Yohanan b. Zakkai and the Galilee Persecution

Yohanan b. Zakkai is almost certainly the law enforcement officer involved in the Galilee Episode.

Six years ago I posted about Rabbi Yohanan. You can read that post by clicking https://wp.me/p1biq8-5z2.

Since then I have refined my thesis regarding Ribaz. I now refrain from talking much about a “Q Community” or about an anti-gay “campaign”. Allow me to explain why.

First, I don’t discuss evidence of a Q Community. There probably was something that could legitimately be called a “Q Community”, but that discussion is not my immediate concern.

I also don’t argue that Ribaz waged an anti-gay campaign. He may have waged such a purity campaign, but I only argue the evidence of a single legal case, the case referred to in Luke 17:34-35.

The title of the 2014 post, “A famous rabbi destroys the lesbian and gay Q community”, is only completely inaccurate on one point.

The gays and lesbians among Jesus’ fans were not completely destroyed. The sexually nonconforming gentiles were not seized and executed. Only the Jewish transgressors were subject to Torah, and Philip the Tetrarch recognized the authority of Ribaz to deal with them according to local law.

Frankly, I knew that I would eventually be discussing antisemitism at some point. Whenever you discuss data about which a group has a proprietary sense, you run the risk of being seen as an outsider or intruder.

Fundamentalist Christians sometimes feel proprietary about the Bible. Hence the title, Rescuing the Bible from Fundamentalism. Perhaps you’ve heard someone say, “You can’t understand this. Spiritual truth is spiritually discerned. When you’re born again, then you can understand.”

One more general principle. The first time we hear an idea that’s new to us, our spontaneous reaction is to say no to it. When you are presenting s new concept (or product) to someone, expect the first response to be “no” and don’t be upset.

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Human Government in the Five-Fold Replacement of Torah

Paul mentions five sources of guidance that replace the Law. One of them is Love itself. The five sources of guidance are 1) the Spirit, 2) love, 3) human conscience, 4) human government, and 5) scripture. The one he discusses the least in Romans as a source of guidance is scripture. His most controversial substitute for the Law seems to be human government.

Paul coaches us on our attitude to human government in Romans 13:1-7. My modest comments undoubtedly only duplicate what others have written.

Remember that, prior to his name change, Paul was known as Saul of Tarsus. Tarsus was a major city in present-day Turkey, and in the first century was home to stoic philosophers like Athenodorus, Zeno, Antipater, and Nestor, and was a center of gnostic teaching as well.

Saul’s congregation was composed of Diaspora Jews.As I was reading Romans 13:1-7 I realized that Paul probably developed this idea with his Jewish synagogue.  It is not difficult to imagine Jews young and old chafing at laws imposed on them by the magistrates. And who doesn’t resent taxes?  I can hear them now, “The Lord is our God. Why do we have to pay taxes to these uncircumcised dogs? The Lord is our God. When will God deliver us from the hands of this Pharoah?”

And what I also hear is Saul’s reply, consisting of Romans 13:1-7 (NIV).

Let everyone be subject to the governing authorities, for there is no authority except that which God has established. The authorities that exist have been established by God.  Consequently, whoever rebels against the authority is rebelling against what God has instituted, and those who do so will bring judgment on themselves.  For rulers hold no terror for those who do right, but for those who do wrong. Do you want to be free from fear of the one in authority? Then do what is right and you will be commended.  For the one in authority is God’s servant for your good. But if you do wrong, be afraid, for rulers do not bear the sword for no reason. They are God’s servants, agents of wrath to bring punishment on the wrongdoer.  Therefore, it is necessary to submit to the authorities, not only because of possible punishment but also as a matter of conscience.

This is also why you pay taxes, for the authorities are God’s servants, who give their full time to governing.  Give to everyone what you owe them: If you owe taxes, pay taxes; if revenue, then revenue; if respect, then respect; if honor, then honor.

There is nothing especially Christian about the Romans 13 passage. There is no mention of mysteries or revelations or Christ as such.  It could easily have been taught to Jews in Tarsus who objected to paying taxes for building monuments to the gods.

I believe that Saul found himself outside of Palestine, in a context where the Jews were no longer responsible to enforce civil laws like prohibitions against moving boundary markers (Deuteronomy 19:14; 27:17) or dealing with accidental loss of life (Exodus 21:13, 22; Numbers 35:6, 11, 15). Such cases were addressed in the imperial Tarsus courts, and Saul knew that it was in the best interest of his congregation that, so to speak, “when in Rome, do as the Romans do.”

