The Historical Jesus in Context Book Summary

Title: The Historical Jesus in Context
Editors: Amy-Jill Levine, Dale C. Allison Jr., and John Dominic Crossan

TLDR: This book dives into the world of Jesus by exploring various non-canonical texts and archaeological evidence. It offers a rich tapestry of ancient Jewish and Greco-Roman perspectives that both illuminates and complicates our understanding of the historical Jesus.

Chapter 1: Archaeological Contributions to the Study of Jesus and the Gospels – Jonathan L. Reed

This chapter explores the vital role of archaeology in understanding the Gospels and the historical Jesus, moving beyond the simplistic image of biblical archaeologists as relic hunters. Reed emphasizes the scientific rigor of modern archaeology, highlighting its ability to reconstruct the world of Jesus through the analysis of everyday objects and monumental structures. He emphasizes how archaeological evidence provides a unique perspective, independent of potentially biased literary sources, offering valuable insights into the lives of all social classes and groups.

Reed focuses on three key areas where archaeology illuminates the study of early Christianity:

  • The Emperor Cult in the Eastern Mediterranean: Reed details the pervasive influence of the emperor cult across the Roman Empire, using archaeological evidence to highlight its importance in cities like Aphrodisias in Turkey. Coins bearing the inscription “Son of God” (DIVI FILIUS), inscriptions proclaiming Caesar’s divinity and cosmic significance, and statues depicting emperors in divine postures all attest to the centrality of the emperor cult in Roman life. This widespread proclamation of Caesar as a divine figure provides an important context for understanding Jesus’ messianic claims and the challenges those claims posed to Roman authority.
  • Urbanization in Palestine: Reed analyzes the impact of city-building and urbanization on Palestine during Jesus’ lifetime, focusing on Herod the Great’s ambitious building program and the construction of Sepphoris and Tiberias in Galilee by Herod Antipas. While Herod the Great’s building projects introduced elements of Roman architecture and urban amenities to Caesarea and Jerusalem, he exercised caution in introducing potentially offensive Pagan elements. Herod Antipas followed a similar approach in Sepphoris and Tiberias. Though the archaeological evidence indicates that these cities, built with Roman materials and styles, were not explicitly Pagan centers, their construction had a significant impact on Galilean society. The influx of population and the increased demand for agricultural production likely created economic disparities and social tensions, providing a context for Jesus’ teachings on debt, poverty, and social justice.
  • Domestic Space in Jesus’ Galilee: Reed explores the archaeological evidence from domestic houses in Galilee, contrasting the more elaborate dwellings of Sepphoris with the modest homes of Capernaum. He argues that this evidence, including the discovery of a fishing boat dubbed the “Jesus Boat,” points to a modest lifestyle for Galilean villagers, including those who were fishermen like Jesus’ first disciples. The chapter concludes by highlighting four types of artifacts – stone vessels, ritual baths, burial practices, and the absence of pork in the diet – that are widespread in Galilee and Judea and that attest to the Jewish identity of Jesus’ world. These artifacts reveal that, while not entirely isolated from the wider Roman world, Galilee at the time of Jesus was largely sheltered from its more overt Pagan aspects.

Chapter 2: Josephus on John the Baptist and Other Jewish Prophets of Deliverance – Craig A. Evans

This chapter analyzes Josephus’s accounts of Jewish “Prophets of Deliverance” active in the first century CE, highlighting the political and religious climate of unrest within which Jesus and his early followers lived. Evans focuses on Josephus’s description of John the Baptist, comparing it to the accounts found in the New Testament Gospels. While the Gospels emphasize John’s eschatological message and his criticism of Herod Antipas, Josephus highlights John’s ministry of purification and his popularity with the crowds, possibly downplaying or suppressing the Baptist’s messianic message to avoid offending his Roman audience.

Evans then surveys other prophetic figures mentioned by Josephus:

  • The Samaritan: A messianic figure who led a group to Mount Gerizim, seeking to fulfill the promise of the “restorer” (Taheb) mentioned in Deuteronomy 18. This incident, which ended in a massacre by Pilate’s troops, illustrates the prevalence of messianic hope and unrest in the region.
  • Theudas: This prophetic figure claimed to be able to part the Jordan River, alluding to biblical imagery associated with Israel’s redemption. His movement was also crushed by Roman forces, as was that of the Egyptian Jew who, stationed on the Mount of Olives, claimed that at his command the walls of Jerusalem would fall, allowing him to take control of the city. Both these figures, portrayed negatively by Josephus, represent variations on the “prophet-like-Moses” theme that fueled messianic speculation during the first century CE.
  • The Anonymous “Impostor”: Another messianic figure who promised salvation and “rest” to those who would follow him into the wilderness. This figure, likely active during the period of the Sicarii, was also destroyed by Roman forces.
  • Jonathan: A weaver and member of the Sicarii who, following the Roman capture of Jerusalem, fled to Cyrene and urged the poor to follow him into the desert, promising “signs and apparitions.” His movement, too, was crushed by Roman troops.

Evans concludes that these accounts, though biased by Josephus’s anti-messianic perspective, provide an important context for understanding John the Baptist and Jesus. John’s message, with its biblical symbolism, and the actions of other prophetic figures seeking to restore Israel, suggest that Jesus’ own activities were informed by this same worldview, and that his claims to be the Messiah would have been understood within this matrix of political and religious unrest.

Chapter 3: Abba and Father: Imperial Theology in the Contexts of Jesus and the Gospels – Mary Rose D’Angelo

This chapter challenges the pervasive idea that Jesus’ relationship with the Deity was unique and novel, expressed through his addressing God as “Abba.” D’Angelo argues that the evidence for Jesus’ use of “Abba” is slender, appearing only once in the Gospels, in Mark 14:36, a scene for which the Evangelist provides no witnesses. Further, evidence from early Judaism and Christianity indicates that “Abba” was used by adults, both for their natural fathers and as a title for respected teachers. Paul attributes “Abba” to the Holy Spirit in the community, further challenging the notion that it was specific to Jesus’ relationship with the Deity.

D’Angelo debunks Joachim Jeremias’ influential claim that “Abba” represented a unique intimacy in Jesus’ relationship with God, citing evidence from Qumran texts showing that Jews before and during Jesus’ time could and did address God as “father.” Examining additional Jewish and Roman texts, D’Angelo argues that the political and religious context of Roman rule is essential for understanding the function of appeals to God as “father” in this period.

D’Angelo highlights the following:

  • Imperial Appropriation of “Father”: She demonstrates how the Roman emperor Augustus appropriated the title “father” (pater patriae, “father of the fatherland”), seeking to enhance his authority and connect with the people through an emphasis on moral legislation and “family values.” This imperial appropriation provides a context for understanding how Jesus and his followers, by emphasizing God as “father,” affirmed their belief that it is God, and not the emperor, who is the true father and ruler of the world.
  • The Significance of God as Father in Jewish Tradition: D’Angelo cites texts from the Qumran Hymns (1QH), 4QApocryphon of Joseph, 3 Maccabees, and Philo’s Legation to Gaius, illustrating how Jews in this period used “father” as a title for God to invoke divine power and providence, to seek forgiveness, and to call upon God to rescue the righteous from persecution. These texts demonstrate that, far from being unique to Jesus, the understanding of God as Father was a significant feature of Jewish piety in the period of Jesus and the Gospels.
  • Rabbinic Attributions of “Father” to God: D’Angelo cites texts from the Mishnah, the Babylonian Talmud, and the Midrash collections that attribute appeals to God as “father” to Rabbinic figures, including Rabbi Aqiba who died as a martyr during the Bar Kokhba revolt. These texts suggest that appealing to God as “father” may have been seen as a proclamation of God’s reign over against the rule of the emperor.

D’Angelo concludes that Jesus and his followers, by emphasizing God as “father,” were invoking a well-established Jewish tradition, seeking to remind their audiences that it is God, and not the emperor, who truly reigns.

Chapter 4: Miraculous Conceptions and Births in Mediterranean Antiquity – Charles H. Talbert

This chapter explores the literary form of miraculous conceptions and births, demonstrating its prevalence in both Jewish and Greco-Roman traditions. Talbert argues that the Evangelists’ first readers, drawing upon this well-established literary form, would have understood the accounts of Jesus’ conception and birth as affirmations of the prevenience of divine grace in the divine-human relation.

Talbert analyzes a wide array of narratives:

  • Divine Births in Greco-Roman Mythology: Talbert cites stories of individuals, such as Achilles, Aeneas, and Persephone, who were believed to be the offspring of a god and a human. These narratives demonstrate how the Greeks and Romans readily associated divine origins with special abilities, powers, and accomplishments.
  • Divine Fathers and Human Mothers: Talbert discusses accounts of figures like Asclepius, Hercules, Dionysus, Perseus, and Romulus, all believed to have been fathered by gods and born to human women. He highlights how these narratives often utilize the motif of the deity assuming another form to facilitate the conception, either as a human (e.g., Zeus transforming himself into Alcmene’s husband) or as a snake (e.g., the phantoms that impregnated Olympias and Atia).
  • Miraculous Conceptions without Sexual Intercourse: Talbert analyzes a tradition that attributed miraculous births to the “touch” or “breath” of a deity, without involving physical sexual relations. Citing Aeschylus, Plutarch, and a story from the Egyptians about the sacred bull Apis, Talbert reveals how ancient writers could and did imagine a conception being catalyzed by the “power” or “spirit” of a deity without necessitating carnal contact.
  • Divine Births of Historical Figures: Talbert surveys accounts of philosophers and rulers, such as Pythagoras, Plato, Apollonius of Tyana, and Alexander the Great, who were said to have been fathered by gods. He highlights how these narratives illustrate the two main functions of miraculous birth stories in antiquity: explaining an individual’s exceptional abilities and venerating a benefactor.
  • Miraculous Conception and the Prevenience of Grace: Talbert concludes that the Evangelists, by utilizing this well-established literary form and portraying Jesus’ conception as the result of “spirit” and “power,” were conveying a theological message to their audiences: that Jesus’ exceptional life, his role as savior and benefactor, was made possible by God’s prior gracious action.

Chapter 5: First and Second Enoch: A Cry against Oppression and the Promise of Deliverance – George W. E. Nickelsburg

This chapter explores the apocalyptically-oriented worldview of 1 and 2 Enoch, focusing on themes of divine judgment, vindication of the righteous, and messianic hope, demonstrating their relevance to understanding the eschatological expectations of Jesus and his early followers. Nickelsburg argues that, while the Gospels preserve apocalyptic pronouncements attributed to Jesus, the extent to which these pronouncements represent his own worldview is debatable, and the influence of 1 Enoch in particular on the early church highlights the diversity of Jewish interpretations of messianic tradition and sheds light on why many Jews did not subscribe to Christian claims about Jesus.

