outsiders, even sinners—must be like God’s.

So here is an opportunity to apply the principle of what-we-don’t-want-to-hear. Jesus’ teachings suggest that the principle of Midah KeNeged Midah may be applied only when it challenges our human nature. When does it challenge our human nature? When we must extend mercy to those who deserve none. When we forgive those who do not deserve forgiveness. When we give to those who do not deserve help. These are the things that we would rather not hear. Nevertheless, when we show mercy, forgive, and give charitably, God acts the likewise toward us.

After seeing tragedy befall somebody, we must be careful not to assume that that person deserved such “divine” retribution. Our human nature promotes such self-centered thinking. Yet Jesus taught to abandon that mode of thinking, because if we really believe that a person deserved some misfortune, then our willingness to offer assistance will be undermined. Our duty is not to judge, but to be a conduit for God’s healing, hope and redemption in an imperfect, hurting world.

For Jesus, repentance today remains a priority. That is the point of Luke 13:1-9. Pilate in an outburst of cruel rage could have had anybody killed. The tower that collapsed could have fallen on anybody who happened to be passing by it. Rabbi Eliezer ben Hyrcanus once said, “Repent one day before death!” His disciples replied, “How does a man know when he will die?” R. Eliezer ben Hyrcanus smiled and said, “That is good reason to repent today” (Avot de-Rabbi Natan 15).

Jesus used similar teachings to communicate that if we do not live to see the awesome return of the Lord, we certainly will face our creator at death. I am reminded of the words of Akaviah ben Mahalel, “Remember three things and you will not fall into sin: Whence you came, thence you are going, and before whom you will give an account. Whence did you come? From a little putrid drop. Thence are you going? To the place of worms and maggots. Before whom will you give an account? Before the King of Kings” (m. Avot 3:1).

Offering an incisive comment on Luke 13 about recklessly applying Midah KeNeged Midah, Jesus suggested that anyone, God forbid, may expire today and face one’s creator. If the imminence of that reality (or the return of the Son of Man) remains before us, then our thinking and conduct should be radically different from that of other people.

Book Review: James Tabor’s The Jesus Dynasty

Revised: 14-Mar-2007
Tabor has an annoying habit of promoting remote possibilities into even possibilities, and then into probabilities.

In terms of its publication date, James Tabor’s new book The Jesus Dynasty[1] follows on the heels of Dan Brown’s The Da Vinci Code, a fact that is probably a commercial blessing for Tabor (as the public has recently shown an interest in these matters), but which might also lead to some overhasty dismissals of Tabor’s work (by those aware of Brown’s nonsense). Certainly a title like The Jesus Dynasty invites comparisons with Brown, but the title, in one sense, is not accurate: Tabor does not argue (as the characters in Brown’s novel do) that Jesus had offspring who formed a dynastic house. The dynasty that Tabor imagines should more properly be called a “Mary dynasty,” as it is composed of Jesus and his brothers, not Jesus and his descendents. (Actually John the Baptist is also a key figure in this dynasty.) In spite of the fact that Tabor is a well qualified biblical scholar, however, there are some rather weighty concerns. Since the book has sold so well, it might be important to address some of these concerns.

Perhaps the best part of Tabor’s book are the anecdotal accounts of his personal field research, in which he relates the feelings he had as he visited this or that tomb, uncovered facts, and adduced connections that others had not seen. But if Tabor presents a number of archaeological discoveries that seem too good to be true, it is because some of them turn out not to be true. In one case, Tabor finds so many possible direct contacts of the historical Jesus with archaeological finds that he presents the reader with an embarrassment of riches: in the introduction, he sets out the case for associating the so-called James ossuary with a tomb in the Hinnom Valley, but then, at the point where the reader might be most ready to accept this scenario, he abandons it and presents an equally compelling argument for associating that same ossuary with the Talpiot tomb, excavated in 1980. (Against the vast majority of scholars, he is holding out for the authenticity of the James ossuary.) Therein we see some of the strangeness of Tabor’s procedure: he never discusses these two scenarios in terms of mutual competition, and the uninitiated reader might even fail to see that Tabor’s left hand takes away what his right hand offers. The effect is a bit strange—rather like a solitaire version of “exquisite corpse.”

Misidentifying Ossuaries and Redating Jesus’ Birth

Tabor has an annoying habit of promoting remote possibilities into even possibilities, and then into probabilities. Those familiar with the infamous James ossuary might hope that there is more behind his judgment than the arguments Tabor presents, as he is conspicuously silent about some of the main reasons that most scholars doubt the authenticity of the inscription. For example, how does Tabor explain the fact that the inscription (“James, son of Joseph, brother of Jesus”) is hardly worn away from the ossuary’s surface, while the paired rosettes on the reverse side of the same ossuary have worn away to such a degree that only the faintest trace of their circular outlines can be seen? The fact that these rosettes are in such a poor state of preservation is certainly a strong indication of the recency of the ossuary’s inscription, yet Tabor doesn’t even mention the rosettes.[2]

Perhaps even more indicative of Tabor’s will to believe in the inscription’s authenticity is the fact that he appears to be presenting new evidence against its authenticity, but he doesn’t even realize it. I refer here to his argument that the ossuary in question is the one missing from the Talpiot tomb, which he supports by claiming that the catalogued dimensions (in centimeters) of the missing ossuary match the dimensions of the James ossuary “to the centimeter” (p. 32). The indications of Tabor’s will to believe, in this matter, are there for all to see: he notes that the missing ossuary was catalogued as “plain” (!), yet he ignores that description altogether and invites the reader to ponder with him just what might be inscribed on the “plain” ossuary. (Of the remaining nine ossuaries from the Talpiot tomb, the six that bear inscriptions are clearly noted as such in the official report, so that the description “plain” would seem to mean “no inscription.” Tabor doesn’t explain what else he thinks “plain” might mean.) But even if Tabor accepted that “plain” means “plain,” the impact of the Talpiot report on the James ossuary would be illusory, as Tabor’s claim that the James ossuary matches the dimensions of the missing ossuary from the Talpiot tomb is bogus. The James ossuary was reported in Biblical Archaeology Review as measuring 50.5 cm x 25 cm x 30.5 cm, while the missing ossuary from Talpiot was described in the official report as measuring 60 cm x 26 cm x 30 cm.[3] (For some reason, Tabor doesn’t list the dimensions of either ossuary.) That’s a difference in length of 9.5 cm!

As noted above, the extent of fieldwork that went into Tabor’s book is impressive. I should add that his grasp of the historical context of the New Testament is very good. But what comes out in the final mix is unfortunately far from accurate. This is because the actual work of synthesis within the book is marred by some rather egregious doctoring of the data. Consider, for example, Tabor’s alternative scenario to the virgin birth: he attempts to defend the tradition, found in a number of early anti-Christian writers, that Jesus was fathered by a Roman soldier named “Pantera.” Tabor mentions that many scholars view “Pantera” as a play on the Greek word for virgin (parthenos), but he dismisses that explanation because “the two words don’t match very closely” (p. 64). Instead, he finds in the Pantera tradition as much that he takes to be historically useful as others find libelous, and he undertakes a fascinating investigation of one “Tiberius Julius Abdes Pantera of Sidon,” a career Roman soldier of semitic (Jewish?) extraction who died at age 62 in Germany (whom Tabor claims was stationed in Palestine at the turn of the millennium). To make it work out that this, or some other “Pantera,”[4] could have been Jesus’ biological father, Tabor must adjust the date of Jesus’ birth, as such an explanation of Mary’s pregnancy makes more sense if it can be dated to a time of Roman invasion or occupation. Tabor seems to be aware that Roman legions were not garrisoned in Galilee until about A.D. 120,[5] and so he tries to make Mary’s pregnancy coincide with the Roman quashing of an insurrection following the death of Herod the Great. Apart from the special needs of Tabor’s theory, one might wonder why he speaks of Jesus being born into the situation after this quashed insurrection, especially when the gospels plainly speak of Jesus being born during Herod’s lifetime.

The most annoying part of Tabor’s presentation, for me, is not the fact that he would challenge the gospels’ dating of the birth narrative. Rather, it is the fact that he fails to mention that the gospels tell a different story from the one that he tells. I am not averse to Tabor’s challenging the traditional date of Jesus’ birth (if he can give good reason to do so), but the last thing the reader should get is a misrepresentation of what our records say. (Tabor expands the possibility of Mary’s pregnancy by a Roman soldier beyond rape by calling attention to the fact that this posited “Pantera” could have been a Jew serving in the Roman military. But then he implicitly wipes this scenario away by suggesting that Mary named her sons after famed Jewish freedom fighters—hardly a consistent action for the supposed girlfriend of a Roman soldier!) All in all, the parthenos → “Pantera” argument remains the best explanation for the Pantera tradition. In spite of Tabor’s demurral, it matches a type of punning that was widespread in late antiquity, especially among Jews. Connected with this issue, I would also call into question Tabor’s clam that the gospel references to Jesus as “the son of Mary” indicates suspicions about Joseph’s paternity. (Please understand: I write in terms of the presumption that Jesus’ hearers would have heard about Joseph’s paternity, not intending to bracket the virgin birth as a theological reality.) According to Tabor, “In Judaism children are invariably referred to as sons or daughters of the father—not the mother” (p. 61). One might think so, but then, as Tal Ilan has recently shown, one would be wrong.[6] Ilan gives a number of reasons why Jesus might be called a “son of Mary,” none of them casting aspersions on Jesus’ relation to Joseph.

Vilifying Paul (Once Again)

The theological payoff for Tabor’s revisionist history is found in The Jesus Dynasty’s supposed aloofness from the central commitments of Pauline theology. Like most liberal scholars, Tabor is a big fan of Jesus, but he is not so enamored with Paul. His book is an attempt to make a new case for the idea that first-century forms of Christianity in the Holy Land knew nothing of the kerygma-centered gospel of Paul. As it has often been put, Paul turned the message of Jesus into a message about Jesus, fashioning a cult centered on the newly contrived doctrines of Christ’s resurrection, ascension to heaven, and sending of the Spirit at Pentecost. To the uninitiated, Tabor’s basic scheme might seem (at least on historical grounds) worthy of serious consideration. Once again, however, Tabor leaves out some rather important pieces of the puzzle. Scholars have long noted, for example, that Paul’s quotations of the Greek translations of Scripture differ according to whether he is arguing de novo (in which case his quotations are largely septuagintal) or he is arguing in terms of preexisting prooftexts, as presented by opposing parties or as representing the core of apostolic belief, perhaps as supported by passages collected in a “testimony book” (in which case the translation leans in the direction of the so-called kai/ge recension). As the translation underlying the latter is closely associated with the Holy Land, it is no coincidence that it provides the proof-textual underpinning for those elements of Paul’s teaching that he says came from the Jerusalem apostles. (This pattern holds true for Luke’s writings as well.) Central to that core of teaching, of course, is the kerygma of Christ’s death, burial, resurrection, ascension, and sending of the Spirit—the very kerygma that Tabor holds was concocted by Paul. In other words, a proper investigation must begin with fingerprints!


Hidden somewhere within the pages of The Jesus Dynasty, I think, is a really good book—the book that Tabor didn’t publish—a useful overview of the historical context of the New Testament. Unfortunately, the real book, as published by Simon and Schuster, is a far cry from that ideal book, having been overburdened with enough factual errors and stretches of the historical imagination to be useless. I hate to end on a negative note—the book does have its redeeming aspects—but it is an especially hazardous read for those who don’t have enough of a historical understanding to discern when Tabor is playing fast and loose with his “facts.”[7]


Professor James D. Tabor, Ph.D., Chair of the Department of Religious Studies at the University of North Carolina at Charlotte, responds:

I wanted here to offer a few notes and observations in response to Jack Poirier’s on-line review of my book, The Jesus Dynasty on the Jerusalem Perspective Web site. I would not attempt to respond here to the underlying theological differences between us, and how Poirier’s assumptions differ from my own as a “liberal scholar,” nor to the tone and attitude Poirier adopts in his review. I will leave that to readers of my book and of his review to judge. I do want, however, to get some facts straight in the hope of bringing some clarity to a number of points he raises.

