Book Review: D. Clint Burnett, Studying the New Testament through Inscriptions

Burnett, D. Clint. Studying the New Testament through Inscriptions. Peabody, Mass.: Hendrickson Academic, 2020. xxvii+218 pp.; Hb.  $23.99  Link to Hendrickson Academic

In his conclusion to this new book on using ancient inscriptions to shed light on the New Testament, Burnett acknowledges his debt to Adolf Deissmann. Deissmann was one of the first to use inscriptions and papyri in his popular book, Light from The Ancient Near East: The New Testament Illustrated by Recently Discovered Texts of the Greco-Roman World (Hodder & Stoughton, 1910). Deissmann visited Asia Minor in 1906 and immediately began a series of lectures which resulted in this book. The book appears frequently in the latest edition of Bauer (BDAG), abbreviated as LO for the German edition (Licht vom Osten) or LAE for the English translation. In the introduction to his mammoth A Grammar of the Greek New Testament in the Light of Historical Research, A. T. Robertson said “Deissmann is the pioneer in this field and is still the leader in it. It is hard to overestimate the debt of modern New Testament scholarship to his work” (Roberson, p. x).

As with most books written one hundred years ago, Deissmann’s Light from the Ancient Near East needs an update. To a large extent this was a goal of the New Documents Illustrating Early Christianity series (ten volumes, published by Eerdmans, 1981-2012). Initially edited by G. H. R. Horsley of Macquarie University, each volume surveyed obscure journals for publications of inscriptions and papyri of interest to New Testament scholars for a given period of time. Volume one covered journals published in 1976, volume ten covered 1988-1992. Each volume provided a summary articles with helpful transcriptions and translations of the important parts of the original journal article. For many scholars this was the best way to access this data is very hard to find in even the best research libraries. These books are a goldmine of new “light from the Ancient Near East.” Like Deissmann’s book, NewDocs appears in BDAG frequently.

Clint Burnett’s new book on studying the New Testament through inscriptions is something like a “New Deissmann,” or maybe better, “Deissmann for the people.” Burnett says he shares Deissmann’s dream “that one day more New Testament students who use inscriptions in their interpretation of his documents and the historical reconstructions of early Christianity” (p. 165). The goal of the book is to make inscriptions accessible to students and pastors and offer guidance for using inscriptions in interpretation.

The first chapter is an introduction to the study of inscriptions. Burnett begins with a basic definition, literally writing on something, whether it is on stone, bronze, floors, walls, tiles or lead sheets. This definition is broad enough to encompass both official monuments set up by civil authorities and graffiti scratched on a wall. After a short explanation of how inscriptions were made, Burnett surveys a wide range of types of inscriptions, both public and private. This section is illustrated with black and white photographs mostly provided by the author. Since most readers are not able to travel to museums or archaeological sites to photograph inscriptions, Burnett gives an overview of the publication of inscriptions beginning in the nineteenth century. These epigraphic corpora continue to expand, and many are now published online. Wise students can find the older, out of print epigraphic corpora at archive.org. For example, here is a link to Sylloge inscriptionum Graecarum edited by Wilhelm Dittenberger. This section includes a helpful chart of sigla found in these collections of inscriptions.

Following this introductory chapter, Burnett offers five illustrations of the use of inscriptions for interpreting particular passages in the New Testament. First, Burnett examines inscriptions from the southern Levant in order to text consensus view that the development of “Jesus as Lord” language by early Christians recognized Jesus’s lordship as royal, messianic but not exclusively divine (ch. 2).

Burnett examines the translations differences in 1 Corinthians, “Devour” or “Go Ahead with” the Lord’s Banquet (ch. 3). The verb προλαμβάνω in 1 Corinthians 11:21 is usually translated “each one goes ahead with his own meal.” Based on an inscription cited in Moulton and Milligan from the Asclepieum at Epidaurus (Syll 804), Bruce Winter has suggested the verb ought to be translated as “eat” or “devour.” This suggestion appears in commentaries by Conzelmann, Thiselton, and Hays and several monographs on the Lord’s Supper. Burnett gives the Greek text of the inscription with a translation and compares the use of προλαμβάνω cited by Moulton and Milligan with several other inscriptions. He concludes the most probably translation is “go ahead with.” He argues this point by examining the usual seating arrangements at a Greco-Roman banquet. These arrangements contributed to social divisions in the church. Only about nine people could eat in the “main room,” so it is possible those invited to eat at the best tables went ahead with their meal and gave no regard to those gathered elsewhere to share meals.

