“Then He began to denounce the cities in which most of His miracles were done, because they did not repent. “Woe to you, Chorazin! Woe to you, Bethsaida! For if the miracles had occurred in Tyre and Sidon which occurred in you, they would have repented long ago in sackcloth and ashes. Nevertheless I say to you, it will be more tolerable for Tyre and Sidon in the day of judgment than for you. And you, Capernaum, will not be exalted to heaven, will you? You will descend to Hades; for if the miracles had occurred in Sodom which occurred in you, it would have remained to this day. Nevertheless I say to you that it will be more tolerable for the land of Sodom in the day of judgment, than for you.” (Matt 11:20–24)

Thus did Jesus criticize the Israelite towns of Chorazin (Khirbet Kerazeh) and Bethsaida (“House of Fish”) for their lack of response to his appeal to return to God with full hearts and ready hands. Capernaum, too, was included in this threat, even though the evangelists remember this as Jesus’ home town (Matt 4:13; Mark 9:1). Although “where most of [Jesus’] mighty deeds had been done” (Matt 11:20b) in these three towns at the northern coast of the Sea of Galilee, and although they were home to many of Jesus’ earliest disciples, they certainly caught his ire at this point.

A view of the Sea of Galilee from Capernaum

The “mighty deeds” are Jesus’ works demonstrating that the power of God is active through him; usually we call them “miracles.” Chapters 8–9 of Matthew’s Gospel contain a series of healing miracles that are set in the environs of the Sea of Galilee, one of which explicitly is said to have occurred in Capernaum (the cure of the Roman Centurion’s servant, in Matt. 8:5–13). Perhaps we are to take the entire set as taking place in the three towns rebuked in this saying.

In the scene with the Roman Centurion, this Gentile is praised by Jesus while the Jews of Galilee are implicitly reprimanded—“Amen, I say to you, in no one in Israel have I found such faith” (Matt. 8:10). In this saying in Matt. 11, however, there is nothing implicit about the criticism. Matthew makes the shocking claim that even the infamous Gentile town of Sodom will fare better than these Israelite towns on Judgment Day. You see, the Gentiles are converting,

An artist’s rendering of the “House of the Fisher” in Bethsaida

coming to faith in the true God, because of Jesus and his “mighty deeds.” They recognize that these miraculous works are wrought by the power of God, not Satan, so they accept Jesus as God’s emissary and accept his teaching.

The Jews of Galilee, however, are not so willing as their pagan counterparts to recognize the power of God working through Jesus. Because of this, they end up in a sense changing places with the Gentiles, opposing God rather than turning toward God and welcoming this “new thing” God is doing through Jesus. If the Jewish towns continue in this way, they will end up under the kind of Divine judgment that led to the destruction of the ancient cities of Sodom and Gomorrah (Gen 18:16–19:29).

Many people misunderstand the Genesis story about Sodom and Gomorrah, linking it with homosexual practice rather than the death-dealing injustice and lack of hospitality that comprise the key complaints against these Gentile cities. However, in some ways this warning of Jesus does not depend upon a correct understanding of that Genesis story. All that is necessary to get Jesus’ point is to remember that Sodom was destroyed by heavenly fire, and Jesus is threatening that it will be much worse for these Israelite towns who refuse to recognize him as God’s chosen instrument.

Contemporary Christians who tend to point a finger at others, judging them to be less moral and threatening them with God’s wrath might take heed to Jesus’ warning. The “religious” people are not the ones Jesus is commending here, but the people others see as irreligious, idolatrous, “pagan.” A contemporary American “translation” might read, “But I tell you, it will be easier for Al Qaeda (or gays, or those who support the national health care plan, or whatever other group you most love to hate) on the Day of Judgment than for you.”

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Hype about a “Wife”

28 September 2012

Professor Karen King thinks she has found an ancient text in which Jesus is presented as speaking of “my wife…,” and the media are having a heyday, ignoring her carefully framed remarks and sensationalizing the claims. Even one of the less sensationalist pieces, in the NY Times, has headlines claiming that the papyrus fragment “refers to Jesus’ wife.” That headline claims historicity for the statement. To be accurate, one must say that the text puts the expression “my wife” in the mouth of Jesus—which is quite a different statement than claiming that Jesus actually had a wife. (If you don’t follow this distinction, keep re-reading those last three sentences until they sink in. The effort will have been worth your while when you shift to parsing the claims in political advertisements.)