1. Regarding the tombs and ossuaries that I discuss in the Introduction of my book, it is not the case that the “vast majority of scholars” have concluded that the James ossuary is a forgery, as Poirier states. First, there is no dispute about the authenticity of the ossuary itself. Second, even the Israel Antiquities Authority committee did not claim the entire inscription was forged, but only that the words “brother of Jesus” were added by the owner Oded Golan. So minimally, we have an ossuary that reads “James son of Joseph.” Finally, the results of the patina tests, upon which the forgery conclusion was based, have been questioned by a number of other competent experts, most recently Prof. Wolfgang Krumbein, and it remains a fact that no qualified epigrapher has yet taken the position that the inscription is forged. In fact, Ada Yardeni, one of the best in the business, has said if the ossuary inscription is a forgery she will quit her job! All of the relevant materials, pro and con, are nicely archived at the Biblical Archaeology Review Web site. If anyone cares to spend a bit of time browsing those hundreds of pages of documents it will be abundantly clear that the James ossuary and its authenticity and provenance are far from settled.

Poirier mentions a number of other points regarding the ossuary in an effort to imply that my discussion is flawed and uninformed—that I have the dimensions wrong, that the missing Talpiyot ossuary is described as “plain,” so it could not have been inscribed, and that I ignore the worn rosettes on the reverse side of the ossuary. Unfortunately, Poirier, in taking me to task, seems to have not kept up with some of the most basic parameters of the discussion, whether the Krumbein report, the re-measuring of the James ossuary, or the details of when and how the missing 10th ossuary was catalogued and described and by whom. I have examined all the ossuaries I discuss, have copies of the original excavation notes of the late Joseph Gath, the excavator, and I have consulted extensively with Dr. Gibson, who was part of the original team. As far as I know what I present in my “Introduction” is accurate and if I find that I am mistaken I will gladly revise it in future editions.

It is the case that I do not attempt to adjudicate between the two tombs I discuss and their possible links to the James ossuary. I present the evidence for each to the best of my knowledge at the time I wrote and I left things open, pending further tests, whether DNA or patina. I fail to see how or why Poirier would find my presentation in any way strange or slight of hand. Unfortunately, in the world of the antiquities markets it is often the case that we simply cannot be sure of the provenance of certain items, though we can often present what appears to be best evidence. This is even true for the provenance of many of the Dead Sea Scrolls that were turned in by Bedouin in the early days of their discovery.

2. With regard to the Pantera tradition, and the dating of the birth of Jesus, Poirier has misunderstood a number of important points. I do not base my discussion of the Pantera evidence on a number of “anti-Christian” writers. To the contrary, the earliest references to Jesus as “son of Pantera” come from Jewish sources, where the name is mentioned for identification purposes, not in an effort to besmirch his reputation. Further, it is the case that early Christian writers, in responding to the anti-Christian claims, never deny the validity of the name, or that it is indeed part of the Jesus family lineage, but just that Pantera was not Jesus’ father—but his grandfather. In fact, the idea that Pantera is a play on the Greek word for virgin (parthenos), which Poirier thinks is the best explanation for the origin of the name, is a modern apologetic invention dating to the 17th century. Apparently our ancient sources took the name as a real person from the Jesus family, and now that an ossuary from a Jewish tomb in Jerusalem has been found with that name, the “pun for virgin” explanation seems rather moot. Poirier tells us that the name Pantera was popular in the Roman army, and somewhat equivalent to calling an American soldier “Joe.” I have looked at all the extant occurrences of “Pantera” in its various spellings of which I am aware and the evidence seems to show that it is relatively uncommon, certainly less than 1% in terms of standard onomastic statistics for Greco-Roman Greek and Latin names.

My date for the birth of Jesus is 5 B.C. so I am not clear as to why Poirier thinks that I challenge “the gospel’s dating of the birth narratives.” I have no idea of the details of any potential union between Mary and someone named Pantera, nor how or when he might have become a Roman soldier, and I do not connect her pregnancy with presence of the Roman legions from Syria following the death of Herod. My assumption, given the character of Mary, was that the pregnancy was honorable (see my Blog of September 29, 2006, “Joining the Slanderers”), at least in the eyes of those that mattered. My entire point on this matter is that the name should be taken seriously as a real name, referring to a person who existed, and not as a pun. Jesus’ father is unknown, but I do think he had a human father, and I felt obligated, as an historian, to lay out for readers what does survive in this regard from our ancient sources. Poirier does not tell us what he thinks in this regard, or whether he thinks that Jesus had no father at all, so it may well be that we are really pursuing very different agendas here.

Dr. Jack Poirier responds:

I would like to thank Professor James Tabor for taking time to respond to my review, even if he found little in it that he cared for. I should keep this brief, but I would like to say a few words in response to Dr. Tabor’s response. I want to make four points, in the order in which Tabor discusses things. First, he refers to a difference of theological “assumptions,” but the careful reader can see (I hope) that my review of his book does not invoke any such assumptions. I merely point out that Tabor’s downplaying of Paul’s relevance is based on arguments that are seriously outdated. Second, I’m sorry that Tabor found my “tone and attitude” so off-putting. I really tried not to sound catty or disrespectful. Third, I’m frankly surprised that Tabor would deny that most scholars reject the so-called James ossuary. I was there at the after-hours exhibit of the James ossuary in Toronto the same night Tabor was there, and I witnessed first hand his initial excitement over the ossuary. Many scholars (including myself) shared that same excitement in the beginning. In my experience, however, those scholars who still think that the inscription may be authentic are few and far between, and citing Krumbein or Yardeni as exceptions does little to refute that. Fourth, I would be in Tabor’s debt if he would resolve more explicitly the disparity between the published Talpiyot report’s description of the missing ossuary and Golan’s ossuary. (If the missing Talpiyot ossuary is really the so-called James ossuary, as Tabor suggests, then the fact that the ’Atiqot article on the Talpiyot dig describes the missing ossuary as “plain” would support the scenario that the inscription on the James ossuary was created more recently than 1980. [I have never been convinced that part of the inscription is older than the rest.])

  • [1] James D. Tabor, The Jesus Dynasty: The Hidden History of Jesus, His Royal Family, and the Birth of Christianity (New York: Simon & Schuster, 2006).
  • [2] For more difficulties with the view that the ossuary in question held the bones of James the Just, see Jodi Magness, “Ossuaries and the Burials of Jesus and James,” Journal of Biblical Literature 124 (2005): 121-54.
  • [3] André Lemaire, “Burial Box of James the Brother of Jesus,” Biblical Archaeology Review 28 (2002): 24-33, 77; Amos Kloner, “A Tomb with Inscribed Ossuaries in East Talpiyot, Jerusalem,” ’Atiqot 29 (1996): 15-22.
  • [4] “Pantera” was a popular name in the Roman army, and referring to a Roman as “Pantera” might have been something like referring to an American soldier as “Joe.”
  • [5] Mark A. Chancey writes, “In light of what we know about Roman troop deployments, there is little reason to believe that Roman soldiers were regularly stationed in first-century Galilee” (Greco-Roman Culture and the Galilee of Jesus [SNTSMS 134; Cambridge: Cambridge University Press, 2005], 50-51). For the date of 120 A.D., see ibid., 141. Chancey argues that the famous “centurion” of Matt. 8:5-13 || Luke 7:1-10 was not a Roman soldier, but rather a (non-Jewish) Herodian soldier (ibid., 50-56).
  • [6] Tal Ilan, Silencing the Queen: The Literary Histories of Shelamzion and Other Jewish Women (TSAJ 115; Tübingen: Mohr-Siebeck, 2006), 250-58.
  • [7] [Editor’s comment:] James F. Strange’s equally negative review (“King Jesus?”) of Tabor’s book, has just been published in Biblical Archaeology Review 32.6 (Nov./Dec. 2006): 72, 74.

Jesus’ Reference to Folklore and Historical Events

Throughout his life, Jesus was a member of his culture. Though His message was unique, He brought it to the people, Jews and Gentiles, using methods and language consistent with His role as a first-century Jewish rabbi who was also a citizen of a Roman controlled country…. Thus Jesus’ ministry was carried out according to the structures God had set in place with His people Israel. (Ray VanderLaan)[1]


Jesus was a first-century Jewish rabbi, a master communicator, to whom both the religious and non-religious alike flocked. Addressed as “rabbi” by multiple and diverse groups, he taught within the construct of many rabbis of his day—out in the open as well as in the Temple and synagogues, interacting with different audiences in various geographical and social locations. The religious Jews in his audience knew the Scriptures well, but Jesus also used illustrations that were familiar to all, regardless of religious backgrounds. The population of first-century Israel was characterized by many distinct cultures interacting on a daily basis. This cultural interplay is clearly depicted in Jesus’ references to commonly known fables of his day in Matthew 7:15, Luke 4:23, Luke 7:24 (cf. Matt. 11:7) and Luke 7:32 (cf. Matt. 11:17).[2] We also see the mastery of Jesus’ teaching in his allusions to historical events in Luke 14:28 and Luke 19:11. Focusing on these different occurrences will enrich our insight into the selected passages of Jesus’ teaching. Investigating the underlying influences behind Jesus’ words facilitates a better understanding of their meaning in the context of the first century. Consequently, today’s followers will be challenged to communicate the message of the Gospel in a cross-cultural manner. This article will address Jesus’ use of non-religious illustrations, specifically folklore and current events.

An inherent consequence of our distance from the world of Jesus is that we primarily understand Jesus’ words as they apply within our twenty-first century eschatological and theological framework. However, Jesus’ teachings reflect his cultural background as a Jewish rabbi in first-century Galilee, acquainted with aspects of both urban and rural society. His parables and teachings come out of the same context and life experience of his audience, allowing them to hear the lessons and practically apply the teachings. The first-century hearer certainly understood additional meanings that are lost to us today. Yet, recent archeological and papryological research allow layers of meaning to be uncovered and discussed.

Jesus and His Culture

Jesus’ homiletic depended on the content and structure modeled in the Hebrew Scriptures, the rhetoric of the prophets and rabbinic commentary, as well as cultural influences found in the Hellenistic world. “Rabbinic teaching and educational methods were influenced by international practice, like a river that gathers water from many wells without losing the nature of the original source, the Torah.”[3]

In order to communicate effectively to the audience of his day, Jesus became familiar with the various people groups. This is clearly illustrated in the diversity of the crowd who came from Syria, the Decapolis, Jerusalem, Judea, and across the Jordan to hear his teaching and witness his miracles.[4]  Among them were the upper class (Luke 8:3), the Pharisees (Luke 11:37), the Sadducees (Matt. 22:23), members of the ruling Council, (Mark 15:43; John 3:1), tax collectors (Luke 5:27; Luke 19:2), sinners (Luke 15:1), fishermen (Mark 1:16), zealots (Matt. 10:4), men, women (Luke 8:2-3), Greeks (Mark 7:28), and harlots (Luke 7:37). “Jesus knew all parties, ranks and groups. His terminology and positions must be interpreted in conjunction with all of them. He entered into all their problems, yet he refused blind conformism and did not permit himself to be taken into tow by any one group.”[5]

As a result of this confluence of culture and language, Jesus used illustrations in his teachings that would have been understood by his entire audience. When speaking with the religious leaders, he participated in the rabbinic discussions and debates of his day, commenting on the text and the fulfillment of the Torah. When speaking to a diverse crowd, Jesus referenced familiar non-religious sources without separating himself from the Jewish root of his teaching and person. Jesus’ use of non-religious sources, particularly Greek folklore akin to Aesop’s fables, would have been appropriate for both himself and his audience’s cultural and linguistic context.