In chapter 4, Burnett deals with imperial loyalty oaths and Caesar’s decrees in the background of early Christianity in Thessalonica. Interpreters of 1 Thessalonians often suggest Roman imperial loyalty oaths run counter to language found in 1 Thessalonians. Pagans (and probably Christians) would find Paul’s preaching treasonous, explaining the ongoing trouble for Christians in Thessalonica. Acts 17 indicates Paul was charged with “opposing Caesar’s decrees” (Acts 17:7). The problem, Burnett argues, is this reconstruction “overlooks the content, occasion, and contextual nature of the actual imperial loyalty oaths” (p. 101). Burnett examines a number of these loyalty oaths and concludes “opposing Caesar’s decrees” refers to imperial letters granting Thessalonica free city status in the Roman empire.

Chapter five draws together inscriptions with describe the activities of women in order to illustrate references in the New Testament to benefactresses, deaconesses, and pverseers in the Philippian Church. There is clear evidence that wealthy women gained prominence by becoming patrons of both official and unofficial cults. Burnett then suggests Lydia, Eudoia and Syntyche served in leadership roles in the Philippian church. This is not to say they exercised the authority of later ecclesiastical offices, but since so little is known about the structure of Pauline churches, there is “good reason to believe some wealthy women in the Philippian church attained leadership positions in the mid-first century CE” (p. 139). There is an assumption, however, that the Philippian church “patterned leadership after official and non-official cults in the city” (p. 136). Since Paul’s initial contact in Philippi was Lydia at a Jewish place of prayer, is it more likely the earliest leadership was patterned after the synagogue? This does not detract from Burnett’s point, wealthy women played significant roles in leadership in the mid-first century.

In chapter 6 Burnett surveys inscriptions which use numbers for names as background for interpreting Revelation 13, the number of the beast.  Most commentaries on Revelation cite the same graffiti from Pompei, “I love the one whose number is 545.” Burnett collects twenty-three examples of name-calculations from Mylasa (1), Pompei (4), Stabae (2), Smyrna (6), Ephesus (8), Messania (1) and Catania (1). These examples appear in full in an appendix to this chapter. Many use a form of φιλω with a relative pronoun, ἀριθμός and the number.  It may be surprising that so many declared their love by writing anonymously in a wall! The eight examples from Ephesus were found in Terrace House 2, indicating even the elite wrote on walls. In any event, Burnett argues this data favors the conclusion that “the practice of name calculation was geared toward a group of insiders” who produced the calculation (p. 160). For Burnett, John provided all the background required for his audience to grasp that the beast’s name was Nero Caesar.

This chapter on the use of numbers for names raises a potential omission in the book. A chapter on the importance of graffiti in the Greco-Roman world would have been an excellent addition to the book. Burnett includes graffiti here and there in the book, but graffiti looks through a different sort of window into the ancient world than an official inscription placed by civil authorities. I have spent time browsing through Graffiti from the Basilica in the Agora of Smyrna (Roger Bagnall, et al, 2016) and often thought this material represents what the common person thought about more than the beautiful inscriptions found along the streets in Ephesus.

There are three very useful appendices to the book. First, Burnett gives an overview of important printed collections of inscriptions. Second, he offers some instructions for using online search engines to navigate collections of inscriptions. Third, he has a handy guide to abbreviations used in inscriptions for titles and other common Latin words. For example, SC is used for senatus consultum, “by senatorial decree.” On graves it is common to see HSE (hic situs/sita est, “here he/she lies”) or DM (Dis Manibus, “to the deceased spirits”). This includes abbreviations for the most common Roman names (L for Lucius; M for Marcus), Greek numbers (including letters unfamiliar to most students of New Testament Greek). I would certainly purchase a laminate card with this information to take with me while leading tours. I sometimes use the app Emperors by Dan Weiner for abbreviations in imperial titles (often you can date an inscription or coin precisely with this tool).

The book includes a twenty-six-page bibliography and indices for modern authors, subjects and ancient sources. The book includes a rich collection of resources in the footnotes. Students should mine these footnotes for important secondary literature on inscriptions.

I have two important observations about what this book is not. First, this is not a manual for how to read an actual inscription. Although it will help a student who wants to transcribe, translate and interpret an inscription (perhaps from a photograph taken on a visit to Ephesus), that is not the intention of the book. Burnett does offer advice on using collections of already transcribed and translated inscriptions.

Second, the book is focused solely on reading inscriptions to shed light on the New Testament. Inscriptions are important for understanding the whole of the Greco-Roman world, but Burnett’s focus is on using this material to unknot a particular exegetical problem in the translation of the New Testament or to illustrate some cultural practice to better understand the early church. Although readers outside the world of biblical studies may benefit from this book, it is clearly targeted at a Christian audience.

Conclusion. This is an excellent introduction to the study of inscriptions with the specific goal of shedding light on the New Testament. For most New Testament scholars (including teachers and pastors), this book demonstrates the importance of understanding the historical and cultural context of the New Testament. He illustrates the value of studying inscriptions with five specific examples, but these examples can be multiplied many times over.

