Debunking the Latest “Married Jesus” Hoax

When these stories start to burble up in my RSS feeds, I always swear I’m going to ignore them and wait for them to go away. Just paying attention to them makes people dumber.not_this_crap_again (3)

This one was an easy call, because the articles had the “tell” of pure BS right inside: the name “Simcha Jacobovici,” mostly famous for outlandish claims like the Talpiot Tomb theory, the forged James Ossuary, finding proof of the Exodus, and similar cringe-worthy nonsense. He’s about as credible as that guy who keep claiming to have the body of a bigfoot in his freezer, and I’m not even exaggerating.

Somehow, Jacobovici and his pet conspiracy-theory academic Barrie Wilson have managed to sucker the British Library into supporting his latest bid for attention and money, just in time for a book and media blitz to coincide with the holiday season. It serves everyone’s purpose, I guess:  they get coverage for their books, people remember that the British Library exists and is filled with genuine treasures, and the media gets eyeballs and the chance to stick a knife into Christianity, which they hate.

So What Is The Discovery?

That’s the hilarious part, because:

1)  There is no discovery! It’s an old and well-known pseudepigraphal text called “Joseph and Aseneth,” about which I’ve written from a theological perspective. They’re trying to hide this fact by referring to it as “The Ecclesiastical History of Zacharias Rhetor” (aka Pseudo-Zachariah Rhetor) , but that’s simply the larger text in which the Syriac text of”Josepeh and Aseneth” (a late translation of an an earlier Greek text) tale is embedded.

2) Jesus and Mary are never mentioned in it!

The original is a fascinating story about the patriarch Joseph and his marriage to the Egyptian Aseneth, mentioned in passing in Genesis 41:45, and deals with her conversion from idolatry to monotheism.

The only way they can get headlines is by turning an allegorical, novelistic tale of a well-known patriarch into a discovery about the historical Jesus by replacing “Joseph” with “Jesus” and “Aseneth” with “Mary Magdalene.”


No reason, really, except a complete misunderstanding of early Biblical exegesis, particularly that practiced in Alexandria, which sought Christ in every Old Testament text and tried to draw out the Christological meaning from those texts.

But no, that’s not it! It’s “encoded,” you see, to hide the Real Truth That Will Destroy Christianity Forever No Seriously Guys For Reals This Time.

They see mention of the Lord and the incarnate Word in surrounding (not the main) text and the tale becomes, not a theological lesson, but an encrypted history, because the original writers foresaw that, 1500 years later, a couple of dudes would need make payments on their beach houses.

There is controversy about the text: whether it’s purely late Jewish or a Christian adaptation of Jewish material. It may come from  a Second Temple Jewish context without a Christian influence, or it may be an adaptation of a Jewish original into a Christian allegory. My essay points out some of the Eucharistic elements which might make this second suggestion a viable reading.

They’re trying to make a big deal of the “secret” text “discovered” in the British Library, but of course the Syriac version of “Joseph and Aseneth” was not lost at all. Scholars just hadn’t settled on a context for it.

Let’s even pause a moment and ride along with Barrie and Jacobovici to read this as a Christian text. It’s all very allegorical if it is, and if we do read “Joseph” as “Jesus,” what we have then is an allegorical tale of the marriage of Jesus to the Church, which would be a common image used by early Church writers, particularly of the Alexandrian school. An allegorical reading would be a sensible reading supported by similar texts.

The idea that this proves the literal, historical fact of an actual marriage of Jesus and Mary Magdalene is supported by nothing more than wishful thinking and the desire to undermine Christianity and score an easy payday. There is no text (not even a trace of a text, and texts do leave traces even when they’re gone) that suggests a literal marriage of Jesus. None. That’s a curiously modern obsession.

Try to remember what happened with the last Jesus is Married story that sucked up all the media oxygen, and recall the wisdom of Michael Crichton and his Gell-Mann Effect.

This junk comes around without fail every year. I hate covering it, but I hate fraud and ignorance worse.

Ghosts in the Bible: The New Testament


Dives and Lazarus (Codex Aureus, 11th century)

There are no ghosts in the New Testament.

We do, however, find the language of spirits and references to death that can illuminate the subject.

When we read passages such as Matthew 8:22 (”Let the dead bury the dead”) and 22:32 (”God is not the God of the dead but of the living”) we may be confused. Is Jesus disregarding the dignity of the dead, or denying the need of people to grieve and mourn? Tobit was deemed a just man because he cared for the dead. Is Jesus saying something different?

We need to read these passages with two things in mind. First, there is the Jewish purity laws governing contact with the dead. The person burying a body would be rendered ritually impure: a kind of “death” that suggests that the “dead” do indeed bury the dead.

Second, there is the pagan background discussed in my previous post, with people sleeping on graves and seeking supernatural aid from the dead. Jesus is saying that God is the God of life and the living, and he grants no special power to the dead. “Why do you seek the living among the dead,” he will say in Luke 24:5.

Jesus has reversed death. Death is conquered, and essentially inverted. “He who saves his life will lose it.” (Matthew 16:25 and Luke 9:24) This is the new life in Christ.

It’s natural, then, for wayward spirits to have no part in this new life, for they represent an intermediary state, neither dead nor alive, that has no place in Christianity.

Ghosts, however, were still part of the culture, and we see this in several places in the New Testament.