Jesus’ Reference to Folklore

Some of the most popular Greek literature in the first century is found in the collection of fables attributed to Aesop.[6] The primary sources we have for the evidence of fables in the Judeo-Hellenistic world are found in the Gospels and rabbinic writings.[7] In The Parables, Brad Young states, “Jewish people were acquainted with fable lore. Their culture did not escape the pervasive influence of Hellenism.”[8] According to Young, fables were familiar and frequently referenced in antiquity.[9] The rabbis however, were not content with simply regurgitating the fables and folklore, but instead reinterpreted their meanings and changed the characters and morals to fit their own teachings.[10] As Jesus taught in the same vein as other Jewish rabbis in the first century, he used this technique and illustrated his knowledge of folklore in the four following passages: Matt. 7:15, Luke 4:23, Luke 7:24 (cf. Matt. 11:7), and Luke 7:32 (cf. Matt. 11:17).

In the Sermon on the Mount, Jesus addressed a diverse crowd of people who gathered from various locations and backgrounds in order to hear him teach. Throughout this discourse, Jesus referenced passages from the Hebrew Scriptures, spoke in parables, and utilized his physical surroundings as illustrations. Jesus also alluded to a commonly known illustration from Aesop’s fables: “Watch out for false prophets. They come to you in sheep’s clothing, but inwardly they are ferocious wolves” (Matt. 7:15). Although the Hebrew Scriptures refer to the unfaithful leaders of Israel as wolves (Zeph. 3:3; Ezek. 22:27), they do not contain a picture of wolves dressing up in sheep’s clothing. However, when compared to Aesop’s fable, “The Wolf in Sheep’s Clothing,” we begin to hear the illustration Jesus is drawing upon.

A wolf once decided to change his nature by changing his appearance, and thus get plenty to eat. He put on a sheepskin and accompanied the flock to the pasture. The shepherd was fooled by the disguise. When night fell, the shepherd shut up the wolf in the fold with the rest of the sheep, and as the fence was placed across the entrance, the sheepfold was securely closed off. But when the shepherd wanted a sheep for his supper, he took his knife and killed…the wolf.[11]

From Francis C. Woodworth, Stories about Animals: with Pictures to Match (Boston: Philips, Samson & co., 1851).
From Francis C. Woodworth, Stories about Animals: with Pictures to Match (Boston: Philips, Samson & co., 1851).

The allusion is a clear and familiar one to Jesus’ audience: beware of people who disguise their true nature. Jesus addressed the deception of the false prophets by paralleling them to wolves in sheep’s clothing. Their innate nature had not changed, only their outward appearance for the purpose of destruction. Jesus went on to teach that one must determine their character and trustworthiness as prophets by watching their lives, taking note of the outgrowth of their behavior (Matt. 7:16-20). Although this illustration may have been more deeply understood by those in the crowd who knew the Scriptures and were familiar with the personification of false leaders as wolves, Jesus’ allusion to the commonly known fable ensures that the meaning is grasped by the entire crowd, religious and non-religious alike.

Jesus again draws upon folklore when he visits his hometown of Nazareth. After being invited to read from the scroll of Isaiah, he addressed the synagogue community and concluded by saying, “Surely, you will quote this proverb to me: ‘Physician, heal yourself!’” (Luke 4:23). Jesus assumed his audience’s familiarity with this proverb though it is not found in the Hebrew Scriptures. We seek the answer in other ancient sources and discover this common “proverb” in Greek, Roman and rabbinical literature. Aesop’s fable, “The Fox and the Frog,” reflects the folklore from which the saying developed.

There was a frog who claimed to be trained in the physician’s art, acquainted with all the medicinal plants of the earth, the only creature who could cure the animals’ ailments. The fox listened to the frog’s announcement and exposed his lies by the color of his skin. “How can it be,” said the fox, “that you are able to cure others of their illnesses, but the signs of sickness can still be seen in your own face?”[12]

Additionally, in the Talmud, we find the phrase, “Physician, heal your own lameness” (Gen. R. 23:5) and from Rabbi Levi, “Woe unto a town where the doctor has podagra [gout]” (Lev. Rab. 5.6; b. B. Metsi’a 107b). Euripides’ Greek fragment 1086 states, “A physician for others, but teaming with sores.”[13] The cross-cultural popularity of this proverb reveals the cultural exchanges that were widespread in the first-century Judeo-Hellenistic world.

Additional allusions Jesus made to folklore are found in two different discussions with religious leaders regarding John the Baptist (Luke 7:24, cf. Matt. 11:7; Luke 7:32, cf. Matt. 11:17). In Luke 7, Jesus concluded an exchange with John the Baptist’s disciples regarding his own messianic call. After their departure, Jesus questioned the crowd about John and their response. The diverse crowd of Pharisees, tax collectors, disciples and Torah teachers, listened attentively to Jesus’ question, “What did you go out into the desert to see? A reed swayed by the wind? If not, what did you go out to see? A man dressed in fine clothes? No, those who wear expensive clothes and indulge in luxury are in palaces.”[14] This question may have conjured up a picture in the hearer’s mind of a well-known fable attributed to Aesop, entitled “The Oak Tree and the Reed.”

A reed got into an argument with an oak tree. The oak tree marveled at her own strength, boasting that she could stand her own in a battle against the winds. Meanwhile, she condemned the reed for being weak, since he was naturally inclined to yield to every breeze. The wind then began to blow very fiercely. The oak tree was torn up by her roots and toppled over, while the reed was left bent but unharmed.[15]

In his Jesus, David Flusser confirms that “the imagery is taken from a well known fable of Aesop, with which the rabbis, too, were familiar.”[16] Flusser suggests that the next line of text (verse 25), demonstrates that Jesus is drawing a parallel between Herod Antipas, who had imprisoned John for criticizing his marriage to Herodias, and John the Baptist. During Jesus’ day, only the tetrarchs would have dressed in fine clothes and lived in palaces. This parallel is particularly clear when one considers the tension between John and Antipas, and John’s consequential imprisonment. Those that went to hear John’s preaching in the desert did not go to see someone who was swayed by every shift of culture. Instead, soldiers, tax collectors, Pharisees and Sadducees traveled to hear John’s radical, uncompromising message (Luke 3). You can hear the passion and heartache in Jesus’ words as he alludes to the fact that his cousin, John, like the oak tree in the fable, will be toppled over and killed by Antipas. John refused to undermine the Scriptures and be like a reed, easily swayed and bent by the winds of change.

In this same passage, Jesus characterized the response of the crowd to both the teachings of John and himself:

To what then can I compare the people of this generation? What are they like? They are like children sitting in the marketplace and calling out to each other: “We played the flute for you and you did not dance; we sang a dirge, and you did not cry.” (Luke 7:31-32, cf. Matt. 11:16-17)

It appears that Jesus is referencing a common saying children call back and forth, just as they are prone to do today on the playground. In this passage, two ancient sources shed light on Jesus’ reference as well as his implications. This fable is attributed to Aesop and entitled, “The Fisherman and His Pipe.”

There once was a fisherman who saw some fish in the sea and played on his pipe, expecting them to come out onto the land. When his hopes proved false, he took a net and used it instead, and in this way he was able to haul in a huge catch of fish. As the fish were all leaping about, the fisherman remarked, “I say, enough of your dancing, since you refused to dance when I played my pipe for you before!”[17]

From Heinrich Steinhöwel, Vita et Fabulae (Augsburg: Anton Sorg, 1501).
From Heinrich Steinhöwel, Vita et Fabulae (Augsburg: Anton Sorg, 1501).

What is most intriguing about this fable is that Herodotus records King Cyrus’s use of this fable in a similar manner. Herodotus records the Persian-Lydian war of 547 B.C.E. between Cyrus, king of Persia, and Croesus, king of the Lydians. Cyrus sent a message to the Ionians and Aeolians asking them to rise up against Croesus and assist in the war effort. The Ionians and Aeolians refused. However, upon Croesus’ defeat and Cyrus’ victory, they sent a delegation to Cyrus in Sardis to ask for the terms of their subjection to remain unchanged from their terms with Croesus. After listening to the delegation, Cyrus told them the story of “The Fisherman and His Pipe.” Herodotus states that “the reason Cyrus told this story to the Ionians and Aeolians was that the Ionians had in fact refused to listen to Cyrus earlier…whereas now that the war was over and won, they were ready to do what he wanted. So that was his angry response to them.”[18] This event occurs nearly 600 years before Jesus’ time and was handed down in both oral and written accounts. The context of Jesus’ teaching is similar to that of Cyrus. Both Cyrus and Jesus attempted to illustrate the consequence of refusing to listen and heed the warnings. In the case of Cyrus and the Ionian and Aeolian Greeks, it was too late. However, Jesus used the reference to illustrate that prophecies have been spoken and for those who listen, there is still time to repent. The crowd, finding discontentment in the teaching and behavior of both John and Jesus, neglected to heed the warnings and the destruction of Jerusalem occurred approximately forty years later. In the parallel passage in Matthew, Jesus introduces this teaching with the phrase, “He who has ears, let him hear” (Matt. 11:15).

Jesus’ Reference to Current Events

As Jesus referenced an historical account and known fable in order to emphasize his point, he also engaged in the discussion of the current events of his day in order to illustrate the Kingdom of God and comment on the government. In two specific instances found in Luke (Luke 14:28 and Luke 19:11), Jesus indirectly referenced the Herodian leadership in Galilee.[19]

From the beginning of the account of Jesus’ life, Jesus and Herod are set on the same stage of history. After Jesus’ birth, Mary and Joseph flee to Egypt in order to escape the rule of Herod the Great. Upon their return, they hear that Archelaus is ruling in his father’s place so they settle in Nazareth in order to avoid contact with the tetrarch (Matt. 2:22). John the Baptist’s criticism and condemnation of Herod Antipas’ marriage confirms that the Galilean culture was familiar with and discussed the political and cultural implications of Antipas’ rule. The culture was such that Herod himself knew of the teachings of John in the distant desert wilderness (Matt. 14:3-4). Antipas’ arm was long enough to arrest John and imprison him, finally beheading him at the request of Herodias and her daughter. Antipas was concerned about executing John because the people believed him to be a prophet (Matt. 14:5). Jesus was certainly aware of these events and, like any Galilean Jew during his time, would have had an opinion. Jesus had at least two followers who would have been intimately acquainted with the rule and policies of Herod: Joanna, the wife of Chuza, Herod’s business manager (Luke 8:3), and Levi/Matthew, the tax collector (Mark 2:14). Both individuals would have brought greater details of the inner workings of the kingdom than the average follower of Jesus. Finally, we see that Herod Antipas himself had a strong interest in this itinerant rabbi from Galilee, seeking to meet him until they came face to face (Luke 23:8).

Antipas’ development of Sepphoris as his capital and the later development of Tiberias greatly impacted the Galilean region. Sepphoris, located approximately five miles from Nazareth, and Tiberias, located on the lower west shore of the Sea of Galilee, were in the midst of the Galilean region. Taxation was the primary means by which Antipas supported these extensive building projects. As a result, all of Galilee would have been impacted by Antipas’ harsh rule. The entire community was constantly interacting in order to trade goods and support one’s family. Travel from different communities was necessary; consequently news of the kingdom spread rapidly. Perhaps it is just such common knowledge that Jesus is referring to in Luke 14:28-32:

Suppose one of you wants to build a tower. Will he not first sit down and estimate the cost to see if he has enough money to complete it? For if he lays the foundation and is not able to finish it, everyone who sees it will ridicule him, saying, “This fellow began to build and was not able to finish.” Or suppose a king is about to go to war against another king. Will he not first sit down and consider whether he is able with ten thousand men to oppose the one coming against him with twenty thousand? If he is not able, he will send a delegation while the other is still a long way off and will ask for terms of peace.