Burnett blogs on inscriptions and the New Testament (his personal blog) and he hosts a podcast, Bibl·e·pigraphy. He is active on twitter and occasionally posts inscriptions of interest to New Testament students, follow him: @DClintBurnett1.

NB: Thanks to Hendrickson Academic for kindly providing me with a review copy of this book. This did not influence my thoughts regarding the work.

Fourth Maccabees and the Fourth Philosophy

It is possible the book of 4 Maccabees represents the “fourth philosophy” mentioned by Josephus as a subgroup of Judaism in competition with the Pharisees, Sadducees, and Essenes. It has been thought that this “fourth philosophy” referred to the Zealots, but this has been challenged by Richard Horsley in his work on first century messianic movements.

Image result for fourth maccabees martyrsThe fourth philosophy had several major teachings. First, a Jew should pay no taxes to Rome at all. Based on their interpretation 2 Sam 24, paying taxes to a foreign power was seen as equivalent to slavery, (cf. Luke 20:20-26, the question concerning paying taxes to Caesar may reflect the teaching of the fourth philosophy).

Second, Israel should be a theocracy and not be ruled by any foreign power. To submit to foreign rule is equivalent to idolatry and is a breach of the first commandment. God will work through faithful people if they actively resist their oppressors.

Third, if Israel actively resists, God will establish his kingdom on Earth. The resistance that the fourth philosophy taught was not armed rebellion (as with the Zealots), but rather a commitment to obedience to the Torah and a willingness to be martyrs. The fourth philosophy was therefore a martyrdom movement.

This description is compatible with the teaching of 4 Maccabees, especially in 10:18-21 (cf., 9:24; 11:3; 11:22-23).

4 Maccabees 10:18–21 (NRSV) But he said, “Even if you remove my organ of speech, God hears also those who are mute. 19 See, here is my tongue; cut it off, for in spite of this you will not make our reason speechless. 20 Gladly, for the sake of God, we let our bodily members be mutilated. 21 God will visit you swiftly, for you are cutting out a tongue that has been melodious with divine hymns.”

That a book like 4 Maccabees would continue to be read by the Christian church is quite understandable since the early church faced the same sorts of persecutions described in the book. The challenge to commitment to the word of God in the face of deadly persecution was attractive to the Christians facing Roman pressure to conform.

 

Bibliography: Richard Horsley and John S. Hanson, Bandits, Prophets, and Messiahs: Popular Movements at the Time of Jesus (San Francisco: Harper & Row, 1985), 190-237; W. J. Heard, “Revolutionary Movements” in Dictionary of Jesus and the Gospels, edited by J. Green, S. McKnight and I. H. Marshall (Downers Grove: InterVarsity, 1992), 688-698.

Fourth Maccabees and a Rational Faith

In 4 Maccabees the role of the law as nearly equivalent to reason. Although God created humans with emotions and passions, he also “enthroned the mind among the senses as a sacred governor over them” (2:21). The mind was given the Law, in order to “rule a kingdom that is temperate, just, good, and courageous.” Temperate (σώφρων) refers to prudent thinking and self-control and is one of the virtues required of elders in the Pastoral Epistles (1 Tim 3:2; Titus 2:2).

4 Maccabees 7:21-23 What person who lives as a philosopher by the whole rule of philosophy, and trusts in God, and knows that it is blessed to endure any suffering for the sake of virtue, would not be able to overcome the emotions through godliness? For only the wise and courageous are masters of their emotions (NRSV)

The “temperate mind” restrains the impulses of the body, what Paul calls “self-control” in Galatians 5:23. That Paul and 4 Maccabees both have a high view of the Law and the virtue of self-control is not necessarily and indication Paul knew the book or vice versa. Likely as not both the author of 4 Maccabees and Paul are drawing on implications of the wisdom literature drawn through the intellectual grid of a first century worldview which includes elements of Stoicism and other Greek philosophical streams.

Image result for self control memeSelf-control was perhaps the most important of the Greek ethical terms. Remarkably, the Greek world valued controlling one’s passions and acting moderately in all things. Any activity could devolve into a vice if it is not practiced with moderation.  For example, eating a proper amount of food is good thing; too much is glutton and too little is starvation. Paul claims here that the one who is walking by the spirit will walk moderately in everything that they do. In fact, Paul points out that the person who belongs to Christ Jesus “crucified the flesh with its passions and desires.”

This is an important point that should probably be argued at length, but this sort of paper cannot do so. There are a number of works on Paul and the Stoics which make this point, although the probability of direct borrowing is very low. I prefer to think in terms of an intellectual grid made up of the Old Testament and various Jewish writings as a primary database through which Greco-Roman philosophy is drawn, elements which are compatible with the database are retained, others are rejected.