»When Jesus walks on water, the apostles mistake him for a ghost. (Matthew 14:26, Mark 6:49)

But when the disciples saw him walking on the sea, they were terrified, saying, “It is a ghost!” [Greek: phantasma] And they cried out for fear.

»When the women see him after the resurrection, he tells them not to be afraid, most likely because they would have feared he was a ghost. (Luke 28:10)

Then Jesus said to them, “Do not be afraid; go and tell my brethren to go to Galilee, and there they will see me.”

»When he appears to apostles after the resurrection they believe they are a seeing a ghost.

But they were startled and frightened, and supposed that they saw a spirit [Greek: pneuma]. (Luke 24:37)

»In the same scene, we witness again the supposed immaterial nature of ghosts.

See my hands and my feet, that it is I myself; handle me, and see; for a spirit [Greek: pneuma] has not flesh and bones as you see that I have. (Luke 24:39–40)

Two Greek words are used to convey the same essential meaning.

Pneuma is a breath of air, and by analogy, a spirit. It is used frequently in the New Testament, both for the Holy Spirit and for evil spirits. For example:

“And immediately there was in their synagogue a man with an unclean spirit [Greek: pneuma].” (Mark 1:23–24)

Pneuma appears in Wisdom 17:14-15 with the same meaning:

But throughout the night, which was really powerless, and which beset them from the recesses of powerless Hades, they all slept the same sleep, and now were driven by monstrous specters [Greek: pneuma],and now were paralyzed by their souls’ surrender, for sudden and unexpected fear overwhelmed them. [Wisdom is one of the few OT books composed in Greek.]

Phantasma is what we’d call a ghost: an apparition or phantasm. We find it only in the scene where Jesus walks on the water, suggesting that he is displaying some power (lightness or immateriality) traditionally associated with phantoms.

These passages tell us that the idea of ghosts was known to the followers of Jesus. We also see recognizable qualities of these ghosts: they are immaterial, they’re scary, they represent the restless spirits of the dead, and they are light enough to walk on water, suggesting they float on the air.

Yet at the same time, the New Testament appears to shut the door firmly on the idea of ghosts who can wander the earth. In Luke 16:19-31, the story of Dives and Lazarus suggests that the dead can leave neither heaven nor hell.

In the parable, Dives [which is Latin for “rich man,” traditionally used as the man’s name] passes by the poor man Lazarus without helping him. When they both die, Dives goes to Hades and Lazarus to heaven.

From his place of torment, Dives sees Lazarus resting in the bosom of Abraham and begs him for comfort, or that he at least send a message to his family warning them to change their ways.

Abraham denies the first request, saying

Between us and you a great chasm has been fixed, in order that those who would pass from here to you may not be able, and none may cross from there to us. (Luke 16:27)

Although Abraham rejects the idea of people passing between heaven and hell, he doesn’t directly reject the possibility that Lazarus can return to earth as a spirit. The passage suggests that he won’t, because

If they do not hear Moses and the prophets, neither will they be convinced if some one should rise from the dead. (Luke 16:31)

Augustine used this passage to ground his treatment of ghosts, reading it as a denial of the ability of the spirits of the dead to pass to the world of the living. I don’t see it as quite that clear cut, but it certainly can be read as an indication of the impermeability of the veil separating life from death.

In the next post, we’ll see how Augustine argued firmly against the reality of ghosts, and then how his arguments were gradually watered down by the advance of Catholic culture across Europe in the middle ages.

 The posts in this series are filed under Ghosts.

And Then We Shall Die

1 Kings 17:7-16 contains one of those arresting sentences  that show the depth of suffering and living death people can reach before being restored to life by the Lord:

[Elijah said] “Please bring me a little water in a vessel so I can drink.” As she went to bring (it), he called to her: “Please bring me a bit of bread in your hand.” She said: “By the life of YHWH, your God, I have nothing baked, only a handful of flour in the jug and a little oil in the flask. Here I am gathering a few sticks, so that I can go in and prepare it for myself and my son. We shall it eat and then we shall die.”

Strozzi: Prophet Elijah and the Widow of Sarepta

God has sent Elijah to Zerephath, a foreign land outside of the power of his persecutor, Ahab. Zerephath is in Sidon, on the Mediterranean, and is the homeland of Jezebel and her god Baal. (Indeed, this story is part of a larger sequence showing the victory of God over Baal.) It is strange, then, that this foreign window recognizes him as an Israelite holy man and uses the phrase “By the life of YHWH, your God…”

A terrible drought afflicts the land. People suffer and die. The dryness of the land is reflected in the spiritual dryness of the people. It’s a sign of the growing insufficiency of the old law and the coming of a new law which will be written directly on the hearts of man by Christ.

Elijah gives us a foretaste of that new law when he is the conduit for a miracle. The woman’s action call to mind the story of the widow’s mite: she is ready to give the last measure of her grain to this stranger. Does she do this out of faith and hope, or out of despair? She has already decided she and her son are dead, and is resigned to the fate she had planned, but does this holy man stir something new in her?

There in a barren, dried land of famine, with no more than a handful of meal and a few drops oil–poor, miserable, spiritually dead without a true god (she refers to “your God” when speaking to Elijah)–she is as dead as the living can be.

