The Bible as Official History

A person who holds a Bible handles something that is both utterly unique and so common as to seem ubiquitous. Millions of copies in hundreds of translations have appeared since Herr Gutenberg invented his famous press. Individual books of the Hebrew Bible — what Christians call the Old Testament — date back almost three millennia, making them perhaps the oldest continually read texts in the world. Yet for all that longevity and profusion, the Scriptures almost ceased to exist at least once in their long history.

That Bible in one’s hand can be read in many ways: as literature and as history, for instance, and of course as God’s revelation to mankind. Such approaches complement each other and need not be mutually exclusive, as each offers insight. A diversity of readings reveals new depths in the texts — not to mention in ourselves.

Those various methods for reading Scripture could well fit with another that might sound unexpected. We can read the Bible with special attention to its passages that pass down documents produced by and for influential people — or rather, produced for institutions whose leaders wished to record what they collectively accomplished and what happened while they accomplished it. The Bible holds a surprising abundance of such documentary vestiges. Indeed, not a few scriptural passages bear strong evidence that kings and priests commissioned their drafting.

Such fragments of official documents, of course, were edited with more didactic and spiritual purposes when the inspired authors of the Bible arranged them as we read them today. So what does it profit a reader to recognize remnants of official documents preserved in Scripture? Doing so yields a couple of benefits. First, it can be likened to shifting one’s perspective in scrutinizing a set of a physical objects — it shows new patterns of light, color, and shadow that reveal something previously overlooked. Reading certain scriptural passages as “official history” can also tell us more about nearby passages that seem less obviously institutional. All of these collectively suggest something about the Bible as a whole. The Bible can indeed be read as history, as allegory, and as God’s message to mankind — and the ancient documents it contains can tell us important things about the people who wrote it and their times. The more we know about these people, the more we understand about the inspiration that prompted them to write the Bible — and the more we can learn about ourselves and our place in the world.

Context

All people tell stories. People pass these stories down, of course, and they make arrangements to preserve the stories in ways that can outlive their originators. The ur-system for preserving stories, of course, is memorization and recitation. “Oral tradition” is the original method for people, families, and communities to recall what is important about their pasts.

But memorization, however dramatic and satisfying it can be, lacks accuracy and durability. Here is where writing comes in. It lets memory linger, and preserves it in a state closer to its original sense. Writing also helps messages travel spatially as well as temporally. The world’s most durable and yet portable information storage medium remains baked clay tablets. Yet even clay is not free. Where writing is rare and dear — i.e., when people who can write are few, and their materials are costly — only the most valuable and important things get recorded in writing. That means the earliest writing recorded commercial transactions, land deeds, laws, oracles, treaties, and the doings of kings.

The ancient Hebrews had no monopoly on official history, of course. Given the antiquity of some of the Hebrew Bible’s historical books (particularly Samuel, Kings, Chronicles, Ezra, and Nehemiah), the appearance of documentary vestiges in Scripture shows that people have had some concept of institutional memory for at least 2600 years. By the time such writing began in the Kingdom of Judah, however, it was already an ancient literary form. Egyptians, Sumerians, Aryans, and Chinese began writing similar records centuries before King David.

These insights into the composition of Scripture prompt two lines of inquiry. First, we want to know more about the memories recorded in the books of the Bible. Such knowledge might well include (at a minimum) which events got written down and preserved in an age when so little else did. Second, we want to learn how the collection of writings was itself preserved and handed down. Both aspects, we posit, are likely to have been governed by certain universal habits of human beings who write down their memories.

Priests and Kings

The first fellow who had enjoyed a meal and knew he would sleep in a warm place — i.e., the original man of leisure — must have wanted some way of recording the odd, portentous, or merely funny events he had witnessed. Cave paintings surely represent the earliest way of doing so. In an age when people saw gods and spirits and demons as elemental forces all around them, such records naturally took on a religious significance, as they noted signs that the spirit world transmitted to humankind. These sorts of chronicles continued well into civilized times. The Roman historian Livy, for instance, consulted the Annales maximi maintained by the Pontifex Maximus. Livy then polished such material to a high gloss to serve his account of the purportedly virtuous Roman Republic (and to subtly suggest his Imperial contemporaries might imitate their stalwart ancestors). Here’s a typical entry from Book XXI [62], recounting events from 219 to 218 BC:

At Rome during this winter many prodigies either occurred about the city, or, as usually happens when the minds of men are once inclined to superstition, many were reported and readily believed; among which it was said that an infant of good family, only six months old, had called out “Io triumphe” in the herb market . . . that in the territory of Amiternum figures resembling men dressed in white raiment had been seen in several places at a distance . . . and that in Gaul a wolf had snatched out the sword from the scabbard of a soldier on guard, and carried it off.