The requirement to financially support Antipas’ building projects would have incensed the zealots and the average Galilean peasant as they tried to hide some goods for their families from the watchful eyes of the collectors.[20] Strong opinions were expressed regarding Herod’s brutal taxation policies and the resulting economic oppression. It is within this context that Jesus tells the tower parable. Herod Antipas likely experienced the financial escalation of his building projects. Although we have no extra biblical record of this occurring, it is not difficult to draw a parallel to Antipas’ building programs and the extreme likelihood that his extravagant plans, more than once, increased the taxation burden on the Galilean community. In recent excavations, towers from the first century C.E. have been found at both Sepphoris and Tiberias.[21] Jesus’ Galilean audience would have certainly found humor in the obvious yet subversive teaching.

This probability is further confirmed in the following illustration about a king at war. When Herod Antipas visited Rome, he fell in love with Herodias and sought her hand in marriage. She agreed, but only upon the dissolution of his marriage to his current wife, the daughter of Aretas, the king of Arabia Petrea. Much to the dismay of his wife, Antipas agreed. Upon learning of this twist, Aretas’ daughter traveled to her father’s kingdom and informed him of the betrayal. Aretas immediately declared war against Antipas and the two sent their generals and armies ahead to engage in battle, only to result in the total destruction of Antipas’ army.[22] This event was so well known in the Eastern world that the Jews developed a theory about it, determining that it was God’s divine judgment on Herod for his unjust execution of John the Baptist.[23] It is clear, due to the documented familiarity of this event, that Jesus’ audience would recall this incident and reflect on the cost of discipleship.

Luke records an additional parable in which Jesus alluded to a historical event with Archelaus:

A man of noble birth went to a distant country to have himself appointed king and then to return…. But his subjects hated him and sent a delegation after him to say, “We don’t want this man to be our king.” He was made king, however, and returned home…. “But those enemies of mine who did not want me to be king over them—bring them here and kill them in front of me.”[24]

Upon the death of Herod the Great, his kingdom was divided between his sons. All three sons, Archelaus, Philip and Antipas, went to Rome to contest the will. Besides the personal family and friends that accompanied the Herods, a group of Jews followed Archelaus to Rome in order to beg Caesar to prevent his rule. After hearing the arguments from all sides, Caesar upheld the will of Herod the Great exactly as written.[25] We have no historical record of Archelaus returning from Rome and slaughtering this delegation of Jews, however, Archelaus’ rule was so brutal that he was removed from the throne within ten years and banished to Vienna, in Gaul.[26] Archelaus’ mistreatment of the Jews was infamous and an incidence of brutality would be characteristic of his reign. Jesus used this historical event to illustrate that one’s obedience to a wicked king should bring about a greater obedience to God.


Jesus was a master communicator. As a first-century Jewish rabbi, he spent thousands of hours in the Hebrew Scriptures, memorizing the text and engaging in midrashim.[27] Jesus also ministered to those who did not have a strong familiarity with the Scriptures and became a student of his culture, communicating effectively with people from very diverse backgrounds. His teaching facilitated unity among groups that were primarily segregated, either because of geographical location, theological determination, or class. The teachings of Jesus thus “drew upon both the wisdom mode of the rabbis and that of the seers.”[28] Jesus chose illustrations and references that exemplified his passion to communicate with all the persons in his midst, as well as his ability to draw upon his physical and cultural surroundings. Upon seeing Jesus’ use of non-canonical sources, one may be tempted to place him deeper into the Greek world, and yet, as has been demonstrated, his rabbinic contemporaries also practiced the art of redeeming these illustrations in their teachings. Jesus’ mastery of pedagogy demonstrates his indebtedness to his rabbinic background. Jesus does not directly lift from the folklore and current events of his day, but instead places those references into his Jewish context and shifts the meaning for his own purposes. “So in Jesus, it is as though many ancient tributaries of speech, many styles, merged in him.”[29]

Daily cross-cultural routines ensured that neither Judaism nor Hellenism could be isolated from one another. American Christians in the twenty-first century find themselves in a similar state. What are the lessons one can learn from Jesus’ example? It is not enough to simply state that because Jesus spoke in parables, we should speak in parables; or that because Jesus referenced folklore, we should reference folklore. Instead, we need to see Jesus in the whole of his culture. When we do this, his teachings resonate with the cultural reality of his audience. Jesus’ mastery of the text allowed him to illustrate his Kingdom concepts utilizing any physical or oral prop. Do we know the text well enough to accurately communicate it with non-religious examples? When we strive to live out the Christian life in a vacuum, untouched by the culture around us, we ensure that the culture around us will remain untouched. Let us learn the lessons of cultural impact from our Master and Rabbi Jesus, that His Name may be known throughout the entire earth.


  • Aesop’s Fables. Translated by Laura Gibbs. New York: Oxford University Press, 2002.
  • Flavius, Josephus. The Complete Works of Josephus. Translated by William Whiston and commentary by Paul. L. Maier. Grand Rapids, MI: Kregel Publications, 1999.
  • Flusser, David. Jesus. 3rd ed. Jerusalem: Magnes Press, 2001.
  • Herodotus: The Histories. Translated by Robin Waterfield. New York, NY: Oxford University Press, 1998.
  • Horsley, Richard A. “Jesus and Galilee: The Contingencies of a Renewal Movement.” In., Galilee through the Centuries: Confluence of Culture, ed. Eric M. Meyers, 63. Winona Lake, IN: Eisenbrauns, 1999.
  • Jacobs, Joseph. “Aesop’s Fables Among the Jews,” in, 1906 (November 24, 2004).
  • Jonsson, Jakob. Humor and Irony in the New Testament: Illuminated by Parallels in Talmud and Midrash. Leiden: Brill, 1985.
  • Lachs, S.T. A Rabbinic Commentary on the New Testament. New Jersey: KTAV, 1987.
  • Strange, James F. “Sepphoris,” Anchor Bible Dictionary, 6 vols. Edited by David Noel Freedman. New York, NY: Doubleday, 1992. 5:1090.
  • _______. “Tiberias,” Anchor Bible Dictionary, 6 vols. Edited by David Noel Freedman. New York, NY: Doubleday, 1992. 6:547.
  • Thoma, Clemens. A Christian Theology of Judaism. New York, NY: Paulist Press, 1980.
  • VanderLaan, Ray. Echoes of His Presence: Stories of the Messiah from the People of His Day. Grand Rapids, MI: Zondervan Publishing, 1996.
  • Wilder, Amos N. Early Christian Rhetoric. London: SCM Press Ltd., 1964.
  • Young, Brad. The Parables: Jewish Tradition and Christian Interpretation. Peabody, MA: Hendrickson Publishers, 1998.
  • [1] Ray VanderLaan, Echoes of His Presence: Stories of the Messiah from the People of His Day (Grand Rapids, MI: Zondervan Publishing, 1996), vii.
  • [2] Unless otherwise indicated all Bible references in this paper are to the New International Version (NIV) (Grand Rapids, MI: Zondervan Publishing, 1984).
  • [3] Jakob Jonsson, Humor and Irony in the New Testament: Illuminated by Parallels in Talmud and Midrash (Leiden: Brill, 1985), 198.
  • [4] Matt. 4:24-25.
  • [5] Clemens Thoma, A Christian Theology of Judaism (New York, NY: Paulist Press, 1980), 114.
  • [6] Born in the sixth century B.C.E., Aesop is referenced as a historical figure in Herodotus’ The Histories, 2:134.
  • [7] Joseph Jacobs, “Aesop’s Fables Among the Jews,” in, 1906 (November 24, 2004). Over thirty fables are found in the midrashic and Talmudic literature, and of those, twelve have parallels in Greek and Indian sources.
  • [8] Brad Young, The Parables: Jewish Tradition and Christian Interpretation (Peabody, MA: Hendrickson Publishers, 1998), 16.
  • [9] Ibid., 19.
  • [10] Ibid., 18. Examples of this technique can be found in the Babylonian Talmud, b. Kam. 60b, “The Man with Two Wives,” compared to the Aesop fable, “The Middle Aged Man with Two Mistresses,” and Gen. Rab. 64:10, “Dr. Heron’s Fee,” compared with the fable, “The Heron and the Lion.” Compare also Aesop’s Fable 66, “The Stomach and the Body,” with Paul’s teaching in 1 Corinthians 12:14-26.
  • [11] Aesop’s Fables, trans., Laura Gibbs (New York: Oxford University Press, 2002), Fable 321.
  • [12] Aesop, Fable 308.
  • [13] S.T. Lachs, A Rabbinic Commentary on the New Testament (New Jersey: KTAV, 1987), 56.
  • [14] Luke 7:24-25.
  • [15] Aesop, Fable 202.
  • [16] David Flusser, Jesus (Jerusalem: Magnes Press, 2001), 51-52.
  • [17] Aesop, Fable 290.
  • [18] Herodotus, The Histories 1.141.
  • [19] Lachs, 297. In Luke 13:1-4, Jesus responds directly to two events mentioned and known by the crowd. One, the Galileans who were killed by Pilate while sacrificing in the Temple and two, the incident in which the tower of Siloam fell and killed eighteen persons. Although these two events are not recorded in any other source, the historical accuracy is very probable in light of the brutality of Pilate and the extravagant building projects in Jerusalem.
  • [20] Richard A. Horsley, “Jesus and Galilee: The Contingencies of a Renewal Movement,” in Galilee through the Centuries (ed. Eric M. Meyers; Winona Lake, IN: Eisenbrauns, 1999), 63.
  • [21] James F. Strange, “Sepphoris” and “Tiberias,” in Anchor Bible Dictionary, 6 vols. (ed. David Noel Freedman; New York: Doubleday, 1992), 5:1090 and 6:547.
  • [22] Josephus Flavius, The Complete Works of Josephus, edited by William Whiston and commentary by Paul. L. Maier (Grand Rapids, MI: Kregel Publications, 1999), Antiq. 18.5.109-114.
  • [23] Ibid., Antiq. 18.5.116-117.
  • [24] Luke 19:12, 14, 15, 27.
  • [25] Josephus, Antiq. 17.8-9.
  • [26] Ibid., Antiq. 17.13.344.
  • [27] Interpretation or commentary on the Hebrew Scriptures.
  • [28] Amos N. Wilder, Early Christian Rhetoric (London: SCM Press Ltd., 1964), 88.
  • [29] Ibid., 12.

Divorce and Remarriage in Historical Perspective

When studying the Bible in Jerusalem, one soon becomes aware of how important the issues of language, culture and physical setting are to our reading of the Scriptures. Likewise, the words of Jesus are given clarity by the context of their historical setting.

Recently, while preparing for a lecture on Second Temple period history, I was struck by the similarity of Jesus’ teaching about divorce and remarriage to a well-known event recounted by the first-century Jewish historian, Josephus Flavius. The saying of Jesus in question is found in Luke 16:18:

Everyone who divorces his wife and marries another commits adultery. The one who marries a woman divorced from her husband commits adultery.[1]

Traditionally, these words of Jesus have been interpreted to equate divorce and remarriage with adultery. New Testament scholars have remarked that Jesus’ saying, as it is commonly interpreted, is more stringent than both the biblical presentation (Deut. 24:1-2) and contemporary rabbinic understanding. In Judaism, while peace in the home is of the utmost importance, never is it suggested that in principle divorce and remarriage are adulterous. By divorcing Jesus from his historical and religious context, New Testament scholars have cast him as a first-century rogue. Nevertheless, this perception has more to do with how Jesus’ words have been misinterpreted than with Jesus himself.