What is Fourth Maccabees?

Fourth Maccabees is included in several manuscripts of the LXX, including Vaticanus but was not included in the Vulgate. The book is therefore not a part of the Apocrypha although it is often included in introductions to the Apocrypha. It is also in manuscripts which contain the works of Josephus. This led Eusebius and Jerome to suggest Josephus was the author, but this has been universally rejected by modern scholarship.

Image result for fourth maccabees martyrsThe book is related to the Maccabean period but the focus is on the martyrs who died for the Law during those years. The book was written in Greek by a Jew who appears to be writing before the fall of Jerusalem in A.D. 70. The temple is never described as a thing of the past in the book but rather seems as though it is still active. It also appears to have been written after the invasion of Pompey in 63 B.C.  deSilva argues for the Roman date on the basis of two technical terms (θρησκεία, “religious” and νομικός, “skilled at law), both of which appear only in the literature of the Roman period (deSilva, 355).

The writer reflects an extensive knowledge of Greek philosophy and rhetoric. He is a man who is devoted to the law of his people and his a theologian “of considerable depth” (OTP 2:533). A few scholars (Dupont-Sommer and Hadas) think the book is an oral address which might have been made as part of a “cult of martyrs” within a synagogue context.  As Anderson notes, this is possible, but the chief objection is that a synagogue speech would have been based on a text from the Hebrew Bible, not stories from the Maccabean period.

deSilva comments that the writer of 4 Maccabees is “thoroughly immersed in Hellenistic environment” and has “more than a passing acquaintance with Stoic and Platonic ethics” (deSilva, 355). The thesis of the book is stated in 1:1 and 1:13.  The writer wishes to discuss if “whether devout reason is sovereign over the emotions” (cf. 6:31, 13:1, 16:1, 18:2). While this sounds very much like Stoicism, the application of the “emotions” in this case is to continue to keep the Law in the face of physical threat and torment which culminates in death.

While the casual reader may be impressed by the faith of the martyred men in the story, the first century reader would have been impressed with the men as examples of living out one’s philosophy consistently, even to the point of death. The book is therefore aimed at the Jewish community which may face persecution as they have in the past, in order to encourage them to maintain their faithfulness to the Law in the face a dominant culture which is discouraging, and may at times employ persecution and extreme torture (deSilva, 357).

Even though the book is superficially related to 1 Maccabees, there is no mention of the great military victories celebrated by that book in 4 Maccabees.  The great victories in this book come in the form of the martyrdom of men faithful to the Jewish Law.  It is not military might which drove off the armies of Antiochus IV Epiphanies.  God’s wrath was turned away by the death of righteous men (4:19-21, 6:27-29, 17:21-22, cf., deSilva, 369).

Perhaps this is why Christians preserved the book. It was an encouragement to face torture and death rather than compromise with the Empire.

 

Bibliography: David A. deSilva, Introducing the Apocrypha.  Grand Rapids: Baker, 2002.

Apostasy in Third Maccabees

Third Maccabees book opens rather abruptly with the news of Philopater IVs victory over Antiochus III at the battle of Raphia (1:1-5). Ptolemy IV Philopater (221-203) was a weak and indecisive king, initially not defending his territory until the Antiochus III was in Egypt.  When he did act, he was relentless.  When the two armies met at Raphia in 217 B.C.  Antiochus III had 62,000 men, 6000 cavalry and 102 elephants; Ptolemy had a nearly equal force of 70,000 men, 5000 cavalry, and 73 elephants (Polybuis, Histories, 5.79). Antiochus lost 17,000 men in this battle and Ptolemy annexed Palestine.

Maccabees

The Leiden First Maccabees manuscript (Codex Per F 17)

The peace Ptolemy made with Antiochus III turned out to be a mistake since Antiochus would recover and shift the balance of power in favor of the Seleucid dynasty. Ptolemy IV escaped an assassination plot when a Jew named Dositheos replaced the king with an “insignificant man” who was killed instead of the king.

What is interesting is the description of Dositheos as a Jewish person who later “changed his religion and apostatized from the ancestral traditions” (μεταβαλὼν τὰ νόμιμα καὶ τῶν πατρίων δογμάτων). The noun νόμιμος refers to a statute or law (LXX Lev 3:17, for example) rather than the Torah itself. It is the word used 1 Maccabees when the Seleucids suppress traditional Jewish practices (1:14, 42, 44), similar to 3 Maccabees 3:2. These are ancestral traditions since they come from the “decrees of the fathers.”