This was serious. Someone had rankled the gods, who now had to be appeased. But which gods, and how? Best to take no risks with such touchy powers, and to sacrifice liberally so as to spurn no important deity:

On account of the other prodigies the decemvirs were ordered to consult the books; but on account of its having rained stones in Picenum the festival of nine days was proclaimed, and almost all the state was occupied in expiating the rest, from time to time. First of all the city was purified, and victims of the greater kind were sacrificed to those gods to whom they were directed to be offered; and a gift of forty pounds’ weight of gold was carried to the temple of Juno at Lanuvium; and the matrons dedicated a brazen statue to Juno on the Aventine; and a lectisternium was ordered at Caere . . . These things, thus expiated and vowed according to the Sibylline books, relieved, in a great degree, the public mind from superstitious fears.1

Livy did not make this stuff up — how could he? Somebody in Rome had carefully recorded the “prodigies” and the responses taken by the priests and civic officials. He mined that record for his magisterial history of Rome. Only a short step separated such annals of portents and sacrifices from the chronologies kept by princes and magistrates, since the religious and civic duties of such personages shared a fair degree of overlap.

Records of events during the reigns of kings surely rank among the earliest “genres” of official history. What kings did and saw was by definition worth writing down. The Jews knew how such compendiums had served their rulers, and assumed gentile rulers used them as their kings once had. The Book of Esther, for instance, notes an instance when listless King Ahasuerus of Persia ordered his timeline to be read aloud:

That night the king, unable to sleep, asked that the chronicle of notable events be brought in. While this was being read to him, the passage occurred in which Mordecai reported Bigthan and Teresh, two of the royal eunuchs who guarded the entrance, for seeking to assassinate King Ahasuerus. The king asked, “What was done to honor and exalt Mordecai for this?” The king’s attendants replied, “Nothing was done for him.” (Esth 6:1–3, NAB)

The chronicle kept for Ahasuerus proved to be useful for more than just an insomnia remedy. It reminded him that Mordecai was not an enemy — as the king’s wicked vizier Haman suggested to the king that very night. Instead of hanging Mordecai, as Haman secretly desired, the king rewarded him. Thus was salvation brought to the Jews, whom Haman had connived to place under a royal ban and a collective death sentence.

Chronologies kept for living kings proved useful for their heirs as well. Lists of kings and their genealogies are found all over the world, with greater or lesser literary adornment. Indeed, China’s “Chronicle of the Grand Historian,” completed around 200 BC, employs earlier records dating back centuries. The Bible’s two Books of Kings were based on the Kingdom of Judah’s contribution to this genre. Each king who reigned in Judah and Israel had his birth, parentage, and deeds summarily noted in a formulaic fashion, accompanied by commentary on each monarch’s faithfulness to God’s Covenant. Typical are these nearly contiguous entries in 1 Kings 15 on the reigns of Asa in Judah and Nadab in Israel during the ninth century BC:

All the rest of the acts of Asa, with all his valor and all that he did, and the cities he built, are recorded in the book of the chronicles of the kings of Judah. But in his old age, Asa had an infirmity in his feet. Asa rested with his ancestors; he was buried with his ancestors in the City of David his father, and his son Jehoshaphat succeeded him as king. Nadab, son of Jeroboam, became king of Israel in the second year of Asa, king of Judah. For two years he reigned over Israel. He did what was evil in the LORD’s sight, walking in the way of his father and the sin he had caused Israel to commit. . . . The rest of the acts of Nadab, with all that he did, are recorded in the book of the chronicles of the kings of Israel. (1 Kings 15:23–31)

One notes that those chronicles of the kings of Judah and Israel were not the books of 1 and 2 Chronicles known to modern readers of the Bible. The authors of 1 and 2 Chronicles drew on 1 and 2 Kings as source material, and thus 1 and 2 Kings are referring to older and now-lost chronicles available to scribes in Jerusalem as late as 600 BC.