The apostle Paul is actually an early precursor of the separation of church and state, except that he yielded the authority of his religion’s own sacred book and urged submission to the laws of the state, whether or not the state acknowledged the God of Abraham, Isaac, and Jacob.  

Romans 13 takes the responsibility for meting out punishment for civil offenses and gives it to the state, whether the state is godly or not, whether it adheres to your religion or not. 

Paul’s Five Replacements for the Law’s Guidance

Human government is not the single reliable source of guidance for us. I mention it alongside four other sources. There are five things that replace our reliance on the Law for guidance: 1) the Spirit, 2) love, 3) conscience, 4) government, and 5) scripture.

The question arises, “How can you say human government is a replacement when it was created because of man’s rejection of God?”  

Human government does not completely replace the Torah by itself. It replaces one part of the Torah, those passages which address civil order.

In a world populated with only kind and ethical primates we would not need human government–everyone would act in love toward one another. Unfortunately, we do not live in that ideal world, and primates with the strong drive to protect others, and have the political will to devise the rules by which we referee the game–these people will protect the victims of the strong and write the rules by which we are protected from rule breakers.

Paul’s Eleven-Fold Cancellation of the Law

You might consider reading aloud the phrases and sentences in bold italic text. 

  1. Galatians 3:10— All who rely on observing the law are under a curse, for it is written: “Cursed is everyone who does not continue to do everything written in the Book of the Law.”
  2. Galatians 3:13—Christ redeemed us from the curse of the law by becoming a curse for us,
  3. Galatians 3:25—Now that faith has come, we are no longer under the supervision of the law.
  4. Galatians 5:1—It is for freedom that Christ has set us free. Stand firm, then, and do not let yourselves be burdened again by a yoke of slavery.
  5. Galatians 5:18—But if you are led by the Spirit, you are not under law.
  6. Romans 2:12—All who sin apart from the law will also perish apart from the law, and all who sin under the law will be judged by the law.
  7. Romans 4:15—The law brings wrath. And where there is no law there is no transgression.
  8. Romans 5: 13—Before the law was given, sin was in the world. But sin is not taken into account when there is no law.
  9. Romans 6:14—Sin shall not be your master, because you are not under law, but under grace.
  10. Romans 7:8b—Apart from law, sin is dead.
  11. Colossians 2:13b-14—He forgave us all our sins, having canceled the written code,with its regulations, that was against us and that stood opposed to us; he took it away, nailing it to the cross. 
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Bethsaida: Q and John

I mentioned yesterday how the first chapter of John (the last canonical gospel to be written) gives a detailed version of an early episode in the Jesus story set in Bethsaida. The featured characters are Peter, Andrew and–oddly enough–Philip.

We also have a Bethsaida story of sorts, but this one is from the much earlier Q Source, the sayings gospel used by both the “Team Luke” scribes and the scribes of ‘Team Matthew”. This early Bethsaida story has Jesus condemning the cities of Bethsaida and Chorazin for their failure to repent in response to miracles.

What we have then is an early gospel source containing a strenuous denunciation of Bethsaida but lacking a narrative, and a much later gospel containing a detailed narrative but lacking the rejection contained in the Q Source. (John 1:44 and Luke 10:12-13).

It is significant that no narrative of the Q Source’s miracles, unrepentence and rejection is recorded in John, despite the presence of so many  “eye witness” characters in the Bethsaida narrative in John 1.

It is also significant that the Q Source’s Bethsaida outline of 1) miracles, 2) rejection, and 3) denunciation is very familiar in the canonical Gospels.

I believe the earlier Q account is closer to the events in time and more historically literal than the Johannine account, which was written many decades later. But that difference does not require me to “reject the Bible”.

(Note: A document’s historical value is not the same as it’s homiletic value or some other specific value. All scripture remains inspired, and remains valuable for a variety of end users.)

From the evidence, I concluded that the rejection and hostility in Luke 10:12-13 is truer to historical events than John 1.

The next question then is why the difference? I will draw out what seem like logical conclusions.

◼️ The later Johannine scribes did not want to speculate on or look into the Bethsaida rejection and denunciation episode.


◼️The Johannine scribes DID understand what the Bethsaida episode was about, and repurposed that episode’s dramatic template in the more universally applicable Passion Narrative.