Fourth century papyrus fragment of a Coptic manuscript, made public
by Harvard Prof. Karen L. King, in which Jesus refers to “my wife”

What has been obscured by the sensationalist press coverage:

  1. Prof. King never claims this fragment proves anything about Jesus’ marital status.
  2. We do not know the date of the text. We simply know King’s view that the fragment reflects a later second-century text (CE 150-200).
  3. King admits that the papyrus itself has been dated to the fourth century. Her positing of a prior text is an hypothesis, not a proven fact.
  4. A truism of historical method holds that sources tend to be less reliable the further they get from the actual historical persons or events to which they attest. Hence, a fourth-century text is less likely to be reliable than first-century ones (such as the canonical gospels).
  5. We know that the provenance and pedigree of this fragment have been lost.
  6. Given #5, the question of a forgery is acute.
  7. King is persuaded the fragment is authentic. Maybe she’s right; maybe she’s not. Right now we do not have enough data to answer that question definitively—and the loss of provenance means that we likely never will. I have not seen the fragment up close, so I cannot comment on the text. From this distance, I am suspicious of the too-neat shape of the fragment. It’s not impossible, but I’ve never seen another fragment with such regular, square edges.

Who cares whether Jesus “had a wife”?

Notice how that question is framed: Did Jesus possess a woman? The hype about this possible ancient text is tedious because hype always is. However, this particular spin is disturbing because of the way it assumes and feeds the strictly gendered thought-patterns that scholars work to overcome, since those attitudes pre-determine the “answers” to any questions one might ask.

Whether or not Jesus was married, frankly, I don’t really care too much. I occasionally raise the question simply because setting someone on the quest for data one way or another poses an interesting and modestly sophisticated exercise for historical-Jesus students.

However, I DO care very much that every time this idea hits the press the speculation turns to Mary of Magdala, an historical figure who is grossly misunderstood by most people. The talk makes Magdalene important *because* she may have been Jesus’ wife. Saints preserve us, as my grandmother would have said.

No; Magdalene is important in her own right as a leader among Jesus’ disciples. Without her, the other guys would never have known about the resurrection. Her significance is eroded—even eliminated—by the way popular opinion jumps to put her into a neat little “wife” box. The poor woman is rolling over in her grave!

So, are we to “recover” the women of the early Jesus movement precisely so we can control their image and make them safe, rather than letting them rattle the cages of those who still, after fifty years of feminism, cannot imagine a woman without a man? Oh no, I don’t think so!

[Editor’s note: Much of the foregoing is cross-posted with the Feminism & Religion blog article at http://feminismandreligion.com/2012/09/26/in-the-news-wives-silent-hidden-and-unnamed/#more-6268.]

Jesus’ “Family Values”

8 September 2012

Mark 3:31-38 is the startling account of Jesus’ mother and brothers made to cool their heels outside “the house” where Jesus was teaching to a crowd inside “seated around him.” In his apparent put-down of his family, Jesus, “looking around at those seated in the circle he said, ‘Here are my mother and my brothers.’”

But which family is “one’s own”? That is precisely Jesus’ point. If Jesus were a paterfamilias, the patriarch of a family, this statement essentially would disinherit all his natural heirs. He is not a patriarch, but Jesus’ statement still clearly disowns his family of origin in favor of his “fictive kinship” group. (Remember that Mark’s Jesus has no particular reason to trust his blood relatives, since just ten verses earlier they tried to lock him up for lunacy or demonic possession.) Jesus’ “true family” comprises all women and men who hear the word of Godand do it.

Notice that Jesus’ family is not all-inclusive. Jesus is not concerned with “political correctness”; he challenges the status quoin favor of obedience to the divine will.

Stained glass window, from St Aidan’s Church in Bamburgh, Northumberland, depicting a queen (possibly Margaret of Scotland) feeding the poor.

Those who hear God’s word but do not live it are not family: hypocrites, those who “talk the talk but do not walk the walk,” who offer Temple worship but do not care for “the least of these, my brothers and sisters,” are excluded from Jesus’ family. Notice also that Jesus is not concerned with whether or not these least “deserve” help; he doesn’t do background checks or make them fill out any application forms to receive aid. Jesus’ sole concern is that his disciples do in fact meet the needs of those who have “fallen through the cracks” of society’s support structures.

Nor are those who live without even attending to God’s word (e.g., pagans, atheists) part of Jesus’ family. Ayn Rand types who assert “No God; only man” are not included. The attitude is so inimical to Jesus’ worldview that it would be pointless even to attempt a conversation. Call it intolerant if you like, or just call it prioritizing: Jesus learned his economic policy from the Hebrew Bible.

