The Bethsaida Trial: What did We Know and When did We Know It?

There is evidence of a Second-Temple era trial in Bethsaida ca. 29 C.E. If confirmed, my conjecture pinpoints the catalytic event for the birth.of both Rabbinic Judaism and Christendom.

In 1962 Jacob Neusner published A Life of Yohanan Ben Zakkai. On page 93, in a single footnote, he made available to the reading public three Talmud passages: Massekhet Semahot 8.7: ySanhedrin 7.5; and Shabbat 16:7b. With no disrespect to the Rabban intended, I call these passages “Zakkai’s Formularies”.

Prior to 1962, monolingual English-speakers had virtually no way to know that first-century Palestinian Jews had a written rationale for the execution of gentile gays and lesbians, and that this case was argued before a Jewish Roman surrogate.

In 1987 archaeologist Rami Arav discovered coins at the site of et-Tell commemorating the elevation of Bethsaida to the status of imperial polis in 30 C.E. under Philip the Tetrarch.

Prior to 1987 we had no tangible evidence of the specific location of Bethsaida-Julias.

In 1997 William Arnal, in the context of the gender in translation debate, argued that the gendered couples in Luke 17:34-35 were not simply an example of Q’s interest in both males and females, but that the couplet was an example of legal writing.

Prior to 1997 we wouldn’t have known that the gendered couplet in Luke 17 was written in the legal genre.

In 2004 Vern Poythress, in the context of the use of the generic he in New Testament translation, focused on the use of the masculine pronoun in writings by Plutarch and Philo. Poythress concluded that in the samples of these writers, the masculine pronoun never included female referents without some accompanying cue.

Prior to 2004 we had no “easy answer” to Bruce Metzger’s single-handed elimination of “men” from the gendered couplet rendering of Luke 17:34-35 in the RSV in 1952.

In 2010, without knowing of these researches, I began investigating whether there were grounds for arguing that the couples in Luke 17:34-35 were gay and lesbian, as a prima facie reading suggested. After using standard exegetical methods I concluded that the four persons were almost certainly homoerotic couples.

Prior to 2010 most of Christendom had neither the access nor the inclination to entertain the possibility that the people in the gendered couplet were gay and lesbian.

Prior to having this information, however, we did know a lot. Generally speaking:

We knew that Josephus, the Talmud, and the gospels all referred legal matters.

We knew that Josephus, the Talmud, and the gospels all mentioned non-standard sexuality with varying levels of disapproval.

We knew that Josephus, the Talmud, and the gospels all made mention of political maneuvering.

Less generally, we knew a lot, too.

We knew that Philip was the final court of appeal in his territory. But we were not fully aware that Bethsaida was in his territory.

We knew that Jewish leaders disapproved of same-sex couples, but were not aware that the Pharisee Yohanan b. Zakkai had a reasoned justification for their execution in complex cases.

We knew that the Talmud contained detailed instructions for how to conduct a successful entrapment, and we knew that some specialists thought that these directions referred to Jesus, but many researchers would not allow a one-paragraph Talmud passage to trump the Crucifixion as described in the Passion.

We knew that the community mentioned in the gospels was reportedly subject to legal persecution, and could have known that the grounds for that persecution were a bit murky, but scholars of religion had other issues upon which to focus and were not generally interesred in historiography.

We also knew that Philip the Tetrarch, Yohanan b. Zakkai and the Galilean community as a whole were present in Galilee at the same time, but only in a vague, “of course” way. We didn’t know how they interacted, just that they probably, or must have, interacted.

We could have deduced that Philip practiced peregrine law in his territory, but there was little that drew our attention to the presence of Jews in his territory.

Depending on our field of specialization we could have  known that Yohanan b. Zakkai had a reasoned legal rationale for advocating the execution of gay and lesbian gentiles.

We now know that the community to which Jesus belonged was the target of legal prosecution for sexual transgression, and that some convictions were obtained and other prosecutions failed. And we know the grounds of both success and failure in these prosecutions.

The descriptions of persecution in the gospels has been noted and long discussed. The deadly religious persecutions of history are much discussed, and the frequent accusations of sexual immorality in dissenting communities have been noted and discussed. The behavioral and class elements of persecution and sects have also been noted and discussed.

What has been only inconclusively discussed until now is how, where and when these topics intersect in the historical documents of Palestine.

About Ron Goetz

My first wife used to say, "There's nothing so sacred that Ron won't pick it apart." My desire to be a pastor -- that was a temperamental mismatch. She was so patient. If my birth mother had lived somewhere else, maybe I would've become a cold case detective. But I would have had to be J instead of a P, I think. And that mid-life reevaluation, starting adolescence as a GARB fundamentalist and transitioning to a non-theist, that gave me an unusual skill set.
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