And yet the presence of God comes to her in through the prophet, and a small flicker of grace prompts her to give her last mouthful to this man and thus prove by her works the goodness still alive in her heart.

What these passages offer, of course, is a powerful pre-figuration of Christ. Elijah is sent to the lowest of the low (a widow would have been utterly dependent on others to survive); he is sent to non-Israelites; he is the means by which a miracle of food is affected, as the grain and oil are replenished; and he follows this with another miracle by raising a boy from the dead.

Even the passing phrase she utters about “collecting a couple of sticks” suggests deeper meaning: isn’t the cross a “couple of sticks”? She has done what we must all do to be saved: she has taken up her cross.

Jesus himself mentions the widow in Luke 4:24–26, using this passage to explain that he will be rejected by his own but accepted by gentiles:

Truly, I say to you, no prophet is acceptable in his own country. But in truth, I tell you, there were many widows in Israel in the days of Elijah, when the heaven was shut up three years and six months, when there came a great famine over all the land; and Elijah was sent to none of them but only to Zarephath, in the land of Sidon, to a woman who was a widow.

Why was the widow of Zarephath favored? Partly to show the power of the true God against the false gods, but also to show how God lifts up the lowly and rewards those who give freely. It also looks forward to the day in which God will extend to all humanity the favor He has shown Israel.

Something even more powerful beats within this story, however, with powerful themes of want, suffering, and death. The woman and her son were near death. In the next story, the widow’s son does die, and is brought back to life. (Note: Some exegetes believe, without good reason, that these two stories are about two different widows.) Death stalks these passages like a beast devouring the innocent, laying waste to vast stretches of humanity.

T.S. Eliot, describing The Waste Land, shows us “fear in a handful of dust”: another image of death. But in this passage, we see death defeated by no more than a handful of meal.

That meal will be transformed by Christ into the Eucharist, which provides a food that gives life far beyond what a mere cake of grain and oil can do.

We all must die to be Christians: die to our troubled pasts, the world, our selfishness, our disordered desires, our sin. There is no new birth in Christ without death. There are a thousand little deaths that come before the last death, and in those little deaths new life springs forth. We become new creation in Christ as the one passes away.

The handful of grain the window gave to Elijah was once a seed, which fell to the ground and died, and in dying produced many seeds. If we allow ourselves to truly trust in Christ, to lift up his cross, and join him in death, then we too will spring up as new growth, with a new life that will never end.

Light & Bread in the Gospel of John

This essay originally was published in an online journal, now defunct. I’m publishing it here in case it’s of interest. The full title is Light and Bread: A Sapiential Reading of Two “I Am” Statements in the Gospel of John. All the footnotes got stripped when I plopped the text into WordPress, but if you’re curious about a citation, let me know.

The most powerful moments in the Gospel of John occur when Jesus takes the sacred name of God—“I AM”—as his own. In particular, Christ seeks to explain his being by creating a mosaic of images in the seven “I am” statements. In these, Jesus is the bread of life; the light of the world; the gate; the good shepherd; the resurrection and the life, the way, the truth, and the life; and the true vine. Each statement peels back the veil that shielded mankind’s eyes from the face of God, seeking to express a new way of encountering God, not on the mountain or in the pillar of fire, but in the flesh of the incarnate Christ.

Jesus uses the phrase “I am” in numerous other places in John, perhaps none as potent as his simple formulation, “Before Abraham was, I AM.” (John 8:58) These statements must have been like a thunderclap for his Jewish listeners, who fully understood that Jesus was claiming equality with God. The Gospel of John is deeply rooted in Jewish theology and understanding, and it is through these “I am” statements that Jesus conveys the nature of the new covenant to a Jewish audience. In particular, the images of bread and light convey two fundamental qualities that define the Christian experience.

I Am the Bread of Life
In most of his sayings in John, Jesus draws on Old Testament language and imagery to express new realities to his audience. This opens his words, particularly his “I am” phrases, to multiple levels of meaning and understanding. With John 6:34—“I am the bread of life”—we have an image that evokes wisdom, allowing for a sapiential interpretation that draws upon the long tradition of personified Wisdom in Jewish literature.

Bread is associated with Wisdom throughout the Old Testament, and into the New. We hear it in the words of Sirach 15:3: “She [Wisdom] will feed him with the bread of understanding, and give him the water of wisdom to drink.” In Amos 8:11, the prophet draws a parallel between the hunger for food and the hunger for wisdom: “Behold, the days are coming … when I will send a famine on the land; not a famine of bread, nor a thirst for water, but of hearing the words of the Lord.” In a passage like this, Christians make a connection between a hunger for bread and the incarnate Word. This was the kind of pedagogy Jesus was offering to his listeners, and to Christians down through the ages to our own day.

Christ has come into a Jewish world that understands two paths of knowledge: that of the philosophers, and that of the law. These are both a kind of bread that feeds the people. We see in the feeding of the 5,000 examples of both kinds of bread. First, Phillip says that “Two hundred denarii would not buy enough bread for each of them to get a little.” (John 6:7) Thomas Aquinas sees this as an image of wisdom acquired through philosophy, which must be purchased through “experience and contemplation,” and yet will never fully nourish.

The other kind of wisdom is the Law, represented by the five barley loaves, which are a symbol of the Pentateuch. This, too, is not enough to nourish, and must be multiplied by the Lord. Thus, we see that wisdom derived from philosophy and wisdom derived from the law are insufficient until multiplied and completed by the coming of Wisdom in the form of Christ.

