The Conceit of Convenience

Technical fields that deal in the past – such as history and archaeology – have a necessary compression that takes place. It is an unavoidable conceit of convenience. (As far as I know, this is a new term I thought of in the car this morning.)

What do I mean by conceit of convenience? 

When an archaeologist says that a piece of pottery is from such-and-such a century BC, that is a conceit of convenience. There are assumptions and extrapolations made about materials lying above and below the strata in which the pottery was found, as well as the style and fashion of the pottery itself. There is no way to be absolute about the date of the pottery, but a date can be asserted in a general, speculative way.

When a historian says that one event led to another event, the historian probably does not know the complete chain of related events that occurred to result in this single event. Many times, the participants in these events are unaware of the repercussions of their actions. History is a long chain of butterfly effects. Very few people know the implications of their actions beyond the immediate circumstances. (Read more Bradbury if you do not know what that means). So, historians must concede to convenience. We describe events in terms and sequences that were not readily apparent to the participants of those events.

The danger of the conceit of convenience is that many times readers do not realize the necessity of this kind of shorthand. Readers assume that the historian or archaeologist has the omniscient perspective of a fictional narrator. Therefore it is tempting to come to an incomplete conclusion based on what is written or presented. Readers draw analogies – if such-and-such caused this, then this must always be true – but the conceit of conveniences deals in probabilities, not certainties. Just because a piece of pottery looks like another piece of pottery, that does not mean their is no chance that they are from very different times.

Think about trying to describe something as 20th century American. In 1909, 20th century meant telegraph messages, the gold standard and horses stabled in Manhattan. Men still wore jackets with tails on them, and Britain ruled most of the planet. In 1999, 20th century meant emails, faster-than-sound airliners and the burst of the bubble. We fought wars with bayonets in 1913 and laser-guided bombs in 1991.

Time moved no slower in the 3rd century BC than it does now. People’s minds were just as capable as they are now. Therefore, we must be careful not to fall into a modernist trap and believe that things change quickly now but they did not change quickly in the past.

In reality, history and archaeology are very imprecise by their very nature. Both writers and readers need to acknowledge the conceit of convenience as they dialogue.


Herod – the End of His Life

Herod negotiated the complex relationship of the various Jewish groups, his Roman masters and the nations surrounding him with cunning, if not with ease. Herod’s cities and Temple complex attempted to bridge the gaps among these various groups, but there were simply too many moving parts and fissures appeared, especially among the rural Jews of Galilee. Later generations of Jews would not see his works. They would instead look back on Herod as “an insolent king…bold and shameless” who used fear and violence to oppress the faithful because of their sin.

The inevitable destabilization of Herod’s kingdom came not from outside, but from inside. In the last decade of his life, Herod’s personal and physical stability became compromised. “In just the last ten years of his life (i.e. 13–4 BC), Herod wrote at least five separate wills, each one naming a different individual or individuals who should be his heir.”

Three Treacherous Sons

Early in his reign, Herod had executed both his father-in-law Hyrcanus and his wife Mariamne to secure the throne. Two of Herod’s sons by Mariamne, Alexander and Aristobulus, became extraordinarily rebellious during his last years, thanks to the machinations of an Arab named Syllaeus. Syllaeus betrayed Herod at every opportunity, even attempting to poison Herod’s relationship with Caesar. Had it not been for Herod’s capable friend, Nicolaus of Damascus, Herod would have lost his kingdom in 7 BCE. At Caesar’s urging, Herod assembled a council in Berytus (Beirut) to try Alexander and Aristobulus. After a long trial, Herod had their followers and a number of those who had allied with Syllaeus publicly executed. His sons he had strangled in private.

Herod then established his oldest surviving son Antipater as his co-ruler, only to have Antipater conspire against him as well. When a plot to poison Herod was brought to light by the Roman governor of Syria, Quintilius Varus, Herod broke down in tears. Again, Nicolaus of Damascus, stepped in and deftly prosecuted the case against Antipater. In the end, Antipater was remanded to Varus and a message was sent to Caesar asking for a final determination. Caesar placed Antipater’s fate in Herod’s hands, and days before his own death, Herod had him killed. The body was thrown into a beggars’ grave.

