Friday, February 19, 2016

A Tour of the New Testament: Where did the Bible come from? Part IV

            Aww yisss. Finally, the New Testament. I know... so far  I haven't written very much on that portion of the Bible which directly has to do with Jesus Christ. But in my defense, it takes awhile to get through the Hebrew Scriptures – the Old Testament is nearly four times as long as the New. Furthermore, its breadth of history and literary development spans over a thousand years. The New Testament (NT), on the other hand, was composed in probably less than a century. Compared to the Hebrew Scriptures, the Christian Scriptures look like a weekly newspaper, and, all things considered, the NT was literature in a hurry. But where did it come from?

            We can pretty much assume that Jesus' ministry, death, and resurrection probably took place sometime around the year 30 CE. But writings about Jesus did not come about immediately. After the resurrection, the followers of Christ began to spread the Good News of Christ orally, and the movement grew rapidly. I'm rather surprised it grew at all, considering its leader had just died a horrific execution, and it wasn't long before his followers were likewise persecuted. But as the 2nd century Church father, Tertullian, says "The blood of the martyrs is the seed of the Church." How this religious movement not only survived but flourished in its first hundred years is a real testament to its credibility (pun absolutely intended).

            One of the persecutors of the early Church was a Pharisee named Saul of Tarsus, who was later more commonly known as Paul. As the story goes, he was on his way to Damascus to bring back to Jerusalem in chains any followers of the "the Way." The term Christian, by the way, had not been coined yet, and so they were simply called followers of the Way. Seeing a bright light, Saul fell to the ground. Then a voice spoke to him saying, "Saul, Saul, why are you persecuting me?" Theologically, this is incredibly significant, for the risen Christ had identified himself to Saul with his followers and disciples whom Saul was persecuting. This close association of Christ with his followers (i.e. the Body of Christ, the Church) is central to St. Paul's writings. You can read about his conversion in several passages of the NT: Acts 9:1-19; Galatians1:12-19; 1 Timothy 1:12-14.

Parmigianino, The Conversion of St. Paul (1527-1528), Oil on Canvas
FYI, nowhere in the NT does it say Paul was riding a horse... Mr. Parmigianino.

            Paul became one of the most influential apostles of the early Church, spreading the Gospel (i.e. Good News) throughout the Mediterranean. He kept correspondence with the Christian communities which he either founded or had visited. Thus we have the letters of Paul to the Corinthians, or Thessalonians, or Galatians etc. These funny names simply refer to the church communities to whom he was writing in Corinth, Thessalonica, Galatia, and so on. I bring up Paul before mentioning the four Gospels because his letters (a.k.a. epistles) to these churches are probably the earliest of the NT Scriptures. His first letter to the Thessalonians was likely the earliest of his epistles that we have in Scripture, making it possibly the oldest of any of the NT writings.

            But things get kind of dicey from here. Scholars are pretty certain that Paul wrote the letters to the Galatians, Corinthians, Philippians, Philemon, Romans, and the first letter to the Thessalonians, but they are not so sure about 2 Thessalonians, Colossians, Ephesians, or the letters to Timothy and Titus. The letters that are undisputedly from Paul all had to have been composed before his death in the mid 60s CE. So dang, check that out... hardly 30 years after Jesus' death and resurrection and at least seven letters of the NT have already been composed!

            The dating of the disputed letters varies. Some fair arguments can be made that  2 Thessalonians and maybe even Colossians might very well have been written by Paul during his career. In any case, all of these disputed letters were most likely composed before the year 100 CE, the latest probably being the Pastoral Letters, 1 & 2 Timothy and Titus. If the disputed letters were not written by Paul himself, they were probably composed by his disciples or those who were in line with Pauline thought. Ephesians, for example, seems to have been written by one who was very good at summarizing and getting to the heart of Paul's theology.

            Should this bother us that Paul didn't write some of the letters we attribute to him? Not really. Here's the thing about writings in the ancient world. For one, people back then didn't have the kind of hang-ups we do today about academic honesty. Nowadays we have this neurotic, individualistic obsession with "intellectual property." It's abhorrent not to cite your sources, to plagiarize or forge, to attribute work to someone who didn't do it. (FYI, my last name is spelled B-r-e-m-a-r if you'd like to cite this post in your next term paper.)[1] But for the ancients, writing in someone else's name was not frowned upon like it is today. Back then, wisdom was a communal matter; it belonged to everyone, not to individuals. Secondly, wisdom derived from the past, not so much the present or future. Today our knowledge is oriented toward future prospects. We seek discoveries in technology and the sciences that will advance us even further into the future. Our ancestors of antiquity, however, believed that in order to understand the present and discern the future one needed to understand the past. Not surprisingly, elders were more respected back then than they are today.

