The Ever-Deepening Mystery of the Dead Sea Scrolls

Note: This is my latest Article for Catholic Answers Magazine (Online Edition). Hope you enjoy it and find it educational!

Perhaps you’ve noticed one of the many stories about the Dead Sea Scrolls that have appeared recently (like this one), trumpeting the decoding of one of the two remaining undeciphered Dead Sea Scrolls.

An Ancient “Calendar App”

As it turns out, this scroll sheds light on the calendar employed by the Jewish sect (likely the Essenes — more on them below) that authored the scrolls, a calendar that differed markedly from the lunar version used by the ruling temple establishment in Jerusalem. The scroll calendar was a unique 364-day calendar, which could easily be divided into four and seven, guaranteeing that feast days would always fall on exactly the same day each year!

According to Eshbal Ratson and Jonathan Ben-Dov of the University of Haifa, who deciphered the scroll, this calendar is “perfect” because it eliminated a major problem of lunar calendars: what happens if a major feast happens to fall on a Sabbath? Also, as the professors note, the “calendar is unchanging, and it appears to have embodied the beliefs of the members of this community regarding perfection and holiness.”

This discovery is a good occasion for us to go over what the Dead Sea Scrolls—and the community which composed them—are all about, and what importance they may have for helping us understand Jesus. 

When were the scrolls discovered?

Sometime in either late 1946 or early 1947, a Bedouin shepherd accidentally discovered a cave containing ancient manuscripts in the desert region near the shores of the Dead Sea. What was in that cave turned out to be the beginnings of the greatest archaeological discovery of the twentieth century. In total, eleven caves were found in the region (with a twelfth and possibly a thirteenth discovered in 2017), containing copies of many biblical books, along with other religious writings and communal documents belonging to the Jewish sect that compiled them. In all likelihood, this group was the Essenes.

The New Testament reveals that there were numerous sects within the Judaism of Jesus’ day—the Pharisees and the Sadducees, who ruled the temple priesthood, immediately spring to mind, of course. But don’t forget groups like the Herodians, and even the warmongering Zealots (a group from which Jesus called an apostle, Simon). Another active group in the first century, although one not specifically mentioned in the New Testament, was the aforementioned Essenes.

The Essenes believed that the temple establishment in Jerusalem had become hopelessly corrupt, and that their community alone possessed the true faith in all its purity. Withdrawing to the desert from what they viewed as a hopelessly corrupt society, they prepared for an imminent end-times battle between the “Sons of Light” (themselves) and the “Sons of Darkness” (essentially, everybody else). They settled in the harsh climes of the Dead Sea region, where the caves that housed the scrolls were eventually discovered.

What can the scrolls tell us about Jesus?

Let’s clear up a major misconception people have about the Dead Sea Scrolls: they are not Christian documents, although their composition overlaps with the life and times of Jesus and the early Church (they were generally composed between the third century B.C. and first century A.D.). However, they do show us what many Jews who were roughly contemporaneous with Jesus believed about the coming messianic age. These beliefs were expectations that were common to many Jews of Jesus’ day. When we read the scrolls through this lens, we see many points of contact between what the authors of the scrolls expected of the Messiah and Jesus’ own words and deeds.

One example comes from an Aramaic scroll found in Cave 4 (which was the motherlode, the cave containing the most scrolls), which speaks of a coming “Son of God,” a “Son of the Most High” who will be “great” and reign forever. Notice how this closely echoes the Annunciation narrative found in Luke 1. Another scroll, known as the “Melchizedek Scroll,” found in Cave 11, speaks of the appearance of one who seems to be God, having the power to forgive and defeat Satan.

A “Get Out of Jail Free” card?

In some cases, the scrolls can give us unique windows of insight into some hard-to-understand New Testament passages. For example, the scroll known as 4Q521 (signifying that it was found in cave 4 at Qumran — the region where the scrolls were discovered — document or fragment 521”) shows that Jesus did in fact proclaim himself as Messiah, despite claims to the contrary by many moderns. Moreover, it shows that Jesus did so in a very culturally relevant manner for his time.

Jesus’ reply to the imprisoned John the Baptist (Matt 11:2–6; Luke 7:18–23) is seen by some as not messianic. When asked, “Are you he who is to come, or shall we look for another?” (Matt 11:3), Jesus answers in what appears to some as a vague manner, using words from Isaiah 61:

“Go and tell John what you hear and see: the blind receive their sight and the lame walk, lepers are cleansed and the deaf hear, and the dead are raised up, and the poor have good news preached to them. And blessed is he who takes no offense at me” (Matt 11:4­6).

