Nov 052013

pub-475x350One day in 90 AD, Justus of Tiberias was sitting at his favorite tavern in the city of Rome, minding his own business, when in walks his sworn enemy Joseph.

Smirking, Joseph asks, “Hey, Justus, how’s it going for you?”

Justus shoots back, “What do you expect? Lousy.”

Joseph taunts, “Sucks to be on the losing side? You should have seen the writing on the wall, bud.”

But Justus sighs, “No, that’s not it. That’s not it at all. It’s book sales! My book’s been out for months, and I’ve only been able to get you, my mom, and the imperial librarian to make copies of it.”

Joseph says, “Actually, come to think of it, my own books haven’t been selling all too well either. I mean, not as bad as yours have, but still, not as well as I’d like.” Continue reading »

Nov 022013

mapOfGalileeVespJosephus writes:

There was one Judas, a Galilean, of a city whose name was Gamala, … (Antiquities 18.4)

Again, Josephus:

Judas the Galilean was the author of the fourth branch of Jewish philosophy. These men agree in all other things with the Pharisaic notions; but they have an inviolable attachment to liberty, and say that God is to be their only Ruler and Lord. They also do not value dying any kinds of death, nor indeed do they heed the deaths of their relations and friends, nor can any such fear make them call any man lord. (Antiquities 18.23)

Josephus calls it a fourth branch that arose later than the sects of Sadducees, Essenes, and Pharisees. Some have noted that the appearance of self-identified “Zealots” occurs during the first Jewish revolt, indicating that the Zealots may have formed their identity in the 60s AD in the events leading up to the revolt, though Josephus cites prior rebels as founders of their movement.

The author of Acts mentions this Galilean:

Some time ago, Theudas appeared, claiming to be somebody, and about four hundred men rallied to him. He was killed, all his followers were dispersed, and it all came to nothing. After him, Judas the Galilean appeared in the days of the census and led a band of people in revolt. He too was killed, and all his followers were scattered. (Acts 5:36-37)

The references in Josephus and Acts do not prove the connection, but they certainly raise the question whether the consistent reference to “Judas the Galilean” may have been taken by others to denote his cause as “Galilean,” even if only by misunderstanding. The question then is whether the term Galilean ever functioned as another name for Zealot, even if it does not so function in Josephus or the New Testament. Continue reading »

Oct 162013

strangegods-1024x705Moyer V. Hubbard puts it remarkably well:

Greek society, as the apostle Paul observed of Athens, was indeed ‘very religious’ (Acts 17:22 NIV). Religion was integral to community life, family life, and the private aspirations of individuals. Most civic celebrations contained overtly religious elements, as did the grand ceremonies of state. Family traditions, along with the mundane duties of daily life, were performed under the watchful eyes of the household gods, and if calamity struck the family or the city, the first order of business was to determine which of the gods had been offended and what must be done to appease him or her. Christianity entered this milieu and made some rather startling claims. In contrast to the conventional religious conceptions of the day, the followers of Jesus claimed that there was only one God, who created everything. This God cared about humanity to the point of sending his own Son in the flesh to atone for their sins. Even more preposterous, this atoning self-sacrifice took place through the shameful spectacle of crucifixion—a death reserved for slaves, criminals, and enemies of the state. The figure of Jesus was certainly an oddity in the religious smorgasbord of antiquity. Amid the plethora of divinities being worshiped in the first century, it is remarkable that anyone would dare to add a crucified Jewish peasant to this list, and even more remarkable that the primitive Jesus movement would snowball into an empire-wide phenomenon. (“Greek Religion,” The World of the New Testament, p. 122)

If there is one impression that we can gather from the references to Christians in our non-Christian sources, one common theme that that runs through Tacitus, Suetonius, Pliny the YoungerLucian, Marcus Aurelius, Galen, Celsus, and Philostratus, it is the inherent oddity they ascribe to the group. The only real exception in the literature of the era that stands out is that attributed to Mara Bar-Serapion. Continue reading »

Sep 282013


Previously I knew that this letter has been dated variously from the first to the third century, but just today I read that some scholars recently judge that it is most likely a Christian composition dating to the fourth century.

While the Syriac letter of Mara bar-Serapion frequently comes up when discussing non-Christian references to Jesus, there is precious little recent scholarly interpretation of the letter and its context online. (A little searching does, however, turn up a conference report from 2009, a webpage produced prior to that conference, and a brief exchange on Crosstalk from 2000.) The dating of the letter to 73 AD (or “later than 73 AD”) is widely cited, but most writers online either don’t know why it’s dated then or just choose not to discuss the reasoning.

The reasoning isn’t hard to follow, on the view that the letter is genuine: Continue reading »