            Given this kind of attitude toward wisdom and the past, putting a wise leader's name on your work doesn't seem to be that big of a deal. I only bring this up because there was a lot of pseudonymous literature (writings in another person's name) in the ancient world, and there are examples of it in both the Old and New Testaments, as well as many books which never made it into the Bible. Furthermore, this brings me to the four Gospels. Yay, everyone's favorite!

Not quite the Good News I'm talking about. Photo courtesy of www.patheos.com


            The first Gospel of the NT to have been written was the Gospel according to Mark. It was probably composed sometime around the devastating destruction of the Temple by the Romans in the year 70 CE – perhaps between 68-73 according to renowned NT scholar, Raymond Brown.[2] It was likely written for a persecuted community of Christians living in Rome. Was it written by the John Mark of Acts who was a follower of Peter and Paul? I don't know; pseudonymous writing was common back then. Does it really matter? Nah, I don't think so.

            The Gospel according to Matthew was likely written next, probably sometime in the 80s. It borrows heavily from Mark as well as from some lost or undiscovered source scholars call Q. This Gospel was perhaps written in or around Antioch to a community of very Jewish Christians. Was the tax-collector, Matthew, the actual author? I doubt it, but that isn't to say some of the details contained within it could not have derived from the apostle himself.

            Next we have the Gospel according to Luke. This is the longest of the four Gospels and the most exquisite in style. It also was probably written in the 80s, and I would venture to say that it was composed after Matthew. It too borrows from Mark and from that source that Matthew used. But some of our favorite Gospel stories, like the Prodigal Son and the Good Samaritan, are only found in Luke. Since these three Gospels are so closely related due to Luke and Matthew's dependence on Mark, they are known as the synoptic Gospels - synoptic (another fancy-schmancy word you can use to impress your friends) meaning that they can be looked at together. Was it written by Luke, the physician and follower of Paul? Eh. Who can say for certain? What is clear is that the author was a well-educated Greek and an absolutely fabulous writer! Luke, by the way, also wrote the Acts of the Apostles as a sequel to his Gospel – the only sequel found in the NT.

            And then there's John. Many Christians who have read (or even haven't read) the four Gospels will tell you that John is their favorite. It was even the favorite of St. Francis of Assisi. Indeed, it's a beautiful Gospel, so don't get me wrong, but I'm more of a fan of the three synoptics. The Gospel according to John differs greatly in style and narrative than the others, but the essentials are all there: Jesus' ministry, death, and resurrection. The date of its composition could be as early as the 80s with some parts edited as late as 110. Was it written by John the son of Zebedee? Of all of the names attributed to the Gospels, I have the hardest time believing that John, the disciple of Jesus, actually wrote this one. The author seems to have been someone from a particular community of Christians, referred to as the "Johannine community," which may have been influenced very early on from one of Jesus' disciples. The three letters of John were written after the Gospel, and also derive from this Johannine Christian community. The book of Revelation appears to reflect some Johannine influence, though was not composed by the same authors of the Gospel or Johannine letters. Revelation (not Revelations with and 's', one professor was very adamant to point out) was written toward the end of the first century, probably around 92-96 CE.[3] It's a crazy-fascinating book, and many people have questions about it, so I hope to devote a post to Revelation sometime in the future.

            This leaves us with the Letter to the Hebrews and the Catholic Letters. Hebrews is a curious text, and in fact is more of a homily than a letter. Unlike the other NT epistles, the author of Hebrews does not refer at all to himself by name. Both the author and the audience are difficult to discern. Given its references to Jewish religious practices and the Hebrew Scriptures, it would seem the audience was a very Jewish rather than Gentile Christian community. Debates abound as to when it was written, but it had to be earlier than 95 CE, because St. Clement quotes it in a letter he wrote to Corinth around that year. Brown suggests as early as the 60s but more likely in the 80s.[4]