Dositheos alienates himself from these ancestral traditions using ἀπαλλοτριόω. This word has the sense of being an outsider or a stranger. It is used in LXX Hosea 9:10 to describe the Israelites who shamefully worshiped the gods of Baal-peor and became detestable like the thing they loved.” This may be a significant intertext since the response to the apostasy at Baal-peor was the zealous action of Phineas, a model for Matthias at the beginning of the Maccabean revolt (1 Macc 2:26, 54). The verb also appears in LXX Jeremiah 19:4 with reference to profaning the sanctuary. In LXX Ezekiel 14:5-7 the house of Israel has become estranged from God because they worshiped idols.

Although it is unlikely Paul has this particular text in mind, he does use the same sort of language to describe Gentiles in Ephesians. Gentiles were alienated from God (4:18) and the “commonwealth of Israel” (2:12), separated by the law of commandments (τὸν νόμον τῶν ἐντολῶν) and decrees (ἐν δόγμασιν). As a Second Temple period Jewish writer, Paul describes the Gentiles in the same way the writer of 3 Maccabees describes Dositheos.

By giving up ancestral practices which set him apart as a Jew, Dositheos has made himself a stranger and an outsider both to Israel and to God. His estrangement is demonstrated by preserving the life of Philopater, who will defile the Temple and outlaw ancestral traditions (3 Macc 3:2).

The warning to the reader in this opening paragraph that to apostatize from the ancestral traditions has far reaching implications. In the case of Dositheos, he preserved the life of a man who will defile the Temple. He becomes a stranger and an alien to his God and his people as a result.

How would this warning be understood by Diaspora Jews in the Roman world?

Third Maccabees 3-6 – The Incident with the Elephants

Image result for third maccabees elephantsThird Maccabees is perhaps best remembered for God’s dramatic actions rescuing the Jews from Ptolemy IV Philopater (221-205 B.C.). Josephus narrates a similar story, but dates it to the reign of Ptolemy VIII Physcon (169-116 B.C., Contra Apion, 2.52-55). The story narrated by 3 Maccabees is fanciful, but as Livia Capponi comments, the intention of the author was “to offer a testimony to the courage and firmness of the Egyptian Jews even in the face of death” (293).

Although he Jews maintain a respectful attitude toward the king, Philopater is enraged when the Jews refuse to obey his demands (3 Macc 3:1-10). Philopater commands that Jews be rounded up and arrested.  The Jews are not honest, Philopater argues, because “they accepted our presence by word, but insincerely by deed, because when we proposed to enter their inner temple and honor it with magnificent and most beautiful offerings, they were carried away by their traditional arrogance, and excluded us from entering; but they were spared the exercise of our power because of the benevolence that we have toward all” (3:17-18, NRSV).

The decree was read “to the heathens” at public feasts, but the Jews reacted with great mourning.  Jews are “dragged away” in iron bonds to Alexandria.  The chapter is filled with tragic descriptions of old men led off in chains and virgin brides are taken away from their bridal chambers. They are taken to Alexandria and brought to the hippodrome to be made a public example for those who might defy the king.

The king intends to kill the Jews he has taken captive by charging five hundred elephants (5:1-51).  He ordered the elephants to be driven into a frenzy with a mixture of wine and frankincense, but when the appointed hour came, God caused the king to fall asleep so that he never gave the order to kill the Jews. Philopater is enraged and intends to kill the Jews the next day. Again, the whole town turns out for the spectacle, but when the time comes for the king to give the order, the Lord made his mind go blank and he threatens to toss his friends to the elephants instead.  Finally the king himself drives the crazed elephants toward the Jews, who are praying, weeping and embracing one another in full expectation of their deaths.

At this moment, a priest named Eleazar prays to God, asking God’s will to be done (6:1-15).  If that means dying, then let it be, but God ought to act for his own glory and “let the Gentiles cower today in fear of your invincible might, O honored One, who have power to save the nation of Jacob” (verse 13, NRSV). As Eleazar finished his prayer the heavens open and two angels descend, visible to all but the Jews (6:16-29). So awesome was their appearance the king began to shudder and he repented of his plans to destroy the Jews.  He commands the guards to “release the children of the almighty and living God of heaven, who from the time of our ancestors until now has granted an unimpeded and notable stability to our government.”

These dramatic events are narrated as a kind of theological drama. The hand of the Lord is against Philopater and he cannot harm the Jews as he once intended. But like the three young men in Daniel 3, the Jews gathered in the hippodrome are more than willing to die rather than obey the orders of the king. Eleazar’s speech alludes to both the fiery furnace in Daniel 3 and Daniel’s refusal to pray to Darius in Daniel 6 (3 Macc 6:6-7). He also refers to God’s rescue of Jerusalem from Sennacherib (2 Kings 19:35) and God’s rescue of Jonah. In all four biblical cases, there is no human way for the person to be saved. They are only rescued by the “most high, all conquering God who governs all creation” (3 Macc 6:2).

