Monthly Archives: January 2012

Zacharias asked for a writing tablet

When John was born, the neighbors and relatives thought they would call the child “Zacharias, after his father.” His mother, Elizabeth, said that he should be called John. The guests made signs to the mute Zacharias to have him say what he wanted the child called. Luke says,

He asked for a writing tablet and wrote, “His name is John.” And they were all amazed.  (Luke 1:63 NET)

The Greek word Luke used for tablet is pinakidion. It is used only here in the New Testament. BDAG Lexicon says the term is used of a “little (wooden) tablet esp. of a writing-tablet for notes.”  Louw-Nida says the word describes “a small writing tablet (normally made of wood).” The Study Note in the NET Bible points out that “The writing tablet requested by Zechariah [Zacharias] would have been a wax tablet.”

Four leaves of a wooden writing tablet. Roman period from Hawara, Egypt. British Museum.

Wooden writing tablet (Roman period from Egypt). British Museum. Photo by F. Jenkins.

Ralph Earle comments on the tablet:

It was a wax-coated, small, wooden “writing tablet” (NIV)—something quite different from a “writing table” (KJV). — Word Meanings in the New Testament.

A little insight into the culture of the time makes the Bible come alive.

Origen, c. 185–c. 254, comments on this verse in his Commentary on Matthew Bk. XIII.

Earliest evidence of a New Testament verse in stone

In two previous posts we have mentioned the so-called Tomb of Absalom in the Kidron Valley here and here. We noted that the horizontal inscription on the south side of the monument reads,

This is the tomb of Zacharias, martyr, very pious priest, father of John.

We know from Luke 1 that Zacharias was a priest and the father of John (the Baptist). Whether the monument was actually used as the tomb of Zacharias is a matter of conjecture, but the inscription does show what the common belief in the 4th century A.D. about Zacharias and John.

We noted that there are two inscriptions on the Absalom monument. The horizontal inscription is the one mentioned above. The vertical inscription is the one we wish to mention in this post. (In fact, there is a third inscription consisting of a cross and the words “The nephesh.”)

The long vertical inscription consists of the five lines in Greek. Puech translates them as follows,

The tomb of Simeon who was
a very just man
and a very devout el(der)
and (who was) waiting for
the consolation of
the people.

After considerable study, the scholars thought it was clear “that the scribe had engraved the main part of a verse from a gospel, Luke 2:25.” The drawing below shows the six lines of the inscription and the same in modern Greek. Click on the image for a larger, clearer one.

Inscription on south side of Absalom Monument.

Inscription on south side of Absalom Monument.

Luke 2:25 is part of the account of the presentation of Jesus in the Temple by Mary. Verse 25 reads,

And there was a man in Jerusalem whose name was Simeon; and this man was righteous and devout, looking for the consolation of Israel; and the Holy Spirit was upon him. (Luke:25 NAU)

The word Israel is changed in the inscription to read people.

Puech and Zias comment about the use of Luke 2:25 in the stone inscription.

So, the inscriptions on the tomb bear witness to the written traditions from the Byzantine period as well as those of the early church fathers. Moreover, the inscription from the Gospel of Luke is identical to that found in the Codex Sinaiticus, dated to the second quarter of the fourth century, prior to a correction according to the text of the Codex Vaticanus (εὐσεβὴς prima manu instead of εὐλαβὴς) around the middle of the sixth century, thus showing that the local Palestinian text was widely accepted as authoritative by the early church of Palestine….

Thus this inscription is the earliest evidence for a New Testament verse engraved in stone, and it fits Palestinian tradition (Puech and Zias 2004: 572).

Most of my information comes from Near Eastern Archaeology, Dec. 2005.

The photo below shows the Kidron Valley. The Mount of Olives is visible in the upper right of the photo. The tomb of Absalom is visible in the lower right. The view is to the northeast. The low hill with buildings in the distant left is Mount Scopus.

View of Kidron Valley from SE corner of Temple Mount. Photo by Ferrell Jenkins.

View of Kidron Valley from SE corner of Temple Mount. Photo by Ferrell Jenkins.

One never knows where the next significant discovery will be made.

Another free Ebook — this one on James

Another of Gundry’s individual commentaries from his Commentary on the New Testament is free today for the Kindle and other compatible digital devices. Today only, I think.

This week it is the book of James. Follow this link to Amazon. Don’t imagine that you are getting a $49.99 book free. That is the price of the Commentary on the New Testament. James is only about 17 2-column pages of that book.

I think this may be the last of the free books from Baker Academic at this time. Several publishers seem to be following this model in order to get readers attracted to their publications — always in hope that you will buy other volumes.

Let the Lower Lights be Burning

Lighthouse at Cozumel, Mexico. Photo by Ferrell Jenkins.

Lighthouse at Cozumel, Mexico. Photo by Ferrell Jenkins.

One of the great gospel songs that I remember from my childhood is Let the Lower Lights Be Burning (or Brightly Beams our Father’s Mercy). I understood the song even before I saw a lighthouse.