Generations later, the Roman writer Macrobius wrote a series of puns he attributed to Caesar Augustus. Among them is a reference to this period. When told about Antipater’s plot, Augustus reportedly quipped, “It is better to be one of Herod’s pigs than one of his sons.”

The Aquila Revolt

The knowledge that Herod’s health was failing began circulating in 4 BCE. Two popular Galilean teachers, Judas b. Sepphoris and Matthias b. Margalus, fomented a movement to remove the Roman Aquila (eagle) from the Temple complex. Somehow their followers heard false rumors that Herod was dead. About forty of them rushed to tear down the Aquila, but they were quickly rounded up by the guards and brought to Herod. Although quite sick, Herod flew into a rage. He had the leaders of the revolt publicly burned alive and then executed the rest of them.

The Fatal Illness

After the executions, Herod’s health took a turn for the worst. He developed a low fever, itching all over his body, inflammation of the colon and some kind of infected tumors on his feet. On top of this, he developed necrosis in his genitals. His body was racked by a terrible cough and he was unable to eat. The pain became so great that he even attempted to kill himself.
What was Herod dying of? This was not the first time Herod had experienced some of these symptoms. Nikos Kokkinos reviewed the symptoms with Dr. Walter Y. Loebl of the Royal College of Physicians in Londond, and in a 2002 article for Biblical Archaeology Review Kokkinos reported:

Dr. Loebl finds four of Herod’s symptoms particularly diagnostic. The intolerable itch can be attributed, he says, to kidney failure, which causes waste chemicals to accumulate in the blood. This would have been the end-stage of a number of processes, including “diminished oxygen to the kidneys due to arteriosclerosis [hardening of the arteries].”
Dr. Loebl interprets the transparent swelling around Herod’s feet as edema, a build-up of fluids that often occurs in older people, especially in their ankles and legs. Bedridden people can also get it in their lower back and genitalia, he says. The commonest causes are “heart failure, renal [kidney] failure and dilution of the blood in anemia.” Another type of edema—pulmonary edema, or edema of the lungs—may have contributed to his demise.
The related putrefaction in Herod’s private member, Dr. Loebl sees as “myiasis.” He explains that “the moist skin with edema and the hot climate would have attracted flies who laid eggs, developing larvae looking like worms—[like] maggots used by fishermen!”
Dr. Loebl regards Herod’s inability to breathe unless in an upright position (orthopnoia) as “the most reliable part of the description.” As used in clinical medicine, “orthopnea is a typical sign in heart failure, renal failure or anemia.”

His conclusion is that, most likely, “Herod died of age-related failure of his heart and kidneys with terminal edema of the lungs.”

Loebl’s theory is not the only one that has been put forward, but it does explain all of Herod’s symptoms. Herod must have been experiencing some of these symptoms before the execution of the revolt leaders, but Josephus does note that Herod probably pushed himself harder than he should have during the revolt. This would have accelerated the effect of the disease.
Josephus tells us that Herod lived only five days after the onset of these symptoms. His condition was made worse when he tried to seek relief through a visit to hot springs near Jericho. His doctors attempted to bathe him in warm oil, which triggered additional symptoms. He began to lose his sight and slip in and out of consciousness. After ordering the execution of Antipater, Herod’s torture body failed and he died. Two of his remaining sons, Archelaus and Antipas, arranged his funeral.

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Herod and Rome

Rome’s influence over the Levant began in 63 BCE when the general Pompey intervened in a feud between two factions of Hasmonean kingdom. Pompey took Jerusalem, installed one of the leaders, Hyrcanus as ethnarch and appointed one of his allies, Antipater of Idumea, as epitropos or “regent” to oversee affairs. Antipater saw the region through the civil war between Pompey and Julius Caesar; but he died in 43 BCE, only a year after Julius Caesar was assassinated in Rome. Herod, Antipater’s eldest son, assumed his father’s role.