4Q521 says this:

For the heavens and the earth will listen to his Messiah…For he will honor the devout upon the throne of eternal royalty, freeing prisoners, giving sight to the blind, straightening out the twisted…and the Lord will perform marvelous acts…for he will heal the badly wounded and will make the dead live, he will proclaim good news to the meek, give lavishly to the needy, lead the exiled, and enrich the hungry.

Comparing these two texts, you can easily see by why John asked the question about Jesus’ messiahship, and why Jesus replied the way he did. It was assumed that when the Messiah arrived, according to 4Q521, “prisoners would be set free.” The righteous John, at this time languishing in Herod’s fortress at Machaerus, is wondering why Jesus hasn’t sprung him from prison. Jesus replies to John by noting that his marvelous works indeed match up with the deeds of the expected Messiah, in line with the teaching of Isaiah 61 and 4Q521.

For Jesus to be any more explicit than this would arouse the attention of the secular authorities, prior to the completion of his messianic mission. However, attentive Jews would have understood Jesus’ claims. In a culturally relevant way, Jesus is inviting his fellow Hebrews to consider the evidence of his ministry and draw their own conclusions.

There are many reasons why the Dead Sea Scrolls are important. As we have seen, one reason is that they offer us helpful context for Jesus’ ministry. Last year, two more caves were discovered, which may have housed even more scrolls. Having worked on an excavation in Jerusalem myself, I’m thrilled whenever I hear about such new discoveries. Archaeology continues to turn up more and more of the material remains of Jesus’ day—and this can only help us to understand his life and teachings in ever deeper ways.

Baptism of the Lord

Why Jesus Was Baptized


Note: Here’s my January piece for Catholic Answers Magazine. Hope you enjoy it! 

Monday’s Feast of the Baptism of the Lord marked the official end of the Christmas season. It’s also an annual occasion for many to ask, “Why was Jesus baptized?”

After all, he is the sinless, divine Son of God, and the baptism that John the Baptist administered was “a baptism of repentance for the forgiveness of sins” (Mark 1:4).

Christian baptism is of course greater than John’s baptism, even as Jesus himself is far greater than John (Matt. 3:14, John 3:30). Christian baptism not only forgives sins, but infuses the life of God into the soul, making us God’s children. And the origin of this sacrament is Jesus’ own baptism. Jesus had no need to be cleansed by the waters of baptism, for he had no sins to be washed away. Rather, hesanctified the waters by his descent into them.

Pope Benedict XVI (writing as Joseph Ratzinger), in his Jesus of Nazareth, offers some illuminating insights on all this. There’s a whole chapter in the book on Jesus’ baptism, but here are a few of his key thoughts.

First, in antiquity water conjured up two distinct images: death and life. Benedict notes:

On the one hand, immersion into the waters is a symbol of death, which recalls the death symbolism of the annihilating, destructive power of the ocean flood. The ancient mind perceived the ocean as a permanent threat to the cosmos, to the earth; it was the primeval flood that might submerge all life . . . But the flowing waters of the river are above all a symbol of life (15-16).

Even the physical act of baptism, especially baptism by immersion, represents death and new life: the descent into the waters is a form of death and burial; the rising to a new life is an icon of resurrection.

Looking at the events (of Christ’s baptism) in light of the Cross and Resurrection, the Christian people realized what happened: Jesus loaded the burden of all mankind’s guilt upon his shoulders; he bore it down into the depths of the Jordan. He inaugurated his public activity by stepping into the place of sinners. His inaugural gesture is an anticipation of the Cross. He is, as it were, the true Jonah who said to the crew of the ship, ”Take me and throw me into the sea” (Jon. 1:12) . . . The baptism is an acceptance of death for the sins of humanity, and the voice that calls out “This is my beloved Son” over the baptismal waters is an anticipatory reference to the Resurrection. This also explains why, in his own discourses, Jesus uses the word
“baptism” to refer to his death (18).

The Eastern traditions of iconography pick up on many of these themes, as the current pope emeritus elucidates:

The icon of Jesus’ baptism depicts the water as a liquid tomb having the form of a dark cavern, which is in turn the iconographic sign of Hades, the underworld, or hell. Jesus’ descent into this watery tomb, into this inferno that envelops him from every side, is thus an anticipation of his act of descending into the underworld . . . John Chrysostom writes: “Going down into the water and emerging again are the image of the descent into hell and the Resurrection” (19).

Jesus’ baptism not only is deeply intertwined with the salvific events of the Passion and of Easter, but it also reveals him to be a new and greater Moses. In the Easter Vigil liturgy of the Roman Rite, the paschal candle is plunged into the waters of the baptismal font, much as Moses stretched his staff over the waters of the Red Sea, which God parted (Ex. 14:21-31).

This created a means of escape for God’s people from the stampeding armies of Egypt and its Pharaoh, which are types of sin and Satan. Saint Paul, looking back at this event, refers to it as a prefigurement of Christian baptism (1 Cor. 10:2), which frees us from the rule of sin and death.