Such chronicles for kings and rulers served another purpose as well, one that is secondary to preserving genealogies but is nonetheless important. Nations must track their dealings with other nations. A chronicle provided a ready data indexing system. One could search the chronicle by date, and know where to hunt in the royal storehouse for the original document, if it indeed had not been lost to fire, mildew, or insects. In the Catholic version of the Old Testament, the two books of Maccabees hint that Hebrew scribes and their counterparts in other lands maintained just such a method of finding records. Though the Maccabees are not regarded as inspired by all readers of the Bible, they nonetheless convey authentic details from the Jewish nation in the two centuries before the birth of Jesus. Indeed, 2 Maccabees presents itself as a condensed version of a (now lost) five-volume history by one Jason of Cyrene (2 Macc 2:23).

Consider the documents transcribed in 1 Maccabees, beginning with a letter that the Jewish leader Jonathan sent to Sparta in the mid-140s BC. Jonathan reminded the Greek kingdom that its late king Arius (who ruled from 309 to 265 BC) had pledged friendship to the Jews in a letter he sent to the high priest Onias in Jerusalem. To prompt such happy memories in Sparta, Jonathan even appended to his communique a copy of Arius’s greetings:

This is a copy of the letter that they [the Spartans] sent to Onias: “Arius, king of the Spartans, sends greetings to Onias the high priest. A document has been found stating that the Spartans and the Jews are brothers and that they are of the family of Abraham. Now that we have learned this, kindly write to us about your welfare. We, for our part, declare to you that your animals and your possessions are ours, and ours are yours. We have, therefore, given orders that you should be told of this.” (1 Macc 12:19–23)

Apparently the Spartans kept their records more carefully than their genealogies, as the notion that they had descended from Abraham can be dismissed on its face. Nonetheless, both Jews and Spartans implicitly demonstrated that official documents had been filed for generations in similar ways by very different peoples. 1 Maccabees 14:20 thus reprints a subsequent “copy of the letter that the Spartans sent” to Simon, the late Jonathan’s brother and successor. This is surely Sparta’s reply to Jonathan’s embassy, and it probably arrived in 142 BC. The letter mentions that the Spartans voted to “deposit a copy of their words in the public archives, so that the people of Sparta may have a record of them.” Sparta’s archives perished centuries ago; the only extant copy of this diplomatic exchange is surely that found in 1 Maccabees.

The Maccabees wanted Spartan friends because they lived in a bad neighborhood, overrun as it was with Greeks descended from Alexander’s lieutenants who had fallen to squabbling among themselves (and to fighting the Jews when convenient). Similar hopes motivated Simon to seek an alliance with other warlike gentiles whose government met in a far-off city called Rome. A Jewish embassy headed by one Numenius visited the Roman senate and found the senators in a good mood, so the chronicler of the Maccabees transcribed the demarche that Rome sent to various nations around Judah, warning each that the Jews were now Rome’s friends. This particular copy went to Egypt:

Lucius, Consul of the Romans, sends greetings to King Ptolemy. Ambassadors of the Jews, our friends and allies, have come to us to renew their earlier friendship and alliance. They had been sent by Simon the high priest and the Jewish people, and they brought with them a gold shield of a thousand minas. Therefore we have decided to write to various kings and countries, that they are not to venture to harm them, or wage war against them or their cities or their country, and are not to assist those who fight against them. . . . A copy of the letter was also sent to Simon the high priest. (1 Macc 15:16–24)

This diplomacy qualifies as conjuring a devil to chase out the imps, with all the pain that would one day entail. The record keepers of the Maccabees thus did their small bit in prompting the tragedies that would befall the Jews at the hands of Rome.