Some preliminary comments are necessary in order to bring the original thrust of Jesus’ statement into focus. In two recently published studies, attention was given to the idiomatic sense of the conjunction “and” in our verse. David Bivin and Brad Young, through different means, arrived at the same conclusion: the conjunction was intended to express purpose.[2]

Bivin noted that the Hebrew conjunction, whose sense may lie behind the Greek καί (kai “and”), possesses a wider range of meaning, including one of purpose.[3] Thus, here, and in others sayings in the Gospels, we witness Hebraic influence upon the Greek text. Listen, for instance, to Jesus’ charge to a lawyer, “Do this and (i.e., in order to) live!” (Luke 10:28). Likewise, in the verse under investigation, we should read, “He who divorces his wife in order to marry another commits adultery.”

Additionally, commentators have remarked on the haphazard placement of the divorce saying in Luke following Jesus’ confession about John the Baptist, “The law and the prophets were until John…” (Luke 16:16). While the sequential ordering of the Gospel material is not always important in determining its interpretation, in this instance, the context of our saying in Luke’s Gospel is central to its meaning. The parallel confession about John in Matthew (Matt. 11:11-14) occurs in a fuller historical narrative. At the time, John was imprisoned for speaking out against Herod Antipas (Matt. 11:2; 14:1-12). Josephus provides additional details which explain the reason for John’s criticism:

The tetrarch Herod Antipas had taken the daughter of Aretas, king of Petra, as his wife and had now been married to her for a long time. When starting out for Rome, he lodged with his half-brother Herod, who was born of a different mother, namely, the daughter of Simon the high priest. Falling in love with Herodias, the wife of this half-brother—she was a daughter of their brother Aristobulus and sister to Agrippa the Great—Antipas brazenly broached to her the subject of marriage. She accepted and pledged herself to make the transfer to him (i.e., divorce her husband and marry Antipas) as soon as he returned from Rome. It was stipulated that he must oust the daughter of Aretas. (Antiquities 18.109-110)

What is immediately apparent is how closely the story matches Jesus’ words about divorce and remarriage. Antipas’ visit to his half-brother apparently was the beginning of an adulterous affair with his sister-in-law.[4] They were guilty of divorcing their spouses in order to marry each other. The divorce proceedings were simply an attempt to legitimize their adultery.

Can it be a coincidence that Jesus’ critical statement about setting aside one’s spouse in order to marry another comes at the same time as John’s imprisonment for speaking out against Antipas’ marital infidelity? Our suggested historical context for the saying also helps to clarify Mark’s version (Mark 10:11-12) of the saying in which Jesus speaks about “a woman who divorces her husband.” In Jewish tradition, a woman cannot unilaterally dissolve the marriage. The procedure must be executed with the husband’s approval. We have only two recorded exceptions in the Second Temple period in which the woman appears to have initiated the divorce. One of those is the case of Herodias and her husband.

What is the significance of our suggested historical saying for Jesus’ utterance on divorce and remarriage? First, it sheds light on other passages in the New Testament and the writings of Josephus. We now understand why Antipas thought Jesus was John the Baptist. Jesus had taken up John’s line of criticism against the tetrarch. As a result, Antipas thought John had risen from the dead (Matt. 14:1-2; Luke 9:19) and he was seeking to arrest him (Luke 13:31-33). In the words of Professor David Flusser, “Antipas had killed John once, and he was willing to do it again!”

Josephus records that the people saw the destruction of Antipas’ army by his former father-in-law, the Nabatean king Aretas, as divine vengeance for what Antipas had done to John Antiquities 18.116). In this instance, the Gospel account illumines the connection between the armed conflict with Aretas and the death of John. Both resulted from Antipas’ marital infidelity and divorcing his Nabatean wife. When viewed together—Josephus’ narrative, the Gospel account of the imprisonment of John and Jesus’ statement concerning divorce and remarriage form complementary fragments in a mosaic of betrayal and tragedy.

Recognition of the historical context for Jesus’ saying also sets limits for its interpretation and application. Jesus was not equating divorce with adultery. Even less was he suggesting that remarriage is adulterous. His saying does not contradict the Jewish understanding of the sanctity of marriage, but neither does it make marriage insoluble. Jesus addresses a specific and public case in which both parties were guilty of divorcing their spouses in order to marry each other.

We can now hear the question which brought forth Jesus’ forceful response: “John the Baptist was murdered because he dared to speak out about Antipas’ adultery. What do you have to say?” Without fear Jesus responded, “The one (i.e., Antipas) who has divorced his wife in order to marry another (i.e., Herodias) is guilty of adultery. Moreover, the one (i.e., Antipas) who has married the woman (i.e., Herodias) who is divorced from her husband is guilty of adultery.” In other words, Antipas is doubly guilty of adultery.

Jesus’ scathing rebuke did not escape Antipas’ attention. He sought to capture Jesus. When the Pharisees warned Jesus of Antipas’ plot, he remarked, “Go and tell that fox, ‘Behold, I cast out demons and perform cures today and tomorrow, and the third day I finish my course. Nevertheless, I must go on my way today and tomorrow and the day following; for it cannot be that a prophet should perish away from Jerusalem'” (Luke 13:32-33). Indeed, it was not until that fateful Passover morning in Jerusalem that Jesus and Antipas met face to face. “When Herod saw Jesus, he was very glad, for he had long desired to see him” (Luke 23:8a). Herod questioned Jesus, but he refused to answer. Jesus had responded to the questions of Pilate, the brutal Roman prefect, but to this Jewish ruler who had shown no limits in his treachery, Jesus refused to utter a single word. If ever silence was deafening, it was in Jesus’ muted reply to Antipas—the adulterer.

The image at the top of the page shows an Aramaic marriage contract from the ancient Jewish community in Elephantine on the upper Nile in Egypt. Image courtesy of Wikimedia Commons.
  • [1] This study is dedicated to those who have suffered the agony of divorce. Tragically their pain has been compounded by well-meaning Christians who have distorted both the letter and the spirit of Jesus’ teaching concerning divorce and remarriage. For them, may this article bring a measure of healing.
  • [2] Brad H. Young, Jesus the Jewish Theologian (Peabody, Ma.: Hendrickson, 1995), 113-118; David Bivin, “‘And’ or ‘In order to’ Remarry,” Jerusalem Perspective 50 (Jan.-Mar. 1996): 10-17, 35-38.
  • [3] David Bivin, “‘And’ or ‘In order to’ Remarry,” 12. See also R. Brown, S. R. Driver, C. Briggs, Hebrew and English Lexicon of the Old Testament (London: Oxford University Press, 1907), 254 §3. In post-Biblical Hebrew we hear, “He who begins to wish that his wife will die and [i.e., in order that] he will inherit her property, or that she will die and [i.e., in order that] he will marry her sister…” (t. Sotah 5:10).
  • [4] Herodias was married to Antipas’ half-brother, known simply as Herod (Antiq. 18:109). According to Mark 6:17 Herodias was married to Herod Philip. However, in the best manuscript readings of Luke 3:19 and Matt. 14:3, her husband is unnamed. Josephus relates that it was Herodias’ daughter, Salome, who married Philip. See David Flusser, “A New Portrait of Salome,” Jerusalem Perspective 55 (Apr.-Jun. 1998): 18-19, note 3.

The Teaching of Balaam

Revised: 11-Apr-2007

Each May I lead a student tour to Greece and Turkey. During two weeks of travel and study, we explore the growth of the Early Church as it expanded from its Jewish setting in the Land of Israel and met the challenges of preaching the Gospel to the Gentiles in the Hellenistic world. One of the profound realizations we have made is how much of its Jewish character the Hellenistic Church retained. In fact, the term “Hellenistic Church” should better be understood as a geographical description rather than one describing cultural identity.

On a recent trip, I was struck anew by the integration of Jewish methods of interpretation of the Old Testament in the letter to the church at Pergamum (Rev. 2:12-16). On the one hand, the profoundly Jewish flavor of the Book of Revelation is surprising. It was likely one of the last New Testament books written. By that point in time, most scholars assume that Christianity was well on its way in departing from its Jewish context. On the other hand, scholarship has recognized the significant Hebraic influences on the Greek language of the Book of Revelation. These linguistic undercurrents may reflect the distinctly Jewish milieu of the apocalyptic work, telling us something about both the author and his readers.

And to the angel of the church in Pergamum write: “The words of him who has the sharp two-edged sword: ‘I know where you dwell, where Satan’s throne is; you hold fast my name and you did not deny my faith even in the days of Antipas my witness, my faithful one, who was killed among you, where Satan dwells. But I have a few things against you: you have some there who hold the teaching of Balaam, who taught Balak to put a stumbling block before the sons of Israel, that they might eat food sacrificed to idols and practice immorality. So you also have some who hold the teaching of the Nicolaitans. Repent then. If not, I will come to you soon and war against them with the sword of my mouth.’” (Rev. 2:12-16)

Already at the turn of the century, W. R. Ramsay suggested that “the throne of Satan” was related to the fact that Pergamum was the first city in Asia to be awarded the cherished neokoros status, and granted the privilege to be the site of the first temple in Asia dedicated to a Roman emperor—Caesar Augustus. The pressure to demonstrate fidelity to the empire made the practice of emperor worship a necessity, and a challenge for Jews and for the Early Church. The Jewish king, Herod the Great, a century before the Book of Revelation, had built three temples to Augustus in Israel—at Caesarea, Sebaste (biblical Samaria) and Paneas (which was later renamed Caesarea Philippi). He did this to demonstrate his loyalty to his imperial benefactor. Yet, it seems that participation in the imperial cult was the focal point in the rebuke to the church at Pergamum.

For our limited study, I am particularly interested in the thrust of the author’s rebuke and the enigmatic reference to “the teaching of Balaam,” which seems to be derived from the author’s understanding of the Moabite prophet’s instruction to Balak. What is interesting is that no indication is given in the story of Balaam (Num. 22-24) to any advice by the prophet to Balak. Even less is it recorded that he encouraged the Israelites to participate with the Moabites in idolatry and sexual immorality.

Instead, this is one of those occasions when it is necessary for the Christian reader to be familiar with first-century Jewish interpretation of the Old Testament account. The letter to the church of Pergamum draws upon contemporary understanding of the Biblical event which had “filled in” Balaam’s role in Israel’s downfall. The genesis for this interpretative evolution is the obscure reference to the event in Moses’ words to Israel.

Moses said to them, “Have you let all the women live? Behold, these caused the people of Israel, in the matter [or, by the word] of Balaam, to act treacherously against the Lord in the matter of Peor, and so the plague came among the congregation of the LORD.” (Num. 31:6)

Greek translators of the Hebrew Scriptures already understood the Hebrew term דָּבָר (dabar)—which can be understood as “matter, thing, word, event”—to mean “the counsel or advice [of Balaam] to turn astray.”

Moses said to them: “Have you let all the women live? For they were to the Israelites in keeping with the word of Balaam to turn astray, to show contempt for the word of the Lord with regard to Peor, and a plague came upon the congregation of the Lord.” (Septuagint, Num. 31:16)

So also in an early Aramaic translation of Numbers 31:6, the translators understood Balaam to have taken an active role in the sin of the Israelites:

They were a stumbling block to the Israelites at the advice of Balaam, to falsify in the name of the Lord in the matter of the idol of Peor. (Targum Neophyti on Num. 31:6)

The first-century Jewish philosopher, Philo of Alexandria, also expanded the Biblical account to provide the precise advice Balaam gave to Balak.

“You have in your countrymen, king,” he said, “women of outstanding beauty, and there is nothing to which a man more easily falls captive than a woman’s beauty….