The baptism of the Lord also reminds us, of course, of our own baptism. The Church teaches that baptism not only lets us participate in Jesus’ victory over sin and death, but calls us to our own personal holiness and apostolate (sharing our faith). When you boil it all down, this is the essence of how we fulfill our baptismal mandate to become saints.

Who are the saints? The word “saint” derives from the Greek term hagios, which means “the holy ones.” Being a holy person just means being, with God’s considerable help, the person you were created to be.

The Bible says, “without holiness no one will see the Lord” (Heb. 12:14, NIV). This is also why we need to share our faith! If we want everyone we know and love to get to heaven, if we want them to see Jesus, they must become saints as well—no exceptions.

The world tends to value the letters at the end of people’s names—M.D., M.B.A., Ph.D. But Catholics care most of all about the letters we hope one day will come before our names: “St.” This was the ultimate reason the Lord was baptized, establishing the sacrament, and it’s why we are baptized, too.

The Immaculate Conception: Mary as the New Temple


Today, December 8, marks the great Solemnity of the Immaculate Conception of Mary. And it’s certainly a doctrine misunderstood by many. The Immaculate Conception is not the Virginal Conception of Jesus. Nor does it have anything to do with this, sports fans.

Here’s the actual definition, from Blessed Pope Pius IX, the beloved “Pio Nono”:

We declare, pronounce, and define that the doctrine which holds that the most Blessed Virgin Mary, in the first instance of her conception, by a singular grace and privilege granted by Almighty God, in view of the merits of Jesus Christ, the Savior of the human race, was preserved free from all stain of original sin, is a doctrine revealed by God and therefore to be believed firmly and constantly by all the faithful.

Ineffabilis Deus, Apostolic Constitution of Pope Pius IX solemnly defining the dogma of the Immaculate Conception, 8 December 1854.

the basis for the Immaculate Conception of Mary in the New Testament is well-known, but today I’d like to share about one of the ways the doctrine is foreshadowed in the Old Testament. In his masterful devotional series, In Conversation with God, Francis Fernandez writes about Mary as the new Temple in which God dwells:

In the litany of Loreto we call upon Mary, House of Gold, the abode of greatest conceivable splendor. When a family turns a house into a home by taking up residence there, the place reflects the individual qualities of the people. They accentuate the beauty of the dwelling place. Just like the Holy Spirit dwelling in Our Lady, the home and its inhabitants make up a particular unity, in much the same way as the body and its garments do. The foremost Tabernacle in the Old Testament, later to be the Temple, is the House of God, where the meeting of Yahweh and his people takes place. When Solomon makes the decision to build the Temple, the Prophets specify that the best available materials are to be used – abundant cedar wood on the inside and clad with gold on the outside. The most highly skilled craftsmen are to work on its construction.

Before God made known his coming into the world in the fullness of time, He prepared Mary as the suitable creature within whom He would dwell for nine months, from the moment of his Incarnation until his birth in Bethlehem. Evidence of God’s power and love show forth in his creation. Mary is the House of Gold, the new Temple of God, and is adorned with so great a beauty that no greater perfection is possible. The grace of her Immaculate Conception, including all the graces and gifts God ever bestowed on her soul, are directed towards the fulfillment of her divine Maternity.

God’s gift of supernatural life to her exceeds that of all the Apostles, Martyrs, Confessors and Virgins combined. It reaches far beyond the experience of anyone who has ever lived, or ever will live, until the end of time. God dwells in Our Lady more than in all the angels and saints, since the foundation of the world, taken together. Truly God has prepared a human vessel in keeping with the dignity of his eternal Son. When we say that Mary has an almost infinite dignity, we mean that among all God’s creatures she is the one who enjoys the most intimate relationship with the Blessed Trinity. Her absolute honor is the highest possible and her majesty is in every way unique. She is the firstborn and most highly favored daughter of the Father, as she has often been called throughout the history of the Church, and as has been reiterated by the Second Vatican Council, Our Lady’s blood relationship with Jesus Christ, the Son of God, leads her to a singular relationship with him.

Mary indeed became the new Temple and Tabernacle of God.

The Feast Day For The Rest of Us

SaintsHappy All Saints Day, everyone! This feast was instituted to commemorate all the blessed in Heaven who don’t have their own particular feast day in the universal Church – after all, there are only 365 days in the year, and we’ve got a lot of saints!

Now, everyone in Heaven is a saint, but we simply don’t know who a lot of these folks are. The saints that the Church has canonized, who have their own feast in the calendar, have given evidence of their heavenly residence, via miracles wrought through their intercession. Checking into these things is part of the canonization process, natch. But the vast majority of saints in heaven are unknown. One could even say that today is the Church’s feast of “the unknown soldier”, as it were.

