Monday, July 20, 2015


"Give us Barabbas!", from The Bible and its Story Taught by One Thousand Picture Lessons, 1910. Courtesy Wikipedia.
Chapter 27 of Matthew's gospel records the account of Pilate's release of an apparently well known prisoner named Barabbas. This event involves Pilate giving the assembled people the choice to release either Barabbas or Jesus and the people choose Barabbas. 

In reading the scriptures it must be kept in mind that the primary objective of the authors is not to simply record the events of history as they happened. Rather, their object is to promote their own particular viewpoint or ideas. The different gospel writers arranged the chronology and emphasized or deemphasized certain aspects of the events they wrote about in order to achieve their purposes.

The author of Matthew evidently wrote his gospel in such a way as to demonstrate how Jesus fulfilled the prophecies of the Pentateuch, especially Deuteronomy 18:18 wherein God promises to send his people a new prophet like unto Moses. 

It is helpful to examine the account in Matthew 27 in light of this knowledge as we attempt to discern why Matthew chose to include it in his gospel. It's possible that Matthew's inclusion of the Barabbas episode is intended as an allusion to Yom Kippur (Day of Atonement) to illustrate how this most sacred of Jewish holy days pointed to the eventual ministry and mission of Jesus.

Leviticus chapter 16 describes the required rituals that are to be performed in observing Yom Kippur, central among them is the designation of the well known scapegoat. Perhaps less well known is that along with the scapegoat another goat was chosen as part of the ritual. Leviticus 16 describes the key elements of the ritual: 
The Scapegoat by William Holman Hunt, 1854. Courtesy Wikipedia
  1. Two goats were to be chosen and presented at the door of the tabernacle (verse 7).
  2. Aaron, the high priest, was to cast lots for the goats to designate one "for Yahweh" (aka Jehovah) and one "for Azazel" (verse 8).
  3. The goat for Yahweh was to be sacrificed as a sin offering and its blood was to be taken into the holy of holies and sprinkled on the mercy seat and in front of the mercy seat (verses 9,15-16).
  4. Aaron was then to lay his hands on the head of the goat for Azazel and confess over it all the sins, iniquities and transgressions of the people of Israel and then was to be banished into the wilderness (verses 21-22).
According to the Mishnah (Yoma 4:2) at the time of Jesus the scapegoat was to have a "thread of crimson wool" tied to its head prior to being sent away. Likewise a similar thread was to be placed on the neck of the sacrificial goat before being slaughtered. We will return to this point shortly.

Regarding the account of the prisoner release its interesting to note that early manuscript evidence indicates that Barabbas and Jesus may have shared the same name. The Anchor Bible Dictionary notes the following regarding the name of Barabbas (ABD, Barabbas [person]):

"An interesting variant occurs in Matt 27:16–17, where he is called 'Jesus Barabbas.' While extant manuscript evidence is weak, Origen implies that most manuscripts in his day (ca. A.D. 240) included the full name. Many scholars today accept the full name in Matthew as original and suggest that it was probably omitted by later scribes because of the repugnance of having Jesus Christ’s name being shared by Barabbas (TCGNT 67–8). It is not improbable for Barabbas to have the very common name Jesus. Matthew’s text reads more dramatically with two holders of the same name: 'Which Jesus do you want; the son of Abba, or the self-styled Messiah' (cf. Albright and Mann Matthew AB, 343–4). There is some evidence that the full name 'Jesus Barabbas' also originally appeared in Mark’s gospel (Mann Mark AB, 637)."

Wilkins, M. J. (1992). Barabbas (Person). In D. N. Freedman (Ed.), The Anchor Yale Bible Dictionary (Vol. 1, p. 607). New York: Doubleday.

Therefore, based on this information about the observance of Yom Kippur and the detail of Barabbas' name it appears as though, as Daniel Stökl Ben Ezra points out in his book entitled The Impact of Yom Kippur on Early Christianity, the writer of Matthew may have been alluding to Yom Kippur motifs:

"...Matthew underscores the contrast between the two homonymous men (both called Jesus) and the choice between two similar entities. The people choose between Jesus A and Jesus B, who are very similar in name but extremely different in character. This description agrees with the halakhic ruling regarding the two goats on Yom Kippur. On the one hand the Mishnah demands similarity in look and value, on the other hand the ritual destinations of the two goats are totally different. While one goat is slaughtered and its blood brought into the holy of holies, the other goat is sent from the sanctuary into the desert." (169)

 It is also interesting to note that Matthew (in Matthew 27:28) has Jesus' Roman tormentors placing a scarlet robe on him perhaps suggestive of the scarlet thread which was placed on the neck of the sacrificial Yom Kippur goat.