Nickelsburg analyzes selections from 1 and 2 Enoch:

  • 1 Enoch 92–105: The Epistle: This section, which takes the form of an Epistle addressed by Enoch to his descendants, “the righteous, the pious, and the chosen,” expresses the suffering and despair of those experiencing oppression, while promising eventual divine judgment and vindication.
  • The Cry of the Righteous: Nickelsburg emphasizes the poignancy of the lament in 1 Enoch 103:9–15, where the righteous express their despair at the injustices they are suffering and at the inaction of their rulers.
  • The Promise of Deliverance: He then highlights the apocalyptic solution offered in 1 Enoch 104:1–6, where Enoch recounts his ascent to the heavenly throne room and witnesses the angelic intercession on behalf of the righteous, promising judgment of the wicked and a glorious future for the righteous who will enjoy angelic status in heaven.
  • 1 Enoch 46–49, 51, 62–63: The Parables: This section, which takes the form of an apocalypse, presents a series of visions depicting the great judgment and its aftermath. The central figure in these visions is the “Son of Man,” “the Chosen One,” “the Righteous One,” and “the Anointed One.” This transcendent heavenly figure, who embodies characteristics of the “one like a son of man” in Daniel 7, the Servant of the Lord in Isaiah, the Davidic king, and heavenly Wisdom, vindicates the righteous and condemns the “kings and the mighty” who persecute them.
  • The Son of Man as Judge: Nickelsburg argues that, in contrast to the “one like a son of man” in Daniel 7 who is enthroned after judgment, the Enochic Son of Man serves as the agent of judgment, judging the wicked and bringing deliverance to the righteous.
  • Conflation of Biblical Traditions: He highlights how the Parables conflate biblical traditions about the son of man, the Servant of the Lord, the Anointed One, and heavenly Wisdom, demonstrating the flexibility with which Jews in this period interpreted their sacred traditions.
  • Relevance for Understanding Early Christianity: Nickelsburg argues that the traditions about the Chosen One/Son of Man in 1 Enoch are important for understanding how the early church applied these traditions to Jesus, particularly his role as judge and savior.
  • 1 Enoch 106–7, 2 Enoch 71–72: Miraculous Births: These sections narrate the miraculous conceptions and births of Noah and Melchizedek, highlighting their significance as figures of salvation and renewal, and providing precedents for understanding the miraculous birth stories of Jesus in the Gospels.
  • Comparison with Gospel Narratives: Nickelsburg argues that the accounts of Noah’s birth resonate with Matthew’s account of Jesus’ conception, while the story of Melchizedek’s conception—wherein he is born to a woman without a human father – resembles narratives about Jesus’ virginal conception in Matthew, Luke, and Hebrews.

Nickelsburg concludes that these texts from 1 and 2 Enoch, with their themes of oppression, judgment, vindication, and messianic hope, provide an important context for understanding the eschatological expectations of Jesus and his early followers, even though the extent to which Jesus himself fully subscribed to this apocalyptic worldview remains debated.

Chapter 6: Jesus and the Dead Sea Scrolls – Peter Flint

This chapter explores the Dead Sea Scrolls, a collection of ancient Jewish documents discovered near the Dead Sea in the mid-twentieth century, and their relevance for understanding the historical Jesus. Flint acknowledges the early, sometimes sensationalist, attempts to directly connect Jesus with the Scrolls, particularly with the Essene movement, while arguing that a more balanced view is required: recognizing the Scrolls’ valuable contributions to understanding Jesus’ historical context, Jewish messianic expectations, and the parallels between Jesus’ teachings and those of other Jewish groups.

Flint focuses on five areas where the Scrolls illuminate the study of Jesus and early Christianity:

  • Information about Jewish Society: The Scrolls provide valuable insights into the social, religious, and political landscape of first-century Palestine, illuminating the context in which Jesus lived and taught. They offer details about various Jewish groups – Pharisees, Sadducees, Essenes, Zealots, and Sicarii – their beliefs and practices, as well as information about the Temple, the priesthood, and the Roman authorities.
  • Knowledge about Early Judaism: The Scrolls make it clear that many aspects of Jesus’ message are indebted to early Jewish traditions. For example, the Rule of the Community (1QS) highlights a concern for purity and the imminent arrival of the prophet predicted in Deuteronomy 18, both themes that resonate with the Gospels’ presentation of John the Baptist and Jesus. The Damascus Document (CD) discusses the “Unique Teacher” who gathered (or died) in the recent past, a figure reminiscent of Jesus, and speaks of those entering the covenant but then acting treacherously, a theme also found in the Gospels.
  • Basic Differences Between Jesus and Other Jewish Groups: The Scrolls also clarify some of the key differences between Jesus’ message and those of other Jewish groups. While the Qumran Community anticipated the arrival of two Messiahs, one priestly (Messiah of Aaron) and one royal/military (Messiah of Israel), Jesus claimed to embody both these roles. The Scrolls also attest to the Essenes’ strict observance of purity rules and their physical separation from other Jews, a stark contrast to Jesus’ mingling with sinners and his downplaying of ritual impurity.
  • New Texts with Similarities to Gospel Passages: Several Scrolls contain texts with striking similarities to teachings attributed to Jesus in the Gospels. For example, the Messianic Apocalypse (4Q521) offers a “recipe” of messianic characteristics, including the raising of the dead, echoing pronouncements attributed to Jesus in Luke 4 and 7. The Beatitudes (4Q525), with its list of blessings, structurally resembles the Beatitudes in Matthew 5, even as it shares some common motifs.
  • Confirmation of Authenticity of Gospel Passages: Flint highlights several texts that contain wording that is very close or identical to passages in the Gospels, strengthening arguments for the historicity of some of Jesus’ teachings. For example, the Qumran Rebukes (4Q477) document contains rules for rebuking fellow members that closely resemble Jesus’ instructions in Matthew 18 and Luke 17. The Damascus Document (CD) includes rules about seeking atonement through ritual immersion, practices reminiscent of John the Baptist’s baptisms, and the Purification Liturgy (4Q512) similarly emphasizes atonement and purification.

Flint concludes that the Dead Sea Scrolls provide an indispensable resource for understanding the historical Jesus, clarifying his religious and social context, the various strands of Jewish messianism active during his time, and the parallels and distinctions between Jesus’ teachings and those of other Jewish groups.

Chapter 7: The Chreia – David B. Gowler

This chapter examines the literary form of the chreia – a brief statement or action attributed to a person – highlighting its importance in ancient rhetorical training and composition, and arguing that its widespread use in the Synoptic Gospels has significant implications for understanding how the Evangelists composed their narratives and for assessing the historicity of the traditions about Jesus. Gowler emphasizes the freedom that speakers and writers had in manipulating chreiai, adapting them to fit their ideological and rhetorical purposes, and argues that this rhetorical context must be taken into account when analyzing the Synoptic Gospels, challenging the dominance of literary paradigms that have often dominated New Testament scholarship.

Gowler outlines the following:

  • Definitions of Chreia: He cites definitions from ancient rhetorical handbooks by Aelius Theon, Hermogenes, and Apthonius, highlighting four key elements of a chreia: its form as a saying, an action, or a combination of both; its brevity; its attribution to a person; and its “usefulness” in communicating a message or illustrating a point.
  • Implications for the Study of the Gospels: Gowler argues that a study of the chreia and its use in ancient literature reveals how the Synoptic Evangelists, like other ancient authors, were free to vary the wording, details, and dynamics of the stories they told about Jesus, adapting them to fit their own rhetorical and ideological interests.
  • Types of Chreiai: Gowler categorizes three main types of chreiai: (1) sayings-chreiai, which make their primary point through words; (2) action-chreiai, which communicate a message through action; and (3) mixed-chreiai, which combine both sayings and actions. He cites examples from the Synoptic Gospels, the Gospel of Thomas, and other ancient sources to illustrate each type.
  • The Chreia in Ancient Biographies: Gowler highlights how chreiai were used in ancient biographies to illustrate the character of the subject, citing examples from Jewish literature such as the Lives of the Prophets and from the Synoptic Gospels.
  • Classroom Exercises with Chreiai: Gowler describes how chreiai were used in secondary education to train students in the fundamentals of rhetoric, using examples from Theon and Hermogenes to illustrate the various exercises employed to teach students how to recite, inflect, comment on, object to, expand, condense, refute, and confirm chreiai.
  • Manipulation of Chreiai in the Synoptics: Gowler demonstrates how the Synoptic Evangelists utilize the techniques for manipulating chreiai outlined in the rhetorical handbooks, citing examples such as the Sabbath healings, the cleansing of the Temple, and the woman who touched Jesus’ garment to illustrate the Evangelists’ freedom to vary the wording, details, and dynamics of the stories to fit their own rhetorical and theological goals.

Gowler concludes that recognition of the widespread use of chreiai in the Synoptic Gospels is essential for understanding how these texts were composed and for assessing the historicity of the traditions about Jesus. By adapting this traditional form, the Evangelists not only presented a vivid portrait of Jesus’ character and teachings, but also engaged in a deliberate transformation of their culture by superseding it with a new set of values and beliefs.

Chapter 8: The Galilean Charismatic and Rabbinic Piety: The Holy Man in the Talmudic Literature – Alan J. Avery-Peck

This chapter explores the figure of the charismatic holy man in Rabbinic literature, highlighting the Rabbis’ ambivalent attitude toward such figures and their ability to work miracles, and revealing the Rabbis’ preference for the study of Torah as the primary means of accessing God’s power and bringing blessings upon the community. Avery-Peck argues that, while Rabbinic Judaism acknowledges the existence and power of charismatic figures such as Honi the Circle-Drawer and Hanina ben Dosa, it portrays them primarily as exemplars of Rabbinic learning and piety, subsuming their special abilities within the Rabbinic system and emphasizing the limits and potential dangers of relying on miracles to address individual or communal problems.