The Profession of Scribe

The Bible calls the men who kept the records for the kings and priests “scribes.” They represented the talented few who learned to write, and who wrote for a living. Scribes lived in cities and towns in an age when most people dwelled in the countryside. They counted as important men in the king’s court. The roster of Solomon’s officers in 1 Kings 4, for example, lists “Elihoreph and Ahijah, sons of Shisha, scribes” just after the chief priest and ahead of the chancellor, the commander of the army, the commissary chief, the majordomo of the palace, and the superintendent of the forced labor (guess who drafted that roll).

Almost alone among their contemporaries, scribes could learn not only by memorization but also by reading and research. They lived among documents, which meant they could study, and thus could amass and transmit knowledge. This made them eccentrics to their fellow citizens, even at court. The durability of writing, moreover, allows for codes of law, regular process, and more consistent judgments — in short, for the sort of predictability that fosters not only order and justice, but also commerce and prosperity. In the Jewish nation, scribes rubbed elbows with an elite that ran affairs of state, and they had the law literally at their fingertips. Such associations perhaps swelled their pride, and surely provoked Jesus, who repeatedly denounced the scribes:

In the course of his teaching he said, “Beware of the scribes, who like to go around in long robes and accept greetings in the marketplaces, seats of honor in synagogues, and places of honor at banquets. They devour the houses of widows and, as a pretext, recite lengthy prayers. They will receive a very severe condemnation.” (Mk 12:38–40)

Luke 11:46–54 records Jesus’s most withering indictment of the scribes, and notes that he received in turn their bitter enmity:

And he said, “Woe also to you scholars of the law! You impose on people burdens hard to carry, but you yourselves do not lift one finger to touch them. Woe to you! You build the memorials of the prophets whom your ancestors killed. . . . Woe to you, scholars of the law! You have taken away the key of knowledge. You yourselves did not enter and you stopped those trying to enter.” When he left, the scribes and Pharisees began to act with hostility toward him and to interrogate him about many things, for they were plotting to catch him at something he might say.

But Jesus also offered more positive comments about the scribes and “scholars of the law.” Recall his words in Matthew 13:52: “Then every scribe who has been instructed in the kingdom of heaven is like the head of a household who brings from his storeroom both the new and the old.” Jesus does not condemn scribes as such. The Gospel of Mark records Jesus congratulating one scribe who asks him about Scripture and then engages succinctly and perceptively about its meaning and import:

The scribe said to him, “Well said, teacher. You are right in saying, ‘He is One and there is no other than he.’ And ‘to love him with all your heart, with all your understanding, with all your strength, and to love your neighbor as yourself’ is worth more than all burnt offerings and sacrifices.” And when Jesus saw that [he] answered with understanding, he said to him, “You are not far from the kingdom of God.” (Mk 12:28–34)

Jesus thus hints that other scribes were not bad per se, though some scribes dishonored their worthy calling. They understood the Law and had the opportunity to impart that understanding to others. One can go farther still and suggest — on the basis of scriptural evidence — that a handful of scribes had actually saved the Old Testament from being forgotten forever.

Saving Scripture

A scribe figured in a curious incident recounted in 2 Kings 22 (and also 2 Chronicles 34). When King Josiah had reigned in Jerusalem for 17 years (i.e., 623 or 622 BC), he decided that the Temple needed renovations. Carpenters and masons set to work; one imagines that crews sorted through accumulated stuff that had piled up over three centuries. And then this:

When they brought out the money that had been deposited in the house of the LORD, Hilkiah the priest found the book of the law of the LORD given through Moses. He reported this to Shaphan the scribe, saying, “I have found the book of the law in the house of the LORD.” Hilkiah gave the book to Shaphan, who brought it to the king at the same time that he made his report to him. He said, “Your servants are doing everything that has been entrusted to them; they have smelted down the silver deposited in the LORD’s house and have turned it over to the overseers and the workers.” Then Shaphan the scribe also informed the king, “Hilkiah the priest has given me a book,” and then Shaphan read it in the presence of the king. (2 Chron 34:14–18)

One can hardly imagine such a thing today, when the Bible has been reprinted in millions of copies. Yet there it is. The rulers of Judah and even the priests regarded the Temple, not the Scriptures, as the seat of their faith. They had used “the book of the law” to help with missionary work among the cities of Judah two centuries earlier (2 Chron 17:9), but the Scriptures had apparently been neglected in the interim. By Josiah’s time the people of Judah had grown so far from their ancient devotions that he and they had forgotten the very existence of the early books of the Old Testament. The “book of the law” discovered by the workmen in the Temple might have been the only copy left. Shaphan read aloud the injunctions on the Israelites contained in the book (probably in Leviticus and Deuteronomy), and King Josiah reacted with alarm, as noted in 2 Kings 22:

