Tuesday, December 13, 2011

When Was Jesus Born?


June is identified as the month when sheep would be taken into agricultural fields to graze on stubble following the wheat harvest. Such fields were usually enclosed with a low stone wall that served as an extra-large sheepfold for warm summer nights. Shepherds would be on guard that none escaped and that no predators or thieves got in.

In cold months like late December the sheep were often kept in the fold at home in a cave beneath or adjacent to the owner’s house; there they fed on hay or grain stored by the owner for those lean months, and the sheep stayed warmer in the shelter of the home sheepfold. In the spring and fall they grazed in the wilderness, wherever the shepherd could find something growing wild. Assuming the accuracy of the biblical account, that the Bethlehem shepherds had taken their flocks into the agricultural fields to eat stubble (Luke 2:8), Jesus was more likely born after the wheat harvest on a balmy summer night in June than in cold, barren December.

Origin of Alexandria
There is in the written record before 200 AD no suggestion of possible dates for Jesus’ birth. Origen of Alexandria in the 2nd century mocked Roman’s celebrations of birthdays as a thoroughly pagan practice suggesting that Christians for 200 years may have shied away from speculation about a birth anniversary for Jesus seeing it as a violation of their religious sensibilities.

Clement of Alexandria
Around 200 AD, however, in the earliest known writings that mention Jesus’ possible birthday, Clement of Alexandria mentions five dates. Adjusting to our modern calendar, Clement says that different Christian groups selected different dates, those being March 21, April 15, April 20, April 21, and May 20. He made no mention of December 25. (Clement, Stromateis 1.21.145.) Note that only May 20 is close to June, the time when shepherds would have been allowed to graze their sheep in the stubble of agricultural fields.

By the 4th century two dates emerged and they are still celebrated worldwide today. Most Christian churches commemorate the birth of Jesus on December 25. Some groups, typically in the “east,” celebrate on January 6. (A few celebrate on January 7 or 19, depending on the calendars they use and how they calculate the date moving from one calendar to another.)

The most popular theory for December 25, touted by lay persons and scholars alike, is that Christians borrowed the timeframe, if not the date, of the popular pagan Saturnalia festival in late December. Paired with this “borrowing” is the Roman festival of the birth of Sol Invictus, The Unconquered Sun, on December 25. The problem with this theory, though it sounds oh-so convincing, is that no Christian writings from the time support it. It wasn’t until the 18th and 19th centuries that this theory caught on. But if this theory is wrong, why did the early church choose December 25?

Contrary to popular opinion, December 25 was not chosen because it was already a pagan holiday. It was chosen with a theological purpose in mind. Because Jesus’ date of crucifixion was established on March 25, the early church hypothesized that that same date marked the day of his conception by the Holy Spirit. Conceived on March 25 and crucified on March 25, conceived on the date on which he was destined to die, they added exactly 9 months to mark December 25 as his birthday. Most people don’t know that. This is more than a theory. It is attested to by Tertullian, Augustine, and several others.

Augustine of Hippo
 “For he [Jesus] is believed to have been conceived on the 25th of March, upon which day also he suffered; so the womb of the Virgin, in which he was conceived, where no one of mortals was begotten, corresponds to the new grave in which he was buried, wherein was never man laid, neither before him nor since. But he was born, according to tradition, upon December the 25th.” (Augustine, Sermon 202. Around 400 AD)

The “eastern” tradition of Jesus’ birth on January 6 was calculated the same way as December 25, but they began with April 6 as the date of both Jesus’ conception and crucifixion. They used the local Greek calendar month of Artemisios instead of the Hebrew calendar month of Nisan, thus the discrepancy between December 25 and January 6 that exists to this day.

I draw two conclusions from all of this:

1. No one knows Jesus’ birthday; and for the first 200 years of the existence of the church no one cared. June, not December, would have been the month that sheep were allowed into the fields, but even this detail from Luke was given not to pinpoint Jesus’ birthday, but to convey the story as it had been “. . . handed on to us by those who from the beginning were eyewitnesses . . .” (Luke 1:2). For most of the Christian world, that December 25 is not likely the actual birthday of Jesus is unimportant. Any day will do since we can’t know the real date.

2. There is profound meaning in the theological connection of Jesus’ conception and his crucifixion on the same date, March 25, exactly nine months before December 25. The day he was conceived in the womb was joined to the day he was laid in a tomb. The date on which Jesus “bowed his head and gave up his spirit” is paired with the date on which the Spirit of the “most high” overshadowed Mary and conceived Jesus within her. By pairing these two events on the same date, March 25, the early church saw the promise of his salvific death on the cross as present in his conception in the womb. They perceived the destiny of the man even as he was conceived. He was conceived to die for the sins of the world.