            The Catholic Letters get lumped under that title, not because they are "Catholic" – as in Catholic and not Protestant or Orthodox – but catholic as in general or universal. They were perceived by the early Church to have been for a more general audience, rather than particular communities. The three letters of John also fall under the Catholic Letters, but I mentioned them once already, and I won't get into them again. This leaves us with 1 & 2 Peter, James, and Jude. Were the authors of these letters the Peter, James, and Jude of the Gospels? Again, I doubt it, but arguments can be made that 1 Peter, James, and Jude were written relatively early and may have very close ties with the apostles. A theory circulates that 1 Peter may have been dictated by the apostle to a scribe. Then again, arguments can also be made that they were composed toward the end of the first century (70 - 100) as well. So we can't be sure either way. 2 Peter is surely the latest, for it references 1 Peter, Jude, and Pauline literature. Brown suggests a date as late as 130 CE ("give or take a decade").[5] The Catholic Letters tend to be easily forgotten, as the four Gospels and the writings of Paul dominate our New Testament imaginations. Nevertheless, they are part of our Scriptures and are sacred. Plus, they're short letters anyway, so they're worth our time to give 'em a gander.

            So there you have it. A whirlwind tour of the New Testament. Whew! I think I mentioned each of the 27 books of the NT at least once. Hopefully this gives you a taste of what all is contained in the NT, who wrote it, and when it was written. Admittedly, aside from the undisputed letters of Paul, the precise who and when of the Christian Scriptures is a little clouded, since many texts were written under pseudonyms. We can at least say, though, that all of the writings were composed within about a hundred years of Jesus' death and resurrection. Next time I hope to clarify a little bit about why these books made it into our canon of Scripture, and why other Christian (or some not-so-Christian) writings didn't get in.

            Since we are just over our first week in Lent, and this is usually the time that Catholics are still kind of scrambling to figure out what they're going to do for for the season, here is a suggestion. Read an entire Gospel, anyone you'd like, from beginning to end. It may seem like a lot, but this isn't just a suggestion for the week. You have all of Lent, though I would recommend trying to read it in no more than 3 or 4 sittings. It's better to get a whole story in context than just snippets here and there. Read it like you would any other book. Get invested in the characters, the plot, the twists. See what surprises you, or puzzles you, or frustrates you. What brings you joy and comfort? What strengthens your faith? What challenges you? Either way, just have fun with it. I haven't written much on the Gospels, but it's good to read them with a blind eye at least once anyway. Still, I like to recommend Bibles with good footnotes, like the New American Bible, to help clarify confusing texts.

            As always, you can send me comments or questions via Facebook, Twitter, e-mail, or the comment box below. I think I worked out some of the kinks of the comment box, so if you've had difficulty with it in the past, it should work now. And don't forget to take the survey. Until next time...

Peace and all good!




[1] Speaking of citing sources, this post would not have been possible without these texts:

Brown Raymond E. An Introduction to the New Testament. New York: Doubleday, 1997.

Johnson, Luke Timothy. The Writings of the New Testament: An Interpretation. Revised ed. Minneapolis: Fortress Press, 1999.

And the prefaces to the books of the NT found in 
The Saint Joseph Edition of the New American Bible. New York: Catholic Book Publishing Co., 1992. 

[2] Brown, 127.
[3] Ibid., 774.
[4] Ibid, 684.
[5] Ibid., 762.

Friday, February 12, 2016

Those Other Books: Where did the Bible come from? Part III

            First of all, I hope you are enjoying the start of this merciful season of Lent. And just as a reminder, don't forget to take the blog survey by clicking here if you haven't already. Your input is greatly appreciated.

            One of the more common questions I get asked about the Bible is Why do Catholic and Protestant Bibles differ? or Why do Catholic Bibles have more books than Protestant Bibles? The answer – and the purpose of last week's post on the Greek period of Jewish history – lies with something called the Septuagint [sep-TOO-ah-jint]. I know, it sounds all sorts of crazy fancy... and you're right. It is! So get ready to impress your friends at cocktail parties with phrases like, "Yes, well personally I don't think that will have as much impact on the Lakers' game as the Septuagint did on biblical literature." Meanwhile, your friends will cock their heads to one side and wonder why you're bringing up the Septuagint in a conversation about the NBA.

            So what is the Septuagint anyway? Simply put, it is the Greek translation of the Hebrew Scriptures. If you recall from last week's post, Jews were scattered all over the Mediterranean, and, as it happens when populations move and assimilate, these Jewish communities ceased speaking their native tongue and adopted the common language of the day, Greek. Thus there became a need for translations of the Hebrew Scriptures into a language that was more accessible for study and worship. The name "Septuagint" comes from the Latin septuaginta meaning "seventy." The seventy refers to an ancient legend that there were 70 or 72 different Jewish scribes charged with the task of translating the Torah.[1] Supposedly, they were all separated from one another in the process, and despite being sequestered as they worked, they all miraculously turned up with the exact same translation of the Torah! Personally I don't buy that story, but  regardless, there were definitely Greek translations of the Hebrew Scriptures at least as early as the 2nd century BCE – probably even earlier – and if you recall, that century was wrought with turmoil thanks to that son of a beast, Antiochus IV.