In all likelihood, should you and I find ourselves in Heaven, by God’s grace, this is going to be our feast day. Today, Nov. 1. The feast of All Saints. And this day should remind us that you and I are called to the very heights of holiness. We are called to be “canonizable” saints, worthy of our own feast day, even if we don’t get one of our own (and in Heaven, we won’t care about that one whit).

This is what our baptism calls us to. If you want to boil the Christian life down to its essence, we’re called to two things:

  1. Holiness (becoming a saint, the best version of ourselves); and
  2. Apostolate (or evangelism, whatever you want to call it – helping others to become saints).

That’s basically it! Of course, easier said than done. But if you want to, you can – with God’s help (in fact, God does pretty much all the heavy lifting).

One hears a lot of people saying things like, “I think I’ll probably get into heaven by the skin of my teeth”. Talk about setting a low bar! If that’s your goal, what happens if you miss? Safer to strive for greatness. Jesus was once asked about this very thing by his disciples in Luke 13:23-30:

And some one said to him, “Lord, will those who are saved be few?” And he said to them, “Strive to enter by the narrow door; for many, I tell you, will seek to enter and will not be able. When once the householder has risen up and shut the door, you will begin to stand outside and to knock at the door, saying, ‘Lord, open to us.’ He will answer you, ‘I do not know where you come from.’ Then you will begin to say, ‘We ate and drank in your presence, and you taught in our streets.’ But he will say, ‘I tell you, I do not know where you come from; depart from me, all you workers of iniquity!’ There you will weep and gnash your teeth, when you see Abraham and Isaac and Jacob and all the prophets in the kingdom of God and you yourselves thrust out. And men will come from east and west, and from north and south, and sit at table in the kingdom of God. And behold, some are last who will be first, and some are first who will be last.”

In a day and age when many are questioning the existence of an eternal Hell (which the Church assures us does still exits), this is a sobering corrective. The opiate of the people is the thought that no matter what, wether I strive for sanctity or not, we’re all going to “get in” in the end. Jesus teaches us that our job is not to speculate about who’s eternally “in or out”, but to strive with all of our energy, counting on God’s help, to become the very best version of ourselves, for that essentially is what a saint is.

Besides, it’s not simply about eternal blessing after death. It’s about true happiness in this life as well. Every single one of us, even those who abhor God, do what they do in order to chase what they think will make them happy. Sinners think sin will make them happy. It won’t. The only thing that will truly satisfy us is God, and his righteousness (cf. Matthew 6:33). As St Josemaria once said, “If you want to be happy, be holy. If you want to be very happy, be very holy!”

So, happy feast day to all of us. Let’s go chase our destiny.

Lessons From Big-City Jesus

Sepphoris Theatre

Here’s my latest piece for Catholic Answers Magazine. Hope you enjoy this look at the big city next door to little Nazareth, Jesus’ hometown – and how it may have influenced him.

My favorite basketball player growing up was the legendary Larry Bird of the Boston Celtics. The media (and Larry himself) liked to play up his humble, small-town roots, dubbing him the “Hick from French Lick,” the small Indiana town where Bird grew up. He was just a kid from the sticks who made good.

For centuries, preachers have similarly accented the alleged small-town roots of Jesus. Nazareth, where Jesus grew up, is usually portrayed in homilies as a type of isolated backwater, far removed from the hustle and bustle of the empire.

Now, it’s certainly true that in Jesus’ day Nazareth was relatively tiny, with a population somewhere between 200 and 400. But recent archaeological excavations around Nazareth, which today is a relatively bustling city of about 60,000, have quashed the quaint myth that Jesus grew up among “country bumpkins” removed from major centers of commerce and culture.

One of the most important of these digs took place at Sepphoris, which is located about four miles north of Nazareth. Sepphoris, which Roman historian Josephus called “the ornament of all Galilee,” was the largest and one of the most important cities in the area. In fact, a highway linking the two other major regional centers—Caesarea Maritima and Tiberias—was not far from Nazareth and Sepphoris.

Considering its proximity to Nazareth, it’s highly likely that Jesus would have traveled to Sepphoris on many occasions. In fact, according to an early Church tradition, the Blessed Virgin Mary hailed from Sepphoris. One could easily imagine Jesus, Mary, and Joseph making the trip to see Jesus’ grandparents, Joachim and Anne, on many an occasion.