When the king heard the words of the law, he tore his garments. The king then issued this command to Hilkiah, to Ahikam, son of Shaphan, to Abdon, son of Michah, to Shaphan the scribe, and to Asaiah, the king’s servant: “Go, consult the LORD for me and for those who are left in Israel and Judah, about the words of the book that has been found, for the anger of the LORD burns furiously against us, because our ancestors did not keep the word of the LORD and have not done all that is written in this book.” (2 Chron 34:19–21)

How to consult the Lord about the newfound book? Happily, a few prophets remained in the land as oracles even while the Law had been lost. The king’s delegation knew one’s address:

Then Hilkiah and others from the king went to Huldah the prophet, wife of Shallum, son of Tokhath, son of Hasrah, keeper of the wardrobe; she lived in Jerusalem, in the Second Quarter. They spoke to her as they had been instructed, and she said to them: “Thus says the LORD, the God of Israel: Say to the man who sent you to me, Thus says the LORD: I am about to bring evil upon this place and upon its inhabitants, all the curses written in the book that was read before the king of Judah. Because they have abandoned me and have burned incense to other gods, provoking me by all the works of their hands, my anger burns against this place and it cannot be extinguished.” (2 Chron 34:22–25)

King Josiah did not hide this newfound light under a basket. Indeed, he himself read the book of the law to the inhabitants of Jerusalem:

The king went up to the house of the LORD with all the people of Judah and all the inhabitants of Jerusalem: priests, prophets, and all the people, great and small. He read aloud to them all the words of the book of the covenant that had been found in the house of the LORD. The king stood by the column and made a covenant in the presence of the LORD to follow the LORD and to observe his commandments, statutes, and decrees with his whole heart and soul, and to re-establish the words of the covenant written in this book. (2 Kings 23:2–3)

Josiah then commanded a Passover like that described in Exodus, possibly the first in centuries: “No Passover such as this had been observed during the period when the judges ruled Israel, or during the entire period of the kings of Israel and the kings of Judah, until the eighteenth year of King Josiah, when this Passover of the LORD was kept in Jerusalem” (2 Kings 22:22–23).

The Bible was not lost a second time, but for at least a couple more centuries it remained on the periphery of Jewish life because so few could read it. Indeed, its words and its meaning had been neglected again over the period of the Babylonian Captivity and the initial reconstruction of Jerusalem. Then Ezra the “priest-scribe” brought it forth to read aloud, as related in the Old Testament’s Book of Nehemiah. The year was roughly 445 BC, on the occasion of the Feast of Booths that autumn:

Now when the seventh month came, the whole people gathered as one in the square in front of the Water Gate, and they called upon Ezra the scribe to bring forth the book of the law of Moses which the LORD had commanded for Israel. On the first day of the seventh month, therefore, Ezra the priest brought the law before the assembly, which consisted of men, women, and those children old enough to understand. In the square in front of the Water Gate, Ezra read out of the book from daybreak till midday. . . . (Neh 8:1–3)

Few in Jerusalem had heard the Scriptures. The force of what they heard powerfully affected Ezra’s audience, just as it had King Josiah a couple centuries earlier:

Ezra read clearly from the book of the law of God, interpreting it so that all could understand what was read. Then Nehemiah, that is, the governor, and Ezra the priest-scribe, and the Levites who were instructing the people said to all the people: “Today is holy to the LORD your God. Do not lament, do not weep!” — for all the people were weeping as they heard the words of the law. (Neh 8:8–9)

Founding a Church

By the time of Jesus’s birth the Scriptures had become firmly rooted in Jewish life. Though few could read, copies of the Hebrew Bible had been deposited in synagogues wherever Jews congregated. Indeed, the four Gospels in their accounts of the life of Jesus constantly refer to Scripture and relate occasions when this or that Biblical passage came up in his conversation. His teachings rested on a seemingly universal familiarity with Scripture; Jesus could assume many or all of the people he addressed understood the passages that he cited and the allusions that graced his speech.

