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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.

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:

Why Are the Bible’s Easter Accounts Different?

Empty Tomb

Note: This is my first article for Catholic Answers Magazine Online (or CAMO for short), and I hope you enjoy it. Catholic Answers is an organization I’ve long admired, and it has been a privilege getting to know the staff there over the past year, especially during the time I guest hosted Catholic Answers Live. Many thanks to the team there for publishing this piece.

Anyone who has read the Gospels in a more than cursory manner has come across what appear to be contradictions between them as they report the words and deeds of Jesus of Nazareth. This is no less true when we consider how they describe the most important event of all: the resurrection of Christ. If this event is not historical, says St. Paul, “our preaching is in vain, and your faith is in vain” (1 Cor. 15:14).

Speaking of St. Paul: before we consider apparent contradictions in the Gospels’ Easter accounts, we must remember that the Gospels are not our earliest written accounts of Jesus’ resurrection: those would be the letters of Paul. Even if the Gospels had never been composed, there would still be plausible literary testimony of the event, evidence with which a skeptic must deal. 1 Corinthians 15, which discusses the Resurrection, was written as early as A.D. 53, most likely prior to the publishing of at least some of the Gospels. What’s more, this chapter contains an even earlier ancient “creed” of sorts, crystallizing Easter faith in just a few lines (1 Cor. 15:3–7).

Even though the Gospels are not our earliest or only written sources on Easter, discrepancies in how they report resurrection phenomena have caused many to call into question their historical authenticity.

The empty tomb accounts

In Mark (which the majority of biblical scholars contend was the first Gospel composed), when the women disciples of Jesus arrive at the tomb early on Easter Sunday, the stone has already been rolled away. A “young man” in dazzling raiment (in all likelihood an angel) is inside the tomb. In Luke’s account, two men are inside. Matthew’s account has Mary Magdalene and another Mary arriving at a still-sealed tomb, but an earthquake suddenly occurs, whereupon an angel descends and rolls back the heavy stone. Three Gospels, and seemingly three different accounts.

Mark, Matthew, and Luke also give us slightly different lists of exactly which women were present. Mark has these women respond in fear, and states that they said nothing about this to anyone. In Matthew’s account, the two women meet Jesus on their way to inform the disciples of the Easter news. Luke does not say they ran into Jesus but rather that they immediately told the disciples, who didn’t buy their story. Same Gospels, and again, the accounts seem to differ.

So, why the differences?

Ancient biographies

As much as we might want the Gospels to conform to our modern conventions of history writing, they don’t read like contemporary police reports. But that doesn’t mean they don’t contain reliable accounts. In fact, they are perfectly consonant with how the ancients recorded history. The key is to understand the literary conventions of the time, which was  the mid-first century A.D. ,  and how the Gospels fit that mold.

Read the rest here.

Maltese Madness

ALTodd Aglialoro, writing for Catholic Answers:

With their shocking publication of new norms for permitting divorced and remarried Catholics to return to the reception of Holy Communion (based on their reading of Amoris Laetitia – ed.), the bishops of Malta have shown how great errors can grow from tiny seeds.

And:

Remember, divorced and remarried Catholics (those, obviously, who have not had their first marriages determined to be invalid by the annulment process) are not prohibited from receiving Communion because the “failure” of their first marriage was a sin. They are prohibited because, in maintaining a sexual relationship with a person who isn’t their spouse, they are committing adultery. This grave sin is incompatible with the state of grace required for worthy reception of the Eucharist (Catechism of the Catholic Church 1415).

The remedy for such people, as affirmed for example in John Paul II’s encyclical Familiaris Consortio (84), is first to stop committing adultery. Even if life circumstances practically or even morally require them to continue living in a common household with someone who isn’t their spouse, in no way would those circumstances ever require them to continue having sexual intercourse with someone who isn’t their spouse.

The bishops of Malta, on the strength of footnote 329 (of AL ed.), are now saying that circumstances might do just that. Because not having sex with someone may be impossible, adultery and Holy Communion are now compatible.

What an appallingly defeatist idea, and one that is without analog in Catholic morality. Where else do bishops teach that it’s impossible to do what’s right?

Todd absolutely nails some key issues here, with the precision and power of a Bobby Hull slapshot (he’s a big hockey fan). The fact that Catholic Answers (a well-known, orthodox organization, faithful to the Magisterium and to historic Church teaching) thought it necessary to publish such a piece in the first place is very telling. It’s safe to say we’ve reached a full-blown crisis in the universal Church. Nothing less than the integrity of three sacraments (marriage, the Eucharist, and confession) are at stake. The integrity of scripture (with respect to the Gospel teaching of Jesus on marriage) is also being challenged. Quite a bit is on the line, not to mention the fate of countless eternal souls who have every right to look to the bishops of Christ’s Church for clear moral guidance.

What Happened to St. Joseph’s Body?

In this clip, as I guest host Catholic Answers Live, guest Dr. Michael Barber and I field an interesting caller question: What happened to St. Joseph’s body? We’re well aware of Church teaching on the bodily Assumption of Mary (which we also discuss), but are there any doctrines or traditions concerning the fate of St Joseph’s body – or where it might be buried? Watch the clip to find out!

What do you think? Use the share buttons below to share this post via Facebook, Twitter, LinkedIn, or another social network, and post your thoughts.

Is the Ossuary of St. James a Forgery?