Somewhat surprisingly to us, Jesus’ family includes mothers and siblings, but no fathers. The patriarch’s power and authority interferes with hearing and doing God’s word. No one can serve two masters; no one can be bound to obey both God and a paterfamilias, for the human patermight command what God forbids, or vice-versa. Yet the traditional paterfamilias does demand this kind of authority over “his” offspring, wife, extended family members, servants, slaves, and other clients for whom he is patron. Hence, to become part of Jesus’ family, the paterfamilias must relinquish patriarchal authority, humbling himself to the level of a brother.

Promise-keepers” in Jesus’ eyes are not those who take control of “their” families, demanding subordination and obedience, but those who recognize their wives, children, clients, and slaves as siblings, equal in dignity and respect, owing obedience to God alone—and responsible for their own decisions about precisely how they will live that obedience.

Philip found Nathanael and said to him, “We have found him about whom Moses in the law and also the prophets wrote, Jesus son of Joseph from Nazareth.” Nathanael said to him, “Can anything good come out of Nazareth?” Philip said to him, “Come and see.” When Jesus saw Nathanael coming toward him, he said of him, “Here is truly an Israelite in whom there is no deceit!”

The first chapter of the Gospel According to John narrates the enlistment of several of Jesus’ early disciples from the town of Bethsaida. Andrew and Philip, disciples of John the Baptist, joined Jesus’ group by means of the ancient version of LinkedIn: they were referred by John. Jesus’ networking system continued rolling and resulted in Andrew and Philip recruiting their brothers, Peter and Nathanael (respectively). In response to Philip’s urgent and credulous invitation to come and meet the messiah promised by Moses and the prophets, Nathaniel shows himself a true skeptic. His initial reaction, according to John, was to inquire “Can anything good come out of Nazareth?” As a rhetorical question, the unspoken but nevertheless predictable answer to this query should be “certainly not!” “Come and see,” his brother urges. So Nathaniel the skeptic, whether out of curiosity or a sense of fraternal duty, comes to meet Jesus and see for himself whether Philip’s enthusiasm is well-founded.

An artist’s sketch of Philip talking to his brother, Nathanael, urging him to come with him to meet Jesus.

“When Jesus saw Nathanael coming toward him, he said of him, “Here is truly an Israelite in whom there is no deceit!” (John 1:47; NRSV)

But would honesty be a main virtue of a “true child of Israel”? For Jesus, yes. For his contemporaries, not really. And for us? How many lies have you heard so far in this presidential campaign, or from church officialsa concerned in the pedophilia and parish-closing scandals, or from rich corporate executives of the me-first-and-last-and-who-cares-about-anyone-else mindset? Thank God for groups like the Nuns-on-a-Bus, or one may have been inclined simply to crawl into a hole and hibernate until Christmas.

Nathanael (whose name means “gift of God”) is the kind of person who says exactly what he thinks, without hedging. His rhetorical question in response to Philip’s invitation (v. 46) makes clear his skepticism from the start: “Can anything good come from Nazareth?” If Nathanael were an American, he would be from Missouri, the “Show Me” State. Not so credulous to accept Philip’s testimony without evidence, yet he is willing to “come and see.”

Once Nathanael meets Jesus face-to-face, he does “see” and, totally contrary to cultural norms, changes his mind publicly. In Middle-Eastern culture, especially for men, “saving face” is paramount, and “scoring points” or gaining leverage over another man runs a close second. Men are expected to lie and dissemble to gain social advantage. (Have politicians like Messrs. Aikin and Ryan mentally moved to the Mediterranean Basin? Have some of our prelates done the same?)

If Nathanael had been wise in the ways of the world, he would have remained stubbornly skeptical, “hedged his bets” by attributing his assertion to others (cf. Matt 16:14), or at least waited until a private moment to declare his change of mind. Instead, he clearly and simply said what he meant, without duplicity or self-interest, testifying to the Truth he now recognized: that Jesus is the Son of God, the King of Israel. An Israelite without guile? From the perspective of Jesus’ contemporaries, this would have been an insult, or at best a self-contradiction. From John’s perspective, however, it is high praise indeed.

Nathanael’s encounter with Jesus is epigrammatic of John’s model of true discipleship: hearing the gospel inspires Nathanael’s search; meeting Jesus reveals the identity both of the seeker and of Jesus himself; revelation gives rise to conversion and further testimony. Note that evangelist makes Nathanael, not Peter, the first one to witness to Jesus’ true identity. Even the guileless can be used to score points.