Avery-Peck focuses on two key figures:

  • Honi the Circle-Drawer: Honi, a first-century BCE miracle worker known for his effective prayers, is depicted in the Mishnah as able to bring rain by invoking God’s name and refusing to move from a circle he has drawn until his prayer is answered. However, the story also highlights the Rabbis’ discomfort with Honi’s actions, emphasizing the danger of making demands of God and stressing that Honi’s power is ultimately subordinate to the Rabbis’ rules and understanding of the law. A second Talmudic story depicts Honi falling into a miraculous 70-year sleep, only to discover upon awakening that he is no longer recognized by his community. This story, which ends with Honi praying for death, emphasizes the Rabbis’ view that miracles, even when granted, cannot ultimately provide what truly matters: respect and companionship within the community of scholars.
  • Hanina ben Dosa: A first-century CE disciple of Rabbi Yochanan ben Zakkai, Hanina is portrayed in the Mishnah and the Babylonian Talmud as a pious miracle worker, renowned for his ability to heal the sick and to manipulate natural phenomena such as rain. However, the stories about Hanina highlight the Rabbis’ ambivalence toward miracles, stressing that they are not always reliable, that they can produce unintended negative consequences, and that even when they seem to grant an individual’s desire, they may diminish his reward in the world to come. The Talmud portrays Hanina using his powers to heal the sick and to stop and start rain, but it also depicts him suffering from poverty and ultimately concluding that the undoing of a miracle is a greater miracle than its performance. These narratives emphasize the Rabbis’ view that dependence on miracles is both dangerous and ultimately unfulfilling.

Avery-Peck concludes that the Rabbis, by presenting these stories of charismatic holy men, were promoting their own approach to piety and community leadership, an approach that focused on the intellectual pursuit of the meaning of Torah rather than on the manipulation of supernatural forces. In a period marked by failed messianic revolts, the Rabbis rejected the model of the charismatic leader who depended on and promised divine intervention, preferring instead the more grounded and intellectual path of Torah study and legal deliberation as the primary means of securing God’s favor. This Rabbinic perspective provides an important context for understanding both Jesus’ teachings on the kingdom of God and the early Christians’ proclamation of Jesus as the Messiah.

Chapter 9: Miracle Stories: The God Asclepius, the Pythagorean Philosophers, and the Roman Rulers – Wendy Cotter

This chapter explores miracle stories from the Greco-Roman world, demonstrating how accounts of healings, raisings from the dead, exorcisms, and nature miracles were widespread and popular in both Jewish and Gentile circles. Cotter argues that familiarity with these non-Jewish narratives is crucial for understanding how the Evangelists’ audiences would have understood the miracle stories attributed to Jesus in the Gospels.

Cotter analyzes three categories of miracle workers:

  • The God Asclepius: Cotter details the life, death, and enduring popularity of Asclepius, the Greek god of healing, highlighting his reputation for compassion, his accessibility to supplicants of all social classes, and the widespread belief in his ability to heal the sick, even to raise the dead. Citing inscriptions from Asclepius’ temple at Epidaurus, she reveals how the god was believed to reveal cures in dreams and to directly heal supplicants through touch.
  • Pythagorean Philosophers: Cotter analyzes the miracles attributed to Pythagoras and his followers, demonstrating how their exceptional piety and knowledge of the divine were believed to grant them power over nature. Citing narratives about Pythagoras being greeted by a river and Empedocles stilling a storm, she highlights how these philosophers were seen as able to manipulate the natural world because of their intimacy with the forces of the cosmos. Cotter also discusses Apollonius of Tyana, a first-century CE Pythagorean philosopher renowned for his healings and exorcisms, whose abilities, according to his biographer Philostratus, were the result of his great wisdom and virtue.
  • Roman Rulers: Cotter adduces accounts of miracles associated with Roman emperors, highlighting how these narratives functioned as propaganda designed to emphasize the emperors’ divine empowerment and to justify obedience to them. For example, she cites the story of Julius Caesar’s confidence that he would not be drowned at sea because nature recognized his divinely appointed authority, and the account of Vespasian curing the blind and the lame to bolster his authority as emperor.

Cotter concludes that familiarity with these various types of miracle workers in the Greco-Roman world – deities, philosophers, and rulers – is essential for understanding how the Evangelists’ audiences would have heard the stories of Jesus’ miracles.

Chapter 10: The Mithras Liturgy – Marvin Meyer

This chapter examines the Mithras Liturgy, a magical text for the ecstatic ascent of the soul, highlighting its parallels with the mysteries of Mithras and with aspects of early Christian belief and practice, and demonstrating how this text exemplifies the fascination with magic and ritual power that pervaded the ancient Mediterranean world.

Meyer analyzes the following:

  • Syncretistic Nature of the Liturgy: The Mithras Liturgy combines elements from Greek, Egyptian, and Hebrew traditions, reflecting the syncretistic religious environment of the time. The liturgy invokes Greek deities such as Providence and Psyche, Egyptian gods such as Helios and Re, and the Hebrew tetragrammaton, the ineffable name of God.
  • Stages of Ascent: Meyer highlights the seven stages of the soul’s ascent as described in the liturgy: (1) invocation of the four elements, (2) invocation of the lower powers of the air, (3) invocation of Aion and his powers, (4) invocation of Helios the sun god, (5) invocation of the seven Fates, (6) invocation of the seven Pole Lords, and (7) invocation of the highest god, Mithras.
  • Parallels with the Mysteries of Mithras: Meyer highlights several key motifs in the Mithras Liturgy that resonate with themes and imagery from Mithraic monuments and inscriptions: Mithras as a youthful, radiant god, his association with the bull, his cosmic role as the “Bear that moves heaven and turns it around,” his ability to bestow health and salvation, and the promise of rebirth and immortality for initiates.
  • Parallels with Early Christianity: Meyer highlights a number of striking similarities between the Mithras Liturgy and early Christian beliefs and practices:
    • Baptisms: Like John the Baptist’s baptisms and the Christian rite of baptism, the Mithras Liturgy includes a purification ritual involving immersion in water.
    • Sacred Meals: Similar to the Christian Eucharist, Mithraic initiates participated in a sacred meal, sharing bread and a cup (of water or a mixture of wine and water) as symbols of the body and blood of a sacrificed bull.
    • Dying and Rising Deities: Mithraism, like Christianity, emphasized the death and resurrection of its savior figure, associating this divine event with the promise of new life and immortality for initiates. Meyer cites inscriptions from Mithraic sanctuaries that proclaim the shedding of “eternal blood” and the pious “rebirth” of the initiate.
    • Ascent of the Soul: The ecstatic ascent of the soul described in the Mithras Liturgy can be compared with similar depictions in Jewish apocalyptic literature, such as the ascent of Enoch in 1 Enoch, as well as with Christian mystical and visionary experiences, such as Paul’s account of his ascent to the third heaven in 2 Corinthians 12.

Meyer concludes that the Mithras Liturgy, with its syncretistic character, its focus on the ecstatic ascent of the soul, and its parallels with both the mysteries of Mithras and early Christian beliefs and practices, offers a compelling example of the religious diversity and the fascination with magic and ritual power that pervaded the ancient Mediterranean world.

Chapter 11: Apuleius of Madauros – Ian H. Henderson

This chapter examines the writings of Apuleius of Madauros, a second-century CE North African writer, highlighting his significance for understanding both the imaginative world of Greco-Roman polytheist religion and the social and legal complexities associated with the charge of magic in antiquity. Henderson analyzes two of Apuleius’ key works: the Metamorphoses (also known as The Golden Ass) and the Apologia (Self-Defense on a Charge of Magic), contrasting the former’s elaborate and fanciful portrait of religious transformation through a mystical encounter with the Egyptian goddess Isis with the latter’s witty and audacious defense against accusations of using magic to gain personal advantage.

Henderson explores the following:

  • The Metamorphoses as Religious Discourse: Henderson argues that Apuleius’s Metamorphoses, a sprawling narrative of magical and religious transformation, convincingly portrays the religious world of Greco-Roman antiquity, offering insights into the power and appeal of polytheist religion, particularly its emphasis on personal experience and mystical encounters with the divine.
  • Lucius’ Transformation: He details the story of Lucius, the protagonist of the Metamorphoses, whose interest in magic leads him to be transformed into a donkey and to embark on a series of absurd and fantastical adventures, culminating in his eventual deliverance and restoration to humanity through the intervention of the goddess Isis.
  • The Revelation of Isis: Henderson highlights the scene in Book 11 where Isis appears to Lucius in a dream and reveals her divine power and her willingness to save him, outlining the steps he must follow to be delivered from his asinine form and promising him a life of blessedness and immortality.
  • Initiation into Isis’ Mysteries: He describes the purification rituals, dream visions, and nocturnal initiatory rites through which Lucius experiences a symbolic death and rebirth, emerging from the sanctuary dressed like the rising sun to celebrate his transformation.
  • Apuleius on Trial for Magic: Henderson analyzes Apuleius’s Apologia, a defense against accusations of using magic to seduce a wealthy widow into marriage. He highlights how Apuleius, drawing upon his skills as a professional orator, defends himself not by denying the charges – which he essentially admits – but by challenging the definition of “magic” itself, contrasting his own scholarly, philosophical understanding of magic with the vulgar, harmful practices of ordinary folk.
  • Ambivalence about Magic: Henderson emphasizes the ambivalent attitude toward magic in Roman society, noting how it was both condemned by law and widely practiced, and how accusations of magic often overlapped with charges of religious deviancy.
  • Comparisons with Jesus: He draws parallels between the accusations of magic leveled against Apuleius and the charges of sorcery attributed to Jesus in the Talmud and in some early Christian sources, highlighting the shared stereotype of Jewish and Christian figures as practitioners of magic.
  • The Silence of Jesus: Henderson contrasts Jesus’ relative silence before his Roman judge with Apuleius’s lengthy and elaborate defense, suggesting that these two figures represent polar opposites in their approach to public discourse, even as they both stand accused of illicit practices associated with magic.

Henderson concludes that Apuleius’s writings, with their vivid depictions of polytheist religion, mystical experience, and magical practice, offer a compelling window into the world of Greco-Roman antiquity, illuminating the diverse religious landscape in which Jesus lived and taught, the ambivalent attitudes toward magic in that world, and the legal and social complexities associated with accusations of magic, charges that were leveled against both philosophers like Apuleius and messianic figures like Jesus.

Chapter 12: The Parable in the Hebrew Bible and Rabbinic Literature – Gary G. Porton

This chapter explores the literary form of the parable (Hebrew: mashal) in Jewish tradition, from its biblical origins to its development in Rabbinic literature, highlighting both its similarities and differences with the parables attributed to Jesus in the Synoptic Gospels. Porton argues that, while the Gospel parables and Rabbinic parables share a number of features – particularly their form and abundance – they also exhibit important distinctions, reflecting the differing agendas of the authors and the contexts in which they were composed.