In this clip, as I guest host Catholic Answers Live, Dr. Michael Barber and I discuss the controversial case of the ossuary of James. Specifically, we look at the question of whether or not it’s a forgery (I think it’s legit), and how it relates to (of all things) the O.J. Simpson case (!). You’ll see what I mean…watch the video, and enjoy!

Our Lady of the Rosary and the Battle of Lepanto

battle-of-lepanto-oct-7-1571Today is the Feast of Our Lady of the Rosary. Why is celebrated today, October 7? It was on this day, in 1571, that a battle was fought that changed the very course of history. Christianity was saved from certain destruction in the West.

Christopher Check, writing for Catholic Answers Magazine:

1571, the year of the battle of Lepanto, the most important naval contest in human history, is not well known to Americans. October 7, the Feast of Our Lady of the Rosary, celebrates the victory at Lepanto, the battle that saved the Christian West from defeat at the hands of the Ottoman Turks.

Providentially, God had raised up exactly the right Pope to lead the Church at this critical moment in her history:

Then God intervened and sent one of history’s greatest popes, St. Pius V, who declared, “I am taking up arms against the Turks, but the only thing that can help me is the prayers of priests of pure life.” Michael Ghislieri, an aged Dominican priest when he ascended the Chair of Peter, faced two foes: Protestantism and Islam. He was up to the task. He had served as Grand Inquisitor, and the austerity of his private mortifications was a contrast to the lifestyles of his Renaissance predecessors. During his six-year reign, he promulgated the Council of Trent, published the works of Thomas Aquinas, issued the Roman Catechism and a new missal and breviary, created twenty-one cardinals, excommunicated Queen Elizabeth, and, aided by St. Charles Borromeo, led the reform of a soft and degenerate clergy and episcopacy.

Check vividly describes the events leading up to the incredible battle at sea, which puts old Errol Flynn flicks like The Sea Hawk or Captain Blood to shame! Read it, and say a rosary in thanksgiving for Our Lady’s powerful intercession.

Thank You, Catholic Answers!

Cale at CA Desk

 

On Tuesday, I guest hosted Catholic Answers Live in San Diego. This organization was pivotal in my own personal journey “home to Rome”, as it were, so it was very special indeed for me to be on the air alongside Karl Keating, founder of CA, and Tim Staples, Director of Apologetics.

In case you missed it, the show is now posted in their archive. Give it a listen!

For Part 1 (with guest Karl Keating, Founder of Catholic Answers), click here.

For Part 2 (with Tim Staples, Director of Apologetics at CA), click here.

Many thanks to Darin DeLozier (Director of Radio), Christopher Check (President of CA), and the rest of the world-class team at Catholic Answers for so hospitably hosting me! My only regret? Not bringing my high-tops, so I could hoop it up in the legendary lunchtime staff pickup basketball games.

I, along with my deadly outside jumper, will be ready next time…and all of us, at all times, need to be ready to offer an answer for the hope that we have (cf. 1 Peter 3:15 ). Catholic Answers helps us to do just that.

The Cure for Pokemon Go (and Other E-Slaveries)

2016719-poke7My family and I had just spent a great day on Toronto’s Centre Island last week. We had just stepped off the boat that had taken us back to the harbourfront downtown, when we were confronted by about 2,000 Pokemon Go players, standing around in their virtual world, trying to catch a few more pocket monsters. Most of them were oblivious to the actual people trying to get by them and get home.

Now, the Pokemon Go craze, despite people falling off cliffs and driving off roads while playing, isn’t all bad, I guess. It does get some couch potatoes out of the house and (partially) into the real world. There’s an aspect of cameraderie to it, too. It’s a way to meet new people. But, as I walked by the hordes of folks staring at their screens, completely oblivious to the gorgeous full moon, our breathtaking city skyline on a summer night, or any of the people around them – in short, actual reality. I was reminded of a great article by Christopher Check, President of Catholic Answers, about the “e-slavery”, as he calls it, of our times.

Writing in Catholic Answers Magazine, Check notes, speaking of modern smartphones and other gadgets:

These devices and systems too often deliver, like the contraceptive, the opposite of what they promise. They promise freedom but create dependence. Rather than strengthening human relationships, they make them more trivial and more abstract. They addict us to novelty. Far from making the truth easier to uncover, they make the truth harder to discern. Worst of all, they are obstacles to our relationship with the divine.

The personal, social, cultural, and spiritual costs of living in the Age of Technology are interrelated, and they demand more analysis than a single article can offer, but the reflections of G.K. Chesterton on the technology of his own day provide an excellent point of departure for reconsidering what we have so uncritically welcomed into our lives.

Later, Check comments on a great quote from Chesterton, who, ironically, would have been incredible on Twitter (the platform seems tailor-made for his witty one-liners):

“It is the beginning of all true criticism of our time to realize that it has really nothing to say, at the very moment when it has invented so tremendous a trumpet for saying it” (G.K. Chesterton, “The Proper View of Machines,” Illustrated London News, February 10, 1923).

Not only are our conversations rendered more trivial as we make more use of these devices, but our relationships are similarly rendered more abstract. Face-to-face conversation gave way to telephone chats, which have been replaced by e-mail messages and text shorthand. Hiding behind avatars—which is really nothing more than lying—chat-room and Web-forum members imagine they are building friendships with one another, as they recycle URLs and trade meaningless one-liners.

Check goes on to detail how tech, as incredible and beneficial as it is to our lives, can have deleterious effects on society and on human relationships – even our relationship with God. Do yourself a favour and “check” it out. I’d say pun intended, but let’s face it – puns are always intended!