“But you must instruct them not to allow their wooers to enjoy their charms at once…. One of those (women) should say, with saucy air: ‘You must not be permitted to enjoy my favors until you have left the ways of your fathers and become a convert…if you are willing to take part in the libations and sacrifices which we offer to idols of stone and wood and other images.’” (Philo, Moses 1:294-298)

We witness the tendency of first-century Jewish interpreters to take advantage of ambiguities in the Biblical narrative to use the stories as vehicles to preach to their contemporaries. The expansions were not simply additions to the Biblical story, but an opportunity to caution their fellow Jews not to be enticed by the pagan idolatry which surrounded them or the loose sexual mores of the Greco-Roman world.

For their teaching purposes Balaam became a prime example of greed, idolatry and the evils which challenged the community of faith. This is in spite of the fact that according to the literal record of Scripture, Balaam did nothing wrong. He could certainly be faulted for being willing to speak against Israel. Yet, at the same time, he was one who had “knowledge of the Most High” (Num. 24:16), and he had only prophesied what God instructed him. Thus, three times he blessed the children of Israel rather than following Balak’s request to curse them. However, through a creative transformation, this complex figure came to symbolize the challenges and pitfalls of the people of God in the first century. The “teaching of Balaam” in the Book of Revelation, which resulted in “idolatry and immorality” by the Christians in Pergamum, parallels the post-Biblical presentation of Balaam’s role in Israel’s downfall given in an early Jewish midrash.

“They called to the people and offered sacrifices to their Gods” [Num. 25:2] for they followed Balaam’s advice…and set up tents and put prostitutes in them with all their finery…. Whenever a Jew would pass by in the market place…a girl would come out in her adornments and her perfume and seduce him by saying, “Why is it that we love you and you hate us—here, take this piece of merchandise for free—after all, we are both descended from a single ancestor, Terah, the father of Abraham. Wouldn’t you like to eat from our sacrificial offerings?” (Midrash Tanhuma, Balak 18)

Our study has brought to light the meaning of the “teaching of Balaam” in the letter to the church at Pergamum. We have seen that the notion is couched in contemporary Jewish interpretation of the story of Balaam with the purpose to address the spiritual challenges of the Jewish community living in a pagan world. Two points are particularly important for New Testament readers.

Relief of Balaam on the bronze doors of the basilica of St. Zeno in Verona. (Photo courtesy of Mattana.)
Relief of Balaam on the bronze doors of the basilica of St. Zeno in Verona. (Photo courtesy of Mattana.)

First, one should note how Jewish the letter to the Christians at Pergamum was—even at such a late date! Without an understanding of first-century Jewish interpretation of the story of Balaam, little sense could be made of “the teaching of Balaam” in the author’s warning. This fact argues against the common Christian opinion that from the day of Pentecost the Church was determined to depart from its Jewish context. The writer of the letter of Revelation and the congregation in Pergamum at the close of the first century A.D. still expressed themselves in profoundly Jewish ways.

Second, once again we see how important it is to engage first-century Jewish thought and faith to appreciate fully the message of the New Testament. Exploring the “Jewish roots of Christianity” does not mean simply a familiarity with the Old Testament, but instead, how that book was read and lived out by Jews contemporary to Jesus and his first followers. It underscores the immutable truth that Jesus came “in the fullness of time.” We as Christians living at the beginning of the third millennium must keep in mind God’s sovereign act in revealing Himself at a very specific point in history. As we look forward to the challenges before us, we must remember that our faith is founded upon one sent (not by accident!) at a particular point in time and in the midst of a particular people. It is these historical facts which must shape our reading of the ancient story to reveal God’s truth and determine how we might best serve Him in the present era.

The Man Who Would Be King

Revised: 23-Feb-2009
The Parable of the Talents as depicted in a stained-glass window that ornaments the sanctuary of the Thomaston Baptist Church. Photo courtesy of Joshua N. Tilton.

Traveling through Israel, one is sometimes provided with new insights that the physical setting of the land gives to familiar passages. As is often the case, Jesus chose precisely the right place or occasion to reveal a spiritual truth. On the occasion of the Last Supper he used the customary practice of a sage serving his disciples at the Passover meal to reinforce his charge that his disciples should serve one another. Immediately prior to telling the parable, Jesus used popular criticism concerning his dining with a tax collector, Zacchaeus, to emphasize that people should not limit the Father’s ability to restore and redeem those who are lost.

On a journey with a group of British students, Dr. David Gill, a lecturer in Greek and Roman archaeology in South Wales, presented me with a novel suggestion concerning the setting for Jesus’ telling the Parable of the Pounds/Talents (Luke 19:11-27; Matt. 25:14-28). According to Luke’s version of the parable, it opens with an unjust nobleman who has left for a foreign land to be crowned king. His subjects send a delegation behind him with a message that they do not want to be ruled by him. Meanwhile, he has given his servants talents to invest. Some are diligent with the nobleman’s investment, while others are not faithful and hide the talents out of fear.

Jesus’ parable echoes other “King” parables that are found in rabbinical literature. The king is almost always intended to represent God. In this instance, the message of the parable is to encourage the hearers to be faithful with what God has entrusted to each one of us, i.e., our souls. At some point in the future we will all need to give account for that with which we have been entrusted.

By the way, the reader is not intended to understand the wickedness of the nobleman to suggest that God is wicked. Instead, the unspoken moral of the parable is: If the servants are expected to be faithful to a would-be king who is wicked, how much more should we be faithful to a King (i.e., God) who is good.

Mention of the “wicked nobleman” is also evidence of Jesus’ skill as a storyteller. The unexpected detail that the would-be king was “wicked” is intended to hold his hearers’ attention. On other occasions Jesus uses the same technique, with the story of a Samaritan—the contemporary archenemy of the Jews—who is “the good neighbor” (Luke 10:29-37), or the judge who is “unjust” (Luke 18:1-6). These twists to the expected would have kept Jesus’ hearers spellbound. If you will, they create a first-century “Who shot J. R.?” Recent research into Jesus’ style of parables indicates that he possessed a profound skill at using this traditional rabbinical style of teaching.

It is not often noticed that this parable is told after Jesus’ encounter with Zacchaeus in Jericho and “as he was nearing Jerusalem” (Luke 19:11). Dr. Gill suggests that Jesus could have told this parable as he was passing the winter palace of Herod the Great, which lies near the first-century road leading from Jericho to Jerusalem. We will see in a moment how mention that the wicked nobleman was going to another country to receive a kingdom coincides with the story of the family of Herod.

Herod’s Winter Palace

Reception Hall of Herod's northern palace in Jericho. Image courtesy of
Reception Hall of Herod’s northern palace in Jericho. Image courtesy of

We find the winter palaces of the Hasmonean Dynasty and Herod the Great at the mouth of Wadi Qelt, about two miles south of Jericho. Built during the first century B.C., the ruins indicate a high degree of ingenuity by the Hasmoneans and Herod, which created a prosperous region. For the first time, the Hasmoneans were able to harness the water resources of nearby springs to create pools, gardens and orchards that produced figs, persimmons, vegetables and even the legendary balsam. Subsequently, according to the first-century historian, Josephus Flavius, to the older structures, Herod the Great added additional buildings “better and more comfortable for visitors” (War 1.407).

These royal residences were the setting for significant events during the reign of Herod. Excavations have uncovered a large Hasmonean pool that measures 60 by 50 feet in size and 12 feet deep. Scholars suggest that in this pool Herod ordered the murder of his brother-in-law, the 17-year-old Hasmonean high priest, Aristobulus III. It seems that the popularity with which the young priest was received by the people in his first public function during the Feast of Tabernacles kindled Herod’s well-known jealousy and paranoia.

When the festival [of the Feast of Tabernacles] was over and they were being entertained at Jericho as the guests of Alexandra [Herod’s mother-in-law and Aristobulus’ mother], he [Herod] showed great friendliness to the youth…. As the place was naturally very hot, they soon went out in a group for a stroll, and stood beside the swimming pools, of which there were several large ones around the palace, and cooled themselves off from the excessive heat of noon. At first they watched some of the servants and friends [of Herod] as they swam, and then, at Herod’s urging, the youth [Aristobulus] was induced [to join them]. But with darkness coming on while he swam, some of the friends, who had been given orders [by Herod] to do so, kept pressing him down and holding him under water as if in sport, and they did not let up until they had quite suffocated him. In this manner was Aristobulus done away with when he was not yet eighteen years old and had held the high priesthood for a year. (Antiquities 15.53-56)

Archeologists have remarked how well the archeological setting fits the story told by Josephus. We should also note how well the character of Herod portrayed in the story coincides with the New Testament image of Herod, as a ruler who was consumed with paranoia and bent on destroying any possible usurpers of his throne (cf. Matt. 2:1-19).

The Herodium. The photo shows a pool in the foreground.
The Herodium. The photo shows a pool in the foreground.

The palace at Jericho also was the setting for the final chapter in Herod’s life. Josephus recounts that it was here that Herod died and his body taken to the Herodium, south of Bethlehem, for burial. Herod recognized his lack of popularity; so, to assure that the nation would mourn his passing, he arrested leading figures from across the country, had them held at the palace in Jericho, and gave final instructions to his sister Salome and her husband, Alexas, what should be done after his death.

I know the Jews will greet my death with wild rejoicing; but I can be mourned on other people’s account and make sure of a magnificent funeral if you will do as I tell you. These men under guard—as soon as I die, kill them all—let loose the soldiers amongst them; then all Judea and every family will weep for me—they can’t help it! (War 1.660)

Fortunately for those imprisoned, Herod’s family did not follow through on his final wishes, and the men were released.

The Rejected King

Finally, as I mentioned above, I have been recently challenged to consider whether Jesus’ proximity to this palace might not have been the catalyst for his reference to the “man who went off to receive a kingdom.”

Scholarship has recognized the similarities between this story and that recounted concerning Archelaus’ attempts to inherit the kingdom of his father, Herod the Great. When Herod died, Caesar Augustus divided the kingdom between Herod’s three sons, Archelaus, Antipas and Philip. The latter two were granted the title of tetrarch with Antipas receiving Galilee and Perea (in the Transjordan) and Philip given the region lying in the vicinity of today’s Golan Heights.

Archelaus was given the title ethnarch and promised the title “king” on the condition that he demonstrated he deserved it. After ten years ruling Judea, he traveled to Rome to appeal to Caesar Augustus to receive his father’s kingdom. However, he was followed by a delegation of his countrymen who accused him of various atrocities. One charge was that he had brutally murdered a number of persons in the sanctuary of the Temple alongside their sacrifices. Augustus concluded, “Archelaus had proved himself unfit to rule by his illegalities; what would he be like after receiving authority from Caesar, when he had put so many to death before receiving it?” (War 2.34).

Of course, there are differences between the story of Archelaus and the nobleman of Jesus’ parable. That is to be expected. The rabbinical storyteller had the freedom to take these stories and parables and reshape them to suit his particular message. Yet, the similarities between the two stories seem more than mere coincidence.

Traveling from Jericho to Jerusalem one passes within view of the winter palaces. Among the pilgrims of the first century, these buildings must have surely been a cause for derisive reminiscence concerning Herod’s cruel son. What I find intriguing is the possibility that Jesus may have alluded to this well-known journey by Archelaus to “a far country to receive a kingdom,” precisely as Jesus and his entourage were passing the palace. The royal residences would have belonged to Archelaus, if he had succeeded in his quest. In good rabbinical pedagogical style, Jesus used his physical surroundings to strengthen his message. Thus, we may not only have the historical background to Jesus’ opening to the parable, but even indications as to where (and why) he alluded to the failed attempt by Herod’s son “to receive a kingdom.”