With Antipater gone, Hyrcanus’ nephew Aristobulus put together a coalition with the Parthians, seized Jerusalem, mutilated Hyrcanus and put Herod to flight. Securing his family in the fortress Masada, Herod escaped to Rome where Marc Antony and Octavius convinced the Senate to declare him “King of the Jews.” By 37 BCE, his enemies were defeated and Herod solidified his right to rule by marriage to Hyrcanus’ only daughter, Mariamne.

Antony and Octavius went to war with each other in 31 BCE, and Herod managed to align himself with Octavius right before Antony’s final defeat. He was the first of Rome’s clients to celebrate Octavius’ ascension to supreme power. “[Herod] more and more demonstrated to Caesar the firmness of his friendship, and his readiness to assist him: and what was of the greatest advantage to him was this, that his liberality came at a seasonable time also.”

A friend to Caesar and client of Rome, Herod ruled over a kingdom that became a magnet for the wealth of the eastern Mediterranean. While client kings were generally nuisances to the Romans, Herod seems to have truly integrated himself into the Roman sphere. Octavius did not forget Herod, and when the Senate declared him to be Augustus in 26 BCE, he honored Herod with grants of land and enormously lucrative trade rights.

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Herod the Great, Introduction

Herod the Great looms over the story of Jesus’ birth in the Gospel of Matthew. He is a character judged more by popular impressions than by Scriptural revelation. For generations, that brief glimpse fueled all sorts of false perceptions and fictionalized narratives about Herod and his reign. In the past half century or so, archaeological expeditions in the major sites of his reign have yielded a different impressions. Herod emerges as one of the most cunning and successful client kings in the history of the Roman Republic.

Popular scholars hostile to the Scriptures have attempted to portray this new image of Herod as being contrary to the depiction in the Gospel of Matthew. They even portray him as something of a mentor to future emperors and the inspiration for the rebuilding of Rome under Nero.
Which depiction of Herod is correct? The one revealed by archaeology and modern biographical study or the one known from the Gospel of Matthew? Perhaps the answer is both. In this paper, we will examine the life of Herod and attempt to glimpse into his mind. Could the Herod of history have become the Herod of the Gospel of Matthew? Could influences, both internal and external, have driven him slowly into paranoia and dementia? Could the very Roman power that helped his rise also have been his downfall?

In the first post of this series, we will examine the literary sources available to us. These provide us with the basic framework of Herod’s life, which we shall consider in the second section. Here we will attempt to sketch out Herod’s rise to power and the influences that made this possible. In the third and final section, we will examine the end of Herod’s life and contrast it with his rise and the relatively quiet prosperous reign that is bookended by them.

In the end, we should be able to construct a reasonable synthesis of the Herod of archaeology and the Herod of the Gospel of Matthew. This serves to both support and inform the reliability of the Biblical narrative.

Literary Sources

Herod’s appearance in the Gospel of Matthew is not the only textual evidence of his existence. Thanks to contemporary the first century writer Flavius Josephus, the modern historian has an essential framework for reconstructing the history of the Levant under Roman rule. Josephus wrote two works that mention Herod in detail – Antiquities of the Jews and Wars of the Jews. These books were written sometime between 70 and 90 CE for the Flavian emperors, whom he serve.

Additional Jewish Sources

Herod is not well represented in literature outside of Josephus, but there are three first century CE, Jewish texts that mention him. None of them provide much biographical detail, but they do help us understand Herod’s context.

• The earliest is a first century CE interpolation in the pseuodopigraphical Assumption of Moses. Although Herod is not named, chapters 6-7 clearly refer to him in detail.
• There is also a discussion of Herod in the Babylonian Talmud. He is portrayed less than favorably, although the rabbis cannot help but gush about the Temple.
• Finally, the Jewish philosopher Philo of Alexandria records the words of Herod’s grandson Agrippa before the emperor Caligula. In his remarks, Agrippa mentions the relationship between Caligula’s maternal grandfather, Marcus Agrippa, and Herod the Great.