It is also possible that Joseph and Jesus worked in Sepphoris during its period of heavy expansion under Herod Antipas from 4 B.C. to A.D. 39. The Greek word tekton—which the Gospels employ to describe Jesus’ and Joseph’s occupation—actually means much more than “carpenter.” It refers to a highly skilled laborer who would have been proficient in working with stone as well as wood and other materials. (In fact, it is likely that Joseph and Jesus would have had architectural abilities as well. One might even say they were the equivalent of modern-day engineers.) Antipas had originally intended to make Sepphoris his headquarters, and he installed some beautiful architecture there in the Greco-Roman style, including magnificent colonnaded streets and an impressive theater (more on that later).

The Sepphoris excavations are also important for debunking a popular skeptical theory. The scholar (and ex-Catholic priest) John Dominic Crossan argues that, in his early life, Jesus came under the sway of itinerant Cynic philosophers in Sepphoris who greatly influenced his teaching. But excavations at the city dump have determined that, at the time of Jesus, Sepphoris’s inhabitants were anything but pagan.

Only in strata (layers of cultural remains in the earth, representing different eras) dated after A.D. 70 do we find pig bones and other evidence of Hellenizing influences, consistent with growth in the city’s non­-Jewish population following the failed Jewish revolt of 66­-70. It seems the citizens of Sepphoris in Jesus’ time kept to a kosher diet.

Furthermore, coins minted in Sepphoris prior to 70 do not depict the image of the emperor as a deity, which would have offended devout Jews, even though such currency was common elsewhere in the empire. After the year 70, this is not the case. Also, stone vessels and miqva’ot (ritual bathing pools) used for Jewish purification rites, as well as menorahs, have also been found from the pre­-70 period.

In short, Sepphoris was in all likelihood a mostly—if not completely—Jewish city at the time of Jesus. It is therefore improbable that Jesus came under the sway of pagan Cynics during his early life in and around Nazareth. His teaching, like the area he hailed from, was thoroughly Jewish.

Sepphoris is also a potential boon for understanding and clarifying certain aspects of Jesus’ teachings. We know that Jesus was a master at pointing out profound lessons from the everyday world (for example, his many agricultural parables). I believe there is a high probability that Sepphoris was a part of that world and that it figures prominently in Jesus’ preaching—especially as recorded in the Gospel of Matthew. The “city set on a hill [that] cannot be hidden” (Matt. 5:14) may have been inspired by Sepphoris, which was elevated. Its evening lights would have been visible to the inhabitants of Nazareth.

Excavations at Sepphoris also reveal a splendid public theater, carved out of the local bedrock and initially seating about 2,500. Could it be that Jesus and Joseph worked on its construction? But Jesus’ references to “hypocrites” (Matt. 6:2, 5, 16; 7:5; 15:7; 16:3; 22:18; 23:13-15, 23, 25, 27-29; 24:51; Luke 6:42; 11:44; 12:1, 56; 13:15), an originally innocuous word that referred to “actors” or “play-actors,” may have been expropriated from the theater at Sepphoris. Jesus used the term to excoriate the people-pleasing, insincere piety of some scribes and Pharisees.

Jesus likewise admonishes his disciples not to practice their piety “before people, in order to be seen by them” (Matt. 6:1). The term translated as “to be seen” is the Greek word theathenai, from which we derive the English word theater. Jesus teaches his followers not to “be like the hypocrites; for they love to stand and pray in the synagogues and at the street corners, so that they may be seen by others” (Matt. 6:5). This may allude to an actor who stands and performs a soliloquy on stage.

In contrast, Jesus encourages us to live not for the applause of others but rather for the applause of One: God alone.

Church Fathers, such as St. Jerome, referred to the Holy Land as the “Fifth Gospel” because it helps put the life of Jesus in context. It helps us to understand many of Jesus’ teachings and activities. It also helps us understand how the four written, canonical Gospels are indeed trustworthy, because they exhibit verisimilitude—that is, that they cohere with the way things actually were in the Israel of Jesus’ day. That’s why archaeological discoveries like those at Sepphoris shed so much light on the teachings of Christ.

Quoting Jesus: Was It Live, or Was It Memorex?

memorexNote: This is my latest article for Catholic Answers Magazine. Hope you enjoy it!

An Eyebrow-Raising Comment

Perhaps you’ll recall back in February when the head of the Jesuit order, Fr. Arturo Sosa, cast doubt on the trustworthiness of the Gospels (in particular, Jesus’ teaching on divorce):

There would have to be a lot of reflection on what Jesus really said. At that time, no one had a recorder to take down his words. What is known is that the words of Jesus must be contextualized, they are expressed in a language, in a specific setting, they are addressed to someone in particular.

Although he later walked back these comments to some extent, the fact remains that Fr. Sosa’s attitude towards the trustworthiness of the Gospels is not uncommon in certain clerical circles, and also among many biblical scholars. Like melting snow from mountain peaks, in these two groups skepticism towards the trustworthiness of the Gospels tends to filter down to the laity, who naturally wonder if these documents can indeed be trusted to communicate what Jesus really did and what he really said.