Porton explores the following:

  • Definition of Mashal: He emphasizes that the Hebrew term mashal encompasses a wide range of literary forms – fables, allegories, similes, metaphors, riddles, and parables – making it difficult to make strict categorical distinctions among them.
  • Parables in the Hebrew Bible: Porton surveys the few examples of parables in the Hebrew Bible that take the form of stories with a single point, noting that these parables, in contrast to fables and allegories found in other ancient Near Eastern literature, typically feature human characters, a feature shared with the parables attributed to Jesus in the Gospels.
  • Rabbinic Parables and the Synoptics: Porton argues that the Rabbinic parables found in the Mishnah, the Talmuds, and the Midrash collections, while formally similar to the Gospel parables, cannot readily be compared to them due to the considerable difference in their dating, editing processes, and agendas. The Rabbinic documents, composed centuries after the Synoptic Gospels, are complex anthologies of sayings, stories, and legal discussions attributed to generations of sages, while the Gospels focus on the life and teachings of a single figure, Jesus.
  • Mashal and Nimshal: Porton analyzes the structure of the typical Rabbinic parable, highlighting its two-part composition: (1) the mashal itself and (2) the nimshal, the biblical verse or occasion that generated the parable. He notes that, while most scholars have argued that the mashal is primary and the nimshal secondary, David Stern and Jacob Neusner have proposed a new understanding of their relationship, arguing that it is the nimshal that provides the context and motivation for the mashal, and that each parable reflects the programmatic agenda of the document in which it is found.
  • Differences in Emphasis: Porton highlights several important distinctions between the Rabbinic parables and those attributed to Jesus in the Gospels. Rabbinic parables typically begin with a scriptural prompt and function as biblical interpretations, while Jesus’ parables are presented without such connections. This difference may reflect their contrasting social locations: Rabbis are scholars whose primary concern is with the study and interpretation of Scripture, while Jesus’ ministry takes place in a less formal setting. In addition, while the Gospels often group parables together, Rabbinic parables are typically scattered throughout the legal and exegetical discussions of the Mishnah, Talmud, and Midrash.
  • Jesus’ Use of Parables as a “Jewish” Thing: Porton concludes that the use of parables as a teaching method was a common practice in Jewish tradition and was not unique to Jesus. In fact, the abundance of parables in Rabbinic literature, composed centuries after Jesus, suggests that the parable was a popular literary form in the first century as well.

Porton’s analysis demonstrates that the parables attributed to Jesus in the Gospels, while reflecting a teaching method common to his Jewish culture, must also be understood in terms of the Evangelists’ own agendas and the contexts in which they wrote.

Chapter 13: The Aesop Tradition – Lawrence M. Wills

This chapter explores the tradition surrounding Aesop, a legendary Greek fabulist of the sixth century BCE, highlighting the parallels between the Life of Aesop, a popular prose narrative that probably dates to the first century CE, and the canonical Gospels. Wills argues that the similarities between these texts – in their structure, characterization, and themes – suggest that the Gospel writers were influenced by a literary model already established in the Greco-Roman world, and that the “gospel” as a literary form was not as unique as is commonly supposed.

Wills analyzes the following:

  • The Aesop Tradition: Wills traces the three main strands of the Aesop tradition: references to Aesop as a purveyor of fables in classical Greek literature, collections of fables attributed to him, and the prose Life of Aesop, a fictionalized account of his life, death, and subsequent cult. He highlights how Aesop, like Jesus, was a revered figure whose teachings were transmitted through a distinctive form of discourse – animal fables in Aesop’s case, and socially-oriented parables in Jesus’ – and whose life and death inspired a “gospel” that celebrated his wisdom and piety.
  • Aesop as Social Critic: Wills argues that Aesop, portrayed in the Life as a misshapen slave who advances through cleverness and wit, functions as a social critic who exposes human foibles and societal injustices. His fables, often cynical and biting, offer a satirical perspective on human relations, while his life story depicts him as an ostracized hero who challenges the status quo.
  • Similarities Between the Life of Aesop and the Gospels: Wills outlines the six-part structure that the Life of Aesop shares with the Gospels: (1) the protagonist has lowly beginnings but experiences a deity’s favor; (2) the protagonist engages in a ministry with a salvific message; (3) the protagonist is despised as a result of his message; (4) trumped-up charges of blasphemy are brought forward; (5) the protagonist is executed; and (6) a cult of the protagonist is instituted. He highlights how the Life and the Gospels both utilize motifs of divine visitation (Isis’ appearance to Aesop, the voice from heaven at Jesus’ baptism), geographic shifts from periphery to center (Samos to Delphi, Galilee to Jerusalem), and conflicts over a special kind of discourse (Aesop’s fables, Jesus’ parables) that lead to the protagonists’ trial and execution.
  • Differences in Tone: Wills acknowledges the difference in tone between the Gospels and the Life of Aesop – the Gospels being serious and urgent, while the Life is whimsical and satirical – attributing this difference to the contrasting messages of their protagonists. Jesus proclaims the Good News of God’s plan of salvation, while Aesop preaches a gospel of liberation from human convention and a cynical awareness of the true nature of things.
  • The Gospels as Novelistic Histories: Wills highlights the parallels between the Life of Aesop and the Gospels with the broader genre of popular novels and novelistic histories that arose at the turn of the era, arguing that these texts, both Jewish and Greco-Roman, reflect a shared interest in telling stories about revered figures in a novelistic form.

Wills concludes that the Aesop tradition, with its emphasis on fables, wisdom, and the life of the ostracized hero, provides an important literary context for understanding the composition of the Gospels. While Jesus and Aesop are distinct figures with different messages, their stories share a common structure and reflect a similar pattern of narrative development, suggesting that the Gospel writers were influenced by a literary model already well established in the Greco-Roman world.

Chapter 14: Targum, Jesus, and the Gospels – Bruce Chilton

This chapter explores the Targumim – Aramaic translations and paraphrases of the Hebrew Bible – highlighting their potential as a resource for understanding Jesus and the Gospels. Chilton acknowledges the complexities and challenges in using the Targumim, particularly in regard to dating and dialectical variations, emphasizing that they cannot be uncritically accepted as direct representations of Jewish thought and practice during Jesus’ time. However, he argues that, despite their late literary forms, the Targumim preserve traditions that circulated in the first century, offering valuable insights into how Jews in that period understood their scriptures.

Chilton outlines the following:

  • The Need for Targum: He explains the need for Aramaic translations of the Hebrew Bible, given that Aramaic was the common language of Jews in Judea, Samaria, and Galilee during the first century CE, while Hebrew was understood primarily by a more educated stratum of the population.
  • Characteristics of Targumim: Chilton highlights the paraphrastic nature of the Targumim, noting how they go beyond simply rendering the Hebrew wording of Scripture to provide a more expansive rendering of its meaning. He also discusses the oral origins of the Targumim and the later attempts by Rabbis to regulate Targumic activity, noting that, despite these efforts, the extant Targumim sometimes contradict Rabbinic rules and exhibit diverse theological perspectives.
  • Types of Targumim: Chilton surveys the various types of Targumim, organized according to the three divisions of the Hebrew Bible: Torah, Prophets, and Writings. He provides information about their dates, origins, dialects, and interpretative programs, highlighting the fact that there was no single moment or movement that produced a comprehensive Bible in Aramaic.
  • Uses of Targumim in New Testament Studies: Chilton outlines four ways in which Targumic texts can be used to illuminate our understanding of Jesus and the Gospels:
    • Category 1: Jesus Citing Targumic Renderings: Chilton cites examples of passages in the Gospels where Jesus appears to cite a form of Scripture that corresponds more closely to a Targumic rendering than to other extant versions, such as Mark 4:11-12, which echoes a unique interpretation found in Targum Isaiah 6:9-10.
    • Category 2: Jesus Sharing an Interpretation with a Targum: Chilton analyzes passages where the Gospels and a Targum exhibit a comparable understanding of a particular biblical text, even though they do not share the same wording, such as Jesus’ Parable of the Vineyard, which resonates with the interpretation of the vineyard in Targum Isaiah 5:1-7.
    • Category 3: Jesus Using a Phrase Characteristic of a Targum: Chilton discusses passages where the Gospels employ phrases that are characteristic of a particular Targum, such as the term “kingdom of God,” which appears frequently in both the Gospels and the Targumim, and the saying “with the measure you were measuring with they will measure you,” a proverbial expression found in Targum Isaiah 27:8 and in Matthew 7:2 and Mark 4:24.
    • Category 4: Thematic Agreement between Jesus and a Targum: Chilton highlights passages where the Gospels and a Targum exhibit thematic coherence, even though they do not share specific wording or interpretations, such as Jesus’ statement about the revelation of what was hidden from the prophets, which resonates with Targum Isaiah 48:6a.

Chilton concludes that the Targumim, though challenging to use and interpret, provide a valuable resource for understanding the religious and linguistic environment of Jesus and the Gospels. By exploring the parallels and intersections between the Targumim and the New Testament, scholars can gain a deeper appreciation of the diverse strands of Jewish tradition that contributed to the origins of Christianity.

Chapter 15: The Psalms of Solomon – Joseph L. Trafton

This chapter examines the Psalms of Solomon, a collection of eighteen psalms written in Hebrew, but preserved only in Greek and Syriac, that offer a glimpse into Jewish messianic expectations and intra-Jewish conflicts in the wake of the Roman capture of Jerusalem in 63 BCE. Trafton argues that the Psalms of Solomon provide a crucial context for understanding the social and religious landscape in which Jesus lived and taught, highlighting parallels with Jesus’ criticisms of the Temple and its leadership, and with his proclamation of the coming of a Messiah who will deliver and purify Israel.

Trafton analyzes the following:

  • Date and Authorship: He dates the Psalms of Solomon to the latter half of the first century BCE, based on allusions to the Roman general Pompey’s capture of Jerusalem and subsequent death in Egypt. While the author (or authors) remain unknown, Trafton notes that most scholars agree that they were Jews who opposed the Hasmonean dynasty, rulers who had assumed both the high priesthood and the kingship.
  • Two Opponents: Trafton highlights the psalmist’s criticisms of both the foreign conqueror – Pompey – and a particular group of Jews, the Hasmoneans, who are accused of defiling the Temple and setting up a non-Davidic monarchy.
  • Messianic Hope: The psalmist looks forward to the coming of a Messiah, the “Son of David,” who will purify the nation and restore Jerusalem. However, in contrast to expectations of a warrior-Messiah, the psalmist envisions a figure whose trust is in God and whose roles are king, judge, and shepherd.
  • Parallels with the Gospels: Trafton highlights three key areas where the Psalms of Solomon resonate with the Jesus tradition:
    • Criticism of the Temple: The psalmist’s condemnations of those who have defiled the Temple and its sacrifices parallel Jesus’ cleansing of the Temple in the Gospels, suggesting that Jesus was not alone in his criticism of the Temple and its leadership.
    • Denunciation of Hypocrites: The psalmist’s scathing attacks on hypocrites who “speak the law deceitfully” recall Jesus’ woes to the scribes and Pharisees, revealing that Jesus’ condemnations of hypocrisy were not unique but reflected a strand of intra-Jewish critique already present in his time.
    • The Coming Messiah: The detailed portrait of the anticipated Messiah in Psalm of Solomon 17 provides the longest such description in Second Temple Judaism, offering valuable insights into Jewish messianic expectations at the time of Jesus.