“Give unto Caesar”: Jesus, the Zealots and the Imago Dei

One of the charges brought by the high priest, Caiaphas, and his retinue, against Jesus was that he had encouraged the people not to pay taxes to Rome (Luke 23:2). It seems that the episode which lay behind this false charge was an exchange between the chief priests and Jesus a few days earlier in the Temple precincts (Luke 20:20-26; Mark 12:13-17; Matt. 22:15-22).

Through his Parable of the Wicked Tenants (Luke 20:9-19; Mark 12:1-12; Matt. 21:33-46), Jesus had warned the leadership of the Temple of the inevitable consequences of their abuses of power. Those in authority recognized the thinly veiled critique. However, they could not move openly against Jesus because of his popularity among the crowds of Jerusalem; they “tried to lay hands on him at that very hour, but they feared the people” (Luke 20:19; cf. 22:53; Acts 5:26).

Instead, the chief priests attempted to trip Jesus up by questioning him in public concerning the obligation to pay taxes to the Roman Empire. These taxes were a bitter pill for the Jewish nation to swallow. They represented the loss of freedom and subjugation to a pagan nation. Josephus reports that only a few years earlier, a certain Judah of Gamala (Acts 5:37) had instigated an uprising in the Galilee in reaction to the census for taxation initiated by Quirinius, the governor of Coele-Syria (cf. Luke 2:2):

(Judah) incited his countrymen to revolt, upbraiding them as cowards for consenting to pay tribute to the Romans and tolerating mortal masters, after having God for their lord (War 2.118).

The family of Judah played a prominent role in the Jewish resistance movement of the first century. His father, Hezekiah, had been sought by the Romans for his brigandry in the countryside. The younger son of the Idumean Antipater—Herod—captured the rebel and summarily executed him without trial. Young Herod’s actions impressed the Romans and angered the Jewish religious leaders—foreshadowing similar actions when he would become king. Later Judah’s sons were crucified by Tiberius for anti-Roman activity. Finally, members of his family—Menachem and Eliezer ben Yair—led the Jewish revolt in 66 A.D. which tragically led to the destruction of the Temple and Jerusalem.

The question of payment of taxes to Caesar, therefore, had far-reaching political implications. If Jesus publicly affirmed the requirement to pay these imperial tributes, he risked eroding the support of the people. On the other hand, if he questioned the legitimacy of the taxes, he would be subject to charges of political sedition. Jesus faced a “no-win” situation. Nevertheless, as the conclusion of the episode indicates, his opponents were impressed by the ingenuity of his answer.

Jesus’ reply resembles the sentiments of other prominent sages of the first century who questioned the aims and means used by the Zealots in their unsuccessful rebellion. After the destruction of the Temple, Rabban Yohanan ben Zakkai saw the daughter of Nicodemus (John 3:1), who because of her severe hunger was picking grains of barley from the dung of an Arab horse. The sage lamented,

As long as Israel is doing the will of God, no nation or kingdom shall rule over it. But if they are not doing the will of God he will deliver them into the hand of the lowest nation and not only this, but under the legs of the beast of the lowest nation (Mechilta de-Rabbi Ishmael on Exod. 19:1).

Implicit in Rabban Yohanan’s statement is a biting critique of the Zealot revolt. The struggle had been misguided and ended in disaster. According to Yohanan, true redemption comes not through armed conflict, but through repentance and adherence to the Torah. The movement should have been marked by a priority given to humble submission to God’s reign—the kingdom of Heaven. According to Israel’s Sages this alone could have hastened liberty and the removal of the yoke of foreign oppression:

Everyone who takes upon himself the yoke of the Torah removes from his shoulders the yoke of the government and daily sorrows. But whoever removes the yoke of the Torah will be burdened with the yoke of government and daily sorrows” (m. Avot 3:6).

David Flusser has suggested that in the vocabulary of the first century, “the kingdom of Heaven” became an anti-Zealot slogan (Jesus [Jerusalem: Magness, 2001], 105-106). On the lips of Jesus, the phrase was also used to identify his movement and indicates Jesus’ high self-awareness of the importance of his life and teaching.

The words of Jesus suggest that his understanding of the spiritual nature of “the kingdom” was in accord with the Sages who complained concerning allies of the Zealots, “The rulers of the cities of Judah, who have put off the yoke of Heaven and assumed the yoke of the kingdom of flesh and blood” (Avot de-Rabbi Nathan, Version A, chap. 20 [ed. Schechter, 72]; cf. 1 Cor. 15:50; Eph. 6:12).

Not only does Jesus’ opinion of the Zealot movement resemble that of the Jewish Sages, his rhetorical response—“Whose image is on this coin?”—is shaped by the idiomatic expressions of his contemporaries. Once Hillel challenged his disciples who questioned his view that bathing in a bathhouse should be considered fulfillment of a mitzvah (biblical commandment): “If a king is honored when his statues are being washed in the parks and public places, how much more is the Creator honored when man, who was created in the image of God, washes himself” (Leviticus Rabbah on Lev. 34:3).

A silver denarius bearing the image of the Roman Emperor Tiberius. Image courtesy of the Classical Numismatic Group.
A silver denarius bearing the image of the Roman Emperor Tiberius. Image courtesy of the Classical Numismatic Group.

The retorts of Hillel and Jesus exemplify innovative developments in Jewish thought during the Second Temple period which were established on the biblical notion that man was created in the image of God—Imago Dei (Gen. 1:27). This principle is central to Jewish ethical imperatives. Both Jesus and Hillel voiced the opinion that the Torah is summed up in the charge, “Love your neighbor as yourself” (Jesus: Matt. 22:39-40; Hillel: b. Shabbat 31a; cf. Rom. 13:8; Gal. 5:14; James 2:8). Jewish thinkers saw significance in the fact that the command “Love your neighbor” is followed immediately in the biblical text by the declaration, “I am the LORD” (Lev. 19:18b). For Jewish readers, the combination of these two phrases signified that we are to love our neighbor, because he or she, like us, bears the divine image.

In contrast to a philosophy of “(God-less) humanism” which has been criticized by many Christians today, the view of Jesus and other first-century Jewish thinkers presents a “theocentric (God-centered) humanism.” It places supreme value on the individual human being, precisely because each person has been imprinted with the Imago Dei. The increasing importance attributed to the individual in first-century Judaism is expressed in a well-known saying found in the Mishnah:

Therefore, but a single man was created in the world, to teach that if any man has caused a single soul to perish Scripture imputes it to him as though he had caused a whole world to perish; and if any man saves (the life of) a single soul, Scripture imputes it to him as though he had saved (the lives of) a whole world (m. Sanhedrin 4:5).

Jesus also employed this notion to justify his healing on the Sabbath: “Is it lawful on the Sabbath…to save a (single) soul or to destroy it?” (Luke 6:9). Jesus took the opportunity of the man’s need for healing to teach those present concerning the value God places on even a single human life.

We are now able to recognize the Jewish “theocentric humanism” which undergirded Jesus’ masterful rejoinder to his inquisitors. He transformed their trickery into an opportunity to articulate the Jewish belief concerning the Imago Dei: “Give unto Caesar that which bears his image, and give unto God that which bears His image!” Although intentionally indirect, Jesus’ audience would certainly have understood his thrust. It is only we, who are removed by time and space from the event, who struggle to understand his message.

Jesus was no liberation theologian. The priorities contained in his response set clear limits on the politics of violence. If at all possible, we should live at peace (Rom. 13:1). Like other Jewish Sages in those tumultuous days, Jesus challenged the priorities of those who had taken up the sword to establish a kingdom “of flesh and blood.” Jesus, instead, proclaimed the advent of the kingdom of Heaven. Questioned by Pontius Pilate about his political intentions in the fateful hours before his death, Jesus once again declared the emptiness of his accusers’ charge: “My kingdom is not of this world….”(John 18:36).

A New Portrait of Salome

A first century C.E. coin bearing the portraits of Aristobulus (obverse) and Salome (reverse). Image courtesy of the Classical Numismatic Group.

Salome’s image has been obscured and marred due to the personas created for her by writers of the past 150 years. Salome is famous for the part she played in the execution of John the Baptist. Since 1863, she has been depicted in books and films as morally depraved. Diligent research reveals, however, that the real Salome is much different than popular portrayals.

An artistic depiction of Salome at age 39-40 by Helen Twena based on a recently discovered coin.

The paradoxes begin with the fact that her name does not appear in the Gospels. We know her name from Josephus’ account of the story (Ant. 18:136-137) and from the coin that bears her portrait—incidentally, hers is the only portrait of a person mentioned in the Gospels. Another paradox is the distortion of her story in modern literature and art.[1]

The Salome Story through the Pens of Matthew and Mark

Herod Antipas saw in John the Baptist and his movement a potential threat to his rule.[2] In order to eliminate the threat, John “was brought in chains to Machaerus [Antipas’ fortress on the eastern side of the Dead Sea]…and put to death there” (Ant. 18:119). Matthew 14:3-12 and Mark 6:17-29 provide additional details of John’s execution. Although Mark influences Matthew, the Matthean report also contains information obtained from another, better source. Mark 6:17 mistakenly identifies the first husband of Herodias, Salome’s father, as Philip.[3] Perhaps the error arose from the fact that Philip was the name of Salome’s first husband.

Mark inserts a fascinating detail about Antipas (Mark 6:19-20): Herodias wanted to kill John, but Herod feared John and protected him knowing him to be a righteous and holy man. When Herod heard John, he was greatly puzzled, yet he liked to listen to him. According to Matthew 14:5, the situation is simple and more plausible: Herod wanted to kill John, but was afraid of the people because they considered John to be a prophet.[4] Matthew’s words match the attitude of Antipas that Josephus describes.

The anecdote about Salome’s dance is nearly identical in Matthew and the longer Markan account.[5] Let us consider Matthew’s version:

On Herod’s birthday the daughter of Herodias danced for them and pleased Herod so much that he promised with an oath to give her whatever she asked. Prompted by her mother, she said, “Give me here on a platter the head of John the Baptist.” The king was distressed, but because of his oaths and his dinner guests, he ordered that her request be granted and had John beheaded in the prison. His head was brought on a platter and given to the girl, who carried it to her mother. (Matt. 14:6-11, NIV)

Mark tells the story in this way: Herod Antipas’ birthday offered Herodias a good opportunity to get rid of the Baptist. During the celebration, her daughter Salome danced for Herod and his guests and Herod promised to give the girl whatever she asked. Salome went out[6] and said to her mother, “What shall I ask for?” “The head of John the Baptist,” she answered. At once the girl returned to Herod with the request: “I want you to give me the head of John the Baptist on a platter right now.” Herod gave orders to carry out the girl’s request. The head of John the Baptist was brought to her, and she gave it to her mother.

The Place of John’s Execution

Where did the girl dance before her stepfather? It happened on his birthday. He “gave a banquet for his high officials and military commanders and the leading officials of Galilee” (Mark 6:21; emphasis added). This description fits the capital of Galilee, namely, Tiberias and not the Transjordan Machaerus,[7] a stronghold on the border of Antipas’ territory. Machaerus is, incidentally, the locality where, according to Josephus (Ant. 18:119) the Baptist was imprisoned and finally put to death. I believe that it will be easy to explain why Josephus committed this error. Josephus had already mentioned Machaerus in connection with Antipas’ first wife. Before Antipas could repudiate her, she got wind of Antipas’ compact with Herodias:

[Therefore] before any information reached him that she had discovered everything, [Antipas’ wife] asked him to send her away to Machaerus, which was on the boundary between the territory of Aretas [her father] and that of Herod [Antipas]…. So she speedily reached her father and told him what Herod planned to do. (Ant. 18:111-112; Loeb)

The fact that the Nabatean wife of Antipas escaped to her father through Machaerus gave birth to the erroneous second mention of this stronghold as the suggested place of the imprisonment and execution of the Baptist. Josephus reveals that the second reference to Machaerus is merely his assumption derived from the prior mention, because he says in Antiquities 18:119 that the place where John was held and executed was “Machaerus, the stronghold that we have previously mentioned” (Ant. 18:119; emphasis added).