With this as our background, we begin to understand what Jesus means when he says “I am the bread of life.” This is a new bread, which neither the Jews nor the Greeks have ever encountered. Money—even 200 denarii—is useless for purchasing this kind of wisdom. As we read in Isaiah 55:1-3, we come to eat and drink at the banquet of the Lord “without money and without price.” We should not spend our money for “that which is not bread” and “which does not satisfy.” The “bread” of this passage is not literal bread, but the Word of the Lord, which you must “hear, so that your soul may live.”

The phrase “bread of life” does not occur in the Old Testament. Indeed, we have to look to the Pseudepigrapha to find this phrase.

“Joseph and Aseneth” is a non-canonical tale dating from some time between 100BC and 200AD, and telling the story of the marriage of Joseph (son of Jacob) to the pagan Aseneth. Thus, it may be either a Jewish document that represents the sole appearance of the phrase “bread of life,” or a later document written under the influence of Christianity.

In the apocryphal tale, an angel comes to Aseneth to help her become worthy of marrying Joseph. He does this by feeding her a piece of honeycomb from his hand, and bidding her “Eat.” In the story, the honeycomb is an image of manna, but the words of the angel (whom Aseneth address as “Lord”) have a powerful Christian import: “Behold, you have eaten the bread of life, and drunk the cup of immortality, and been anointed with the ointment of incorruptibility. Behold, from today your flesh will flourish like flowers of life from the ground of the Most High.”

This bread has a power beyond that of manna. It not only makes Aseneth pure and draws her in the Covenant, but also gives her new life. Was this an early tale used by either Jesus or the Evangelist to convey a radical new theology to a Jewish audience, or a later Christian interpolation of a traditional Jewish folk tale? We have no way of knowing, but the image it creates is a powerful one. Here is the “bread of life,” which is able to unite Jew and gentile.

Even more suggestive is the fact that this Jew is Joseph, a symbol of wisdom who rises to great heights because of his wise council to pharaoh. How does he do this? As the scripture tells us, “There was no bread [sometimes translated merely as “food”] in all the land.” (47:13) What does Joseph do? He finds a way to provide grain for bread during the years of famine. In this way, he prefigures Christ feeding the multitudes.

We can see in these brief examples—both canonical and non-canonical—the powerful currents of meaning and symbols that drive us forward, like waves on the sea, from the old covenant to the new. Wisdom becomes a symbol for “spiritual refreshment,” and that Wisdom is the Word: “Christ is the power of God, and the wisdom of God” (1 Cor 1:24).

This is the Wisdom that will bring us all to eternal life. As Thomas Aquinas observes, material bread is “the bread of death.” It can only ever replace what is lost by the body, and thus has no role in our immortal life. But the bread of life is the bread of “divine wisdom.” It is “life-giving of itself, and no death can affect it.” The life this bread gives us allows the soul to live, and that life is ours because we listen to the word of God.

I Am the Light of the World
Turning to John 8:12, wherein Jesus says “I am the light of the world,” it is possible to continue exploring sapiential themes and the way they would have resonated with a Jewish audience.

Once again, we have Christ presenting an image that evokes a specific Jewish understanding. In this case, his words coincide with the feast of Tabernacles, which began with a water-drawing ceremony and the lighting four large lamps of gold in the Temple’s Courtyard of the Women. These lamps were fueled with vats of pure oil, and lit by children of priestly descent using worn out priestly garments as wicks. The light was so bright that it illuminated all the courts of Jerusalem.

Philo wrote that Tabernacles was meant to teach “equality, the first principle and beginning of justice . . . and after witnessing the perfection of all the fruits of the year, to give thanks to the Being who has made them perfect.” The feast ended on the eighth day, which was regarded as the crowning day of all the feasts of the year. It is quite suggestive that Tabernacles was a harvest feast, celebrating the conclusion of a fruitful growing season. This echoes and amplifies John 6 and its mediations on the bread of life.

Thus, on the occasion of a feast in which oil is fired with the worn-out garments of the Temple priests, shedding a light over the Temple and the whole city, Christ utters another earth-shaking statement: He is the light of the world. Oil is a symbol of anointing and kingship, while the worn out priestly garments are a symbol of the insufficiency of the old priesthood and sacrifice. The lamps of the feast merely provide earthly light, which will flicker and fade when the oil is exhausted.

In this setting, Christ reveals the light that never fades, and which illuminates not merely the Temple or the Jews alone, but the entire world. The light of the fire illuminating the Courtyard of the Women was meant to evoke the pillar of fire that guided the Jews in the wilderness. The Book of Wisdom identifies this light with “the imperishable light of the law” (Wisdom 18:4), which brought them to the promised land. This light has been replaced by the light of Christ, which shall lead us to the true and final promised land of heaven. The one who follows the light of Christ “will not walk in darkness, for he has the light of life.” (John 8:12)

Augustine says that this light is “the Light which never fails, the Light of knowledge, the Light of Wisdom.” God’s first creation, of course, was light. (Genesis 1:3) Wisdom is “a reflection of eternal light, a spotless mirror of the working of God, and an image of his goodness.” (Wisdom 7:26) Christ brings Wisdom to mankind. He offers a light that shall be placed upon a stand to shine brightly, driving away the darkness of error and sin. (cf Luke 11:33-36) Those who believe in his truth have found the light of Wisdom: “I have come as light in the world, that whoever believes in me may not remain in darkness.” (John 12:46)

Wisdom was with God at the beginning, and in the beginning was the Light, brought to earth by Christ. “Let us love this Light,” says Augustine. “Let us long to understand it, let us thirst for the same; that, with itself for our guide, we may at length come to it, and that we may so live in it that we may never die.”