Trafton concludes that the Psalms of Solomon, with their condemnations of injustice, idolatry, and hypocrisy, and their hope for a divinely appointed Messiah who will deliver and purify Israel, offer a crucial context for understanding the social and religious environment of Jesus and his early followers.

Chapter 16: Moral and Ritual Purity – Jonathan Klawans

This chapter explores the concepts of ritual and moral purity in early Judaism, highlighting the important distinctions between these two categories of defilement, and arguing that an accurate understanding of these distinctions is essential for interpreting the purity sayings attributed to Jesus in the Gospels. Klawans debunks three common misunderstandings prevalent in New Testament scholarship: that impurity is synonymous with sin, that purity is directly related to social status, and that the purity system functioned as a tool of social domination.

Klawans analyzes the following:

  • Ritual Impurity in the Hebrew Bible: He defines ritual impurity as the temporary defilement that results from contact with various natural substances and processes related to birth, death, and genital discharge, noting that these impurities are natural, often unavoidable, and generally not sinful.
  • Moral Impurity in the Hebrew Bible: Klawans defines moral impurity as the defilement that results from committing grave sins such as idolatry, incest, and murder, highlighting how these sins are viewed as “abominations” that defile the sinner, the land of Israel, and the sanctuary of God.
  • Distinctions between Ritual and Moral Impurity: Klawans outlines six key differences between ritual and moral impurity in the Hebrew Bible:
    • Sinfulness: Ritual impurity is generally not sinful, while moral impurity is a direct consequence of sin.
    • Effect on Land: Moral impurity, but not ritual impurity, is seen as defiling the Land of Israel.
    • Contagion: Ritual impurity typically involves contagious defilement, while moral impurity does not.
    • Duration: Ritual defilement is temporary and can be remedied by rites of purification, while moral defilement is long-lasting and requires punishment or atonement.
    • Terminology: While the term “impure” (tameh) is used in both contexts, the terms “abomination” (to’evah) and “pollute” (chanaf) are used only with regard to moral impurity.
    • Access to Sanctuary: Sinners, in contrast to those who are ritually impure, are not excluded from the sanctuary.
  • Rabbinic Approaches to Purity: Klawans surveys the Rabbinic approaches to purity, noting that the Mishnah devotes considerable attention to ritual impurity, while remaining largely silent about moral defilement. However, Rabbinic commentaries on the Bible, such as the Sifra and Sifre, do contain discussions of moral impurity, emphasizing its deleterious effects on the land and the sanctuary. Klawans highlights the Rabbis’ efforts to maintain a strict distinction between ritual and moral impurity, compartmentalizing their discussions of the two concepts, and arguing that this approach reflects a non-sectarian ideology of purity.
  • Qumran’s Approach to Purity: Klawans analyzes the Qumran sect’s approach to purity, noting how they blurred the distinction between ritual and moral impurity, viewing sinners as sources of ritual defilement and ritual impurity as sinful in some way. He highlights passages in the Rule of the Community (1QS) and other Qumran texts that associate sin with impurity and that portray the world outside the community as both sinful and defiling. Klawans argues that this fusion of ritual and moral defilement necessitated and reinforced the Qumranites’ physical separation from other Jews, creating an exclusivist and sectarian ideology of purity.
  • Jesus and the Pharisees in Mark 7: Klawans argues that the dispute between Jesus and the Pharisees over hand washing in Mark 7 must be understood within the context of this broader debate about the relationship between ritual and moral purity. Jesus’ famous saying “there is nothing outside a person that by going in can defile, but the things that come out of a person are what defile” (Mark 7:15) should not be interpreted as a rejection of the Jewish purity system, but rather as a prioritization of moral purity over ritual purity. Jesus’ list of sins in Mark 7:21-23 – fornication, theft, murder, adultery, greed, wickedness, deceit, licentiousness, envy, slander, pride, and folly – reflects the common Jewish understanding of the sources of moral defilement, and his emphasis on these sins as the true sources of defilement aligns with the views expressed in other early Jewish literature, including the Dead Sea Scrolls.

Klawans concludes that an accurate understanding of the distinction between ritual and moral purity, and of the debates surrounding this distinction in early Judaism, is essential for interpreting Jesus’ teachings on purity. While Jesus, like the Qumran sectarians, drew a connection between impurity and sin, he did not view sin as ritually defiling. By prioritizing moral purity over ritual purity, Jesus was challenging the Pharisees’ strict compartmentalization of the two concepts, but he was not, as some scholars have argued, rejecting the Jewish purity system altogether.

Chapter 17: Gospel and Talmud – Herbert W. Basser

This chapter examines the parallels between Jesus’ teachings on Torah – as portrayed in the Gospels – and Rabbinic legal thought and practice, arguing that Jesus’ approach to Scripture and to legal interpretation conforms to the methods and traditions preserved in Rabbinic literature. While acknowledging the differences in their respective agendas and ultimate theological conclusions, Basser highlights the shared cultural and linguistic background that informs both Jesus’ and the Rabbis’ understanding of the Law.

Basser explores the following:

  • Jesus’ Knowledge of Rabbinic Methods: He argues that the Gospels, despite their often hostile rhetoric toward Pharisees and Rabbis, present a Jesus who is deeply familiar with Rabbinic methods of interpreting Scripture and who uses these methods to engage his interlocutors. Basser cites Rabbinic traditions about Jesus arguing legal points so well that the Rabbis feared his teachings might gain too much acceptance, suggesting that Jesus possessed a level of knowledge of Torah and its interpretation that rivaled that of the Rabbis themselves.
  • Shared Exegetical Techniques: Basser highlights three key exegetical techniques shared by Jesus and the Rabbis:
    • Literal Unacceptable: Stretch Apt: This approach involves rejecting the literal meaning of a biblical verse – often dismissing it as too obvious or impractical – and reinterpreting the verse by “stretching” its words and structure to achieve a new, more acceptable meaning. Basser cites examples from both Rabbinic literature (e.g., the interpretation of Exodus 21:19 in y. Ketubot 4:4 and of Exodus 25:30 in b. Menahot 99b) and the Gospels (e.g., the antitheses in Matthew 5, particularly the interpretation of “neighbor” to include “enemy” in Matthew 5:43-44).
    • Rational Arguments Based on Legal Exegesis: This approach uses redundant letters and phrases in the biblical text as a basis for constructing rational arguments that justify particular interpretations. Basser cites the example of the Rabbis’ argument in Tanhuma Massei 1 that the permission to circumcise on the Sabbath implies the permission to heal whole bodies, an argument with a striking parallel in Jesus’ reasoning in John 7:21-23.
    • Debate Forms: This approach utilizes a three-part structure, typical of Rabbinic debates, in which a complaint is raised (A), an analogous practice is cited to demonstrate the complaint’s groundlessness (B), and a conclusion is offered that dismisses the complaint (C). Basser cites an example from m. Yadayim 4:6, where the Sadducees challenge the Pharisees’ ruling that sacred scrolls defile the hands while secular texts do not, and Rabbi Yochanan ben Zakkai uses an analogous example of bones to demonstrate that defilement is sometimes associated with preciousness. Basser then highlights the parallels between this Rabbinic debate and the Sabbath healings in Matthew 12:10-12, Mark 2:23-28, and Luke 13:14-16, where Jesus uses a similar argumentative structure to defend healing on the Sabbath.
  • The Anti-Jewish Function of Gospel Rhetoric: Despite these shared exegetical methods and traditions, Basser argues that the Gospels’ rhetoric frequently functions in an anti-Jewish manner, portraying Jesus as in opposition to the Rabbinic system of Torah interpretation. He cites examples where the Evangelists use Jesus’ criticism of specific Rabbinic rulings as an occasion to attack all Pharisaic teachings, and where they dismiss dietary regulations and other aspects of Jewish law as irrelevant or superseded. Basser argues that these anti-Jewish tendencies in the Gospels have influenced later Christian interpretations of Rabbinic literature.

Basser concludes that, while the Gospels utilize Rabbinic methods and forms of argumentation to portray Jesus’ teachings, their overarching theological agenda is to present Jesus as a figure who stands in opposition to the Rabbinic system of Torah interpretation. By highlighting the shared cultural and linguistic background of Jesus and the Rabbis, however, Basser’s analysis offers a corrective to interpretations that portray Jesus as a radical innovator who stands entirely outside the mainstream of Jewish tradition.

Chapter 18: Philo of Alexandria – Gregory E. Sterling

This chapter examines the writings of Philo of Alexandria, a first-century CE Jewish philosopher, highlighting the parallels between Philo’s interpretations of Scripture and his ethical and messianic teachings with aspects of the Gospels. Sterling argues that Philo’s treatises, though never explicitly referencing Jesus or his followers, provide valuable insights into the diverse expressions of Judaism present in the first century CE, illuminating the theological and cultural background of the Jesus tradition.

Sterling explores the following:

  • Philo’s Life and Context: Sterling provides a detailed account of Philo’s family, social status, and education, emphasizing his close ties to the elite circles of the Roman Empire, his thorough training in both Greek and Jewish traditions, and his extensive corpus of philosophical and exegetical works. He highlights Philo’s appeal to early Christians, who preserved most of his writings, creating a Philo Christianus legend and even attributing his conversion to the Christian faith.
  • Philo and the Historical Jesus: Sterling acknowledges that Philo, while he may have heard about Jesus, never mentions him by name. However, he argues that Philo’s writings offer several points of comparison that shed light on the Gospel narratives and Jesus’ teachings.
  • Parallels with the Passion Narratives: Sterling cites three key examples from Philo’s apologetic treatises – Against Flaccus and The Embassy to Gaius – which were written in response to the pogrom against Alexandrian Jews in 38 CE and the subsequent failed embassy to Caligula:
    • The Mocking of Karabas: Philo’s description of the mocking of an insane man named Karabas by Alexandrian Gentiles bears striking similarities to the Gospel accounts of the mocking of Jesus, suggesting that this episode reflects a common practice in antiquity.
    • Scourging: Philo’s account of the scourging of Jewish magistrates by Flaccus provides a vivid and disturbing portrait of this brutal punishment, offering insights into the physical suffering Jesus may have endured.
    • Pontius Pilate: Philo’s description of Pilate as a corrupt and cruel administrator contrasts with the more ambiguous portrait presented in the Gospels, but highlights the tensions between Roman authorities and the Jewish population, providing a political context for understanding Jesus’ trial and execution.
  • Parallels with Jesus’ Teachings: Sterling cites several examples of passages in Philo’s writings that parallel ethical and legal teachings attributed to Jesus in the Gospels:
    • Summary of the Law: Like Jesus in the Synoptic Gospels, Philo summarizes the Law in two parts: our obligation to God and our obligation to humanity.
    • Corban: Philo’s discussion of the practice of Corban, dedicating possessions to God, echoes the controversy story about Corban in Matthew 15 and Mark 7, highlighting a practice that was debated in Jewish circles.
    • The Golden Rule: Philo articulates a negative form of the Golden Rule (“What someone hates to experience, he should not do”), a saying also found in a positive form in Matthew 7:12, demonstrating its presence in Jewish tradition.
  • Philo’s Messianic Vision: Sterling analyzes Philo’s reticence to offer a detailed messianic vision, but highlights two key passages that provide glimpses into his hopes for the future redemption of Israel. The first, from On Rewards and Punishments, describes a messianic age of universal peace, based on Isaiah 11, and refers to the coming of a divinely appointed “man” endowed with courage and strength, reminiscent of the coming Son of Man in Daniel 7 and the Gospels. The second, also from On Rewards and Punishments, envisions the return of the Jewish people from the Diaspora, guided by a “certain vision more divine than is within the reach of human nature.”