            Much of the translating is thought to have occurred in or around Alexandria, Egypt, where a rather large population of Diaspora Jews lived. (See more in last week's post about the Diaspora). I'd imagine that some copies of these translations would have been stored in the famous Library of Alexandria back then. Unfortunately, this library suffered a series of fires and was destroyed in ancient times. If you're a nerd like me, I'm sure you'd agree that the single greatest tragedy in human history – other than any which involved the loss of human life, of course – is the destruction of the Alexandrian Library. Oy! To think of what information we might know today, had it not been for that terrible decimation of books and scrolls! After reading this post, do me a favor and hug a book.

            Thankfully, plenty of Greek copies of Jewish texts were composed and circulated in the 2nd and 1st centuries BCE and well into the 1st century CE (Common Era, or A.D.). Not surprisingly, later editions of the Septuagint differed from the earlier translations – kind of like today when a new edition of a college textbook comes out. The new algebra book might have only changed slightly, or maybe a new chapter or two was added, but you still have to pay through the nose for that brand new copy, dagnabit! Likewise, these later editions and manuscripts varied in content. Some manuscripts were strictly the books of the Torah. Some included the Prophets and the Writings as well as those books of the Bible which are not in the today's Jewish and Protestant canons (i.e. the Apocrypha, a.k.a. deuterocanonical books). And here is where things get kind of complicated.

            Since the list of books varied in these Greek translations, it is highly unlikely that there was ever a singular canon of scriptures – a definitive collection of sacred books – to come out of Alexandria.[2] This is probably because there wasn't such a thing as a "closed canon of Scripture," – that is, a list of authoritative books to which no more could be added or removed – until much later in history. There had not yet been a definitive agreement that these books were authoritative and those books were not.

            Some Septuagint manuscripts included books like Tobit, Judith, 1 & 2 Maccabees, The Book of Sirach (a.k.a. The Wisdom of Ben Sira), The Wisdom of Solomon, Baruch, and longer versions of Daniel and Esther. These books are the seven books (plus the additions to Daniel and Esther) which the Catholic Church refers to as "detuerocanonical" (i.e. second or later canon). Most Protestants will refer to these as "Apocrypha" which simply means "hidden." Interestingly enough, there were other apocryphal books than just these seven which had also been included in the Septuagint. Some Eastern Orthodox churches consider these books authoritative as well and include them in their canons of scripture: for example, The Prayer of Manasseh, Psalm 151, 1 Esdras, and 3 Maccabees.

            So why did these books eventually get the boot? Why don't they appear in the Jewish canon of Scripture? A few reasons. When it came to which books were authoritative in the minds of the Jewish rabbis of the 1st & 2nd century CE, two rules of thumb held sway: Older is better than newer, and Hebrew is better than Greek. If the book had some pedigree and withstood the test of time, like the Torah or the prophets, then it ought to be canonized as Scripture. The Johnny-come-latelies, like those books mentioned above, just hadn't been around as long as the others. Not only that, but they were written in Greek! The language of the Gentiles! Now granted, some were probably originally written in Hebrew or Aramaic, and some Hebrew and Aramaic copies of these texts have since been discovered. But they were probably more widely known in their Greek form. The Septuagint as a whole was held suspect by some Jewish leaders because, as the phrase goes, every translation is an interpretation. Did the Greek translation of the Hebrew Scriptures corrupt the original meaning of the Hebrew? Such was their concern.

            However, what really got the rabbis' goat about these books and the Septuagint as a whole was that the new Christian movement – which, for all intents and purposes, must have seemed like one giant heresy to them – used the Greek Septuagint to justify its claims about Christ. All of the New Testament was written in Greek after all. This Greek translation of their sacred texts, which had been translated for Jews by Jews, was now tainted by these Christians (of both Jewish and Gentile origin) who referenced it.