The song was written by a talented young musician names Philip P. Bliss in 1871. Osbeck tells the story of the writing of the hymn. Bliss was traveling with Dwight L. Moody and was impressed by an illustration about a violent storm on Lake Erie that was often used by Moody.

On a dark, stormy night, when the waves rolled like mountains and not a star was to be seen, a boat, rocking and plunging, neared the Cleveland harbor. “Are you sure this is Cleveland?” asked the Captain, seeing only light from the lighthouse.
“Quite sure, sir,” replied the pilot.
“Where are the lower lights?”
“Gone out, sir!”
“Can you make the harbor?”
“We must, or perish, sir.”

With a strong hand and a brave heart, the old pilot turned the wheel, But alas, in the darkness he missed the channel, and, with a crash upon the rocks, the boat was slivered and many a life lost in a watery grave.

“Brethren,” concluded Mr. Moody, “the Master will take care of the great lighthouse. Let us keep the lower lights burning.”

Osbeck, K. W. (1985). 101 more hymn stories (175). Grand Rapids, Mich.: Kregel Publications.

Here are the words of the hymn.

Brightly beams our Father’s mercy from His lighthouse evermore,
But to us He gives the keeping of the lights along the shore.
Let the lower lights be burning! Send a gleam across the wave!
For to us He gives the keeping of the lights along the shore.
[or Some poor struggling, sinking sailor you may rescue, you may save.]

Dark the night of sin has settled, loud the angry billows roar;
Eager eyes are watching, longing, for the lights, along the shore.
Let the lower lights be burning! Send a gleam across the wave!
Eager eyes are watching, longing, for the lights, along the shore.

Trim your feeble lamp, my brother, some poor sailor tempest tossed,
Trying now to make the harbor, in the darkness may be lost.
Let the lower lights be burning! Send a gleam across the wave!
Trying now to make the harbor, some poor sailor may be lost.

I located the lyrics to this old hymn at hymnlyrics.org.

The next photo is of the lighthouse at the Crusader city of Akko on the Mediterranean. Akko (Acre) was known as Ptolemais in New Testament times. The Apostle Paul stopped at the city on the return from his third preaching journey (Acts 21:7).

The Akko Crusader lighthouse. Photo by Ferrell Jenkins.

The Akko Crusader City lighthouse. Photo by Ferrell Jenkins.

Utilizing the power of some of the photo tools I use, I thought about what this lighthouse might look like if the lights did not burn at night. Add a heavy fog and it would be impossible for the captain (pilot) of the ship to see it, let alone the “lights along the shore.”

Akko Crusader lighthouse as it might appear at night. Photo by Ferrell Jenkins.

Akko Crusader City lighthouse as it might appear at night. Photo by Ferrell Jenkins.

Two great New Testament texts come to mind:

“Let your light shine before men in such a way that they may see your good works, and glorify your Father who is in heaven. (Jesus; Matthew 5:16 NAU)

… so that you will prove yourselves to be blameless and innocent, children of God above reproach in the midst of a crooked and perverse generation, among whom you appear as lights in the world, (Apostle Paul; Philippians 2:15 NAU)

Thinking that some readers might like to use this illustration in a lesson, I have provided hi-res images. Just click on the images above.

Absalom’s Pillar and the Tomb of Zacharias, father of John

Yesterday we wrote about the mistaken identification of a first century B.C. tomb in the Kidron Valley as the monument Absalom built for himself (2 Samuel 18:18).

About 12 years ago an art history student at Hebrew University turned in a paper to Joe Zias which included an old photo of an inscription on the south side of the Pillar of Absalom. The inscription is difficult to see because the monument is cut from the natural rock. After many late afternoon visits to the site in 2002, waiting for the sun to be in the right spot to highlight the inscription, Zias finally saw it. Afterwards, efforts were made to photograph it.

South side of the Pillar of Absalom. Photo by Ferrell Jenkins.

South side of the Pillar of Absalom. Photo by Ferrell Jenkins.

Zacharias and Simeon inscriptions on the Absalom Pillar.

Zacharias & Simeon inscriptions on the Absalom Pillar.

There are two inscriptions on the south side of the monument. This little drawing, made available  shortly after the announcement, shows a horizontal inscription and a vertical one. The horizontal inscription is the one pertaining to Zacharias and John. In my photo you only see a small portion of the area where the Zacharias inscription is located.

Due to a number of circumstances it was thought best to make a cast of the inscription so it could be studied in the lab. Numerous scholars from various fields of study were called in to assist and give advice. This photo shows Joe Zias, a physical anthropologist, with the cast.

Joe Zias with cast of Zacharias inscription from Absalom Monument.

Joe Zias with cast of Zacharias inscription from Absalom Monument.

The inscription is written in Byzantine Greek of the fourth century A.D. Zias teamed up with Fr. Émile Puech, a professor at the École Biblique in Jerusalem, to read the inscriptions. The horizontal inscription reads,

This is the tomb of Zacharias, martyr, very pious priest, father of John.