◼️ For some reason the Johannine scribes judged the Q Source’s Bethsaida episode to be too controversial, inexpedient,  counterproductive, unedifying, irrelevant or puzzling to develop straightforwardly.

◼️ Johannine scribes did not, however, ignore 1) the significance of Bethsaida as the place where the disturbance began, 2) the presence of numerous men who had a relationship with Jesus, and 3) the name Philip.

◼️In canonical John the Johannine authorship left the door open for other information about Jesus to emerge.

“Jesus did many other things as well. If every one of them were written down, I suppose that even the whole world would not have room for the books that would be written.”

Whether it’s a literal courtroom or the courtroom of history, it is often possible to develop a relatively accurate account of events from conflicting and inconsistent sources.

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Anti-Gay Persecution in the Bible

There is evidence of homophobic persecution recorded in a gospel, two deaths occurred, but the evidence is complex.

It’s like discovering a grave site in some woods in Poland and having to figure out what happened to the victims, when and why. Instead of digging in the ground, you have to dig through old documents.

If you’re looking for a polished little parable or miracle story, with a tidy beginning, middle, and pithy maxim at the end, this isn’t that kind of thing.

This is about the triàl of two gay and lesbian couples. This is about how two people were executed. The really long version explains that some early Christian scribes didn’t want to explain why Jesus was talking about gays and lesbians.

For background, the city of Bethsaida was on the north end of the Sea of Galilee. A number of Jesus stories are set in Bethsaida by the gospel writers. One such story is about three Jesus followers named Peter, Andrew and Philip (John 1:44). There is also a famous denunciation of Bethsaida and Chorazin for not repenting (Luke 10:12-13).

In 30 CE there was a major status change for Bethsaida. After perhaps ten years of improving the city’s infrastructure (harbor, fortifications, housing), the town’s legal status was elevated to Imperial Polis. Among other legal and jurisdictional changes, after 30 CE anyone born in Bethsaida would automatically be a Roman citizen.

Far from being a little fishing village in sleepy Galilee, Bethsaida was at a breakthrough moment economically and politically. Palestinians who wanted the advantages of Roman citizenship for their as-yet-unborn children could migrate to Bethsaida, settle, and have their kids.

This elevation in the Palestinian city’s status increased the regional influence of Rome, and decreased the prestige and influence of local tribes and peoples. The entity most affected was the Jerusalem temple-state.

The Jewish temple-state was already feeling the cultural and political squeeze of Tiberius and Sepphoris. Adding a new urban center to the mix was yet another political challenge to Jerusalem’s hegemony in its historical backyard.

To meet this political challenge proactively, the Jerusalem temple-state would explore its options. One particular temple-state representative, Pharisee Yohanan b. Zakkai, initiated a legal action to, as it were, stay in the game in the political and legal life of Bethsaida.

Jewish leaders used to call homosexuality “the sin of the gentiles”. Through this legal prosecution they could also discourage same-sex activity among Diaspora Jews by making the gentile sexual partners subject to the same arrest and execution as the Jewish partner.

The creation of this Roman polis was a strategic empire-wide opportunity for the Pharisees. If Yohanan b. Zakkai’s legal gambit worked, he would have achieved a precedent that Jewish officials could use in any Diaspora community in the Empire. 

If R. Yohanan were able to impose the authority of Torah over non-Jews in a single imperial jurisdiction, he would also be giving to his colleagues abroad an emotional tool to persuade gay and lesbian Jews to not find sexual partners among gentiles. If someone did, and the couple was not entirely discrete, a loved gentile partner could potentially face execution under Jewish law, as far away as Alexandria, Tarsus or Rome.

A test case was prepared, possibly timed to coincide with the effective date of Bethsaida’s elevation to imperial polis. Two mixed-ethnicity same-sex couples were arrested in Bethsaida, or possibly in Bethsaida and nearby Chorazin (see Luke 10:12-13). The couples could have been selected because of their visibility, influence or notariety.

But whether or not the couples resided in both cities or were targeted for arrest for reasons other than simply being sexual transgressors is not critical to this scenario.

Two mixed-ethnicity same-sex couples were arrested for trial. Since the Jews were not authorized to execute people charged with capital crimes, the case was prosecuted by the Pharisee Yohanan b. Zakkai.

(Decades later Rabbi Yohanan appears as second in command during the Siege of Jerusalem, and finally the chief legal mind in the founding of Yavneh.)