Sterling concludes that Philo’s treatises, with their rich tapestry of Hellenistic philosophical thought, Jewish exegetical traditions, and messianic hope, provide an invaluable resource for understanding the Jewish world of the first century CE, offering illuminating parallels and a broader cultural context for interpreting the life and teachings of Jesus.

Chapter 19: The Law of Roman Divorce in the Time of Christ – Thomas A. J. McGinn

This chapter analyzes Roman divorce law in the late Republic and early Empire, highlighting its casualness and the relative ease with which Roman citizens could dissolve their marriages. McGinn argues that, despite the legal freedom granted to both husbands and wives to end their unions unilaterally, Roman attitudes toward divorce were complex and often ambivalent. While divorce was widely tolerated, it was generally viewed as a regrettable necessity at best, and Roman culture placed a high value on marriage. McGinn also challenges the assumption that the ease of divorce necessarily translated into a high divorce rate, noting that the evidence for the frequency of divorce, especially for the nonelite population, is scarce and difficult to interpret.

McGinn examines the following:

  • Ease of Divorce: He emphasizes the simplicity of Roman divorce procedures, noting that no legal formalities or state intervention were required for a Roman citizen to end a marriage. The wish of one spouse no longer to be married was sufficient.
  • The Dowry: McGinn highlights the legal complexities associated with the dowry, which, while legally owned by the husband during the marriage, often had to be returned to the wife upon divorce. This requirement could create complications, especially for large dowries, and the threat of divorce could be used as leverage in marital disputes.
  • Roman Attitudes toward Divorce: McGinn analyzes Roman attitudes toward divorce, noting that, while tolerated and not subject to religious or philosophical objections, it was generally viewed as a regrettable necessity at best. He highlights the social pressure against divorce for frivolous reasons and the practice of bilateral divorce, whereby marriages could be ended by mutual consent for reasons such as entering a priesthood or childlessness.
  • Frequency of Divorce: McGinn argues that the question of the frequency of divorce is difficult to answer, given the scarcity of evidence. He notes that, while anecdotal accounts and the marital histories of some elite Romans suggest that divorce was common, a more systematic analysis of the limited evidence reveals that only a small segment of the population – mostly successful politicians – may have approached a divorce rate comparable to that of the contemporary United States.
  • Restrictions on Divorce: McGinn highlights the exception to the general ease of divorce, the statutory prohibition against freedwomen divorcing their former owners without their consent. This rule, designed to encourage marriages between freedmen and their former slaves, created a unique legal situation in which the freedwoman, though technically able to end the marriage, could not legally marry anyone else.
  • Fault and the Dowry: McGinn analyzes how the issue of fault, while irrelevant to the legal ability to divorce, could affect the disposition of the dowry. He details the five categories of deductions allowed to husbands upon divorce – for children, immorality, expenses, gifts, and theft – and explores how the jurists sought to define and apply the notion of “fault.”
  • Gender and Divorce: McGinn concludes that, while the Roman law of divorce appears to be gender-neutral in many respects, in practice it often disadvantaged women. Wives were more likely to be separated from their children upon divorce, to experience financial loss through deductions from their dowry, and to be blamed for initiating a divorce or for prompting their husbands to divorce them. These factors, combined with social conditioning, made women less likely to resort to divorce, despite their legal right to do so.

McGinn’s analysis of Roman divorce law offers valuable insights into the social and legal context of the Gospel pronouncements on divorce. While Jesus’ absolute (or nearly absolute) prohibition of divorce for both sexes stands in stark contrast to Roman practice, understanding the complexities of Roman attitudes and the social realities that often lay behind the law provides a more nuanced picture of the world in which Jesus and his followers lived.

Chapter 20: Associations in the Ancient World – John S. Kloppenborg

This chapter explores the prevalence and social significance of voluntary associations in the Greco-Roman world, arguing that familiarity with these extrafamilial groups is essential for understanding the early Christian movement. Kloppenborg highlights the diverse functions of associations – cultic, ethnic, professional, and social – and analyzes their structure, membership profiles, and activities, drawing parallels with aspects of the Jesus movement as described in the Gospels and Acts.

Kloppenborg explores the following:

  • Types of Associations: He identifies four main types of associations: (1) family-based, (2) cultic, (3) ethnic, and (4) professional. These groups, which often overlapped in their membership and functions, provided a space for social interaction, religious observance, and mutual support for those who were often excluded from the rights and privileges of citizenship, such as women, noncitizens, slaves, and former slaves.
  • Benefits of Membership: Kloppenborg highlights the concrete benefits that associations provided to their members, including burial for deceased members, financial support, and opportunities for socializing and banqueting. He argues that these associations combined functions now divided among various institutions in modern society, such as churches, social clubs, and social service agencies.
  • Structure of Associations: He analyzes the organizational structure of associations, noting how they mimicked features of civic government, with officials such as supervisors, treasurers, secretaries, and priests, and how they bestowed honors on members who had distinguished themselves through acts of generosity.
  • Membership Profiles: Kloppenborg emphasizes the inclusivity of many associations, noting that they often comprised members of both genders and various social statuses, including slaves and former slaves. He highlights how these associations often sought influential patrons from the civic elite, both to enhance their prestige and to secure protection from potential suppression.
  • Roman Concerns about Associations: He details the concerns that Roman officials sometimes expressed about associations, noting attempts to suppress them, such as the senatusconsultum of 133 CE that limited collegia to funeral societies and restricted their meetings to once per month. However, he also notes how these attempts were often ineffective, and how associations found ways to circumvent restrictions while continuing their activities as usual.
  • Associations and the Jesus Movement: Kloppenborg argues that the early Jesus movement, particularly in the Diaspora, would have been seen by others as a cultic association dedicated to an Eastern deity. He highlights parallels between the activities of Jesus groups and those of other associations:
    • Meetings and Meals: Like other associations, the Jesus groups met regularly, shared meals together, and provided mutual support for members.
    • Internal Dispute Resolution: Paul’s advice in 1 Corinthians 6 that Christians settle legal disputes within the community reflects the common practice of associations to arbitrate members’ disputes, rather than relying on secular courts.
    • Fictive Kinship Language: Kloppenborg highlights the widespread use of fictive kinship language (brother/sister) in the Jesus groups, a practice that implied heightened social obligation and a strong sense of belonging among members.

Kloppenborg concludes that familiarity with the social world of voluntary associations in the Greco-Roman world is crucial for understanding the early Christian movement. The Jesus groups, like other associations, offered a space for social belonging, religious observance, and mutual support, particularly for those who were marginalized or excluded from the dominant social structures. By adapting this familiar form of social organization, the early Christians were able to establish their communities and to spread their message within the diverse cultural landscape of the Roman Empire.

Chapter 21: Anointing Traditions – Teresa J. Hornsby

This chapter explores the practice of anointing in the ancient world, highlighting its various forms and functions, and arguing that the Gospel accounts of Jesus’ anointing, while utilizing a common cultural practice, also contain unique features that defy easy parallels with other anointing traditions. Hornsby focuses primarily on the accounts in Luke 7:36-50 and John 12:1-8, where a woman anoints Jesus’ feet, wiping them with her hair, a detail without parallel in comparable literature.

Hornsby analyzes the following:

  • Anointing in the LXX and the New Testament: She surveys the various types of anointing recorded in the Septuagint, noting that the term christō (Hebrew: mashach) is used exclusively for ceremonial anointing of kings and priests, while the terms aleiphō and murizo are employed for a wider range of practices, from cosmetic adornment to healing rituals. She highlights how these terms signify good health and happiness, while the absence of anointing suggests sickness, sadness, and death.
  • Anointing and Feet in Greek and Roman Literature: Hornsby examines anointing accounts in Homer, Petronius, Clement of Alexandria, and Josephus, highlighting parallels and distinctions with the Gospel narratives:
    • Homer (Odyssey 19): An old servant woman washes and anoints Odysseus’ feet, recognizing him by a scar. This account emphasizes the theme of recognition, which finds echoes in the Gospel accounts where the woman anoints Jesus in acknowledgment of his special status.
    • Petronius (Satyricon 69): Long-haired boys anoint the feet of banquet guests, a practice described as “in defiance of all convention.” This scene, with its erotic connotations, may shed light on the unusual detail of the woman using her hair to wipe Jesus’ feet in Luke and John.
    • Clement of Alexandria (The Instructor 3.11): Clement argues that anointing, when it goes beyond necessity, becomes sensual and may lead to sexual arousal. This perspective suggests that the woman’s actions in Luke and John could have been interpreted as excessive and potentially transgressive.
    • Josephus (Antiquities and Jewish Wars): Josephus records numerous accounts of the anointing of priests and royalty, but only one instance where a non-elite individual anoints himself. This evidence suggests that the anointing of Jesus’ feet by an unnamed woman was not a common practice.

Hornsby concludes that, while anointing was a common practice in antiquity, the Gospel accounts of Jesus’ anointing, particularly the detail of the woman using her hair to wipe his feet, are unusual and defy easy parallels with other anointing traditions.

Chapter 22: The Passover Haggadah – Calum Carmichael

This chapter examines the Passover Haggadah, the text used by Jews to celebrate the Passover seder, highlighting its significance for understanding Jesus’ Last Supper with his disciples, which the Synoptic Gospels portray as a Passover meal. Carmichael argues that the Haggadah, with its rituals, prayers, and symbolic actions, provides a rich and illuminating context for interpreting the Gospel accounts, revealing how Jesus adapted and reinterpreted traditional Passover themes and practices.