By coming among us as the bread of life and light of the world, Jesus gives us an opportunity to share in the life of God. In particular, we are called to wisdom, which is found through following the teaching and example of Christ.

In Matthew 11:19, Jesus says quite clearly: “Wisdom is justified by her deeds.”

St. James provides guidance for our times, when discerning between the wisdom of man and the Wisdom of God becomes difficult. Who is wise? James asks. Let his works and meekness prove his wisdom. Those who display “bitter jealousy and selfish ambition” do not have the wisdom that “comes down from above,” but instead have a wisdom that is “earthly, unspiritual, devilish.” (James 3:13-15) This can lead only to “disorder and every vile practice.” (James 3:16)

By comparison, the Wisdom of God is “first pure, then peaceable, gentle, open to reason, full of mercy and good fruits, without uncertainty or insincerity.” (James 3:18)

In “The Tree of Life,” St. Bonaventure describes what is needed for the kingdom of God to be perfect. Power alone is not enough. The kingdom also needs “resplendent wisdom,” so that this power is direct by “the brilliant rays of the eternal laws emanating without deception from the light of wisdom. And this wisdom is written in Christ Jesus as in the book of life.” The Son of God, says Bonaventure, is “the book of wisdom and the light that is full of living eternal principles in the mind of the supreme Craftsman.”

Nourished by the Bread of Life and guided by the Light of the World, mankind at last has an opportunity to share in a portion of the Wisdom of God, by which we can better discern the will of God in our lives. 

Wine in the Gospel of John

Gerard David, “The Marriage at Cana”

The discussion of wine in the Old Testament provides the background for the Wedding at Cana in John 2, which is rich in OT imagery made new in Christ.

The Evangelist tells us that Jesus has come to a wedding: a time of joy and celebration where wine would play a crucial role. But the wine has run out, and the celebration cannot continue. In the same way, the spirit of the Jews had been drained by the burden of excessive legalities, and there was no wine left to renew them. As Raymond Brown observes: “Mary’s statement ‘They have no wine,’ becomes a poignant reflection on the barrenness of Jewish purifications.”

Indeed, the jars used for ritual washing are empty. Has the water already been used for purification, or has the practice been neglected? The scripture does not indicate either way, but the symbolism of the dry jars points to a ritual life that is coming to an end. The time has come for God to replace the water of purification with the new wine of the messianic age.

As an interesting aside, wine is called “the blood of the grape” twice in the Old Testament (Gen. 49:11 and Deut. 32:14), suggesting the sacrificial and sacramental meaning wine shall assume after the Resurrection.

St. Augustine points to a scriptural meaning in the miracle at Cana, saying that “the good wine— namely, the gospel— Christ has kept until now.”

Most importantly for Augustine, Christ validated the Old Testament promises by insisting that the water jugs be filled. Christ was certainly capable of producing wine without the water being poured into the jugs first, but “had He done this, He would appear to have rejected the Old Scriptures.”

Rather than merely ignoring the jugs or the water, Christ integrates them into His work to show how the Old Testament is becoming the New. By filling the jugs first, Christ is saying that the old covenant was His work, but that unless it is mediated through him—as shown in his command to fill the jugs and his transformation of the water into wine—it will remain little more than the colorless, flavorless water.

Christ multiplied the food for the five thousand, producing it (in the words of Stephen B. Clark in Catholics and the Eucharist: A Scriptural Introduction) like a “fountain of bread” from where it was not, much like God’s rain of manna. But at Cana he changes the accident of the water. This water—symbolic of the rituals of the Old Testament—was once essential to the law, but is now replaced with abundant new wine; indeed, the finest wine. Christ is not rejecting the old covenant: he is incarnating it. In fulfilling the material promises of the old covenant, Christ creates a new covenant.

This wine is used to continue a marital feast, but also serves as a potent indication of the nature of this new covenant. No longer will the people need ritual washings to become pure. Instead, they become pure by drinking the “new wine.” The wine becomes a symbol of the Holy Spirit, who alone can make us pure and sanctify us. (Mt 9: 14-17, Mk 2:15-22, Luke 5:33-39). Indeed, when the Holy Spirit comes upon the Apostles on the first Pentecost, people say they are “filled with new wine.” (Acts 2: 13) The bystanders intend this has a taunt, but they have unwittingly spoken a greater truth.

Jesus was the Word from whom the old covenant flowed. In producing abundant bread and wine, he takes things from the old covenant and makes them a vehicle for new realities. His miracles indicate that he was not here to just give physical life, but also spiritual life. This was the promise of a new covenant, which ushered in the new life of the messianic age.

Thus does Christ mediate between the old and new covenants. He works with symbols that have deep and resonant meaning for the Jews. They recognize the feeding of the five thousand as an example of “bread from heaven.” Likewise, the scriptural promises of wine and its role in celebrations indicate a new outpouring of the Holy Spirit. These are the manifestations of the power of God, yet this power is wielded by a man. For this reason, they proclaim him the Christ.