Roman Sources

There are only two known Roman texts that mention Herod. Pliny mentions Herod as the builder of Caesarea Maritima in Pliny’s Natural History, but adds no personal detail. The fifth century CE writer Macrobius put together Saturnalia – a series of dialogues in which Augustus features prominently. In Saturnalia, Herod is the butt of one of Augustus’ jokes. Outside of these, Herod is all but forgotten in extant literature.

The Reliability of Josephus’ Text

Thus, for biographical details we are forced to rely almost entirely on Josephus and what little detail exists in the biblical record. Josephus sometimes demonstrates a tendency to embellish the history to which he was a first-hand observer. As Gottfried Mader pointed out:

Josephus acknowledges the conventions of Greek historiography…with its rigorous insistence on truthful reporting…but equally he draws explicit attention to the lamentation….The two strands – as he himself acknowledges – coexist in uneasy tension.

Mader continues to detail that while Josephus generally presents factual history, the reader must always be wondering how much is fact and how much is the illusion of impartiality veiling ideology.

Mader’s focus is the Wars of the Jews, and Josephus had good reason to embellish when writing about a war he participated in. This need not be the case in his later work Antiquities of the Jews, however. While Josephus’ record of speeches and motivations are sometimes suspect, “there is one area in which everyone who attempts to reconstruct the chronology of Herod’s reign agrees: Josephus’ chronological notices are more-or-less reliable.”

Another important consideration is that when writing about Herod, Josephus possessed a reliable and known source, the now lost writings of Herod’s tutor and confidant Nicolaus of Dasmascus. It was not uncommon for historians to copy large passages of previous histories in toto and this seems to be the case here. The extant fragments of Nicolaus’ other works show him to be a reliable historian. There is therefore is good reason to find him reliable when he follows Nicolaus.

Archaeology has verified much of what Josephus has to say about Herod, but that does not mean that the reader should accept what Josephus writes (or omits) as unbiased. Whenever possible, we should continue to seek confirmation from the archaeologic record, especially given the absence of other literary references.

In the coming posts, we will dive into the history of this man and the implication of his reign upon the world Jesus knew.

Next Post: Herod and Rome

The Church of the Resurrection, part 4

The Church of the Resurrection, part 4

This is part 4 of a series of posts on the history of the Church of the Resurrection. In a previous part, we saw how the Church was badly damaged during the brief period when the Sassanids controlled the city (614-622 CE) and then the period of relative peace after the Muslims took the city in 637 CE. After a brief diversion to consider the Dome of the Rock, we are back on track.

Abu ‘Ali Mansur Tariqu al-Hakim became the Fatimid caliph when he was only eleven years old. His father died in 996, probably of complications from gall stones, and Al-Hakim inherited the throne. He was an erratic person, to put it simply.

According to the Crusader historian William of Tyre, Al-Hakim’s mother was a Melkite Christian.  According to the Muslim chronicler al-Musabbihi, he was healed by the help of a Christian sage. Either way, Christians played an important role in Al-Hakim coming to power. Some people might have felt gratitude to the followers of Jesus for this, but to Al-Hakim (at least according to William of Tyre), this was a mark of shame. He despised Christians.

In 1004, Al-Hakim made it illegal to observe the Christian feasts of Epiphany and Easter. The following year, he banned the use of wine (along with all other alcoholic beverages), making it illegal to observe the eucharist. But this was nothing compared to what came next.

Pilgrims who went to the Church of the Resurrection during the early period of Muslim rule (637-1009) reported that during the Easter Vigil, there was some kind of illuminated miracle known as the Descent of the Holy Fire. According to tradition, when the church was in darkness during Holy Saturday, a blue light would emerge from Christ’s tomb under the Anastasis. It would eventually form a column of light, from which worshipers would light candles from the fire.

Al-Hakim took great exception to this miracle. To him, it was leading people away from Allah. In 1009, against the recommendations of his advisors, Al-Hakim ordered that the Church of the Resurrection be completely dismantled. Yahya of Antioch, a Christian doctor who was alive at the time, wrote, “They seized all the furnishings they found in the church and completely destroyed it, leaving only those things whose destruction would have been too difficult. They also destroyed Calvary and the church of St. Constantine and all that was located within its confines, and they tried to destroy the sacred remains.”