As I suggested in a previous post, this book was written after Rome took control of Judea. The story of a large number of Jews resisting the king’s demand to give up their ancestral traditions may have encouraged those who sought to upset Roman rule in the years leading up to the first Jewish rebellion.

 

Bibliography. Livia Capponi, “‘Martyrs and Apostates: 3 Maccabees and the Temple of Leontopolis’”, in Hellenistic Judaism: Historical Aspects, Henoch 29.2 (2007), 288-306.

Third Maccabees 2 – Have Mercy on the Downcast

Philopater IV

Gold octadrachm issued by Ptolemy IV Philopator, British Museum

When Philopater visits Jerusalem wants to offer sacrifices at the temple in order to make his new subjects “feel secure” (1:6-16). He is greatly impressed by the Temple and wants to enter the Holy of Holies. But the priests explain this is forbidden even for the Jews. Philopater insists that as king he is above this law. The priests cry out and tear their cloths and pray that Almighty God would stop Philopater from this plan. The whole city joins in the mourning for the plan of the king, praying to God to stop the king from his “sacrilegious plan.” He refuses to be persuaded and the chaos grows in intensity (1:17-29).

The High Priest Simon makes an impassioned prayer asking God to stop this “wicked and corrupt man” who is “reckless in his effrontery” (2:1-20). He believes God is testing the people as he has done in the past and the priest is determined that the people will not fail this time. Simon’s prayer recalls other times when the wicked were destroyed (the giants, Sodom, Pharaoh). The High Priest begs the Lord not to punish the Jews for this defilement (v. 17). The Lord responds to this prayer by severely thrashing Philopater and paralyzing him (2:21-33).  His bodyguards were amazed at this and pull his body out of the Temple.

Philopater recovered but was not humbled by this punishment: “he by no means repented, but went away uttering bitter threats” (v. 24). He returned to Egypt where he was “even more extravagant in his wickedness.” He sought ways to bring shame on the nation of Israel.  He required the Jews to sacrifice to Dionysus and even to tattoo themselves with an ivy leaf over their hearts to show devotion to Dionysus. The Jews are to be taxed heavily and reduced to the level of slavery.

While there were some Jews who gave into these demands in order to advance themselves in society, “The majority acted firmly with a courageous spirit and did not abandon their religion; and by paying money in exchange for life they confidently attempted to save themselves from the registration” (3: 32, NRSV). The latter half of this verse is an indication there were some Jews who did attempt to capitulate to the Ptolemies.

There is very little in these events which is historical. The writer has combined elements of the abominations of Antiochus IV with Pompey’s entry into the Temple in 63 B.C. The writer created a biblical prayer and placed in the mouth of the last of the great High Priests, Simon. Although it is impossible to connect these events to any one actual event, the writer tells his generation that God will act as he has done in the past to deal with the current empire, Rome.

There are several indications the writer has Rome in mind in this text. First, it was Pompey who entered the Holy of Holies in 63 B.C. The author of 3 Maccabees pushes this sacrilege back more than a hindered years.

Second, during the Roman period Jews in Egypt were required to register in a census (λαογραφία, laographía). This tax was first introduced by Augustus, required the men of Alexandria aged 14 to 62. Those who were Greek citizens and “members of the gymnasium” were exempt. Some Jews could be considered Greek citizens by virtue of their education and were considered “Greek” for purposes of this taxation. This registration and marking (2:28-29) may be in the background of the Mark of the Beast in Revelation 13.

Third, when Simon lists other times the Lord has defeated the enemies of God’s people, he begins with “giants who trusted in their strength” (2:24). The word translated “strength” is a rare word in the LXX, ῥώμη, which is a homophone for Rome.

The writer of 3 Maccabees is therefore creating a theologically driven story to encourage readers struggling against another oppressive Empire. Just as God has acted in the past to rescue his people (whether this is Antiochus or Pompey or the present evil emperor), so too will he act again to rescue those who are “those who are downcast and broken in spirit” (2:20).

Roots of the Rebellion: Zealots and Sicarii

The activity of the Zealots and Sicarii further destabilized the political situation. The name Sicarii comes from a short sword that could be concealed under clothing.  The Sicarri would mingle into a crowd and assassinate their enemies. They were not really a religious sect, but rather a group of nationalist who advocated revolt against the Romans. They were “urban assassins,” primarily attacking the Jewish aristocracy who were pro-Roman.  Eventually they took to burning estates and taking hostages.  Jonathan the High Priest was their first victim. [Note that the word is used in Acts 21:38 to describe the activities of “The Egyptian,” the NIV translates the word as “terrorist” to avoid confusion with the later sicarri movement.]