For a discussion of the year Jesus was born, see my blog 8 B.C. For a look at the biblical circumstances of his birth—in contrast to Christmas pageants, cantatas, plays, and nativity scenes—see my blog Are Kids' Christmas Plays Biblical?Also see  "A Brief Dictionary of Jesus' Birth".

For more detailed reading, see Andrew McGowan’s article “How December 25 Became Christmas”: http://www.bib-arch.org/e-features/christmas.asp. You might also read the article on shepherding from the book “Jesus and His World” by Rousseau and Arav.

Saturday, November 5, 2011

666


Six hundred and sixty-six might be the most famous and misunderstood number ever written. For us to understand its true meaning, we need to explore the practice of gematria.


The letters of the alphabet in the ancient Hebrew and Greek are assigned numerical equivalents. The letters of a person’s name, for example, can be added up to yield a number. On a wall excavated in ancient Pompeii, a city frozen in time by the hot ash of Mt. Vesuvius’ deadly eruption in A.D. 79, a graffiti reads: “I love the girl whose name is phi mu epsilon (a sum of 545 in Greek).”

Jesus’ name has a numerical value in Greek gematria too:

Jesus = IhsouV = 10+8+200+70+400+200 = 888


The Greek letters of Caesar Nero (Neron Kaiser) when transliterated in Hebrew letters adds up to 666.

 666  =  Nun + Resh + Vav + Nun + Kuf + Samekh + Resh
              50      200      6       50     100       60         200


All of the excellent commentaries that I’ve read on Revelation agree. Multiple possibilities for 666 are explored, but they all lean toward the “Nero Caesar” interpretation as the best. But Nero was long dead when John wrote his apocalypse. That’s where Revelation 13:3 comes in.

Revelation 13:3 One of its heads seemed to have received a death-blow, but its mortal wound had been healed. In amazement the whole earth followed the beast.

Nero (pictured) was a persecutor of Jews and Christians. He committed suicide in A.D. 68. The Emperor Domitian (ruled A.D. 81-96), who was given the nickname “The Beast” by Romans, Greeks, Christians and Jews, enforced the emperor worship initiated by Nero.

The emperor cult in Ephesus was set up by Domitian in A.D. 89, and this may be the crucial event that sparked a Christian reaction. How could Christians (who say that Jesus is Lord) go to the Temple of Domitian and worship him as lord? And note this. Many saw Domitian as a reincarnation of Nero, i.e. the beast “whose mortal wound had been healed.” (Revelation 13:12)

Domitian was called “the bald Nero” because of his, well, baldness, and because of the persistent rumor that he was Nero returned. (Domitian is not bald in paintings and statues because he decreed that any artist who portrayed him as bald would be killed.) This false “resurrection” of the mortally wounded Nero-666-beast in the person of Domitian was a lying mockery of the resurrected Jesus who is envisioned by John as “a Lamb standing as if it had been slaughtered.” (Revelation 5:6) If under Domitian’s rule John was arrested and imprisoned, you can imagine that the Ephesian church (and the other six churches as well) had no warm feelings for their falsely resurrected, God-pretending, beastly emperor.

What is the mark of the beast on the hand and forehead all about? Here’s the quote:
Revelation 13:16-17   Also it causes all, both small and great, both rich and poor, both free and slave, to be marked on the right hand or the forehead,  17 so that no one can buy or sell who does not have the mark, that is, the name of the beast or the number of its name. (see also Revelation 14:9-11, 16:2, 19:20, 20:4)

This quote claims that you can’t buy and sell anything without the “mark of the beast” on your hand or your forehead. We can forget all the wild, futuristic speculations about this and just do a little bit of history.

The formula "our Lord and God,” as we learn from the imperial biographies of Suetonius, was introduced by Domitian into the cult of emperor worship as an expression of homage. He mandated that his procurators should introduce the formula, "our Lord and God commands," into all official documents. As a result, it became the custom to address Domitian as Dominus ac Deus noster (our Lord and God). (MOUNCE, Revelation, 140, writes on Rev 4,11, "our Lord and God" was introduced  into the cult of emperor worship by Domitian’. LILJE, Last Book of the Bible, 108-109.)


Here’s the actual Suetonius quote:


“With no less arrogance he began as follows in dictating a circular letter in the name of his procurators, "Our Master (Lord) and our God bids that this be done." And so the custom arose of henceforth addressing him in no other way, even in writing or in conversation.” (Suetonius: De Vita Caesarum—Domitianus, c. 110 A.D., XIII)

The equivalent of Dominus (Master) in Latin is Kyrios (Lord) in Greek.