Right now let’s focus on authenticating the words of Jesus. Of course, the first half of Fr. Sosa’s comment is unimpeachably true: there were no tape recorders or smartphones recording Jesus’ exact words, say, on divorce (which are presented in Matthew 19, among other places). But I take umbrage, and so should you, with Fr. Sosa’s conclusion that we can’t really know what Jesus actually said—on this or any other issue that arose in his teaching.

Was it live, or was it Memorex?

Perhaps you remember the old ads for Memorex cassette tapes. I know I do. The tagline in those ads was, well, memorable: “Is it live, or is it Memorex?” Scholar Darrell Bock once wrote an article relating this line to how Jesus’ teachings were written. Were they “live” (the “living” words of Jesus), or were they “Memorex” (word-for-word, as if recorded)?

The latter option must be ruled out. First of all, the Gospels were composed in Greek, whereas in all likelihood Jesus preached and taught in Aramaic, the “street language” of Palestine. So, we’re already dealing with a translation issue. This is why “red-letter” editions of the New Testament, which feature the words of Christ in red ink, are somewhat misleading. They weren’t the literal, actual Aramaic words and phrases Jesus used, except perhaps in a few instances (for example, his use of the term Abba in referring to God the Father).

Scholars differentiate between the ipsissima verba (the actual words) of Jesus, and the ipsissima vox (the actual voice) of Jesus. Thus, what we really have in the Gospels is the “live” option—the living words of Jesus. Gospel writers referred to Jesus as rabbi or teacher, with themselves as his students. What’s the job of any rabbinical student? To master the message of his rabbi. If a student were simply to “parrot” Jesus’ words to an audience, repeating them word-for-word, that person would actually be considered a very poor student. What was actually expected was that a student could re-present the rabbi’s teaching in ways that are helpful for listeners or readers.

How was this done?

The Magnificence of Memory

First, a word must be said regarding the ability of the disciples to memorize Jesus’ teaching. The German scholar Armin Baum has calculated that Matthew, Mark, and Luke together contain approximately 15,000 words of Jesus’ teaching. Could the disciples have committed that much material to memory? You bet.

Braun demonstrates that many rabbis of the time had not only committed to memory 300 thousand words of the Hebrew scriptures, but also that some Jewish scholars had memorized the nearly two million-word Babylonian Talmud. Surely the followers of Jesus, steeped as they were in a culture of oral transmission of doctrine, could accurately recall and communicate to others the comparatively smaller block of material in the Gospels.

Getting the Gist of It

Also, the evangelists knew how to use compression techniques to recount Jesus’ messages accurately in short spaces. Think about it: the Gospels speak of Jesus holding crowds spellbound for hours, yet his speeches can be read in just a few minutes. We do this as well when reporting on conversations we’ve had with others, communicating the “gist” of what was said. This is perfectly consonant with techniques used in the construction of Greco-Roman biographies, the genre of literature to which the Gospels belong. The one thing no student would have ever done is invent teaching by putting words into a rabbi’s mouth that he never said. Again, accuracy was paramount.

A simple example of this method (cited by Bock) can be found in examining the Gospel accounts of Peter’s confession of Jesus as Messiah. Jesus prompts the discussion with a query:

Matthew 16:13: “Who do people say the Son of Man is?”

Mark 8:27: “Who do people say I am?”

Luke 9:18: “Who do the crowds say that I am?”

Here we have the same basic question being restated in slightly different ways. “Son of Man” is Jesus’ favorite self-appellation in the Gospels, with Mark and Luke rendering this as simply “I”. Similarly, the choice of the terms “people” (Matthew, Mark) and “crowds” (Luke) might be a case of the Evangelists choosing different Greek words to translate an Aramaic term used by Jesus. In any case, the “gist” of the question gets across to the reader.

The Gospels also present slightly varied takes on how Peter answers Jesus:

Matthew 16:16: “You are the Christ, the Son of the living God.”

Mark 8:29: “You are the Christ.”

Luke 9:20: “The Christ of God”

Matthew’s rendering is longer, more complex and theologically unique, echoing not only the idea of Jesus as Son of God, but also hinting at a kingly sonship (Ps. 2:7). Luke adds “God” to Mark’s matter-of-fact statement. But in all three, the bottom line remains: Peter correctly identified Jesus as Messiah.

While maintaining basic accuracy, there existed a degree of flexibility in recording speeches in Greco-Roman biography, which was the genre of the Gospels. Despite this, the Gospels are much more stringent on this count than most Greco-Roman biographies. It’s actually startling to note how few variations there are between Matthew, Mark, and Luke (the synoptic Gospels) when one compares the words of Jesus in parallel passages.