Josephus, JW 2.13.3 (cf. Ant 20.8.10) (254) When the country was purged of these, there sprang up another sort of robbers in Jerusalem, which were called Sicarii, who slew men in the daytime, and in the midst of the city; (255) this they did chiefly at the festivals, when they mingled themselves among the multitude, and concealed daggers under their garments, with which they stabbed those that were their enemies; and when any fell down dead, the murderers became a part of those that had indignation against them; by which means they appeared persons of such reputation, that they could by no means be discovered.  (256) The first man who was slain by them was Jonathan the high priest, after whose death many were slain every day, while the fear men were in of being so served, was more afflicting than the calamity itself; (257) and while everybody expected death every hour, as men do in war, so men were obliged to look before them, and to take notice of their enemies at a great distance; nor, if their friends were coming to them, durst they trust them any longer; but, in the midst of their suspicions and guarding of themselves, they were slain.  Such was the celebrity of the plotters against them, and so cunning was their contrivance.

Their terrorist activities helped to bring on the revolution.  The random assassinations lead to a distrust among the aristocracy and a general fear from the ruling class, leading to a breakdown of social order.

Image result for SicariiThe Zealots were a radical group that believed the Maccabean revolt was the “golden age” of Israel and struggled to start a revolution against the Romans. There may be no New Testament examples, although Simon, one of Jesus’ disciples, was called the “Zealot.”  Luke 6:15, Acts 1:13.  It is unlikely that this term means that Simon was a member of this party, which was not formally a party until A.D. 67-68.

A possible New Testament reference is the disciple of Jesus, Simon the Zealot.  Is this disciple a political zealot, a revolutionary?  Most New Testament scholars think not, preferring to take the word “zealot” in this context as spiritual zeal. Personally, I wonder about the word “zeal” having a modern sense of “spirituality” in the context of A.D. 30 Galilee, where only twenty years beforehand Judas led a revolt against Rome which might be described as “zeal.”  Notice also, there are two men named Judas out of the twelve disciples.  Judas was a patriotic name going back to Judas Maccabees, the last successful Jewish rebel against foreign power.  It is possible these men were born during the activities of Judas the Galilean.

The Jewish Christians living in Jerusalem were therefore in a dangerous place. If they appeared to be too open to Paul’s Gentile churches they ran the risk of real persecution from these more radical elements, yet they clearly preached Jesus was the Messiah, that he was crucified and raised from the dead, and that he was coming back soon to render judgment (on the temple officials, the Romans, etc.) and re-establish Messianic Kingdom expected by the prophets.

Roots of the Rebellion: False Messiahs

In addition to Jesus, there were other people claiming to be the messiah in the first century. Each of this examples are from humble origins (shepherds, etc.), sought to set themselves up as kings, and developed a peasant following.

Under the procurator Fadus (44-46) a messianic prophet appeared. Theudas convinced many Jews he could part the Jordan River. The Romans attacked the crowd, killing many, and beheaded Theudas. (Antiq. 20.97-99, Acts 5:36). Theudas is known from Josephus (Antiq. 20.5.1 §97-98). In this passage, Theudas led a revolt during the reign of Fadus, A.D. 44-46. This is obviously a problem, since Gamaliel is giving this speech at least ten years before Theudas rebelled.  For someone like Bruce Chilton, this makes the account in Acts anachronistic  and unreliable, despite the
fact that Gamaliel’s standing in the Council is consistent with other sources (ABD 2:904). This problem is usually explained by noting that the name Related imageTheudas is a common name in first century inscriptions. In addition, the period after the death of Herod the Great saw many rebellions, so it is likely that Gamaliel refers to a leader of one of these earlier rebellions. Judas the Galilean lead a tax-revolt about A.D. 6, described by Josephus (Antiq 18.1.6, §23). Like Thuds’, he died and his followers dispersed.

Under the procurator Felix (52-60), prophets once again lead people into the wilderness promising that God was about to send signs of deliverance. Felix sent troops and once again killed large numbers. As Josephus says, “But the number of the robbers whom he caused to be crucified was incalculable, as also that of the citizens whom he arrested and punished as having been in league with them” (JW 2.13.2).

Another messianic pretender, known only as “The Egyptian” led a crowd in an attack on Jerusalem. Josephus reports 30,000 were in the crowd, but Acts 21:38 indicates only 4000 were involved. The Romans arrested many, but the Egyptian escaped. (JW 2.13.5, Acts 21:38).

Simon Bar Giora (Simon, son of the proselyte; died in A.D. 70). Simon represents the largest of the messianic movements (Josephus, JW, 4.9.3).  He fought against the Romans and helped unite the Zealots to a certain extent.  He eventually controlled Jerusalem, and took to wearing a white tunic and purple cape and called himself the “King of the Jews.”  He eventually surrendered to the Romans and was taken to Rome and ceremonially executed.