The presiding magistrate at this trial, the Roman surrogate who would hear the case, was Philip the Tetrarch.

(Philip administered the area that today is northern Israel and southern Syria. A few years after his death the area would be consolidated under the name The Roman Province of Arabia.)

Yohanan b. Zakkai argued his case, undoubtedly using Torah and probably precedents hammered out in previous decades as well. The case hinged on the prosecution’s insistence that in a certain capital case the Law demanded the execution of “both the ox and its owner”.

Philip the Tetrarch ruled that, as usual, the Pharisees were authorized to prosecute Jews according to Torah, but non-Jews were still not subject to Torah.

Thus, Philip’s ruling came down to us as,

“There shall be two men in one bed; one shall be seized and the other shall be let go.

“Two women shall be grinding together; the one shall be seized and the other shall be let go.” (Darby)

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Cultural Relativism and Iconoclasts

The word “Iconoclast” refers to someone who attacks or destroys “icons”. Historically, the word refers to people who felt that certain religious statues and paintings were worshipped, and were therefore idols, idols that deserved to be destroyed.

“Cultural relativism” is a belief that all religions, ethical traditions, norms and beliefs are just human things and none are absolute, they are just the things a certain part of the herd agrees on locally.

An iconoclast does not seem to accept cultural relativism. An iconoclast seems to reject pluralism, relativism and diversity.

We primates tend to like iconoclasts who destroy beliefs with which we disagree. And on the other hand, we tend to dislike iconoclasts who attack things we like or believe in.

Iconoclasts are like heroes and champions. We primates tend to like or dislike them based on whether we feel they are for us or against us.

Under our current system in the U.S., one role of government is to play referee between competing groups and their heroes.

Thus the primary school injunction, “Use your words.”

What does cultural relativism imply about iconoclasm?

Let me put it this way. The best government practices cultural relativism, no màtter how iconoclastic a particular candidate sounds in order to win an election.

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A Reader Asks

In response to my last post on the purpose of rational thought, a long-time reader asked this:

“Just curious. If you don’t believe we were created, thus saying you don’t believe in God or the Bible, then why bother trying to prove it means, what you want it to mean? Can’t you just say you are atheist and reject that the Bible came from GOD or that there even is a GOD for that matter? Why are you arguing what GOD meant if you don’t believe he even exists?”

First, Jason, it’s good to hear from you again.

I might be mistaken, but it sounds as if you think the Bible should only be read by true believers, or perhaps only studied by true believers.

Isaiah quotes God saying that his word “will not return to me empty, but will accomplish what I desire and achieve the purpose for which I sent it.”

I am sure you have confidence that God is able to accomplish his purposes as he wills. From your perspective, if God wills to harden my heart in unbelief, that is his prerogative.

I am but clay, an imperfect vessel. With my small mind, I cannot accept the picture of God presented by my tribe of origin, where I found no place and no welcome. So be it.

I care for my literal brother and sisters, who never left the tribe. Sometimes I write for them, in the language they understand, using the authority they acknowledge.

Paul wrote, All scripture is given by inspiration of God, and is profitable for doctrine, for reproof, for correction, for instruction in righteousness: That the man of God may be perfect, throughly furnished unto all good works.

That’s one of the first verses I memorized as a kid.

I use the Scripture for its intended purpose, for teaching, rebuke, correction, and for training in righteousness.

It is true, my tiny pea-brain cannot accept the picture of God distributed by my tribe. If I am wrong, I trust that the God of the Universe will forgive my frailty and limitations.

To my knowledge, I have nothing but positive regard for the members of my former tribe. These are people for whom, you believe, Christ died.

Woe untome if I ignored the command of the canonical Jesus and did not do unto my former tribe members what I would have done for me.

My wish for my detractors and critics is this: the same sense of fulfillment that I desire for myself.

Why do I do this? It might be because of love, or loyalty, or a desire that they accomplish the good snd lofty goals described in the Bible.

I know that some people don’t want my input. That’s fine.

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The Purpose for Rational Thought

Let me begin this was. Homo sapiens are nearly hairless social primates with opposable thumbs, larger brains than our primate cousins, and a voice box, and are motivated by instincts.

Other animals act from instinct, and some of their instincts are shaped and educated, the way a mother predator teaches her offspring to hunt.