Israel

16 July 2010

Unbelievably, I arrived in Tel Aviv with no incidents whatsoever. We’re overnight at a hostel at the Mount of the Beatitudes, with a lovely view of the Lake of Galilee. More tomorrow….

Today this trip concludes and we return to the States. We endure two security checks in Istanbul and then four more in Frankfurt before we land at Newark to go through U.S. Customs and Immigration. The Customs officials will screen our bags and ask us the same questions we have answered three or four times already today. If we bought anything of value while abroad, they will require us to pay a tariff. Then we’ll find our way to the plane for Cleveland and pass through one more security checkpoint in order to board the final flight home. My first reaction to all this was boredom and mild frustration—in the three hours between flights in Frankfurt, it took fully two hours to run the gauntlet from one plane to the other—and I found myself thinking that Paul would never have had to endure anything like this. Then I started to wonder if that was really true.

A contemporary Turkish pleasure yacht, about the size of an ancient fishing vessel

What was it like to get off one of those trading vessels at the harbor in Ephesus, Miletus, or Cenchrea? Merchants or tradespersons who were bringing goods to the market were interrogated and their goods inspected. They certainly had to pay a tariff, perhaps more than one. The Empire charged taxes, and the cities very likely did as well. Just for comparative purposes, think about the figures for today. In foreign countries like those of the European Union, on the other hand, the “Value Added Tax” (VAT) charged on goods and services runs at 18–20%. (“Value Added Tax,” eh? Really? One cynically wonders what kind of value a tax could add to anything….) At first glance one can see that the VAT is over twice our rate, at least 10% higher. However, the real differential between our tax and the VAT higher still: in Ohio, groceries, prescription drugs, and some other essential goods are exempt from the sales tax; the tax rate for services traditionally is about 2.5%, a third of the tax on goods; and the “usage tax” rate for Internet purchases is 5%. So Ohioans have sales taxes of 0­–8%, depending upon what you purchase, by what means, and in which county. My impression is that the tax rates in Paul’s day looked a lot more like the VAT than our sales tax. Imagine bringing your goods to market, and then standing there watching while some tax collector skimmed off a fifth of their value before you ever had a chance to sell a single item. No wonder the tax collector bore the status of persona non grata in the first-century Roman Empire.

borrowed from http://www.pbs.org/empires/romans/empire/plebians.html

A Plebian-class family in the first-century Roman world

Imagine further that you are one of the typical members of the Plebian class who earned a subsistence wage. One denarius was the average wage of a day laborer in Jesus’ time (hence the extravagance of the 300-denarii jar of oil with which the woman prophet anointed him; see Mark 14 & //). One denarius made the difference between survival and indigence (in contemporary terms, becoming a bag lady). One day’s wage minus this estimated tax rate is only 8/10 of a denarius; a prolonged pattern of such a shortfall means life on the streets (beggary or brigandage) or debt slavery. Alternately, a daily income of 1.2 denarii means surplus, the possibility of ever-so-gradually saving for the proverbial “rainy day,” thereby gaining financial and personal/familial/communal stability. Even better, as your income grows and you build your “nest egg,” this “regressive” tax on goods and services takes proportionally less of your income; it’s sting begins to fade from view.

Poverty tears the fabric of society, destabilizing families, neighborhoods, villages, and larger socio-economic structures; this can be seen in any age, including our own. Poorer neighborhoods have higher crime rates, poorer health, and lower educational achievement than do middle-class or wealthier ones. D’you ever wonder why Jesus ended up healing a lot of folks, especially poor ones? One of them was a woman “who had spent all of her resources on doctors” to no avail (Luke 8:43; note the footnote for this verse if your Bible does not include this phrase in the body of the text). Jesus is quoted as saying “the poor you will always have with you…” (Mark 14:7a). Some people read that as fatalism: there’s no point in doing anything about the economic disparities we see; but does it really make sense to think Jesus sent out his disciples to continue his healing ministry (Mark 6:7-13 & //; Luke 10:1-11) because he wanted his followers to do nothing about the poor? Perhaps instead he was commenting on the imbalanced socio-economic structures that, if left unchanged, will continue to create and intensify the disparities between the rich and the poor.

We know that the Roman Empire was marked by enormous economic disparities, with 10% of the population controlling 90% of the wealth, and the most affluent acquiring hundreds of times the annual income of the poorest persons. We don’t always recognize that the same statistics apply to the USA today, and the economic disparities between the wealthiest and the poorest have been growing wider and wider over the last several decades. Part of Jesus’ “economic recovery policy” was to heal those who were sick (the overwhelming majority of whom were of the Plebian class) and to feed those who were hungry (many of whom did not have the resources to buy their daily bread; viz. Mark 8:1-8). This has been part of the mission of Jesus’ disciples ever since. Another part of that mission, to a greater or lesser degree at different points in history, has been to work to change those socio-economic imbalances that cause and perpetuate poverty.

