July 11, 2010

Bible facts you may not know #2

I wrote a previous post on various historical facts that can help make the Bible intelligible. (Read it here.) Here are some more...

Talent. The thing to keep in mind was that a Talent was a LOT of money. When Jesus told the story of the man giving his servant ten Talents to invest, (Matthew 25:14-30) it was probably like us saying ten million dollars! People would have smiled at the humor of it (and remembered the story because of it). No ordinary person would see such an amount in their whole life.

6,000 Greek Drachmae (or the equivalent Roman Denarius or Jewish Half-Shekel) made a silver Talent. One Drachmon was a very good day's wage. You could hire a mercenary for that. If you figure six work-days a week, then a silver Talent was over 19 man years! Ordinary people would have been thinking in terms of silver—a gold Talent was worth ten times as much.

The coin shown is a Greek Tetradrachmon coin, (four Drachmae) owned by my son the classicist. It's about the size of a nickel.

The name "Jesus." It's a Greek version of Jeshua, or Joshua. It is not some alien imposition. Palestine was embedded in the Greek-speaking world, and many Jews of the time also had Greek names or used alternate Greek versions of their Hebrew names. Something similar happens now. My kids have a friend named Sam, but he is also named Schmuel. There's no ambiguity because everyone knows both his names and what context they are used in.

Did Jesus speak Greek? Of course he did. My take is that the situation was similar to immigrant Jewish communities in America in, say, 1900. You spoke Yiddish in the neighborhood, but if you were a person of any smarts or ambition you needed to speak English too.

Joseph the carpenter. The word translated as carpenter is the Greek word "tekton." But this could also mean a builder or mason or even a tentmaker. Joseph might have been a very humble village carpenter making yokes and plows. But he could equally have been the master of a workshop. Or what we would call a contractor, employing workers. Nazareth was about four miles from Sepphoris, the largest city in Galilee. Sepphoris was destroyed by the Romans in 4BC, and was perhaps being busily re-built in Jesus' youth.

It is very possible that Nazareth was the equivalent of an Orthodox Jewish neighborhood today, with men going out to work among the gentiles, but returning to a small pure stand-offish community afterwards.

Bethlehem is about six miles south of Jerusalem. It was the birthplace of King David, and the place the Messiah was expected to come from. Archeologists say it was a very small place. Maybe a hundred houses. (And caves!) There would have been no inn, a visitor would have lodged in someone's house. Despite what "scholars" aver, it is historically likely that Jesus was indeed born in Bethlehem. Why? Because people in a small pre-modern village would remember every happening or visitor. And certainly every kinsman, which Joseph was said to be. The Gospel of Luke came out a generation after Jesus, and the many enemies of the new Christians could easily have verified the story. Plus the Roman census records would still exist.

Dead Sea nearby. One of the interesting things I discovered when we went to Israel was how small the region is. And especially, how close the Dead Sea, the mouth of the Jordan, and the fortress of Masada are to Jerusalem. You could walk there in a day. My mental picture had been of places far far out in the desert, and I wondered why people would bother to go so far. No so. Also, these were places one typically went down to in the winter to escape the cold and wet of the Judean highlands. If you had money, it was sort of like Florida.

Slavery in classical world. It was very different from what we had in America. It was not chattel slavery. Think of it as a really obnoxious labor contract. There was no racial element, and the typical slave could expect to be freed if he worked out his time obediently. There was no permanent stigma; it could happen to anyone who was captured in war, or who fell into debt.

Jesus as peasant. "Scholars" love to take Jesus down a few pegs below their exalted level by referring to him as a peasant. But the word is fairly ambiguous. For instance a medieval English peasant might be a substantial village landholder with peasants working for him! (Good book: Life in a Medieval Village.) Likewise, being poor meant something different in a society where almost everyone was poor by our standards. Most of the priests for instance needed regular jobs to support them when they were not taking their turn serving in the Temple. The same with many a famous rabbi, and many of the prophets. Most of them could be called "peasants" by sneering academics.

. Posted by John Weidner at July 11, 2010 7:09 PM
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