Most emperors, if not all, were deified beginning with Julius Caesar. But the title “lord and god” is associated only with Domitian. This association is perhaps the main reason that the Book of Revelation is dated to Domitian’s reign. John used that exact phrase to refer not to the Nero/Domitian/Emperor Cult/666 beast, but to God:


Revelation 4:11   "You are worthy, our Lord and God, to receive glory and honor and power, for you created all things, and by your will they existed and were created." (italics mine)

Moreover, Revelation 4:11 is the only place in the entire Bible that the phrases “lord and god” or “our lord and god” occurs.


o` ku,rioj kai. o` qeo.j h`mw/n
the lord and the god of us

This is beyond coincidence and firmly dates the Book of Revelation to Domitian’s reign. It also clarifies John’s concerns.

For obvious reasons John is concerned about the emperor, his idolatrous cult, his idolatrous title, and his idolatrous image in temples and on currency.

Domitian’s head and arm (pictured from the Sel├žuk museum) are all that remain of the actual statue of him that the citizens of Ephesus literally worshiped. This is the very “image of the beast” in Revelation 13:15.





Above these arches (pictured) on this grassy hill is where the temple dedicated to the worship of  Domitian once stood in ancient Ephesus, a city where the early Christians were under pressure to worship a statue and call it “lord and god.”

Question. Would you as an Ephesian Christian go as was required by law to Domitian’s Temple on the commercial agora and bow to a statue of the emperor saying, “Our lord and our god”?


Question: How would you feel as an Ephesian Christian about the image of Domitian or other emperors on your money (pictured)? How would you feel about the Roman coinage bearing the titles Divus (Divine) and Theos (God) for its emperor? Would you carry and spend money bearing Caesar’s graven image and blasphemous titles? If a coin has Domitian’s image on it, would you save it, spend it, or exchange it for another currency?


Question: If you were a Christian woman in Ephesus, and if you owned a chain of coins to be worn on your forehead, and if those coins had the image of Domitian or other emperors on it, would you wear it? Jesus told a parable about such a woman who lost a coin:



“Or what woman having ten silver coins, if she loses one of them, does not light a lamp, sweep the house, and search carefully until she finds it?  9 When she has found it, she calls together her friends and neighbors, saying, 'Rejoice with me, for I have found the coin that I had lost.’” (Luke 15:8-9)

But it wasn’t just a single lonely coin. Look at the parable. Jesus specifically says it’s one of ten. Why would she be so concerned and so relentless in her search if the coin were not a part of a set of ten, probably meaning ten coins on a chain. Alone a single coin would have been of little value to her, since she had plenty more. But they are considered by her a set. It’s the nine that are of little value to her unless she finds the one of great value that completes the set. The set was likely a dowry or bride price, thus it’s worn in public as the approximation of a wedding ring in our culture. If Domitian put your pastor in jail, and if Domitian persecuted your church, and if Domitian was determined to make you worship him as lord and god, would you wear “the beast” and his blasphemous names on the center of your forehead?


Question: If you were a Jewish Christian man in Ephesus, and if you, in literal obedience to selected texts from Exodus and Deuteronomy (below), wore as required (for women it’s optional) by oral tradition phylacteries or tefillin (photo below)—boxes with the same select verses enclosed—strapped to your forehead and hand when you prayed, then would you put the beast’s image in your hand (a Roman coin), or in the case you are a woman, on your forehead? Here are those texts, one of them the famous “Shama”:



Exodus 13:9   It shall serve for you as a sign (mark) on your hand and as a reminder (mark) on your forehead, so that the teaching of the LORD may be on your lips . . . (italics mine)

Exodus 13:16   It shall serve as a sign (mark) on your hand and as an emblem (mark) on your forehead . . ." (italics mine)

Deuteronomy 6:4-8   Hear (shama), O Israel: The LORD is our God, the LORD alone. 5 You shall love the LORD your God with all your heart, and with all your soul, and with all your might.  6 Keep these words that I am commanding you today in your heart.  7 Recite them to your children and talk about them when you are at home and when you are away, when you lie down and when you rise.  8 Bind them as a sign (mark) on your hand, fix them as an emblem (mark) on your forehead, (italics mine)

Deuteronomy 11:18   You shall put these words of mine in your heart and soul, and you shall bind them as a sign (mark) on your hand, and fix them as an emblem (mark) on your forehead. (italics mine)

How do we know that phylacteries were worn by Jews in the days of Jesus and Paul? Fragments have been found by archaeologists. (pictured – fragments found at Qumran dated to the 1st Century B.C.) Jesus’ words recorded in Scripture also confirm the use of phylacteries in his day.