Unless you read Jesus’ remark as fatalistic, the New Testament as whole is consistent in teaching that the disciples of Jesus are to alleviate the causes and results of poverty. The last century of developments in the social sciences (e.g., economics, sociology, political science) has given us new language to talk about the dynamics of poverty and a different set of tools to analyze the structures that cause and perpetuate it. Is a 20% sales tax the way to go? Do we put caps on interest rates for loans? Do we raise capital gains or estate tax rates, or do we eliminate them? Do we raise the minimum wage, or lower it for certain types of companies (e.g., start-up ventures)? Whatever we do, Christians have to remember that these questions require that economic considerations be evaluated within the context of the commitment to live as disciples of Jesus.

For millennia the poor mostly have gone without us. Instead, Jesus and the NT authors challenge us to live and stand with the poor.

Money Changers, Then & Now

3 February 2010

Today I spent two hours getting money changed from one currency to another. Only one bank had the facilities to make this particular exchange (the Central Bank of Turkey, sort of like the U.S. Federal Reserve Bank), so the travel to and from the bank is what took the lion’s share of the time; the actual exchange took maybe seven minutes. Did Paul and the other early missionaries have to do this kind of thing? And would the ancient equivalent of the cabby try to “take them for a ride” and make money off the “tourists”? Probably “yes” is the correct answer to both these questions.

Excavations at Ephesus thus far have unearthed more than one agora (a “marketplace” or business district). Each of them is at least the size of JCU campus west of Belvoir. One appears to include a synagogue, so the best guess is that it was a Jewish market. There were public buildings in the government area, and various temples on the street that ran alongside it. Traditionally, temples served many of the purposes of modern banks. The wealthy could deposit funds or valuable objects there for safekeeping (sort of an ancient equivalent of our “safety deposit box”). Lenders deposited their debt instruments in the temples; one of the duties of the temple staff was to keep written records of who owed what to whom. Did the synagogues do the same? We don’t know (yet). The Temple in Jerusalem did, of course—which is why the first act of the revolutionaries in A.D. 66 was to wrest control of the Temple from the senior priests and destroy the debt records­—but it is difficult to imagine Diaspora Jews using the Temple for this purpose: it certainly would necessitate a long and arduous journey just to retrieve grandma’s jewels or silver for a dinner party.

As for exchanging money, Roman coinage probably was negotiable throughout the Empire, but many cities and regional governments also minted their own coinage. (The tetrarch, Herod Antipas is one example; follow this link to see an example of his coinage). Observant Jews, however, probably avoided using Roman money (e.g., viz. Jesus’ absence of money in Mark 12:15, and Seer John’s claims [Rev 13:17 &c.] that those who carry or use Roman coinage wear “the mark of the Beast”). Roman coinage bore images of the emperor, empress, and other “divinities,” as well as inscriptions proclaiming the divine status of the reigning emperor (e.g., Octavian is “Augustus/Sebaste” [“worthy of worship”], “Dominus et Deus “ [“Lord and God”], and “Divi Filius” [“Son of God”—i.e., son of the divinized Julius Caesar]. Claims such as these might be fine for polytheists, but they would not be acceptable to Jews. The Jewish authorities in Jerusalem minted shekels with images of flora, but they abjured images of fauna or humans—and they certainly never claimed divine honors for a human being. Whatever the shopkeepers in Jerusalem took for negotiable currency, contributions to the Jewish Temple and purchases of sacrificial animals had to be made in shekels, not Roman (or Syrian, or Egyptian) coinage. Hence the importance of the “money changers” who are chastised in what Paula Fredericksen has labeled Jesus’ “Temple Tantrum” (e.g., John 2:13-16; cf. Mark 11:15-17 & //). For Jews like Jesus, money posed a problem, not only because of its inequitable distribution, but even its very existence.

For Jesus’ early disciples, choosing which currency to use could be a matter of religious as well as economic importance. It is highly unlikely that shopkeepers in Ephesus or Antioch would take Jewish shekels. What’s a Jewish tentmaker to do? Seer John implies that the answer is to barter goods and avoid money altogether. Paul himself never explicitly answers this question, but his attitude toward foods sacrificed to pagan deities (e.g., 1 Cor 8) suggests that he would not have been troubled about using Roman money. Hence, Seer John would have no money to exchange, whether in Jerusalem or elsewhere. Paul, however, would most likely have had to make that exchange—for example, when he and the emissaries from the Gentile congregations brought their contributions to the community of disciples in Jerusalem (viz., e.g., 2 Cor 8).