            As for those questionable books found within the Septuagint, these were thoroughly Jewish, written by Jews and most of which (if not all) before the time of Christ. However, since they were written much later than most of the other Jewish scriptures, they reflected later theological developments. Some of these concepts resonated very much with the Christian movement – things like "innovative ideas about the afterlife (Wisdom of Solomon)... [or] the concept of heavenly reward for martyrdom (2 Maccabees)."[3] As a result, these books fell out of favor among the Jewish rabbis in the 1st and 2nd centuries CE, and when the Jewish leaders did have a definitive canon of scripture, these books were not included among them. And that, my friends, is how these books became the red-headed step-children of Scripture. (For the record, I have absolutely nothing against step-children or people of red hair.)

            But these books have not always had an easy go among Christians either. Some of the leaders of the early Church (2nd – 5th centuries) felt that the Septuagint and even the later books contained within it were legit – guys like Justin Martyr, Clement of Alexandria, Eusebius, and Augustine. St. Jerome (346-420 CE), however, was like that one out of five dentists who does not endorse Trident sugar-free gum. Jerome translated the Scriptures into Latin in what is known as the "Vulgate." He wasn't crazy about some of the apocryphal/deuterocanonical books. Much to the surprise of his contemporaries, he preferred translating and revising from the Hebrew texts as much as he could, rather than from the Greek Septuagint. He begrudgingly translated Tobit and Judith from Aramaic sources, but he did not translate or even revise Baruch, 1 & 2 Maccabees, Sirach, or Wisdom of Solomon, as they were not in Hebrew canons. Copies of those books circulated in older Latin versions of the Bible that existed before Jerome's translation, so they found their way into the Vulgate in their old Latin form untouched by Jerome.

St. Jerome Writing, Caravaggio, 1605-1606
St. Jerome: Patron saint of biblical scholars and grumpy, old men


            So what happened to these books in the Protestant Bibles? Why did they get removed from their canon of Scripture? For one, these later books of Scripture had always had an iffy history, as evidenced by St. Jerome's indifference toward them. During the Protestant Reformation of the 1500s, greater emphasis was placed on Scripture – case in point, Martin Luther's famous adage, sola scriptura (Scripture alone!). And much like the ancient rabbis, the reformers felt that, when it came to the Old Testament, older was better than newer, and Hebrew was better than Greek... and definitely better than Latin. Besides, the Jewish canon of Scripture had long since omitted these later books, so, in their opinion, why differ from the original receivers of the Scriptural tradition? Thus, whenever Protestant editions of the Bible were printed, the apocryphal books were only added as an appendix, if added at all. They weren't viewed as bad, just not canonical or authoritative.



            The Eastern Orthodox Church maintained the apocryphal books including 1 Esdras, the Prayer of Manasseh, and 3 Maccabees, which are not in the Catholic canon. Some, like the Russian Orthodox Church or the Ethiopian Church, consider even more books to be canonical. Interestingly – and this was news to me before researching for this post – the Catholic Church accepted the books of 1 & 2 Esdras and the Prayer of Manasseh as sacred up until the Council of Trent (1546)! It was the Council of Trent, which followed on the heels of the Protestant Reformation, that more or less closed the Catholic canon of Scripture. No more books would be added, and no other books would be removed. Those seven deuterocanonical books plus the Greek additions to Daniel and Esther were there to stay.

            So in the grand scheme of things, should these books drive such a wedge between Protestants and Catholics today? Should Catholic and Orthodox Christians be criticized for including them, or should Protestants be criticized for omitting them? Personally, I don't think so either way. The Catholic Church believes the deuterocanonical books to be inspired and uses them in liturgy. I find them rather interesting, especially Tobit – that book can be laugh-out-loud funny at times – and ultimately, I believe they have sacred value. Is reading them or not reading them essential for salvation? Nah, I don't believe so. I do believe, however, that as we nurture our relationship with God, we benefit well from reading/hearing the Word of the God in Scripture, especially the Gospels. If you believe that these later books were inspired by the Holy Spirit, great! If not, well, there are 66 other books of the Bible for you to enjoy and be nourished from.

            Since this post had so much to do with the Apocrypha/deuterocanonical books, my scriptural recommendations for this week come from some wisdom literature of the 2nd century BCE, the Book of Sirach. An excellent passage on honoring your parents can be found in Sirach 3:1-16. Or for a great passage on mercy toward the poor, see 3:30-4:10. And lastly, I recommend the passage on true friendship in 6:5-17.