And this is truly the point: we have to judge the Gospels by the historical standards of the first century A.D., not the twenty-first. When judged by the historical standards of their day, the Gospels pass with flying colors. The evangelists were clearly concerned about getting Jesus’ message right, and despite the claims of many skeptics, both within the Church and without, we can indeed know with a great degree of certainty what it was that Jesus taught.

This article appears on the CAMO (Catholic Answers Magazine Online) site here.

Is Jesus a “Second Moses”?

Moses and Cross

Note: this is my latest article for Catholic Answers Magazine (online). You can read it at the CAMO site here.  

As part of my graduate studies in New Testament, I had the opportunity to study in Israel and to work for two summers at an archaeological dig in Jerusalem. During my academic studies in the Holy Land, I focused in part on the many Jewish-Christian texts that were produced in the first few centuries A.D. Undoubtedly, the finest example of these works is the first book that appears in the New Testament, the Gospel of Matthew.

Although the vast majority of scholars believe Mark was the first Gospel written, Matthew comes first in the Gospels’ canonical order. Why is this? One satisfying answer is that Matthew serves as a natural bridge between the Old Testament and the New. Matthew is certainly the most Jewish of the Gospels, written primarily to convince those from a Hebrew background that Jesus is the Messiah. One of the ways Matthew accomplishes this is by comparing of Moses with Jesus.

Indeed, Matthew makes heavy use of Moses typology in his Gospel, showing that Jesus is a new and greater Moses. The parallels between Jesus and Moses begin with Matthew’s infancy narrative.

Like the infant Moses, the infant Jesus experiences an attempt on his life by a ruler bent on preserving his own kingdom: Pharaoh, in the case of Moses, and Herod the Great in the case of Christ. Herod’s slaughter of the infant males in Bethlehem’s vicinity evokes Pharaoh’s attempt to kill the Hebrew males (Exod. 1:15-2:10).

Like Moses fleeing from Pharaoh (Exod. 2:11-15), Jesus was forced to flee into Egypt for safety from the wrath of Herod and emerged from there to deliver his people. Moses returned from his desert sojourn with his wife and sons to Egypt (Exod. 4:20). Joseph returned with his wife and son from Egypt to Israel (Matt. 2:21). Moses would deliver the Israelites from bondage to Pharaoh, employing signs and miracles. Jesus delivered his people from the power of a greater oppressor, Satan, also displaying miraculous signs. This is emphasized by Jesus’ healings and especially by his exorcisms.

Jesus fasted for forty days and nights before teaching the new Law of God on a mountain (Matt. 4); Moses did the same (Deut. 9:9). Just as Moses ascended Mt. Sinai to receive the Decalogue, Jesus ascends a mountain to bring forth a new Law from God in fulfillment of the Old Covenant.

As Moses was given Ten Commandments, Jesus presents his disciples with ten beatitudes (Matt. 5:3-12). As Catholics, we are used to hearing about the “eight beatitudes”, but following what is traditionally numbered as the eighth beatitude, there are actually two more (Matt. 5:10–12):

Blessed are those who are persecuted for righteousness’ sake, for theirs is the kingdom of heaven (traditionally, the eighth beatitude).

Blessed are you when men revile you and persecute you and utter all kinds of evil against you falsely on my account (ninth beatitude).

Rejoice and be glad, for your reward is great in heaven, for so men persecuted the prophets who were before you (tenth beatitude).

This tenth beatitude is in a somewhat different form than the others, beginning not with “Blessed” (Gr. makarios) but with the two imperatives “Rejoice and be glad.” The word “beatitude” comes from the Latin term beatus, which means “blessed” or “happy.” Since “rejoice” or “be glad” are synonymous with being “blessed,” we have in all likelihood ten beatitudes, consistent with Matthew’s Moses motif.

The five major teaching sections given by Jesus in Matthew (the Sermon on the Mount, in chapters 5-7; the Missionary Discourse in chapter 10; the Community Discourse in chapter 18; and the Eschatological Discourse in chapters 24-25) are meant to correspond to the five books of Moses, the Pentateuch. Even within the Sermon on the Mount, five “antitheses” are presented (“You have heard it said…but I say to you”), where Jesus demonstrates how his new law of the kingdom fulfills the law given to Moses.

It has also been proposed by some scholars that the entire Gospel has a five-book arrangement (3-7; 8-10; 11-13; 14-18; 19-25). Each “book” contains material on what Jesus said and did, followed by a formula of conclusion (7:28-29; 11:1; 13:53; 19:1; 26:1), with the infancy and passion narratives, respectively, serving as bookends. This is far from a consensus view, as many alternative structures for the Gospel as a whole have also been proffered.

Read the rest of the article here.