An amoeba hunts and flees hunters quite instinctively. Higher life forms sort between competing instincts when, for example, confronted by a threat. A human primate likewise sorts between competing instincts.

The difference between human primates ond other animals is our capacity for rational thought used to articulate a course of action to other.human primates when communal action is required to respond to a threat.

This capacity for thought (analysis and prediction) and communication evolved because it gave certain populations an edge in survival.

Our capacity for rational thought is best used when it is used for the good of the group or the species, even for the ecosystem at large.

Unless indicated otherwise, our capacity for rational thought is misused when it is only used for personal gratification.

Personal gratification is appropriate when we realize that status and hierarchy are instincts. Once we understand the instinctive nature of one-upmanship, then we have to figure out where we can put our capacity for rational thought to good use.

There are several popular sayings that may be appropriate for primates with this increased capacity for rational thought.

“Lead, follow or get out of the way.”

“Fish or cut bait.”

“If you’re so smart, why ain’t you rich?”

“Time to put up or shut up.”

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Primates and their Bibles

Scholars who work with the Bible either study the Bible in Greek, Hebrew and Aramaic, OR use many different translations.

Non-professional Bible users usually use the translation their congregation uses. The translations these primates use are the same ones used by professional Bible users.

Different primates use the Bible to achieve different goals. Some use it to fit in with the group. Others use it to achieve status in the group. Some primates use it to demonstrate their Independence from the group. These are all valid uses of a Bible.

Where a primate puts its Bible tells you a lot about that individual. Some of us carry our Bibles to special meetings. Some of us put our Bible between copies of the Quran and the I Ching. Others put their Bibles between copies of Das Kapital and Mein Kampf. And other primates put the Bible on their coffee table all by itself.

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We Use the Tools We Have to Get the Things We Want

Someone on Quora made the followi statement. I agreed with a lot of what he wrote, but I believe wisdom and insight are better tools than inaccurate rhetoric. Or is that simply a difference in weapon preference?

He wrote, “The Bible was written by people who knew nothing about science.”

The Book of Job in particular contains a lot of information on what we would today call science. In the book, in their defense of “God” and attacks on Job’s doubts about the justness of “God” some of Job’s friends list constellations, exotic animals, weather phenomena, etc.

I agreed with a lot of what he wrote, but I had to disagree with his use of today’s scientific knowledge as the key measure of value of ancient authors.

We don’t ignore Plato and Aristotle because of their faulty medical knowledge.

Bible writers didn’t have the same degree of understanding of “science” as some college educated people have today, but knowledge of the material universe was certainly known to some.  Scientific knowledge, even the practice of the scientific method is no guarantee of wisdom, empathy, respect, or honesty.

Understand now, I am not a theist, just like I don’t believe in magic or faeries or Piltdown Man.

I think primates need to understand that the Bible is a lot more than talking snakes, talking donkeys and burning cities to the ground.

The Bible is quoted a lot. “Love your neighbor as you love yourself.” “Let justice roll down like a mighty river.” “They shall beat their swords into plow shares, and their spears into pruning hooks.”

Self control, justice, equity, even communist-style land redistribution are commanded in the Bible.

Yeah, people have done a lot of evil things using the Bible. People have done a lot of evil things using science and technology, too.

But I don’t blame Hiroshima on science and technology. I don’t blame the Holocaust on science and technology. I don’t blame the Tuskeegee Experiments on science and technology.

We use the tools we have to get the things we want.

Considering the fact that language acquisition is a valued primate instinct, it’s not surprising that rhetoric feels so natural as a weapon.

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How do we Know God’s Will?

The Bible mentions “Christ in you, the hope of glory.” The Bible says that the Spirit of God bubbles up within you like a spring of living water. Jesus said, in Luke 17, “The kingdom of God is within you.”

We need to trust that this is true, and learn how to listen to the “still, small voice.” Some people disagree, saying, “That inner voice stuff is too subjective. The Bible is our only objective guide.” Well, that Bible to which they refer says otherwise.

If you loved someone, would you be content to communicate by letter or email or FB, and never be with the person, in person?

Will you make mistakes? Of course you will. So? Everyone makes mistakes. God knows we make mistakes. Somehow we all seem to manage.

Paul said that gentiles have God’s will written on their hearts. How do people who have never heard the name of Christ know God’s will? That they should love others? That they should not think too highly of themselves?

Ultimate Reality always has a witness, a way of communicating with us, even when people understand it differently.

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