The only parts of the Church to survive the destruction were the walls of one side of the Anastasis. The rest of the Church was broken down and, according to Yahya, even the rock of Calvary was destroyed.

In the years that followed, Al-Hakim would make forced converts of many Christians. Then, almost abruptly he reversed his policies. He allowed Christians and Jews to return to their faiths and even to rebuild their churches. The Druze began to revere him as something supernatural. Some chroniclers think Al-Hakim began to see himself as an incarnation of Allah, which might have contributed to his tolerance of Christians.

Then in 1021, he went for a walk and simply never returned. Some believe he was killed, and others believe he just walked away. For whatever reason, at age 36 the Mad Caliph disappeared and his son Ali Az-Zahir became Caliph. Az-Zahir immediately set about appeasing the enraged Byzantine Christians, opening negotiations with them to rebuild the Church of the Resurrection.

It was not until the reign of Constantine IX Monomachos that a rebuilding campaign got under way in 1043. The patriarch of Constantinople, Nicephorus, led the rebuilding project which consumed tremendous amounts of money but only managed to clear the rubble of the previous buildings and rebuild the Anastasis. The basilica was not rebuilt. Instead, several chapels were built around the site. The Christians consolidated their holy sites into several chapels, spread over a large, paved area.

Just half a century later, the emperor Alexios I Comnenus would send a letter to a Norman noble, Robert of Flanders that would launch the First Crusade and transform the fate (and architecture) of the Church of the Resurrection forever.

The Church of the Resurrection, part 2

The Church of the Resurrection, part 2

In my last post, I talked about the construction of the original basilica and rotunda built on the site of Jesus’ burial and resurrection. Those buildings were built in 337 CE and stood unmolested until 614 CE. What happened next is probably one of the worst things you have never heard of.

In 476 CE, the last Roman emperor in the west was deposed. He was a child, a puppet really, and his overlord – a German army commander named Flavius Odoacer – chose to dispense with this entire idea of emperor. He sent the imperial purple to the emperor in the east, Zeno, and asked only that he be recognized as “King of Italy.” Zeno, weakened from internal conflict, could not oppose Odoacer’s will and recognized him as king. For a short time under emperor Theodosius I, the Roman Empire would rule Italy again, but western Europe was no longer the land of the Romans. It became the land of new, rising German powers, and both Romans and Germans would shortly have their hands full with another force – Islam.

Before the rise of Islam, however, the eastern Romans had to deal with the Sassanids of Persia. This rival kingdom had risen from the ashes of the Parthian Empire at about the time Constantine was consolidating his power, around 300 CE. The Sassanids had been the Romans only real rivals for three hundred years, and the two powers watched each other uneasily.

In 502 CE, a century of violence and border conflict broke out between the Sassanids and the eastern Romans. (Historians call the eastern Romans the “Byzantines”.) War raged until 591 when the Roman Emperor Maurice II negotiated a peace with the Sassanid Shah Khusrau II. Their peace was sealed with Khusrau’s marriage to Maurice’s daughter.

Just when things looked peaceful, however, one of Maurice’s generals named Phocus led a coup d’etat and assassinated him. Khusrau was enraged, and he launched a series of attacks on Roman holdings all over the eastern Mediterranean. The Jews, who had lived under Roman oppression for centuries, revolted and under the leadership of Benjamin of Tiberius and Nehemiah ben Hushiel, joined the Sassanid cause.

In 614 CE,  combined Persian and Jewish army surrounded the Christian city of Jerusalem which was not defended by an army but by civilians and clergy. After only twenty-one days, the city fell and the Persians handed the city to the Nehemiah ben Hushiel and the Jews.

Nehemiah was a heavy handed ruler, and he was not popular with the Christians. They rebelled after just a couple months, and they killed Nehemiah and his “council of the righteous”, dragging their bodies through the streets before throwing them from the city walls.