Josephus, JW, 4.9.3  (503) And now there arose another war at Jerusalem.  There was a son of Giora, one Simon, by birth of Gerasa, a young man, not so cunning indeed as John [of Gischala], who had already seized upon the city, (504) but superior in strength of body and courage; on which account, when he had been driven away from that Acrabattene toparchy, which he once had, by Ananus the high priest, he came to those robbers who had seized upon Masada.  (505) At first they suspected him, and only permitted him to come with the women he brought with him into the lower part of the fortress, while they dwelt in the upper part of it themselves.  (506) However, his manner so well agreed with theirs, and he seemed so trusty a man, that he went out with them, and ravaged and destroyed the country with them about Masada; (507) yet when he persuaded them to undertake greater things, he could not prevail with them so to do; for as they were accustomed to dwell in that citadel, they were afraid of going far from that which their hiding-place; (508) but he, affecting to tyrannize, and being fond of greatness, when he had heard of the death of Ananus, left them, and went into the mountainous part of the country.  So he proclaimed liberty to those in slavery, and a reward to those already free, and got together a set of wicked men from all quarters.

The story of Simon Bar Giora has several similarities to the execution of Jesus, although Jesus never made his claim to be the king of the Jews as explicit as Simon did. Each of these men portrayed themselves as a new Joshua or David and managed to gain a following large enough to attract the attention of the Romans, and in each case the Romans treat these false prophets and messianic pretenders as rebels against Roman power.

Roots of the Rebellion: Social Banditry

Josephus, Wars 1.10.5 Now Herod was an active man, and soon found proper materials for his active spirit to work upon.  As therefore he found that Hezekias, the head of the robbers, ran over the neighboring parts of Syria with a great band of men, he caught him and slew him, and many more of the robbers with him.

Josephus, Wars 1.16.2 But when Herod had reached Sepphoris, in a very great snow, he took the city without any difficulty, the guards that should have kept it flying away before it was assaulted; where he gave an opportunity to his followers that had been in distress to refresh themselves, there being in that city a great abundance of necessaries.  After which he hasted away to the robbers that were in the caves, who overran a great part of the country, and did as great mischief to its inhabitants as a war itself could have done.  (305) Accordingly, he sent beforehand three cohorts of footmen, and one troop of horsemen, to the village Arbela, and came himself forty days afterwards with the rest of his forces.  Yet were not the enemy affrighted at his assault, but met him in arms; for their skill was that of warriors, but their boldness was the boldness of robbers: (306) when, therefore, it came to a pitched battle, they put to flight Herod’s left wing with their right one: but Herod, wheeling about on the sudden from his own right wing, came to their assistance, and both made his own left wing return back from its flight, and fell upon the pursuers, and cooled their courage, till they could not bear the attempts that were made directly upon them, and so turned back and ran away.

 

In the first century, Judea had a problem “social banditry.” As early as Herod the Great, some Jews engaged in violence against the government. Social banditry is a “pre-political rebellion” and is usually found in agricultural societies in periods of oppression, high taxation, or famine. According to Sanders, these taxes probably did not create an environment of poverty which fed an ever-increasing revolutionary spirit and resulted in social banditry. N. T. Wright, however, notes one of the first things the rebels did when they took the Temple was to burn the records of debt stored there (JW 2.427-239).  Hatred of Rome and hatred of the wealthy aristocracy motivated this “debt-forgiveness” (JVG 169).

Image result for Robin HoodSocial bandits portray themselves as robbing the rich and giving to the poor, “righting wrongs” and other social evils, and providing justice for the oppressed lower classes. This is something like Robin Hood, or the American “gangster” of the depression era (Pretty Boy Floyd, Jesse James, etc.) The social banditry described by Josephus took place during the reign of Herod the Great, but it continued throughout the period of the New Testament, culminating on the rebellion against Rome in A.D. 66.

The phenomenon of social banditry is in the background of the New Testament when Jesus is arrested and crucified.  In Mark 14:48, Jesus asks the arresting party:

Mark 14:48  “Am I leading a rebellion,” said Jesus, “that you have come out with swords and clubs to capture me? NIV

Mark 14:48  And Jesus answered and said unto them, Are ye come out, as against a thief, with swords and with staves to take me?  KJV

Mark 14:48  And Jesus answered and said to them, “Have you come out with swords and clubs to arrest Me, as against a robber? NASB

When Jesus is crucified, he is placed between two thieves.  The word λῃστής is used to describe Barabbas in John 18:40. This is more than simply a thief or a burglar: the noun λῃστής refers to a brigand or pirate (BDAG). Perhaps the word terrorist is a possible translation since in recent modern history a terrorist is someone who acts violently to destabilize a society.