Who knows whether or not Paul & Co. got a fair exchange rate from the moneychangers in the Temple? Did Jesus’ chastisement have any long-term effect? Did it resonate in the memories of those who continued to provide that financial service? We’ll probably never know. However, if Acts is correct, Paul and his companions did get taken for a ride—although not from a cabby. The Jerusalem church “laundered” the money from the Gentile communities by applying it to the cost of the redemption sacrifice for some men who were concluding the period of their Nazirite vow (Acts 21:17-26; cf. Num 6:1-21). Instead of using the contribution as an opportunity to recognize the legitimacy of Paul’s gospel that the Gentile disciples should be accepted as full members of the Jesus-believing community, rather than as second-class citizens in a Jewish church, the funds were used to reinforce the continuing validity of the Mosaic law for all of the disciples of Messiah Jesus, not only those who were born and raised as Jews.

Reflections on Wind & “Sea-Effect” Snow

Today we left Çanakkale by ferry and crossed to the peninsula of Galipoli, on our way to Istanbul (ancient Byzantium or Constantinople). A modest-sized cabin cruiser (maybe 40’ long) left the harbor while the ferry was loading and we watched it bouncing around like a cork, sometimes above and sometimes overswept by the white caps on the waters of the Dardanelles Strait. The trading vessels in which first-century missionaries like Paul traveled would have been 3-4 times the size of that boat; nevertheless, the heavy gusting winds of yesterday and the fog and waves of today make it easy to understand why shipping ceased during the winter months.

All day long it has been snowing and sleeting, dropping that heavy, wet snow that is so easy to turn into snowballs but that also so easily creates black ice on the highways. (You can find a couple photos at http://www.kanalturk.com.tr/haber-detay/21009-tekirdag-kara-teslim-haberi.aspx.) Parts of Cleveland get “lake-effect” snow—which can be two extra feet in some places—but somehow I never anticipated “sea-effect” snow. For a while, it was coming fast and furious, forming a morass of slush on the roadway. Like happens sometimes, especially on the bridges, gusts of wind were forcing the lighter cars to drift across the roadway. Along some parts of the highway, the Marmara Sea is a stone’s throw away—maybe 50 or 100 feet. On a clear, summer day, it provides a lovely view. Today it looks like a boiling cauldron of ultra-thin lentil soup.

So, there we are rolling along in this giant Greyhound-type bus when a big burst of wind shoved us off the highway. (Did you know that it’s possible to fall off a highway? Indeed, ‘tis.) We scraped along the guardrail for a few hundred feet while the driver regained control of the vehicle. He made several attempts to get back up on the roadway, which was probably six inches or so higher than the two-foot-wide “shoulder”; no luck. He did manage to snag the metal cover for the engine cooling system and accordion pleat it, which provided a certain amount of entertainment for the back half of the bus; then the front half had to get in on the fun, so they came back and took pictures of the results.

A set of telephone calls and consultations eventually produced tangible results. About 75 minutes later, a tow truck came to rescue us, the TV news crew tagging along behind. A reporter stood in the freezing rain talking about the scene while the cameraman filmed the bus being winched up and dragged forward so all four wheels would rest on the pavement. If they were smart, they also got a good shot of the four-foot-deep dent we put in the guardrail when we got blown off the road. I guess we’re going to have our half-minute of fame tonight, to the entertainment of our Turkish hosts (Turkish TV Channel 20, I’m told). I don’t begrudge them. Personally, I want to shake the hands of those Turks who engineered and installed that guardrail—without which we would have rolled down the hill and at least half the distance to the waters’ edge. I’m not a big fan of swimming in the winter months, even less inside a tour bus.

As we re-commenced motoring down the highway, our guide took the microphone and began, “On your right is the Sea of Marmara….” We’ll never know what else he intended to tell us because the entire group burst into uproarious laughter. He prolonged matters by trying to interrupt the outburst, saying, “I don’t know what’s so funny.” Perhaps not. Maybe American humor is weird. I certainly would be at a loss to explain why we find odd that attempt to rewind the clock as if nothing had happened. After all, the strategy epitomizes Mediterranean culture to a tee. I think I’ll follow suit this time; I’m not going to ask.