Luke records the naming of John by Zacharias this way:

And it happened that on the eighth day they came to circumcise the child, and they were going to call him Zacharias, after his father. 60 But his mother answered and said, “No indeed; but he shall be called John.” 61 And they said to her, “There is no one among your relatives who is called by that name.” 62 And they made signs to his father, as to what he wanted him called.  63 And he asked for a tablet and wrote as follows, “His name is John.” And they were all astonished.  64 And at once his mouth was opened and his tongue loosed, and he began to speak in praise of God.  (Luke 1:59-64 NAU)

I had the opportunity to hear Joe Zias and Émile Puech make their presentation about this discovery at the annual meeting of the Society of Biblical Literature in 2003. The discovery was published in Revue Biblique, July 2003.

Could this be the priest Zacharias (also spelled Zechariah in some English versions) the father of John the Baptist? We may think that it does, but it might be best to agree with Jerome Murphy-O’Connor who says that this inscription only reflects a tradition from the 4th century A.D.

Such Byzantine identifications reflect the piety of the period and have no historical value.

Another scholarly article appeared in Near Eastern Archaeology, Dec. 2005. It includes photos showing how these scholars were able to make the cast. One of the best popular articles I saved was published in The Christian Science Monitor. I see that it is no longer available online. If you have additional interest you might take a look at the Associated Press article here.

The vertical inscription may be even more significant. Perhaps I can get to that in a future post.

Men who honor themselves. Exhibit one: Absalom

Both Old Testament and New Testament provide illustrations of men who honor themselves, and the folly of doing so. The elder John wrote of a man named Diotrephes “who loves to be first” among his brethren (3 John 1:9).

In the Old Testament no case is more prominent than that of Absalom the rebellious son of David.

Now Absalom in his lifetime had taken and set up for himself a pillar which is in the King’s Valley, for he said, “I have no son to preserve my name.” So he named the pillar after his own name, and it is called Absalom’s Monument to this day. (2 Samuel 18:18 NAU)

In earlier times it was common for pilgrims to the Holy Land to be told that this or that structure belonged to a certain Biblical character or event.  I will show you one such example.

The photo below was made in the Kidron Valley with a view to the south. On the right you see the eastern wall of the Old City of Jerusalem. On the left of the photo, where the valley becomes narrow, you can see the top of the monument called Absalom’s Pillar. An image suitable for presentations is available here. This photo would look good in PowerPoint. There is room on the upper left side sky to include appropriate scriptures.

Kidron Valley View South. Absalom's Pillar on left. Wall of Jerusalem on right. Photo by Ferrell Jenkins.

Kidron Valley view to the south. Photo by Ferrell Jenkins.

In AD 1170 Benjamin of Tudela associated this monumentsin the Kidron Valley with the monument of Absalom. The monument actually belongs to the early first century B.C., and not to the time of Absalom. It is a funerary monument in front of an eight-chambered tomb.

A closeup view of the monument may be seen in the following photo.

Absalom's Pillar. Photo by Ferrell Jenkins.

Absalom's Pillar. Photo by Ferrell Jenkins.

Soon I plan to explain what this monument might have to do with Zacharias, the father of John the Baptist.

En Karem (Ain Karim) — traditional home of John the Baptist

Tradition has it that John the Baptist was born in En Karem (or Ain Karim) in the hill country of Judea. According to Shimon Gibson, the earliest document linking John to En Karem is a legendary account dated to A.D. 385-395 (The Cave of John the Baptist, 30). In that account En Karem is said to be “in the mountain” and with a “spring of water” (31). From the sixth to the eighth centuries the traditions multiply.

En Karem is about 5 miles west of Jerusalem. This photo shows a general view of the hill country of Judea. En Karem is in the valley below.

The vicinity of En Karem in the hill country of Judea. Photo by Ferrell Jenkins.

The vicinity of En Karem in the hill country of Judea. Photo by Ferrell Jenkins.

Luke provides the account of the announcement of the birth of John, Mary’s visit to Elizabeth the mother of John, and the birth of John (Luke 1). It is interesting that Luke prefaces the announcement of the birth to Zacharias by saying that it was “in the days of Herod, king of Judea” (Luke 1:5).

No specific town is mentioned, but Luke says that Mary visited Elizabeth in the hill country of Judah.

Now at this time Mary arose and went in a hurry to the hill country, to a city of Judah, and entered the house of Zacharias and greeted Elizabeth. (Luk 1:39-40 NAU)

The biblical text says that after the birth of John,

Fear came on all those living around them; and all these matters were being talked about in all the hill country of Judea. (Luke 1:65 NAU)

In the next view we see several churches. The one right of center with the single tower is known as the Church of St. John the Baptist. A church was built at this site as early as the 5th century A.D.

Several churches are visible in this view of En Karem. Photo by Ferrell Jenkins.

Several churches are visible in this view of En Karem. Photo by Ferrell Jenkins.