It is also possible that the scarlet robe was instead suggestive of the scarlet thread placed on the head of the scapegoat and that the involvement of the assembled masses in the choice between the two men inverted the Yom Kippur ritual in which God chose between the two goats through the casting of lots. Ben Ezra says the following regarding this idea:

"The people usurp the role of God on Yom Kippur in choosing between the two goats, Jesus of Nazareth and Jesus Barabbas, who is released in their midst (and consequently pollutes them), and hence as the sacrificial goat, the wrong goat, Jesus of Nazareth, whose blood spilled at the wrong place, also pollutes them. Matthew mocks the temple ritual, and the people disregard the atonement in Jesus." (170-1)

In conclusion, it seems reasonable to suppose that Matthew did indeed intend an allusion to the rituals of Yom Kippur in his account of the prisoner release found in chapter 27 of his gospel and seems to support the words of Amulek found in Alma 34:14 where he says:

"And behold, this is the whole meaning of the law, every whit pointing to that great and last sacrifice; and that great and last sacrifice will be the Son of God, yea, infinite and eternal."

Thursday, July 9, 2015

Church of the Pater Noster

Church of the Pater Noster - Central Exterior Staircase
Near the summit of the Mount of Olives there is a partially constructed Roman Catholic Church called the Church of the Pater Noster. The current structure was built atop of the ruins of a fourth century basilica constructed under the direction of Constantine the Great's mother Helena. "Pater noster" is Latin for "our father" and is the traditional location of the "certain place" mentioned in Luke 11:1 where Jesus taught his disciples the Lord's Prayer. It is also the traditional site where Jesus taught his great eschatological sermon found in Matthew 24  (see also Joseph Smith Matthew).

In volume 1, book 2 (of the 3 volume edition), page 274 (excursus 53) of Jeff Bradshaw's commentary on the book of Moses in the Pearl of Great Price, entitled In God's Image and Likeness: Ancient and Modern Perspectives on the Book of Moses, there is a brief discussion of this site which provides some very exciting insights:

Grotto of the Church of the Pater Noster
"According to Eusebius, the Roman Emperor Constantine's mother Helena founded churches at the spot of three 'mystic caves' associated with the life of the Savior. One was located in Bethlehem at the supposed site of Jesus' birth, one in Jerusalem where the Church of the Holy Sepulcher now stands, and a third on the Mount of Olives in Jerusalem.

"Englebert argues that the site on the Mount of Olives is 'the most easily shown to be authentic.' He depicts the spot as a safe resort for the Savior during times of persecution, there being 'no other place in Jerusalem where He could "lay his head." After telling of a stormy scene that took place in the Temple, St. John writes: "And they went each to his home, and Jesus to the Mount of Olives" [John 7:53 - 8:1. See also Luke 21:37, 22:39]. It would appear that, for Jesus, "going home" meant returning to his grotto, and that it was here that the Pharisee Nicodemus came for the nocturnal meeting he had requested.' ... Early traditions record that Jesus found a place 'where he could teach His disciples those things that were beyond the understanding of His usual hearers.' More specifically, Eusebius passed on a 'true report ... that in that cave the Savior of the Universe initiated the members of his guild in the ineffable mysteries.' An instance of such an initiation may have occurred on the night Jesus was arrested, before going down to Gethsemane. According to the Acts of John, these instructions were concluded with a prayer in which 'he told us to form a circle, holding one another's hands, and himself stood in the middle.' Initiation into the 'ineffable mysteries' was also a prominent theme in accounts of the teachings of Jesus Christ to his apostles during the forty days following his resurrection."