            As you read from this ancient Jewish sage, ask yourself: What do I find challenging in these passages? What do I really like about them? How have they made me rethink about my attitudes toward my parents, or those in need, or about what constitutes a true friend? What is God saying to me through these words? What Truth do I hear?

            If you don't own a Bible that includes Sirach, no worries. I always link the chapter and verses to www.Biblegateway.com, so you can click on those and read the passages on-line. Finally, as is routine for me to say, I encourage comments and questions via the comment box below, Facebook, Twitter, or e-mail. So until next time...

Peace and all good [4]

Also, don't forget about the survey.
           



[1] Jennifer M. Dines, The Septuagint, (New York: T&T Clark LTD, 2004), 1.
[2] Ibid, 12.
[3] Stephen L. Harris and Robert L. Platzner, The Old Testament: An Introduction to the Hebrew Bible, (Boston: McGraw-Hill, 2003), 348.

[4] This post would not have been possible without these other sources.

Collins, John J. “Apocrypha.” The HarperCollins Encyclopedia of Catholicism. Edited by Richard P. McBrien. San Francisco: Harper, 1995.

Hartman, L. F., B. F. Peebles, and M. Stevenson. “Vulgate.” New Catholic Encyclopedia, 2nd ed. Edited by Berard L. Marthaler. 15 vols. New York: Gale, 2003.

Schiffman, Lawrence H. Texts and Traditions: A Source Reader for the Study of Second Temple and Rabbinic Judaism. Hoboken, NJ: KTAV Publishing House, 1998.  

Friday, February 5, 2016

Greek Week! The Bible and the Hellenistic Period

            My last two posts have been focused on the Three Cs of the Bible: composition, compilation, and canonization. This week, however, is going to deviate from that theme slightly. The other day, while enjoying a plate of huevos rancheros, I was skimming over a book on the Septuagint, because really... what goes better with Mexican breakfast than literature on the Greek translation of the Hebrew Scriptures, right? Anyway, it occurred to me that I should offer a little bit of background on the Greek (a.k.a Hellenistic) period of Jewish history first. This will set the stage for talking about the books of Esther and Daniel, apocalyptic literature and Apocrypha, the Roman period, and ultimately Fiddler on the Roof and Yentl.

            Last week's post talked a little bit about the return of the Jews back to their homeland after the exile. However, not all of the Jews returned to Judea. Some stayed in Babylon; some went to Egypt, others to Syria, some to Asia Minor (modern day Turkey), and so on throughout the Mediterranean. Jewish peoples had also been dispersed across the Mediterranean and the Near East as a result of the Assyrian deportation of Israel some 140 years before the Babylonian exile. This scattering of the Jewish people is known as the Diaspora (Hot dog, that's a 2 dollar word!). Despite cultural clashes with the pagans in whose lands they resided, these communities thrived and managed to preserve their own unique faith, law, and culture. For the most part, Jews of the Diaspora or in Judea lived relatively tranquil lives under Persian rule. But then Alexander the Great (356 – 323 BCE) came about and conquered the Persians... and just about everyone else as well. He loved Greek culture so much, he thought everyone would love it too. I mean, gosh, why wouldn't they? Have you ever tried a gyro? They're delicious!

            Well... some Jews thought it was okay and assimilated to the Hellenistic culture of the day – usually the wealthy ones who benefitted from life under Greek rule. But others most definitely did not! After Alexander's death, his empire was cut up like a cake, and the pressure for assimilation continued. The Egyptian slice of that cake was ruled by the Ptolemies (I think the P is silent), and they also had control of Palestine – the Greek name of that territory formerly known as Israel and Judah. Even more confusing... what had been Judah was now called Judea and was considered a province in the region of Palestine. Why did Judea get the works? That's nobody's business but the Greeks. (Gosh, I wished that rhymed.) Anyway, there was a rather large slice of the empire that extended from Asia Minor all the way to modern day Afghanistan. This portion was ruled by the Seleucid dynasty, and they took over Palestine from the Ptolemies in 199 BCE.