Panoramic view of Macherus from the east. Photo courtesy of

In Antiquities 18:119 Josephus erroneously repeats the mention of Machaerus. He evidently did not know that John’s execution was connected with Antipas’ birthday banquet, where many guests were present, among them notables of Galilee. So he mistakenly repeated the mention of Machaerus.

Josephus does not speak about John’s preaching against the illegality of Antipas’ marriage to Herodias, but he reports that because of his repudiated daughter, Aretas (her Nabatean father) made war with Antipas, which ended with Antipas’ defeat (Ant. 18:113-114). Thus, even in Josephus’ account there is a causal connection between Antipas’ matrimonial troubles and the execution of the Baptist.

Salome’s Persona in Imaginative Fiction

Salomé by Oscar Wilde with illustrations by Aubrey Beardsley. Image courtesy of Wikimedia Commons.

Since the second half of the nineteenth century, famous fictional treatments of the Gospel narrative have diminished our grasp of Salome’s character—and the facts of the original story.[8] The story is easy to sensationalize: a ruler’s scheming wife dupes her unsuspecting young daughter. A similar incident could have taken place within the courts of a contemporary Roman emperor or, in our times, in the company of communist or other dictators.

The distortions began in 1863 with the biography of Jesus written by Ernest Renan, a Frenchman. He imagined that Salome was as morally depraved as her mother, Herodias, and assumed that the girl’s dance was erotic. In 1877, Renan’s personal friend, Gustave Flaubert, composed a short story about Herodias in which the erotic element became even more pronounced. The treatment is colored, no doubt, by Flaubert’s very real affair with a belly dancer in Egypt.

Later, author Oscar Wilde portrayed Antipas’ stepdaughter as dark and perverse. In 1893 he wrote “Salome,” a tragedy, in French. The work was translated into English by Lord Alfred Douglas, the same man who lured Wilde into a homosexual relationship. In Wilde’s play, Salome falls in love with the Baptist, but succeeds in kissing his lips only after John is beheaded. Then, in 1905 Richard Strauss composed his opera “Salome” based on Wilde’s play.

Historical Difficulties Further Cloud the Picture

Depiction by Helen Twena of the young girl Salome.

The historical details of the life of Salome are also problematic (see Josephus, Ant. 18:136-137). Today, some scholars accept the view that Salome was about nineteen years old at the time of her dance before Antipas in approximately 29 C.E.[9] However, her actions in the Gospel accounts indicate a significantly younger age, that of a girl of twelve or less.[10] A nineteen-year-old probably would not have run to her mother for instructions.[11] Moreover, both Mark and Matthew refer to Salome as a κοράσιον (korasion), a young girl (Mark 6:22, 28; Matt. 14:11). Note that Jairus’ daughter, called korasion by Matthew and Mark (Mark 5:41, 42; Matt. 9:24, 25), is, according to Luke 8:42, a child of twelve.

Sometime after her famous dance, Salome married Philip, the tetrarch of Trachonitis, son of Herod the Great, who was likely many years her senior. It was Philip who enlarged the city of Paneas at the foot of Mt. Hermon and renamed it Caesarea in honor of the Roman emperor Tiberius (Ant. 18:28). Since there already existed a city on the Mediterranean coast by that name, the new city was called Caesarea Philippi, that is, Philip’s Caesarea (Matt. 16:13; Mark 8:27). Philip began his rule in 4 B.C.E. and died childless in 33-34 C.E. Assuming Salome was about twelve at the time of her dance in 28-29 C.E., she became a widow at the age of seventeen.

A coin of <strong>Herod Philip</strong>, son of Herod the Great and first husband of Salome. Minted at Paneas (Caesarea Philippi), the coin entered circulation in 30-31 C.E. Encircled by a Greek inscription that reads, Philippou ([a coin] of Philip), the bust of Philip the tetrarch adorns the obverse of the coin. The date, “Year 34,” appears within the wreath on the coin’s reverse. [Abraham Sofaer Collection, Palo Alto, California]A second coin of <strong>Aristobulus</strong>, minted in 70-71 C.E. in Lesser Armenia. Here we see the bust of an older king. The inscription reads, Basileos Aristoboulou Et l[ota] Z[eta] ([a coin] of King Aristobulus, Year 17). Queen Salome does not appear on the reverse of this coin. [Abraham Sofaer Collection, Palo Alto, California]A coin of the kingdom of Lesser Armenia, minted in 56-57 C.E. The bust of King Aristobulus, son of Herod of Chalcis and second husband of Salome, adorns the obverse, or front, of the coin. The king wears a diadem on his head. The Greek inscription reads, Basileos Aristoboulou Et G[amma] ([a coin] of King Aristobulus, Year 3). On the reverse, or back, of the coin (see coin above) is the bust of Queen Salome. Also crowned with a diadem, the queen is encircled by an inscription that reads, Basilisses Salomes ([A coin] of Queen Salome). [Abraham Sofaer Collection, Palo Alto, California]A coin minted in 56-57 C.E. bears the portrait of Salome, daughter of Herodias, the infamous wife of Herod Antipas. Only two copies of this coin, both quite worn, have been published to date. Recently, however, a third copy has come to light—with a near perfect image of Salome! It is published here for the first time.

In 41 C.E., Claudius became Roman emperor with the help of Agrippa, the grandson of Herod the Great. For his good services, Agrippa was made king of Judea, and his brother, Herod, king of Chalcis (41-48 C.E.).[12] Aristobulus, the son of Herod king of Chalcis, became the second husband of Salome. Salome bore Aristobulus three sons: Herod, Agrippa and Aristobulus. The third received the name of his living father, a custom which was then not uncommon in Jewish society (see, for example, Luke 1:59).

Evidently, Salome did not marry her second husband, Aristobulus, before 41 C.E. when her father-in-law became king of Chalcis and Aristobulus became crown prince. Then, Salome was about 24 years old, and her second husband was probably younger than she. Salome’s portrait appears, together with her husband’s, on a coin minted in the year 56-57 C.E.[13]

Thus, the proper analysis of the pertinent data of her biography and the passages in the Gospels does not lead us to conclude that Salome was a morally depraved person. On the contrary, her biographical profile suggests a normal, moral personality.

Another Moment in Time: Salome and Paul

The portrait on the new coin represents Salome as she looked in the year 56-57 C.E. at the age of 39 or 40. Did she still, with a cold shiver, reflect upon the ghastly scene of her receiving John the Baptist’s bloody head on a platter?

When the coin was placed in circulation, another tragedy was on its way. After a forced departure from Ephesus, Paul went to Macedonia before going south to Achaia (probably Corinth) for three months in 56-57 C.E., prior to his final visit to Jerusalem (Acts 19:21; 20:1-3).[14] Paul was arrested in Jerusalem and later executed in Rome. Probably, the daughter of Herodias was not even aware of the Apostle to the Gentiles’ existence.

Note from Author:
I would like to thank Dr. Ya’akov Meshorer. Without his research, especially his recent book, A Jewish Treasury of Coins, my present study would not have been possible. I am also deeply endebted to Dr. Meshorer for providing the coin photographs used in this article.


For a free PDF download of the Jerusalem Perspective magazine issue in which this article originally appeared, click here.




  • [1] See the entry “Salome” in Encyclopaedia Judaica (Jerusalem: Keter Publishing House, 1972), 14:689-691.
  • [2] See David Flusser with R. Steven Notley, The Sage from Galilee: Rediscovering Jesus’ Genius (Grand Rapids: Eerdmans, 2007), 18-19.
  • [3] Mark 6:17 and Matt. 14:3 read “Herod [Antipas]…Herodias, his brother Philip’s wife.” Herodias was the granddaughter of Herod the Great. Her first and second husbands were named Herod. The first was the son of Herod the Great and Mariamme, the daughter of Simon the high priest. The second, Herod Antipas, the half-brother of the first, was the son of Herod the Great and Malthace the Samaritan. Salome was the daughter of Herodias and Herodias’ first husband.

    Salome’s first husband was Philip, the son of Herod the Great and Cleopatra of Jerusalem. Her second husband, Aristobulus, was the son of Herod, her mother’s brother (Ant. 18:136-137). It is probable that Mark confused Herodias’ first husband (Herod) with her son-in-law ([Herod] Philip). See Bruce M. Metzger, A Textual Commentary on the Greek New Testament, corrected edition (London and New York: United Bible Societies, 1975), 35.

  • [4] A similar statement appears in Matthew 21:26, which is parallel to Mark 11:32 and Luke 20:6.
  • [5] The report is surely enlarged by Mark himself. In Mark 6:23 he hinted at Esther 5:3, 6; 7:2. Mark’s is the only allusion to this Hebrew book, which was then much less widely circulated than is generally supposed (personal communication from Shmuel Safrai).
  • [6] One may assume that Herodias was not dining by Antipas’ side, but, as customary in oriental societies (cf. Esth. 1:9), was dining with the female guests in a private women’s hall. Thus, Salome had to leave Antipas’ presence to go to her mother for instructions.
  • [7] About the fortress of Machaerus, see Emil Schürer, The History of the Jewish People in the Age of Jesus Christ (ed. Geza Vermes, Fergus Millar and Matthew Black; Edinburgh: T. & T. Clark, 1973), 1:511 n. 135; and Michele Piccirillo, The Mosaics of Jordan (Amman, Jordan: American Center of Oriental Research, 1993), 245.
  • [8] For these fictionalized accounts, see the entry “Salome” in Encyclopaedia Judaica.
  • [9] Gutschmid (Kleine Schriften 2:318) calculated that Salome was born not later than 10 C.E., and her second husband, Aristobulus, about 14 C.E. Thus, she was nineteen years old in 29 C.E., and her portrait on the coin of 56-57 C.E. depicts her when she was about 46 years old (see Emil Schürer, The History of the Jewish People, 1:348-349 n. 28).
  • [10] According to Luke 3:1, it was in the fifteenth year of the Roman emperor Tiberius’ reign (28-29 C.E.) that John the Baptist appeared (see I. Howard Marshall, The Gospel of Luke: A Commentary on the Greek Text [NIGTC; Grand Rapids: Eerdmans, 1978], 133) and that Jesus’ ministry began following his baptism. It is likely that John was arrested by Herod Antipas soon after he started preaching. Salome was probably born around 17 C.E. and, thus, would have been about twelve years old at the time of John’s execution in 28-29 C.E.
  • [11] The author of Matthew says that Salome was “instructed [προβιβασθεῖσα, probibastheisa] by her mother” (Matt. 14:8).
  • [12] See Yaakov Meshorer, A Treasury of Jewish Coins: From the Persian Period to Bar-Kochba (Jerusalem: Yad Izhak Ben-Zvi Press, 1997), 92-93, 155-157, 208, 239-240 (Hebrew). See especially Cassius Dio, Historia Romana LX 8:2-3; for the text, see Greek and Latin Authors on Jews and Judaism (ed. Menahem Stern; Jerusalem: The Israel Academy of Sciences and Humanities, 1980), 2:367-368, No. 423.
  • [13] See Meshorer, A Treasury of Jewish Coins, 156, 330; Nikos Kokkinos, “Which Salome Did Aristobulus Marry?” Palestine Exploration Quarterly 118 (1986): 33. The portrayal on this coin of Aristobulus’ wife was an unusual event—it was uncommon for women to appear on coins. A portrait of Aristobulus appears on a coin from the year 70-71 C.E. without his wife’s portrait.
  • [14] See the entry “Paul” in The Oxford Dictionary of the Christian Church (London: Oxford University Press, 1997), 1235.