Bread is needed to survive, while wine is needed to celebrate. Bread feeds the body, but wine feeds the spirit. Jesus, true God and true man, sees to both the physical and spiritual needs of the people by giving them the food of life and the drink of joy. In doing so, he shows mankind that he wants us to “have life, and have it abundantly.” This abundance transcends time and space, becoming the spiritual food of the Eucharist. That which once fed the Israelites as bread and gave joy as wine now provides us with the spiritual nourishment for eternal life.

References to “wine” in the New Testament.

Bread & Wine | Life & Abundance

The moment when the Lord comes down and transforms bread and wine to become his Body and Blood cannot fail to stun, to the very core of their being, those who participate in the Eucharist by faith and prayer. When this happens, we cannot do other than fall to our knees and greet him. The Consecration is the moment of God’s great actio in the world for us. It draws our eyes and hearts on high. For a moment the world is silent, everything is silent, and in that silence we touch the eternal—for one beat of the heart we step out of time into God’s being-with-us.

Joseph Ratzinger, The Spirit of the Liturgy

There’s something simultaneously humble and profound in the use of bread and wine to convey the presence of Christ in the world. Bread and wine were deeply important to both the ritual and physical lives of the Jews, and thus it was natural for Christ to use them as vehicles for his new covenant. In doing so, he both fulfilled and extended their role and meaning.

Themes of replacement and abundance are central to the gospel of John. Jewish institutions, rituals, and feasts are to be replaced with the person of Christ himself. In particular, wine and bread shall be provided in great abundance, in fulfillment of the messianic promises of the Old Testament.

Over the next few days, I’m going to do a bit of catechesis on bread and wine in the Old Testament, and the way it is transformed in John’s gospel.

I want to start by isolating all the passages referencing bread and wine in both the Old and New Testaments, which is an easy task to do with Verbum. Here are the results:

Bread in the Old Testament and the New Testament

Here’s the distribution of the word bread among the books of the OT and NT:

“Bread” in the Old Testament

The use of “bread” in the OT is complex, since the word (לֶחֶם lechem) could have various meanings in Semitic languages, with the root representing any staple food. Thus, “in Arabic one has laḥm, ‘meat,’ in Ethiopic laḥm, ‘cow,’ and in the South Arabic language of Soqoṭra leḥem, ‘fish.’ In Ugaritic, Phoenician, Hebrew, Aramaic, Syriac, and Mandaic lḥm referred to bread specifically and food generally.” (The Anchor Yale Bible Dictionary, ed. David Noel Freedman) The highest number of references are grouped in Exodus, Leviticus, and 1 Samuel.

“Bread” in the New Testament

In the NT, it’s a little simpler, with  ἄρτος (artos, “bread”) used pretty consistently.  As you can see, the Gospels represent the most frequent usage of “bread,” with John having the most at 20.

Wine in the Old Testament and the New Testament

“Wine” in the Old Testament

Isaiah has by far the most references to wine, and we’ll see why as we go through this catechesis. There are several Hebrew words that get translated into “wine,” but the most common יַיִן (yayin).

“Wine” in the New Testament

By contrast with references to bread, references to wine are more predominant in Revelation (again, for reasons we’ll see) than the gospels. The Greek word here is οἶνος (ŏinŏs, “wine”).

These two elements become the vector for intense meaning both in the Old Testament and the New. Even before the last supper, bread and wine were imbued with deep layers of significance for the Jews. As we’ll see in this catechesis, together they fulfill key elements of John 10:10: “I came that they may have life, and have it abundantly.”

Burial in Ancient Israel Part 7: The Burial of Christ

The Entombment of Christ (Caravaggio)

This post concludes a series about graves and tombs in the ancient Levant, from the Paleolithic Period until the time of Christ. The entire series can be found here.

This 100,000 year history of human burial converges on a single point and a single day: a Friday in Jerusalem around the year 30 AD. Jesus of Nazareth dies on the cross, and his body is taken down at the request of a wealthy man from Arimathea named Joseph. The sun is setting and the sabbath is about to begin, when no burial will be allowed. Joseph must get the body of Jesus in a tomb or it will not be properly buried within 24 hours after death, as required by Jewish law.

Since there was no time to prepare a grave, Joseph had the body laid in a rock-cut tomb which he had commissioned for his own family, but had not used. We know this is the case because Matthew tells us it was a “new” tomb. It’s rather extraordinary that a man would lay a non-family member in a new tomb made for his family, and explains the reverence we still have for Joseph. (Tradition holds that the Church of the Holy Sepulchre is on the location of the tomb, but the church was leveled by Muslims in the 11th century, so very little of the original site remains.)

The specification of a “new” tomb would have said something different to the reader of Jesus’s time than it may to us. We consider “new” to be wonderful thing. But, as we’ve seen throughout these posts, being “gathered to your ancestors” was very important for the Jews. People were laid amidst their loved ones and relatives. There was a sense of connection to that which came before.

This was denied to Jesus. The tomb he was in was the tomb of a relative stranger. It had never been used, and thus there were no other remains to be “gathered to.” There were no grave goods with him: just a single winding sheet. He was unwashed, unannointed. This would have struck Jews of the time as a remarkably sad way to be laid to rest. He was alone in a strange place disconnected from his people: it’s a very forlorn image of despair even in death.