The delay on the road and slower driving speed means that we will have to wait until tomorrow to see the Blue Mosque. Combined with the visits to the Hagia Sophia, Topkapi Palace, and the covered bazaar, that will make for a very full day; but it means some down-time tonight, which I’m sure everyone will appreciate. In spite of the laughter about our adventure, I can see the adrenaline crash setting in: about half the bus is asleep now. I figure that every trip is bound to have some kind of unplanned excitement; we managed ours without anyone getting hurt, so I’m happy. And, on top of that, I’ve gained a new appreciation for guardrails.

Today we visited Ephesus, the third-largest city in the Roman Empire during the New Testament period, surpassed in size only by Rome itself and Alexandria in Egypt. The most extensive archaeological site in Turkey, excavation of the city began in 1895 and, barring interruptions due to the two world wars, has continued on a regular basis through today. Current work at Ephesus is headed by the Austrian Archaeological Institute in collaboration with the Austrian Academy of Sciences, Vienna’s University of Technology, and (of course) the Turkish government.

Historically, there were four cities on or near this spot, which archaeologists denote simply Ephesus 1, 2, 3, and 4. The first two foundations predated the Hellenistic period, while the last derives from the Byzantine era; “Ephesus 3” was founded in the Hellenistic period and remained inhabited until perhaps the 11th century. This third Ephesus is the one under excavation. It is the city where Paul of Tarsus lived for 2½ years of while he was evangelizing this region, then called “Asia Minor.” Other evangelists and teachers of the early churches in that area included Prisca (a.k.a. Priscilla), Aquila, and Apollos, during Paul’s lifetime, as well as Seer John (the author of Revelation), Papias, and Polycarp during the next generation.

Ephesus is such an extensive site; I will focus on only a few highlights, including the Odeon, the Theater, and the hill houses. If you want to see pictures of many of the structures along the main street, see my slide show of First Century C.E. Ephesus at http://www.jcu.edu/Bible/BibleIntroReadings/PPTs/Ephesus.ppt.

Ephesus, the Street of the Curetes

Ephesus, the Street of the Curetes

Picture this: as you walk into the city from west to east, the road slopes down toward the ancient harbor. This main road, called the Street of the Curetes, is about 50’ wide—somewhat wider than Miramar Avenue. Rather than an asphalt roadbed, however, this street is paved entirely in while marble. In the Roman period, this street was lined with decorative pillars on either side, forming a “colonnade.” Overhead was either a vaulted wooden roof or an awning of the type made by “tentmakers” like Paul of Tarsus. Whether on a cool rainy winter’s day or a hot summer one, this covered colonnade allowed travelers to traverse the city while protected from the sun and elements, creating an experience similar to that of a covered bazaar or a modern shopping mall. Today there are few columns and no awning; on a sunny day in July, the hot sun beating down on one’s head and reflecting upwards from the marble pavement makes one wish for a parasol, a cool bath, or a lovely Roman colonnade.

the Ephesian Odeon

The Ephesian Odeon

One of the first major structures you see on the right side of the road is the Roman bath, and nearby is the Odeon or music house. This one sparkles in the sun; not only the façade, but even the rows of seats are faced with white marble. The town council may have held its meetings here, debating issues of concern to the city and hearing high-profile legal cases. When the space was not being used for such business, several hundred townspeople could relax under its cool awning with while listening to musical performances, entertaining speeches, philosophical disquisitions, and even roving preachers spreading the word about a new foreign cult—like Paul or Apollos teaching about Messiah Jesus. On the left side of the road is the imperial “agora” or government center. Further down the road on the right-hand side, you come to a Temple in honor of the city’s patron deity, Artemis of the Ephesians. A series of upscale apartments on the left-hand side boast courtyards with colorful mosaic floors. Continuing down the hill, you find the public toilets, and eventually you come to a monumental gate that divides the upper city, with its temples and government offices, from the lower city, with its commercial agora (marketplace), shops and fountains and, by the second century A.D., the immense Library of Celsus, the third-largest library in the world at that time (behind those of Alexandria [in Egypt] and the neighboring Anatolian city of Pergamon).

Archway to Ephesian Temple

[to be continued…]

A Roman Spa

29 January 2010

Paul’s last stop in Asia Minor on his way to Jerusalem with the contributions he had collected from the Gentile churches (ca. A.D. 58; cf. Acts 20) was the ancient city of Miletus, founded in the fifth century B.C. In Paul’s time, this was a harbor town on a peninsula jutting into the Aegean Sea, but today it is about 6 miles inland. Silting from the Meander River gradually built up the area between two modest mountain ranges so that it created a plain where the harbor used to be. This area has received a lot of precipitation lately (some snow but mostly rain), so today the plain is pock-marked with numerous pools of standing water and one easily can envision this lowland covered by the sea—as it was 2000 years ago.