Matthew 23:5    “[The scribes and Pharisees] do all their deeds to be seen by others; for they make their phylacteries broad and their fringes long.” (italics mine)

Now, do 1st Century phylacteries and coins shed light for you on John’s symbolic marks on the forehead or the hand? I wonder if John is calling on the Christians of western Asia Minor to avoid using Roman currency so that they don’t participate in any practice that might support the 666-beast and his boss, the dragon. Makes sense to me. Many other currencies were available. Is John using coded language to instruct his churches not to replace the scriptures on their forehead and hand with the image and name of the beast on coins—coins that can be worn on the forehead or must be carried in the hand in order to shop and spend? I think so.

I suppose it’s possible that John, writing to 1st Century Christians in Asia Minor, could be prophesying the use of modern supermarket bar codes or electronic surgical biochip implants in your head or hand, as some modern biblical literalists insist. But which sounds crazier to you, that John would be warning his own church members about participating in Roman idolatry or that John would be warning 21st Century Americans about shopping at Wal-Mart?

In Revelation 13, the first beast from the sea then is the imperial power of Rome, the Roman Emperors themselves, specifically Nero “reincarnated” as Domitian. The second beast from the earth (called “the false prophet” in Revelation 16:13, 19:20, and 20:10) then is the Commune Asiae (made up of civic representatives from each city) who managed and enforced Domitian’s emperor cult. (Caird, p. 171) The Commune even used tricks like ventriloquism to make the emperors’ images speak (13:15), thus deluding the superstitious pagan citizenry of Ephesus and other Asian cities wherein Christians strove to resist idolatry and endure persecution. I believe John wants us to see his concern for his seven churches. He wants us to see his beloved church members, friends he knows by name, fellow Christians forced to Domitian’s Temple, compelled to face Domitian’s statue, and pressured to call it “Lord and God.” They are face to face with the beast of idolatry.

A POSTSCRIPT ON “THE ANTICHRIST” – There is no justification for equating Revelation’s 666-beast with the antichrist. Why? There are two simple reasons.

First, the term antichrist does not appear in the Book of Revelation at all. That’s a surprise to most people. Antichrist is a term not to be found in Revelation. I presume that if John had meant for the 666 beast to be called antichrist, he would have said so, but he didn’t.

Second, the term antichrist is explained fully as something else in the Letters of John. There, antichrists (plural and not capitalized) are clearly church dividers. They are Christian pretenders who left the church because they didn’t believe Jesus came in the flesh. The beast of Revelation, however, is clearly a veiled or coded reference to Domitian as Nero “reborn” or his emperor cult or both. See 1 John 2:18, 2:22, 4:3; and 2 John 1:7, which are the only mentions of antichrist in the Bible. And note, it’s antichrists, plural, not the proper name of an individual. If it were the proper name of an individual, the “a” would be an “A”.

We might fairly say that Domitian, who calls himself god and is not, who was believed by some to be Nero raised from the dead but was not, is an opposite of Christ who was raised and who was God, a photographic negative of Christ, or, if you will, an anti-Christ. This is the only sense in which it is fair to relate the antichrists of the Johannine Epistles and the 666-beast of Revelation.

A POSTSCRIPT ON “THE LAWLESS ONE” – A majority of interpreters over the years has also equated the 666-beast with “the lawless one” of 2 Thessalonians 2:3-4:

“Let no one deceive you in any way; for that day will not come unless the rebellion comes first and the lawless one is revealed, the one destined for destruction.  4 He opposes and exalts himself above every so-called god or object of worship, so that he takes his seat in the temple of God, declaring himself to be God.”

The NAB notes are helpful in putting this “lawless one” in a historical context. (What a novel idea!) 2 Thessalonians 2:3-4 offers “a reflection of the language in Daniel 7:23-25; 8:9-12; 9:27; 11:36-37; 12:11 about the attempt of Antiochus IV Epiphanes to set up a statue of Zeus in the Jerusalem temple and possibly of the Roman emperor Caligula to do a similar thing (Mark 13:14). Here the imagery suggests an attempt to install someone in the place of God, claiming that he is a god (Ezekiel 28:2). Usually, it is the Jerusalem temple that is assumed to be meant; on the alternative view . . . . the temple refers to the Christian community.”

Both the Revelation’s 666-beast and 2 Thessalonians’ “lawless one” refer to pagan idolatry and emperor worship. It’s about those who used their power to play god. True, Domitian did that. So have many others. And so will many others. It was a danger to Christians then, and still is today, when a government dictates culture and religion.