Carmichael analyzes the following:

  • The Seder in the New Testament: He highlights the numerous references to Passover customs and rituals in the Gospels and Paul’s letters, demonstrating the centrality of the Passover celebration to early Christian faith.
    • Purging of Leaven: Paul’s metaphor of purging the old leaven (1 Corinthians 5:7) refers to the ritual cleaning of a house of all leavened material before Passover.
    • Reclining at Table: Jesus and his disciples recline at the Last Supper, a posture signifying freedom and recalling the Haggadah’s emphasis on liberation from slavery.
    • Cups of Wine: Jesus’ blessing of the cup of wine (Mark 14:23) corresponds to the third of the four cups at the seder, and his statement that he will not drink wine again until the kingdom of God comes (Mark 14:25) refers to the fourth cup, which the Haggadah associates with God’s universal reign.
    • Refusal of Wine at the Cross: Jesus’ refusal of the wine offered to him at the cross (Mark 15:36) reflects the Passover rule that, between the third and fourth cups, no non-liturgical drinking is permitted.
    • Singing a Hymn: The Gospel’s account of Jesus and his disciples singing a hymn before going to the Mount of Olives (Mark 14:26) corresponds to the singing of the Hallel (Psalms of Thanksgiving) after the Passover meal.
  • Jesus Conducting the Seder: Carmichael notes how Jesus, according to the Synoptic Gospels, conducts the seder, distributing karpas and Matzah, saying the blessings, and leading the singing of the Hallel, reflecting the traditional role of the most distinguished member of the company in leading the Passover celebration.
  • Development of the Haggadah: Carmichael argues that the Haggadah, in its later written form, reflects changes and additions designed to counter Christian interpretations of the Passover. For example, the prominence of Moses in the biblical Exodus story is diminished in the Haggadah, emphasizing instead God’s direct role in the redemption of Israel.
  • Aphikoman and Jesus’ Body: He analyzes the ritual of the Aphikoman, a piece of unleavened bread broken off, set aside, and eaten at the end of the seder, noting how its name (from a Greek verb meaning “to come, arrive”) alludes to the coming Messiah. Carmichael argues that Jesus, by equating the bread with his body, was claiming to embody the Messiah, reinterpreting a traditional Passover element to refer to himself.
  • Additional Parallels: Carmichael highlights further connections between the Haggadah and other Jewish traditions with the New Testament:
    • Divine Birth of Moses: The Haggadah hints at a divine conception for Moses, reading Exodus 2:25 (“And God saw the children of Israel, and God knew”) in a sexual sense. This tradition, along with stories of Amram divorcing Jochebed to avoid the slaughter of their children and of Jochebed regaining her virginity before Moses’ birth, provides a Jewish precedent for Matthew’s virgin birth narrative for Jesus.
    • Laban and Pharaoh: The Haggadah portrays Laban, the Aramean father-in-law of Jacob, as seeking to kill all of Israel’s children, male and female, a closer parallel to Herod’s “slaughter of the innocents” than Pharaoh’s decree to kill the male children.
    • Four Sons: The Haggadah’s typology of four sons – wise, wicked, simple, and unable to inquire – resonates with the series of questioners who approach Jesus in Mark 12, suggesting that the structure of the Markan scene may be indebted to this Passover tradition.

Carmichael concludes that the Passover Haggadah provides an indispensable resource for understanding the Gospel narratives of Jesus’ Last Supper, revealing how Jesus adapted, reinterpreted, and transformed traditional Jewish rituals, symbols, and themes. The Haggadah also offers a glimpse into how Jewish interpretations of Scripture and of their own traditions were shaped by their interaction with the burgeoning Christian movement.

Chapter 23: Joseph and Aseneth: Food as an Identity Marker – Randall D. Chesnutt

This chapter analyzes the apocryphal romance Joseph and Aseneth, exploring its portrayal of Aseneth’s conversion from Paganism to the God of Israel and her marriage to the patriarch Joseph. Chesnutt argues that this narrative, likely composed by a Jew in Egypt around the turn of the eras, highlights the importance of food, meals, and table fellowship to Jewish self-identity in a Gentile environment, offering a compelling parallel to the social and religious concerns that pervaded the Jewish world of Jesus and early Christianity.

Chesnutt explores the following:

  • Joseph and Aseneth as a Jewish Work: He presents the arguments for Jewish authorship of Joseph and Aseneth, highlighting its concern for addressing the biblical problem of Joseph’s marriage to a Pagan woman, its emphasis on Jewish ethnic and religious particularism, and its portrayal of Aseneth’s conversion as a process of embracing both the God of Israel and the family of Jacob. He also notes the compelling evidence for an Egyptian provenance, based on the story’s setting and its use of Egyptian motifs.
  • Conversion and Food Taboos: Chesnutt analyzes the narrative’s emphasis on the taboo against physical intimacy and intermarriage with Gentiles, highlighting how the author uses meal language to distinguish the “worshiper of God” from the idolatrous Gentile, contrasting the “bread of life,” “cup of immortality,” and “ointment of incorruption” enjoyed by the former with the “bread of strangling,” “cup of deceit,” and “ointment of destruction” consumed by the latter.
  • Food as a Marker of Jewish Identity: Chesnutt argues that the triadic formula of “bread of life,” “cup of immortality,” and “ointment of incorruption” in Joseph and Aseneth functions as a symbolic expression of Jewish life, highlighting the importance of food, drink, and oil in Jewish tradition, and their perceived susceptibility to defilement through contact with Gentiles and Pagan practices. This emphasis on food purity, he argues, reflects the broader concern for maintaining Jewish identity in a Gentile environment, a concern also evident in the Gospels and in other early Jewish literature.
  • Meals and Table Fellowship: Chesnutt notes the importance of meals and table fellowship in Joseph and Aseneth, highlighting the scene where Joseph refuses to eat with the Egyptians because it would be an abomination to him, and the significance of Aseneth’s conversion being marked by her renunciation of idol-tainted food. This emphasis on meal practices as markers of religious and ethnic identity finds parallels in the Gospels, where Jesus’ table fellowship with sinners and his teaching on purity provoke controversy, and in other early Jewish sources, including the Dead Sea Scrolls and Rabbinic literature, where food and meal practices are often at the center of debates about Jewish identity.

Chesnutt concludes that Joseph and Aseneth, with its compelling narrative of Gentile conversion and its emphasis on food purity as a marker of Jewish identity, provides a valuable resource for understanding the social and religious concerns that permeated the Jewish world of Jesus and the early Christians. By exploring the parallels between this apocryphal romance and the New Testament, scholars can gain a deeper appreciation of the complex dynamics of Jewish identity in the Greco-Roman world and of the challenges and opportunities presented by interfaith encounters.

Chapter 24: The Pliny and Trajan Correspondence – Bradley M. Peper and Mark DelCogliano

This chapter analyzes the correspondence between Pliny the Younger, the Roman governor of Bithynia-Pontus, and Emperor Trajan regarding the problem of early Christians in the province. Peper and DelCogliano argue that these letters, written in 111-112 CE, offer a crucial non-Christian perspective on early Christianity, providing evidence for the continued existence and development of institutions reportedly initiated by Jesus, as well as revealing Roman attitudes toward Christians and their potential threat to civic order.

Peper and DelCogliano highlight the following:

  • Pliny’s Inquiry: Pliny, seeking guidance from Trajan on how to deal with accusations against Christians, describes his judicial procedure, noting how he interrogated those accused, demanded that they recant their faith, and threatened them with punishment.
  • Christian Liturgical Practices: Pliny recounts the information he has gathered about Christian practices, noting that they met twice on a fixed day (likely Sunday), sang hymns to Christ “as if to a god,” and shared a common meal. This description, though brief, provides valuable evidence for the continuation of institutions reportedly initiated by Jesus: Sunday worship, hymns of praise, and communal meals.
  • Roman Perception of Christianity: Peper and DelCogliano analyze Pliny’s description of Christianity as a “depraved and fanatical superstition,” highlighting the Roman elite’s view of Christian beliefs and practices as both excessive and potentially dangerous. They note that Pliny’s characterization of Christian hymns as being sung “as if to a god” suggests that he viewed Christians as engaged in a distorted form of hero cult, worshiping Christ as a divine being rather than as a deceased human with divine attributes.
  • Persecution of Christians: Pliny, following Trajan’s instructions, does not actively seek out Christians in his province, but only prosecutes those who are formally accused. This policy reflects the ad hoc nature of Roman persecution during this period, which was instigated primarily by private individuals (delatores) rather than by the state. However, the correspondence also provides evidence for the sporadic persecutions that the canonical Gospels portray Jesus as predicting, suggesting that the Gospel accounts, while written later, may reflect the experiences of early Christians who faced accusations and trials before Roman authorities.
  • Roman Legal Procedures: Peper and DelCogliano explain the legal framework within which Pliny operated, highlighting the power of a Roman governor to accept or deny cases, to interrogate the accused, and to determine punishment. This procedure, known as cognitio extra ordinem, provides a context for understanding Pilate’s trial and execution of Jesus, demonstrating how a Roman governor exercised considerable judicial power and might be influenced by local authorities.

Peper and DelCogliano conclude that the Pliny and Trajan correspondence offers a unique and invaluable window into the world of early Christianity, revealing both the continued development of Christian institutions and the challenges the movement faced in a Roman context. These letters also shed light on the legal and social dynamics of Roman provincial administration, providing a nuanced backdrop for understanding the Gospel narratives of Jesus’ arrest, trial, and execution.

Chapter 25: Imitations of Greek Epic in the Gospels – Dennis R. MacDonald

This chapter explores the presence of imitations of classical Greek poetry, particularly Homeric epic, in the Gospels, challenging the scholarly neglect of these influential literary texts in New Testament studies. MacDonald argues that Mark and Luke-Acts, despite their Jewish subject matter and religious agenda, exhibit numerous and strategic imitations of Homer, Euripides, and other Greek poets, demonstrating the pervasiveness of Greek narrative traditions in the Greco-Roman world and the Evangelists’ sophisticated use of these traditions to craft their stories.