Follow the link here to visit the map's original site

            During the first century and a half of Greek domination, I'm sure life could not have been too cozy for faithful Jews whether in Palestine or of the Diaspora. There were surely culture clashes between Jews who refused to assimilate on the one hand and the Gentiles (non-Jews) and Hellenized Jews on the other. But things didn't get really bad until Antiochus IV usurped the Seleucid throne in 178 BCE. By the way, he also called himself Antiochus Epiphanes, suggesting that he was god manifest and proving just what kind of an egomaniac he was. Here he is below. Yeesh.
Google Images
            This man was probably clinically insane, and he pretty much took a dump on Judaism around the year 167 BCE, effectively outlawing it and making Jewish observances of their law punishable by death! Everything from having your infant son circumcised to refusing to eat pork could have the most grisly consequences. Furthermore, he desecrated the Temple – the one that had been rebuilt during the post-exilic period of the Reconstruction – by confiscating its treasury, erecting in it a statue of Zeus, and slaughtering pigs on the altar... and you know how the Jews felt about pork. I cannot express enough how heinous all of these things were to the Jews – their holiest site defiled; people being martyred for living according to God's law. They were being crushed and defeated once again, and it must have felt like the end of the world!

            (For a ridiculously over-simplified summary of Jewish life under Antiochus IV, I invite you to click here to see the Rugrats version of his reign. It's a far less violent depiction of a horrific period in history, but oddly enough captures the idea of cultural tension and assimilation pretty well.)
Google Images

             Now enter Mattathias and his sons, particularly Judas Maccabeus. This family and their supporters, known as the Maccabees after Judas Maccabeus, led a Judean revolt against Antiochus and the Seleucid empire. Long story short, their revolt was surprisingly successful. They rededicated the Temple around the year 165 BCE – from which Hanukkah, the Jewish festival of lights, derives – and not long after the death of Antiochus IV and the rebel leader, Judas Maccabeus, they were able to secure fairly independent rule under J.M.'s descendants. And so began the Hasmonean dynasty, a line of priest-kings that reigned from 160 – 63 BCE. Fabulous, right? Or was it? On paper this sounds pretty good. The Jews of Palestine were finally self-governing again. But apparently the Hasmoneans were rather corrupt rulers and were not well appreciated by some Jewish groups. It is important to keep this unpopular Hasmonean dynasty in mind for later posts, but to go on about them now would be to get ahead of myself.

            It was in this environment, a world of persecution by the Greeks, that the books of Daniel and Esther were written. Both were likely composed around the time of Antiochus IV. Both are meant to offers Jews consolation and courage to remain faith to God and to their national identity under foreign oppression. The book of Esther is a novella set in Persia. In it, the Jewish people are saved from genocide thanks to the Jewish consort to the Persian king who pleads to him on her people's behalf. Interestingly enough, God does not intervene directly in the story, though the rescue of the Jews through the pious woman's actions is viewed as divine providence.

            The book of Daniel is a compilation of books. In the first (chapters 1-6), the title character is portrayed as an interpreter of dreams/messages (Daniel 2 and 4-5). He is also depicted as a model of Jewish religious observance in the midst of the Babylonian exile. As in Esther, this was to encourage readers during the Hellenistic period to maintain their Jewish identity in the face of cultural opposition from oppressors. In the second section of Daniel, he is more of an apocalyptic visionary (Daniel 7-12). Frankly some of the visions in Daniel sound as if he's trippin' on 'shrooms, but really they're meant to point to the dire situations the Jewish audience was facing under the reign of Antiochus IV and to give them hope of salvation.

            Apocalyptic literature seems very bizarre and frightening to us today, but it served an important purpose for its time and, believe it or not, was actually meant to be a consolation to the readers, not a horror movie. The belief behind it was that things in the world had had gotten so bad that God needed to intervene directly. God basically had to hit the reset button on the world – much like you would in a Mario Brothers game when you have no lives left and you're about the face King Koopa for the third time. The reset button God would press, however, wasn't so much an annihilation of  the world as it was an end of the world as they knew it and ultimately a renewal of the world. Apocalyptic literature usually ends with the establishment of God's reign, for it was believed that God Himself – not a pagan ruler, not the Hasmoneans – should be the sovereign ruler of Israel.

            As for the nightmarish creatures and scenarios of apocalyptic literature, these were usually meant to symbolize evil or unfavorable pagan kingdoms. In Daniel 7:7-8, the Seleucid dynasty is depicted as a terrible beast with horns. The little horn with eyes that speaks arrogantly represents Antiochus IV. Similarly, the he-goat in chapter 8 also symbolizes the Greek empire and Antiochus. But why such whacked-out imagery? One reason why this is typical of apocalyptic literature is because the crazy symbolism was meant to conceal the meaning of the text should the scroll find itself in the wrong hands. Furthermore, as my apocalyptic lit. professor would say, "Extreme times call for extreme literature.... Nobody writes apocalyptic literature sitting at a Starbucks drinking lattes!" Mind-blowing tragedy had to be met with something just as mind-blowing to read. That is why the book of Revelation in the New Testament is so tripped out. The author and audience were likely under oppressive situations, and rather than frighten the original hearers – as it does for readers today – apocalyptic literature actually provided hope in a renewed earth whose ruler would ultimately be God.