Friday, July 3, 2015

Peace I Leave With You

This upcoming Sunday my ward's gospel doctrine class will be on lesson 23 which includes John 13-15. This afternoon I have been reviewing those chapters in preparation. 
In chapter 14 Jesus promises his disciples that those who love him by keeping his commandments will be blessed by an appearance of the Father and the Son (vs. 23). 
He then goes on in verse 27 to bestow peace upon those who are listening. As I read that it made me think about this statement in Jack's Welch's book "The Sermon at the Temple and the Sermon on the Mount" p.60 which says the following:

"John Durham has explored in detail the fundamental meanings of shalom [peace], especially in Numbers 6:26 and in certain of the Psalms, and concludes that it was used as a cultic term referring to a gift or endowment to or of God that 'can be received only in his Presence,' 'a blessing specially connected to theophany or the immanent Presence of God,' specifically as appearing in the Temple of Solomon and represented 'within the Israelite cult' and liturgy."
If Jesus did indeed intend his usage of "peace" in that manner then it fits the context perfectly.

Sunday, June 28, 2015

Jesus's Anointing

Bas-relief of the anointing of Jesus at the home of Simon the Leper.
As many Christians are aware the terms "christ" (Greek christos) and "messiah" (Hebrew mashiah) are equivalent terms meaning "anointed". In the Old Testament (aka Hebrew Bible) the term "messiah" was typically applied to kings and priests and the text contains descriptions of the anointing of the kings and priests of ancient Israel.

In Christianity, Jesus is the archetypal king/priest and thus is THE Messiah or THE Christ. Since Jesus is the principle "Anointed One" the question naturally arises as to when exactly he was anointed. The answer is that he was anointed in the home of Simon the Leper at Bethany immediately prior to his death and resurrection. All four Gospels mention this event in which an unnamed woman quietly enters the home during the meal and anoints Jesus's head.

After his anointing Jesus makes the bold and remarkable statement that "Wheresoever this gospel shall be preached throughout the whole world, this also that she hath done shall be spoken of for a memorial of her" (KJV Mark 14:9). Clearly Jesus attached tremendous importance to what the woman had done and yet we often fail to mention this event in connection with the suffering, death and resurrection of Jesus. This event is an integral part of the atoning sacrifice of Jesus Christ - it is point at which he became the Messiah, the Christ, the Anointed One.

Julie M. Smith has written an article for Studies in the Bible and Antiquity about the incident as portrayed in Mark 14:3-9. Its a fascinating article which is well worth the read but I wanted to summarize some of the points she makes in the article which I found particularly interesting or meaningful:

The anointing fit the pattern of royal anointings:
  • Royal context of the incident:
    • Anointing preceded by the Triumphal Entry (Mark 11:1-11) as prophesied by Zechariah (Zech 9:9).
    • "The ignorant unwittingly proclaim Jesus’s royal nature through their taunts" (Mark 15:9).
  • The account textually parallels the anointing of Saul (1 Samuel 10:1).
  • Anointings were typically administered by prophets. However, "when Jesus says that the woman 'is come aforehand to anoint my body to the burying' (Mark 14:8), he implies that she is acting prophetically since she knows of his impending death".
  • The woman anointed Jesus's head and "Ben Witherington notes, 'royal figures are anointed from the head down.'"
The anointing also fits the pattern of sacerdotal (priestly) anointing:
  • "The anointing also echoes the priestly anointing as described in the book of Leviticus (see Leviticus 8:12)."
  • Priestly anointings typically took place in the temple, while Jesus's took place in the house of a leper. Despite this "Mark has structured the Gospel in such a way as to suggest that the temple has become a leper's house and the leper's house has become a temple."
    • Leviticus outlines four steps for cleansing a leper's house and each step finds a thematic parallel in Mark's Gospel.
      • Step 1: Cleaning the leprous house (Lev. 14:39-42)
        • This is paralleled in Mark by the cleansing of the temple (Mark 11:15-19).
      • Step 2: The priest will inspect the leprous house (Lev. 14:44).
        • This is paralleled in Mark when Jesus visits the temple to converse with temple authorities. These exchanges showcase the corruption of the temple (Mark 11:27 - 12:40). Also, when the widow donates her mite to the treasury she is supporting the corrupt decadence of the temple administration when instead they should have been supporting her in her penury (Mark 12:41-44).
      • Smith, in her article, doesn't appear to mention the last two steps - at least I can't find them mentioned in her article but they presumably appear in the article she cites as her source, which sadly requires an expensive subscription to access.
The anointing for Jesus's burial or as priest/king?
  • Despite the royal and priestly context Jesus explicitly says the anointing is for his burial, so which is it?
    • The answer is that it is for both: "Austin Farrer wrote: 'It is no diminution of its royal significance when Jesus declares the anointing to be for his burial, for it is precisely the paradox of Christ’s royalty that he is enthroned through being entombed.'"
Simon the Leper
  • Had Simon been healed of his leprosy? No one knows for sure but there are two possibilities:
    • Yes, Jesus was on his way to celebrate the Passover in Jerusalem and therefore needed to be ritually clean which wouldn't have been possible had Simon still been leprous (Numbers 9:6-12).
    • No, Jesus had allowed an unclean woman to touch him in Mark 5:27 and he may have intentionally dined with a leper for didactic purposes:
      • Contrast Simon the leper with Simon Peter. Simon the leper is providing hospitality while Simon Peter is nowhere to be found.
      • Perhaps the mention of the leper is to prepare the hearer for something unusual to follow.
      • Irony: Simon is remembered for his disease, which is unimportant since we don't hear anything further about it, while the woman, whose act immortalizes her, goes unnamed.
      • "The reference to the leper also contributes to the theme of death and burial that Mark develops throughout the anointing story. According to tradition, lepers were equivalent to the dead, so Jesus’s statement about his burial garners new meaning if we understand it to have taken place in the realm of the dead."
      • "Perhaps Mark is intentionally toying with the audience’s inability to determine whether Simon is recovered in order to emphasize the life-and-death themes of the anointing: the infected leper casts the pall of death while the likely conclusion that the leper is healed suggests a return from the dead."
The Poor
  • Passover was a time in which the poor were given special gifts, therefore those who criticized the woman for using the oil, which was worth more than a year's wages, seemed justified.
  • Despite this, Jesus defends her perhaps because, as he suggests, there will be other opportunities to help the poor but there will be no other opportunity to anoint the "Anointed One" who will soon be gone.
  • Ecclesiastes 7:1 seems appropriate and may have influenced events as it was at this time that Jesus was named "Christ".
  • The oil is worth "more than three hundred denarii" (emphasis added) which implies its spiritual worth is far beyond whatever monetary value has been attached to it. The critics are focused on the economic aspect of the gift rather than its far more valuable spiritual value.
The Woman
  • The only thing we know about her is that she is unnamed and that she anointed Jesus. Everything else is a mystery.
  • Her anonymity could serve to portray her as an ideal type of follower rather than as distinct character.
  • "As Mary Ann Beavis notes, 'Jesus’s comment on the woman’s prophetic anointing is his lengthiest and most positive pronouncement on the words or deeds of any person preserved by the evangelist Mark.' Her anonymity may be a necessary counterpart to her high praise."
The Larger Context
  • The anointing has several points of convergence with the story of the widow's mite:
    • Both reference the poor twice (Mark 12:42-43 and Mark 14:5,7).
    • Both accounts mention wealth (Mark 12:41 and Mark 14:3).
    • Jesus proclaims that each woman has given all that she has (Mark 12:44 and Mark 14:8).
    • There is a solemn "verily I say unto you" statement in both (Mark 12:43 and Mark 14:9).
    • Note the huge disparity in the value of the gifts given by each woman. The widow gave two mites (Greek lepton) which was the smallest coin in circulation while the anointing woman's gift was worth more than a year's wages. The value of the oil is somewhere between 10,000 and 20,000 times greater than the mites.
    • "The widow’s gift of all her living parallels Jesus’s gift of his life, and the anointing woman’s gift defines what it means for Jesus to give his life."
    • The widow’s story and the anointing form a frame around chapter 13:
                              A evil scribes denounced (Mark 12:38–40)
                                        B the widow’s mite (Mark 12:41–44)
                                                  C Jesus’s teachings (Mark 13:1–37)
                                        B' the anointing (Mark 14:1–9) 
                              A' the plot to kill (Mark 14:10–11)
    • "Since chapter 13 focuses on the task of true followers in the difficult last days, this textual arrangement shows two positive examples of following Jesus—the widow and the anointer—juxtaposed against the negative examples of the corrupt scribes and the death plotters".
To be continued...