Khusrau’s general Sharhbaraz’s reaction was swift. He retook the city and he gave the Jews permission to kill the Christians on site. According to the historian Antiochus Strategios, a reign of terror ensued and 57,000 Christians were killed. Another 35,000 were captured and sold into slavery. The Jews, believing the relic of the True Cross to be the Staff of Aaron, tortured clerics until they revealed its location. They took the True Cross and sent it to Khusrau as a thank you gift.

The Jews’ barbarism mortified Khusrau. He abandoned his Jewish allies to the Byzantines, who sought out an alliance with a little known but rising force to the south, the city of Medina and its ruler – Muhammed. Muhammed dreamed of a journey to Jerusalem, and his forces joined the Byzantine Romans in expelling the Jews from Palestine.

The Christians swept down into Judea in 622 CE and retook the city of Jerusalem. They moved on and eventually laid siege to Khusrau’s capital. His son and successor surrendered the True Cross to the Roman Emperor Heraclius, who returned it to Jerusalem in 630 CE.

During these multiple battles, sieges and riots, the Church of the Resurrection had been severely damaged. Heraclius restored it, but he had to turn his attention quickly to another rising threat – Islam and the Arabs.

While Heraclius had been fighting the Sassanids, his ally Muhammed had been unifying the warring Arab tribes. With them unified, Muhammed led his armies against the Romans at the Battle of Mu’tah. This was the first of many engagements, and by 637 CE the Muslim armies sat outside an undefended Jerusalem. This time, they were not allies but conquerors.

The 10th century historian Eutychius of Alexandria writes that the patriarch of Jerusalem Suphronius surrendered the city of the Fatimid Caliph Umar Ibn Al Khattab. Islam offered the both Christians and Jews limited freedom of religion under the al-Dhimma, and so for the first time since 70 CE, both Christians and Jews lived and worshiped in Jerusalem.

According to the Muslim chronicler al-Waqidi, after surrendering the city, Suphronius took Umar on a tour of the city. Umar asked to see the holiest site of the city, and Suphronius took him to the Church of the Resurrection. While there, the call for noon prayer was heard. Suphronius invited Umar to pray in the portico of the church, but Umar refused. To show his respect for the Christian site, Umar crossed the street and prayed there instead. It is the site of the current Mosque of Umar.

File:Umar Mosque,Jerusalem123.jpg

The Mosque of Omar, as seen from the courtyard of the Church of the Resurrection

In 691, the Caliph Abd al-Malik ibn Marwan toured Jerusalem and was appalled to see that the Christian Anastasis was the tallest structure in the city. The Anastasis was constructed over the rock upon which Christ had been resurrected. On top of the temple platform, stood the rock that Muslims believe is the foundation stone – the place of both original creation and final judgment. Al-Malik ordered a dome like the Anastasis, to be constructed over the rock on the temple platform.

So, by the year 700 CE, Jerusalem was dominated by two domes – one Christian and one Muslim. The two would have stood above all other buildings in a city of probably no more than 10,000 people, surrounded by only light fortifications.

For the next 300 years, this was the state of things until the reign of Abu ‘Ali Mansur Tariq al-Hakim, known forever to Christians as “Hakim the Mad Caliph”.

But his story is for another day.

Abusing History in Bible Teaching

Abusing History in Bible Teaching

As a student of history and the Bible, I often find myself telling people to learn the background and context of things before making definitive statements.

As of late, however, I am discovering that the only thing more dangerous than ignorance of historical context is the abuse of incomplete knowledge of history. People who develop a thesis based on partial or unverifiable evidence can develop some very erroneous and even dangerous thoughts about the Bible and its message.

Be cautious about making definitive statements because you read some interesting historical anecdote or perused a website. Verifying your evidence and your conclusions is part of the responsibility of any competent Bible teacher.

By all means, learn all you can. Don’t be afraid of the backdrop of the Scriptures, but make sure you don’t go off half cocked because some idea caught your fancy. More poor doctrine has been born from incomplete context than probably any other single factor.