            Daniel and Esther are just two examples of Jewish literature written during the Greek period, and they appear in both the Jewish canon and all of the Christian canons. But Jews everywhere were composing religious works in the centuries leading up to the time of Jesus and beyond. Some are part of certain canons of Scripture, and others never made it into any official canon. Like Daniel, some were apocalyptic (e.g. the book of Enoch, which is not in any canon of Scripture and so is called apocryphal). Some were not apocalyptic but rather tell the history, or a version of history, of the Maccabean revolt – namely 1 and 2 Maccabees which are found in Catholic and Orthodox Bibles.

            Other writings were like the book of Esther, novellas for Jews of the Diaspora about Jewish piety in foreign lands. The book of Tobit (again, in Catholic and Orthodox Bibles) is a rather cute story set in Assyria. Tobit, a devout Jewish deportee in Assyria, goes blind when bird droppings fall into his eyes. In misery and close to death, he sends his son, Tobiah, on a mission to bring back a sum of money he had deposited in a distant land before he dies. He is accompanied on his journey by Raphael, an angel incognito, and he marries a woman who had been afflicted by a demon that would kill her husbands on their respective wedding nights (yikes!). Luckily, thanks to Raphael, Tobiah escapes that same fate. He returns home with his bride and honorably buries his deceased parents.

            Like Esther, Judith also is another fictional novella in which Israel is saved by the hand of a woman. Much like the book of Judges, in which the woman, Jael, drives a tent peg into the head of an enemy general, Judith deceives the Assyrian general, Holofernes, and cuts off his head. As with Esther and Jael, the achievement of salvation by the actions of a pious woman in Judith only underscores the mighty and providential work of God in saving his people.


Judith and Holofernes by Artemisia Gentileschi. Google Images


            For reasons I hope to finally cover in the following post, the books of 1 & 2 Maccabees, Tobit, Judith and other books only made it into Catholic and Orthodox canons of Scripture. They are not part of today's Jewish or Protestant canons. Much of this has to do with the use of the Greek translation of the Hebrew Scriptures known has the Septuagint, but we'll get into that next week. For now, however, I hope a little context is provided for the Hellenistic age and the kind of literature it inspired - especially the stuff from the 2nd century (200-100 BCE), because those books are wild.

            Since today's post had a bit to do with apocalyptic literature, I suggest reading chapter 7 of Daniel. As I mentioned, it uses apocalyptic imagery to symbolize the succession of conquering empires, particularly the Seleucids, who persecuted the Jews. It also assures its 2nd  century audience that God will eventually be the definitive ruler of the world and will establish an everlasting kingdom. I recommend using a Bible that has good explanatory footnotes for this passage, like the New American Bible. These will provide some historical context as you read. Given that this post also referred to the plight of persecuted and displaced Jews in foreign lands, perhaps you could use your reading of Daniel 7 to pray for immigrants and refugees throughout the world. So many people today must flee their homelands because of war, gang violence, and crushing poverty. Daniel 7 assures us that the "beasts" of war and destruction will be conquered by God, and God will establish his kingdom – a kingdom we know more clearly from the New Testament to be one of love, mercy, peace, justice, generosity, humility, patience, and gentleness.

            As always, I welcome questions and comments via e-mail (biblecodega@gmail.com) Facebook, Twitter (@biblecodega), and the comment box below. Today, however, and for the rest of the month, I am making a special request. Embedded here is a survey of the Bible Codega blog. As some of you know, this blog is part of a final project for a Master of Arts degree in Pastoral Ministry. I humbly request that you take 10 to 15 minutes to fill out an on-line, anonymous survey in order that I may gather data about the effectiveness of this blog. Please be honest and open in your responses; I will not take offense at anything. In fact, I would be interested in knowing how best I might be able to improve this blog in order to better serve you. It would be most appreciated if you could take this survey before February 29, 2016. To take this survey, simply click here. Thank you all so much, and until next time...

Peace and all good![1]




[1] This post would not have been possible without this text as a reference:
Harris, Stephen L. and Robert L. Platzner. The Old Testament: An Introduction to the Hebrew Bible. Boston: McGraw-Hill, 2003.