Miletus was a sizable town in the Roman period, although not a major metropolis. The excavations thus far have unearthed several public works that convey a sense of the size and significance of the town in Paul’s day. These include a theater that seated as many as 20,000 people—about the size of Cleveland’s “Q” arena; the beginning of the ten-mile-long processional way or via sacra leading to the Apollo Temple at Didyma (the second-most important site for the cult of Apollo in the ancient world, behind only Delphi in Greece); a huge nymphaion (fountain) and other buildings relating to the harbor; and a public bath complex that was constructed about 100 years after Paul’s time by Faustina, wife of the Emperor Marcus Aurelius and daughter of his predecessor, Antoninus Pius. (Follow this link for a site diagram, or this one for a color version of the city plan.) The stadium, gymnasium, and many other important sites have yet to be excavated; in fact, probably about 90% of the city remains underground.

The Baths of Faustina represent one of the finer examples of this “genre” of public buildings. Similar to the contemporary American “fitness center,” Roman baths included facilities for various types of physical training and relaxation as well as opportunities to “network” with the kinds of people who might provide advantageous business connections. The center included six main areas: gymnasium, palaestra (which here is a nymphaeum), apoditarium, caldarium, tepidarium, and refrigerium. These last three areas were laid out in a U pattern.

  1. The gymnasium or athletic field—where one would receive training and compete in sports such as wrestling, boxing, vaulting, discus, and other track-and-field events—ran along one whole side of the building.
  2. The palaestra, an atrium or entrance area typically lined with statuary representing various local and imperial deities as well as city benefactors and native athletic stars, served as a lecture hall and space for discussion of philosophical and literary works.
  3. Passing through this palaestra, one next came to the apoditarium, the ancient version of a “locker room” lined with individual cubicles for undressing before entering the bath proper and then dressing again before leaving the baths. In Hollywood films that depict scenes in Roman baths, one always sees the customers swathed in bath sheets, but the literature of the period indicates that nudity was the norm in these interior parts of the baths. This room is probably where one could avail oneself of spa services such as massage and exfoliation before entering the sauna area or swimming pool. Whereas it is likely that the massage tables were stationary, for the most part it seems that one had to bring along the body servant to provide these services.
  4. The sauna or caldarium included a pool of hot water that served both as a hot tub and also helped create steam. The walls of the caldarium were hollow, forming a series of hypocausts or stone ductwork that conducted hot air from a wood furnace located either below the caldarium or in a small furnace room next door. Thus, the temperature of the sauna was controlled by a hot-air heating system similar to the gas forced-air heating systems that one finds in many homes today.
  5. Next to the caldarium was the tepidarium, the “lukewarm room.” The pool in this room was the proper temperature for customers who might want to swim, rather than simply to soak. Even if other parts of the baths were not highly decorated, the tepidarium often was filled with floor and wall mosaics and frescoes of various mythological scenes, images of water nymphs and deities, and other religious imagery. In this room, one could take advantage of the bath concessions to purchase food and drinks to be eaten while enjoying a relaxing conversation with one’s associates. The excavators of Faustina’s baths even found a menu listing the prices for various à la carte food and drink items, as well as an entire meal sold prix fixé.
  6. The last of the series of pools was located in the refrigerium, the “cold room,” so called because the water in this pool was cool rather than lukewarm or hot. Although the water was too cool for most swimmers, bathers would at least enter this pool briefly in order to close the pores opened by the hot steam in the caldarium and the other spa services. Especially in warm climes like Italy and other parts of the Mediterranean world, utilizing this pool last before leaving the baths helped one stay cool after dressing again in street clothes.

Among the rather unusual features of the Baths of Faustina are three that relate more to herself than to the building complex. First among these is the simple fact that she sponsored its construction, which means she had personal, discretionary control of substantial financial resources. Second is the fact that she alone is honored with the dedicatory inscription memorializing her largess; the gift is not connected with any of her male relatives. Thirdly, the accuracy of the dedication remains undisputed. While it is not nearly so common to find public works donated by women as by men, it is even less common to find scholars accepting those attributions rather than generating some alternative “explanation” that minimizes the woman’s contribution. Perhaps because Faustina was an empress, or perhaps because she is given no official titles relating to civic offices, her honor is upheld.

The Bible According to McGinn

People, places, and other points of interest relating to the Biblical texts

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