If Jesus had not been raised, perhaps he would have been moved to simple trench-cut tomb after the women finished cleaning and anointing his body. Or perhaps he would have laid on a bench in that rock cut tomb until a new member of Joseph’s family died. At the point, the stone would have been rolled away and another body interred. At some later date, after the flesh had decayed, his bones would have probably been gathered into an ossuary to make room for another body.

Layout of a typical burial chamber

But something else happened. The women were unable to perform their ablutions on the man they called Lord. Of all the burials and customs we’ve seen and discussed, from es-Skhul to the ossuary of Caiaphas, this one ended like no other.

Humans had lost, and grieved, and buried their dead with honor and respect for almost 100,000 years, with no hope of a life beyond the grave. The man Joseph laid in that new tomb would be the first born among all the dead.

Death itself was, finally, conquered.



Magness, Jodi. The Archaeology of the Holy Land )Cambridge: Cambridge University Press, 2012).

Magness, Jodi. The Archaeology of Qumran and the Dead Sea Scrolls (Grand Rapids: Eerdmans, 2003).

Negev, Avraham, Ed. The Archaeological Encyclopedia of the Holy Land, 3rd Edition (New York: Prentice Hall Press, 1990).

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Burial in Ancient Israel Part 6: Ossuaries

This is an ongoing series about graves and tombs in the ancient Levant, from the Paleolithic Period until the time of Christ. The entire series can be found here.


Since rock-cut tombs were reused over many generations, an issue arose: what to do with the bones? Two approaches have been found.

There is evidence that, for many years, bones were placed in shallow depression underneath the beneath the bench where the bodies had been laid out. Grave goods were swept into the same depression, creating a jumble of bones beneath the bench.

Over time, this practice grew less common and the use of ossuaries becomes more prominent. Ossuaries make their first appearance in Jerusalem’s rock-cut tombs during the reign of Herod, with the earliest dating to approximately 20 BC. Unlike earlier clay ossuaries found elsewhere in the Levant, these are carved from local stone, almost always in a casket design. They’re rarely larger than 2 feet long, and, in the case of children, quite a bit smaller.

Capped with curved, gabled, or flat lids and sometimes carved with a design, they exhibit a Roman style in keeping with the influences of the Herodian period. When names appear on ossuaries, they often seem to have been carved by a different hand than the decorative design, perhaps by a family member scratching a name in Aramaic, Hebrew, or Greek after transferring the bones in the tombs.

Notable Ossuaries

Association: Caiaphas, high priest who presided over the trial of Jesus
Verdict: Genuine

In 1990, a tomb was found southwest of the Old City, Jerusalem. Inside this rather small tomb was a well-decorated ossuary with an evocative name carved into the side: “Joseph son of Caiaphas.” Based on date, location, and name, archaeologists immediately knew it could be none other than the tomb of the man who served as high priest from 18-36 AD: the man responsible for the death of Christ.

Please note: yes, it looks like the inscription was rather poorly and hastily scratched into an otherwise beautiful box. This was quite common (as noted above), since a family member usually transferred the bones in the tomb and scratched the name himself, in cramped, dimly lit conditions.

Association: The “family” of Jesus
Verdict: A rather lame and obvious hoax. (Please note: the inscriptions and artifacts are genuine. It’s the association with Jesus of Nazareth that is false.)

Filmmakers James Cameron and Simcha Jacobovici, along with religious studies professor James Tabor, attempted to make the case that ossuaries discovered in the “Patio Tomb” in Talpiot in 1980 were actually from the family grave of Jesus, complete with wild and unfounded speculation that they proved Jesus was married to Mary Magdalene and had a son named Judah. The claim was widely ridiculed, with archaeologist Jodi Magness saying that it “flies in the face of all available evidence.”

Given that Jesus had a poor family, was not from Jerusalem (his tomb would have been in Nazareth), was not married, did not have a child, was laid in a borrowed tomb (thus proving he did not have a family tomb), and that the names on the ossuaries (Jesus, Mary, Joseph) were quite common at the time, the entire claim was an absurd tissue of lies created to generate headlines, booksales, and viewers for a Cameron-produced documentary. When I saw the artifacts in the United States, the exhibit didn’t even mention the ridiculous claims, and no one except the original promoters believe it was anything but a hoax.

James Charlesworth offers a summary of a symposium during which the hoax was addressed, and the weasley methods of the people promoting it. The consensus: not even close. His verdict on the grandstanding techniques of those involved and the media they duped is withering. (Please note: Charlesworth is not a marginal figure: he’s pretty much the dean of deuterocanonical and pseudepigrapha study.)

Association: St. James, leader of the Church in Jerusalem
Verdict: Undetermined. Almost certainly not the ossuary of St. James (who was inhumated).  The box is genuine.  The inscription may or may not be forged. (My opinion, FWIW: forged.)

The so-called James ossuary did not provide the tidy closure of the debunked Talpiot claims. The name on this ossuary–James son of Joseph brother of Jesus–ignited a firestorm of debate that resulted in claims of forgery and a highly publicized trial in Israel. The connection to St. James, leader of the church in Jerusalem and one of the major figures in the early church, made the find important, if true. The trial, however, was unable to prove that the inscription was a forgery, and the issue remains up for debate.

