Friday, August 6, 2010

Remains of John the Baptist Found in Bulgaria?

There has been some news related to John the Baptist over the last few weeks. Archaeologists excavating an ancient church off the coast of Bulgaria have identified what they are describing as “relics of John the Baptist.” Apparently they discovered an urn built into the altar of a church dedicated to the Baptist. When they opened the urn they found small bones from the arms and the legs of John the Baptist.

I cannot comment on whether or not these are really some of John the Baptist’s bones. It is possible, but I have my doubts. Church relics have a long and complicated history. John Calvin once commented that there were enough pieces of the true cross to build a ship. I would add this story to a long list of suspicious ones. For instance, back in March the residents of another small island claimed to have found the nails from Jesus' cross. At least that story was made a little more exciting by brining in the Knights Templar. It seems that if you mention the Templars it somehow adds credence to the claims.

If this ancient church and it relics can teach us anything, it is that the man who blasted Herod Antipas and called Israel to repentance has had a following long after his death. In fact, there have always been those in history who would rather follow John as Messiah instead of Jesus.

There seems to be some of evidence in the New Testament of a conflict with the followers of John the Baptist. We know from Acts 18:25 and 19:1-7 that there were disciples of John the Baptist who continued to follow him even after he died.

Unlike the Synoptics, the fourth gospel does not record John baptizing Jesus, but it does retain his witness of the Spirit descending upon Jesus (1.29-34). This may be an attempt to deprive those claiming an alternative Messiah and the possibility of pointing to Jesus’ baptism as a symbol of Jesus’ subservience to John. The gospel’s programmatic approach towards John is clearest in 1:8 where it blatantly declares that John was not the light but only came to testify to the light. This is followed by John the Baptist’s own confession in 1:20, 28 that he is not the messiah and even points Jesus out to two of his disciples who leave John to follow Jesus (1:35-40). Later John tells his own disciples that he himself must decrease while giving Jesus room to increase (3:30). Jesus then goes on to make more disciples than John (4:1). Jesus performs seven signs in the gospel; John performs none (10:41). From this evidence it seems that the author of John was trying to support belief in Jesus as the Messiah over against John while at the same time trying to claim John for the Christian cause.

Later there were even claims by some groups that John, not Jesus, was the Messiah (Pseudo-Clementine Recognitions 1.60.1-2). Consequently, the possibility remains that the movement did not die but endured and spread even after John’s death.

Even today there remain followers of John. A small sect called Mandaeans live in parts of Iran and Iraq and has kept this movement going until the modern era. These followers of John practice a baptism ritual by dipping themselves in a river weekly. The group was first brought to the attention of western scholars during the 17th century missionary movement in the area. The Mandaean literature dates back to the eight century and hence is not old enough to help us discern anything about the historical John. But the group’s long history is a testimony to the enduring influence of John the Baptist’s ministry.

Unfortunately, the group has had some struggles since the 2003 invasion of Iraq. Many of the Mandaeans in Iraq received a level of protection under Saddam Hussein. But with the political, social and religious upheaval in that country many have been forced to flee. It would be interesting to hear what thoughts the Mandeans have about the supposed discovery of John the Baptist’s remains. It would also be interesting to know what John himself might have thought about both the Mandeans and his relics.

Thursday, August 5, 2010

Temple found in Philistine home of Goliath

The Jerusalem Post and Biblical Archaeology Review are reporting that a Philistine temple was found in the city of Gath.

During excavations at the Tel Tzafit National Park near Kiryat Gat, researchers and archaeologists have discovered a Philistine temple and evidence of a major earthquake that occurred during Biblical times. The site of Kiryat Gat is ancient Gath, home of the Biblical figure Goliath. The discovery of the temple, the first to be found in Gath, will allow researchers to learn more about the architecture of Philistia during the time when the Biblical hero Samson is thought to have destroyed the temple of Dagon.

“We’re not saying this is the same temple where the story of Samson occurred or that the story even did occur,” said Professor Aren Maeir of Bar-Ilan University. “But this gives us a good idea of what image whoever wrote the story would have had of a Philistine temple.”