MacDonald outlines the following:

  • The Neglect of Greek Poetry in New Testament Studies: He criticizes the dearth of attention paid to classical Greek poetry by New Testament scholars, highlighting its absence in standard reference works, introductions, and commentaries. He attributes this neglect to the lack of classical training among some scholars, the perceived distance between Greek epic and early Christian literature in terms of time, culture, and genre, and a reluctance to acknowledge the influence of Pagan literature on the New Testament.
  • The Importance of Mimesis: MacDonald emphasizes the centrality of mimesis (imitation) in ancient education and literary composition, noting how Greek and Roman authors regularly imitated Homer and other poets, incorporating allusions, twisting plots, and transforming characters. He argues that this practice was not limited to poetry, but also influenced the writing of prose, and that even the illiterate were exposed to the stories and themes of classical Greek literature through public recitations and visual art.
  • Six Criteria for Identifying Mimesis: MacDonald proposes six criteria for identifying instances of mimesis: (1) accessibility and popularity of the model, (2) evidence of analogous imitations, (3) density of parallels, (4) order of parallels, (5) distinctive shared features, and (6) interpretability of differences.
  • Examples of Homeric Imitations in Mark: MacDonald analyzes a number of passages in Mark’s Gospel that exhibit imitations of Homeric epic, including:
    • Jesus’ Refusal of Wine (Mark 15:23): This scene parallels Hector’s refusal of wine in Iliad 6, where the Trojan hero chooses to maintain a clear head for battle.
    • Mocking of Jesus (Mark 15:29-32): This episode echoes the taunts exchanged between Achilles and Hector in Iliad 22, and Achilles’ gloating over Hector’s corpse, highlighting a common practice in ancient duels.
    • Darkness at Noon and Jesus’ Cry (Mark 15:33-34): Jesus’ cry “My God, my God, why have you forsaken me?” parallels Hector’s lament in Iliad 22 when he recognizes that his gods have abandoned him, a moment of divine desertion that the Markan Jesus interprets as signaled by the darkness at noon.
    • Jesus’ Death and the Veil (Mark 15:37-38): This scene echoes Hector’s death in Iliad 22, where his soul departs for Hades, and Priam’s lament that “majestic Ilium as a whole was burning with fire from top to bottom,” highlighting the motif of cosmic upheaval associated with the death of a hero.
    • Centurion’s Gloat (Mark 15:39): The centurion’s ironic recognition of Jesus as “God’s son” parallels Achilles’ gloat over Hector, whom he mocks for being worshiped as a god by the Trojans.
    • Women Mourning (Mark 15:40-41): This scene evokes the lamentations of Hecuba, Helen, and Andromache in Iliad 22, highlighting the role of women as mourners for fallen heroes.
    • Joseph of Arimathea Rescuing Jesus’ Body (Mark 15:42-46): This episode parallels Priam’s dangerous, nocturnal journey to Achilles’ camp to retrieve the body of Hector, emphasizing the motif of a father risking everything to honor a deceased son.

MacDonald concludes that Mark’s Gospel, far from being a simple recounting of traditions about Jesus, is a sophisticated literary composition that strategically imitates and transforms Homeric epic and other Greek narrative traditions to present a compelling story of a new kind of hero, a suffering servant whose death and resurrection usher in a new era of salvation and hope.

Chapter 26: Narratives of Noble Death – Robert Doran

This chapter explores a variety of narratives about “noble death” from both Jewish and Greco-Roman literature, highlighting the cultural significance of how one faces death and arguing that these narratives provide a framework for understanding the Gospel accounts of Jesus’ death. Doran argues that, while the Gospel passion narratives exhibit distinctive features, they also resonate with traditional motifs and themes found in stories about heroic figures who die for a cause.

Doran analyzes two categories of “noble death”:

  • Death for the Sake of One’s People: He presents three examples of individuals who offer their lives to save their communities:
    • Codrus, King of Athens (from Pompeius Trogus): Codrus, learning from an oracle that the Athenians will be victorious only if their king is killed, disguises himself as a peasant and provokes his own death in battle, securing victory for his people. This narrative embodies the maxim “better to have one man die for the people.”
    • Publius Decius Mus, Roman Consul (from Livy): Decius Mus, receiving an unfavorable omen before a battle, formally devotes himself and the enemy to the gods, charging into battle and dying to secure victory for the Romans. This story highlights the theme of self-sacrifice for the sake of the common good, a theme that resonates with the Gospels’ portrayal of Jesus’ death.
    • Jewish Martyrs (from 2 Maccabees): Doran recounts the stories of Eleazar, an elderly Jewish scribe, and seven brothers and their mother, who all choose to be tortured and killed rather than to violate the Law of Moses. These narratives, which emphasize the martyrs’ faith in God and their hope for resurrection, provided powerful precedents for early Christian martyrs and for the Gospel writers’ portrayal of Jesus’ death.
  • Philosophic Deaths: Doran analyzes four examples of individuals who choose to face death with equanimity, asserting the power of reason and virtue over the fear of death:
    • Stilpon and Socrates (from Plutarch’s “On Composure”): Plutarch cites Stilpon’s statement that, even though Fortune may take away everything else, “we have ourselves” and “that which even the Achaeans could not carry or drive off.” Plutarch then compares Stilpon’s composure with Socrates’ insistence that his accusers, Anytus and Meletus, “are able to kill but they are not able to hurt.” These examples highlight the philosophical idea that true identity and virtue are beyond the reach of external forces, even death.
    • Anaxarchus of Abdera (from Diogenes Laertius): When tortured by Nicocreon, tyrant of Cyprus, Anaxarchus insists, “Pound the sack of Anaxarchus, but Anaxarchus you do not pound,” separating his true self from his physical body. This account resonates with the philosophical perspective that the soul is immortal and that physical death does not touch the true self.
    • Apollonius of Tyana (from Philostratus): Apollonius, on trial before Domitian, argues that it is fitting for a wise man to die for his beliefs, asserting that “law does not enjoin these, nor does nature produce them, but those the wise man exercises himself in out of resolute strength.” This statement highlights the idea that philosophical convictions can transcend the fear of death.
    • Reason as Master of the Passions (from 4 Maccabees): The author of 4 Maccabees argues that reason, informed by the Law of Moses, can control the passions that lead to fear, pain, and injustice. He cites the examples of the Maccabean martyrs as proof that reason can triumph over even the most excruciating tortures, demonstrating the power of faith and virtue to overcome the fear of death.

Doran concludes that the Gospel narratives of Jesus’ death, while grounded in Jewish traditions about martyrdom and messianic suffering, also resonate with motifs and themes found in Greco-Roman narratives about noble death. By exploring these parallels, scholars can gain a deeper appreciation of the cultural significance of how one faces death and the ways in which the Gospel writers drew upon both Jewish and Gentile literary traditions to portray Jesus’ death as an act of ultimate self-sacrifice and as a triumph of virtue over the power of death.

Chapter 27: Isaiah 53:1-12 (Septuagint) – Ben Witherington III

This chapter presents a parallel-column translation of Isaiah 53, comparing the Hebrew Masoretic Text with the Greek Septuagint, highlighting the differences between these two influential versions. Witherington argues that, while the Hebrew version was likely more influential for Jesus and his earliest followers, the Septuagint was the Bible for Greek-speaking Christians, particularly in Gentile congregations, and that both versions were important for shaping early Christian understandings of Jesus’ suffering and death.

Witherington highlights the following:

  • Differences in Emphasis: The Septuagint emphasizes the themes of honor and shame more than the Hebrew text, focusing on the servant’s lack of outward beauty, his humiliation, and his rejection by others.
  • Lawlessness and Justification: The Greek version highlights the servant’s innocence and lack of “lawlessness,” while also stressing his role in justifying the righteous.
  • Suffering and Death: The Septuagint places greater emphasis on the speaker’s observation of the servant’s suffering and on the servant’s silence in the face of affliction.

Witherington concludes that the Septuagint, while broadly similar to the Hebrew text, offers a distinct interpretation of Isaiah 53, highlighting themes of social status, moral purity, and justification that resonate with the Gospel narratives and with early Christian theological reflection on Jesus’ suffering and death.

  • Jesus and Isaiah 53: Witherington discusses the evidence for Jesus’ use of Isaiah 53 to conceptualize his own ministry and suffering, noting the presence of echoes and allusions to this text in all four Gospels, as well as in Acts, Romans, and 1 Peter. He highlights how Jesus’ pronouncements about shedding his blood for the many, his reference to a “baptism” of cleansing death, and his association of his death with the “new covenant” resonate with themes and motifs found in Isaiah 53, particularly in the Hebrew version.

Witherington concludes that, while the historical Jesus most likely drew upon Isaiah 53 to understand and explain his own suffering and death, the early Christian writers, drawing upon both the Hebrew and Greek versions of this influential text, developed a sophisticated theological interpretation of Jesus’ death as an act of substitutionary atonement, fulfilling the prophecy of the suffering servant.

Chapter 28: Thallus on the Crucifixion – Dale C. Allison Jr.

This chapter examines a single fragment from Julius Africanus, a third-century Christian writer, quoting the first-century CE historian Thallus, who mentions the darkness that accompanied Jesus’ death, attributing it to an eclipse of the sun. Allison argues that, if Thallus wrote in the 50s CE, as many scholars have proposed, then he would be the earliest non-Christian witness to Jesus and to the tradition that a darkness coincided with the Crucifixion. While Thallus’s brief account cannot be taken as independent confirmation of the Gospel narratives, it does suggest a pre-Markan origin for this tradition, offering a potential glimpse into the early development of the story of Jesus’ death.

Allison highlights the following:

  • Thallus’ History: Thallus composed a multi-volume history of the eastern Mediterranean world, drawing upon both Greek and non-Greek sources, but his work has perished and is known only through citations in later writers.
  • Julius Africanus’ Summary: Julius Africanus, writing his own history in the early third century, quotes Thallus’ account of the darkness at the time of Jesus’ death, noting that Thallus attributed it to a solar eclipse.
  • Africanus’ Objection: Africanus rejects Thallus’s interpretation, arguing that it is “contrary to reason” because a solar eclipse cannot occur during a full moon, which is when the Jews celebrate Passover. He notes that Jesus’ death occurred on the day before Passover, when the moon would be full.
  • Significance of Thallus’ Account: Allison argues that, if Thallus was writing in the 50s CE, then his account of the darkness at Jesus’ death would predate Mark’s Gospel, the earliest of the canonical Gospels. This would suggest that the tradition of a darkness accompanying the Crucifixion had already been formulated prior to Mark, though it is impossible to determine whether this tradition was oral or written, or from what source Thallus derived it.

Allison concludes that Thallus’s account, though fragmentary and mediated through a later writer, offers a tantalizing glimpse into the early development of the story of Jesus’ death, providing a potential link between the Gospel narratives and earlier, non-Christian sources.

Conclusion

The Historical Jesus in Context, with its diverse array of primary sources, new translations, and expert commentary, provides a valuable resource for understanding the historical Jesus. By immersing themselves in the literature, culture, and social world of Jesus’ time, readers can gain a deeper appreciation of the complex tapestry of Jewish and Gentile traditions that shaped his life, teachings, and legacy. These primary sources, spanning from archaeology to apocalyptic literature to personal letters, remind us that the story of Jesus did not unfold in a vacuum, but within a richly textured historical and cultural landscape.

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