Discoveries that Shed Light on Jesus and His World

Cale at CA Desk

Check out this interview I did with Catholic Answers Live about Jesus, the Bible, and archaeology. There’s so much to cover here, and I feel like we only scratched the surface. This stuff is important, because it helps us authenticate the New Testament’s portrait of Jesus of Nazareth, and fleshes out our understanding of the context in which Jesus lived. All in all, what archaeology has discovered concerning the Gospels reminds us of their verisimilitude – the fact that they are rooted in historical reality, and cohere with the way things actually were in first-century Galilee.

Here’s the audio stream:

Quick Q and A on the Trinity

TrinityQ. This past Sunday, we celebrated the Solemnity of the Most Holy Trinity. Why is this doctrine so important?

A. There are many reasons, but most prominent among them is this: it’s who God is. God is a Trinity of Persons – the Father, the Son, and the Holy Spirit. This is actually God’s “name”. In the Scriptures, one’s name defines a person’s identity.

At the end of the Gospel of Matthew, Jesus urges his followers to “(g)o therefore and make disciples of all nations, baptizing them in the name of the Father and of the Son and of the Holy Spirit, teaching them to observe all that I have commanded you; and behold, I am with you always, to the close of the age” (Matt 28:19-20, emphasis mine).

Notice Jesus says, “name”, not “names”. There are not three Gods here; there is one God, but three divine Persons within the Godhead. Their essence – what they are, essentially, is divine. Divinity is what they are “made of”, so to speak. In the case of Jesus, of course, who was the divine Logos from all eternity, he “wedded” a human nature to his preexisting divine nature at the moment of the Incarnation.

Q. So many still find the Trinity difficult to understand or believe in.

A. I’ve got two pieces of news for you, which may be surprising: first, one must believe in the Trinity to hold the Catholic faith. It is a truth revealed by God. On a somewhat practical level, if you have the question of God wrong, you’ll never get anything else right about the faith. To use a management term, it’s a “top-down” process.

Secondly, don’t worry if you don’t completely understand the Trinity, because no one does. That’s right – no saint or theologian – not even the great St Thomas Aquinas, the “Angelic Doctor” – has ever claimed that they fully understood the Trinity. In fact, if they had claimed that they did, they would have been guilty of heresy. Why?

If you could completely understand the Trinity, that would mean that you were greater than God, which is obviously not the case. Your finite, created mind, however intelligent it may be, cannot comprehend God in his infinity. However, that does not mean that we can’t know anything about the Trinity.

One can know something is true without being able to perfectly understand or explain it: for example, I know electricity works: I flip the switch, and the room lights up. Can I explain it? No. I don’t know how the energy moves throughout the circuitry, etc. I just know the truth of electricity, that it works. In the same way, we can be certain about whatever God chooses to reveal about himself, even if we can’t fully comprehend it – and what he has revealed is that he is a Trinity of persons.

Pentecost Primer


Q. This Sunday is Pentecost Sunday. Could you explain its background?

A. When Pentecost arrives each year in the liturgical calendar, most Christians immediately think of the dramatic gift of the Holy Spirit poured out on the Church, Peter’s impassioned preaching, and the mass conversion occasioned by this event, as recorded in Acts 2.

Many people are surprised to learn that the feast of Pentecost did not originate at this time. It has its roots in the Old Testament period. It’s actually one of the great Jewish festivals in the liturgical cycles of Israel’s worship. It was during this feast that the gift of the Holy Spirit was given to believers in Jesus the Messiah.

Q. Was the festival of Pentecost known by another name during the Old Covenant period? What was its original purpose?

A. This feast was also called the feast of Weeks. It arrived seven weeks after the festival of Passover and Unleavened Bread came to an end. The name “Pentecost” is a Greek word that refers to the fifty-day period (Lev 23:15-22; Deut 16:9-12).

What the festival of Weeks/Pentecost celebrated was the great wheat and barley harvest that took place in the summertime (Lev 23:10-15). The Hebrews has different names for the months of the year at that time, but this took place roughly at the end of April and the beginning of May.

Q. How can we relate the Old Covenant feast of Pentecost to that of the New?

A. There is much that could be said here, but let me focus on just a few points. In the New Testament, Jesus is presented as a new and greater Moses. Just as Moses dispenses the Spirit on his elders (Num 11:11-29), Jesus imparts the Holy Spirit to his Apostles (Jn 20:19-23, which is the Gospel reading for today).

Weeks/Pentecost was also linked in the Jewish tradition with the covenant made to Noah, which sheds light on how the Holy Spirit was gifted to humanity as a whole (Acts 2:5-11). Pentecost also, of course, is a celebration of the “first fruits” of the grain harvest, given by God. Jesus often spoke in agricultural parables of the world as a “field of souls”. Those early believers in Christ were indeed part of the “first fruits” of people harvested from the world, to belong to God for all eternity.