The Meaning of Ossuaries
The question naturally arises: what led to the sudden appearance of ossuaries in stone-cute tombs in Jerusalem around the Herodian period? One answer may have to do with a shift in theology. A theory has been proposed by archaeologist Levi Yitzhak Rahmani that ties the sudden appearance of the ossuaries to a new belief among Jews in the 1st century BC: belief in the resurrection of the dead. Although the Sadducees rejected the idea of a literal resurrection of the physical body, it was strongly held by the Pharisees, and was eventually accepted by Christianity and Rabbinic Judaism.

Rahmani believes that the practice of intermingling bones ends with the spread of this belief, with the shift to ossuaries driven by a need to keep body parts together and as undamaged as possible, ready for the resurrection. Furthermore, the decay of flesh emphasizes the Pharisaical association of flesh with sin, with sin being devoured along with the decomposing flesh.

It’s an appealing theory, offering a neat solution to an unanswered question, but it has problems. First, ossuaries often contain bones from multiple bodies, and often those are missing certain pieces. Second, many of the ossuaries were found in the richest tombs and areas, and those belonged to the Sadducees, not the Pharisees.

Ossuary from “Patio” (Tapliot) tomb, with remains

More likely, the appearance of ossuaries at this place and this time is simply a reflection of the Roman influence upon the upper classes, encouraged by the Herodians The ossuaries suddenly disappear with the destruction of Jerusalem in 70 AD, further suggesting ties to a Roman influence. It may also be tied to a sudden sense of individuality inspired by Greek thought. As we’ve seen, an extreme diversity of burial customs has characterized the region, so it’s not unusual to find new practices developing suddenly and fading from popularity just as suddenly.

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Burial in Ancient Israel Part 5: Rock Cut Tombs

This is an ongoing series about graves and tombs in the ancient Levant, from the Paleolithic Period until the time of Christ. The entire series can be found here.

During the Late First Temple Period (8th to 6th century BC), we begin to see the creation of multichamber rock-cut tombs. Reached by rock-cut stairs leading to an unadorned opening, these tombs were carved into the living stone, with a central space opening into subchambers. Each subchamber was lined–often on all three sides–by low benches. Over time, narrower loculi (fit for a single body) also began to appear.

The dead were wrapped in a shroud (and, on occasion, placed in a coffin) and then placed on these benches. Bodies may well have been treated with oil, herbs, resins, and other methods, many of them adapted from Israel’s extensive experience of foreign cultures. As the tombs were used and reused by families over many generations, bones would be removed to make way for new bodies. (We will address what happened to them in the next post.) Thus, we have a practical connection the Biblical phrase. “And all that generation also were gathered to their fathers” (Judges 2:10 and elsewhere). People were, quite literally, gathered to their fathers.

Because cutting a tomb of this type was extremely expensive, they were only used by wealthy Jews. That’s why they were reused for many, many generations. Tombs were almost always located outside the walls of the city, unlike some earlier burials which were inside the city and even the home.

Foreign influences began to creep into the designs of these tombs, with carved headrests on the benches and various architectural details betraying the Phoenician, Egyptian, Greek, and Roman influences over time. We may speculate that this shows the tendencies of the upper classes to adapt to foreign influences: a complaint also reflected in the scripture.

After the Babylonian Captivity (c. 586 BC), these tombs vanish for a time, along with the people who built them, and do not reappear until the Hasmonean Dynasty (late 2nd century BC). In the intervening period, Mausolus built his famous tomb at Halicarnassus (c. 353 BC), this giving us a Wonder of the World, a new word (mausoleum) and a new style of tomb: a grand edifice on a raised platform with columns and a pyramid roof.

The upper class Jews began to the imitate this form, and there is a description of a tomb (subsequently destroyed) in 1 Maccabees 13:27-30:

27 And Simon built a monument over the tomb of his father and his brothers; he made it high that it might be seen, with polished stone at the front and back. 28 He also erected seven pyramids, opposite one another, for his father and mother and four brothers. 29 And for the pyramids he devised an elaborate setting, erecting about them great columns, and upon the columns he put suits of armor for a permanent memorial, and beside the suits of armor carved ships, so that they could be seen by all who sail the sea. 30 This is the tomb which he built in Modein; it remains to this day.

Josephus also describes the tomb of Simon in Antiquities of the Jews (13:210-11).

Other tombs follow a similar design: Jason’s Tomb, the Tomb of Absalom, and Zechariah’s Tomb all use the platform/column/pyramid form inspire by the tomb Halicarnassus.

Tomb of Absalom (interior)

These tombs, of course, raise as many questions about burial as they answer, because they only reflect the practices of a small, elite group. What about the common people and the poor? They have, unfortunately, left very little mark on the archaeological record because they used burial techniques that do not leave many obvious signs. Most likely, they simply buried their dead in trench or pit graves, perhaps using older structures or adapting some of the techniques already discussed.

We know from the Gospels that Judas was buried in a “Potter’s Field” (so named because the site was used as a source of clay by potters), so by the first century simple inhumations in earth were common, and we have no reason to think this had not been the case for the lower classes for most of First and Second Temple Periods. Excavation at Qumran, which features a large cemetery filled with simple trench or pit graves, suggests the practice was widespread.
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