Scientists have also found wreckage at Gath that they believe to be results of an earthquake measuring 8 on the Richter scale.

“We know that there is a very famous earthquake mentioned in the book of Isaiah and the book of Amos ... What we have here is very strong arch-evidence of a dramatic earthquake, a natural event that left a very significant impression on the biblical prophets of the time,” Meier said.

Wednesday, August 4, 2010

Was Cain a Vampire?

Well, that is how the producers of a new movie see it. Will Smith will star as Cain, the infamous murder. Apparently it is not enough for Cain to have spilled Abel’s blood. Now he will be made to drink that blood too.

I admit I probably won’t see this film. Not because I think that it is wrong to rewrite a biblical story, but because I am just not into vampires. They make my blood run. J

But the idea of rewriting the Cain and Abel story is not new. In fact, it has been happening almost since the beginning. As the article points out, Jewish and Christian authors have been filling in the “gaps” and expanding the Cain and Abel story to try to make sense of it.

Why, for instance, does God reject Cain’s offering? The Septuagint says that it was because Cain did not cut it correctly.

How did the brothers know which offering was accepted? Some interpreters suggest that fire came down and consumed Abel’s offering but not Cain’s.

What was the mark of Cain? Some translators misunderstood the Hebrew with the result that instead of becoming a “fugitive and wanderer on the earth” Cain was “shaking and trembling” on the earth. In other words, Cain had a visible tremor that marked him out to anyone who may have encountered him.

I could go on about this topic and in fact I have in numerous publications.

The story attracted my attention because my new book on this subject should be out this fall. Maybe I should include my phone number here so the producers can consult with me. Are you reading this Mr. Harvey Weinstein? Have I mentioned how much I love Miramax Films?

Tuesday, August 3, 2010

Gordon Fee on Revelation

Over on Euagelion, Michael Bird has pointed an interview with Gordon Fee. As many will know, Gordon Fee has been a strong, positive voice in the field of biblical studies. Fee retired from Regent College in Vancouver, Canada, but has remained active in writing and lecturing on the New Testament.

Apparently Fee has a new commentary on Revelation published by Wipf & Stock. In the video Fee mentions that it was to be published in March of 2010. But I can't find it anywhere on the web.

The video is a nice summary of Fee's views on Revelation and how it should be interpreted. It is about 30 minutes long and those who are hoping he will identify the Anti-Christ or provide a date for the end of the world will be disappointed. Instead, you will hear a responsible perspective on how to handle this very bizarre book.

Monday, August 2, 2010

The Alexamenos Graffito: More on Crucifixion

I was reminded by David deSilva of another piece of evidence that should be weighed when considering the type of implement used to execute Jesus. He points out that the Alexamenos Graffito adds some support to the traditional depiction of the cross.

The Alexamenos Graffito is a crudely drawn and misspelled piece of graffiti carved into a wall of the Palatine Palace at Rome. It shows a man with the head of an ass hanging from a cross. At the top appears either the Greek letter upsilon or a tau cross. To the left is man raising one hand in a gesture that suggests worship. Beneath the cross there is a caption written in Greek:

Alecamenoj sebete qeon

Alexamamenos worshipping God.

This is the earliest known depiction of the crucified Jesus Christ. Obviously the sketch is mocking Jesus and those who worship him. Jews had been accused of worshipping an ass and this seems to have been transferred to Christians (Tacitus, Hist 5.3-4; Josephus, Against Apion 2.80).

The graffiti was discovered in 1857, but it dates anywhere from the late first to the early third centuries CE, although it seems that the later date is to be preferred.

The picture would seem to lend some authority to the common depiction of the implement on which Jesus died as a being a crossbeam rather than just a pole.

Since Samuelsson’s dissertation is not yet available to be read, I don’t know what if any consideration he has given to this evidence. But I think this along with the points made by Hurtado adds weight to the tradition that Jesus died on a cross rather than a pole. The abstract to Samuelsson’s dissertation notes that he investigates the philological aspects and concludes that language used in the New Testament is not clear. It may be that Samuelsson has invested too much in language without giving consideration to other artifacts that might help fill out the picture for us. I hope he plans to publish an article length summary of his conclusions soon.