Reading the New Testament and the life of Jesus instantly reveals contrasts with the Old Testament’s emphasis on kings, priests, and prophets. The Christian Bible switches focus from the Temple and the palace in Jerusalem to an obscure family in distant Galilee and the brief, itinerant ministry of that family’s only son. The New Testament in that sense is not royal or priestly, representing chronicles of the events occurring during the tenure of political or religious rulers. Indeed, it represents something rarely seen in ancient literature: the doings of ordinary people founding what long remained a marginal sect.

Yet the New Testament certainly contains a few elements of official history. Institutions tend to create records in similar ways. One of the earliest methods they adopt as they get organized is for their leaders to begin dictating messages to scribes, whose business it was to retain copies of said letters. Paul’s epistles represent just that sort of collection — what archivists call a “correspondence file.” We do not know the name of Paul’s scribe for certain, but we know he was there taking dictation and recording Paul’s messages to the various churches and disciples. That is why several of Paul’s epistles close with brief notes in his own handwriting; an autograph for authenticity, as it were. See, for instance, 2 Thessalonians 3:17: “This greeting is in my own hand, Paul’s. This is the sign in every letter; this is how I write. The grace of our Lord Jesus Christ be with all of you.” His Epistle to the Colossians ends with a more detailed example:

Give greetings to the brothers in Laodicea and to Nympha and to the church in her house. And when this letter is read before you, have it read also in the church of the Laodiceans, and you yourselves read the one from Laodicea. And tell Archippus, “See that you fulfill the ministry that you received in the Lord.” The greeting is in my own hand, Paul’s. Remember my chains. Grace be with you. (Col 4:15–18)

Paul had his letters carried to Rome, surely by his ever-present secretary. We can surmise this not only from the fact that a sheaf of Pauline letters to various addresses obviously survived in one place, but also from the fact that Paul himself took care to ensure that certain writings — quite possibly those epistles — stayed within his reach. See, for instance, his second letter to Timothy: “When you come, bring the cloak I left with Carpus in Troas, the papyrus rolls, and especially the parchments” (2 Tim 4:13). Those papyrus rolls and parchments could well have been Paul’s own writings. When they reached Rome they were compiled with other letters attributed to Peter, John, and James, and collected with the four Gospels as they in turn were composed in the late first century. At some point in the years after the passing of the Apostles and the composition of the Gospels, some Christian scribes realized that the Roman church possessed a wonderful collection of writings by people who had known Jesus or his first disciples. That collection became the New Testament.

Disciples and Cousins

The Gospels were not written to be official history so much as biography: they are the record of one unique individual’s life and public career. Biography as a writing style was not unknown in the ancient world, though it was not common. There was autobiography, of course, as every Latin student exposed to Julius Caesar’s Conquest of Gaul can attest. Plutarch narrated the lives of famous Greeks and Romans, comparing and contrasting the noble and base qualities shown by his matched pairs of luminaries. Yet Plutarch’s Lives makes a towering exception that highlights the scarcity of actual biographies in the ancient world — and its focus on famous leaders contrasts with the Gospels’ accounts of ordinary Jews.

That focus on the quotidian begs a question: how do we know anything at all of Jesus’s life? Most people barely leave a trace in history; all that most of us will bequeath are family tales, some photographs, and the obligatory lines in official records: born, married, died, buried. One can see the inexorable process of forgetting underway in the four Gospels, the earliest of which (Mark) could not have been been drafted less than twenty years after Jesus’s death. The evangelists struggle with dates, presenting the events of several decades roughly but not precisely in chronological order. Memory is fickle.

Which begs the question: how did the evangelists Matthew and Luke find the details of their respective narratives of Jesus’s conception, birth, and childhood? All that had happened decades before Jesus called his first disciples. By the time that Jesus had departed this earth and his followers were hiding from the Jews and contemplating how to fulfill his command to baptize all nations, we know at of least one person who remembered what had happened when Jesus was an infant. She was, of course, Mary, his mother. The Gospel of John hints that she had occasion to relate her story to the Apostles. Indeed, Jesus on the Cross told the Apostle John “there is your mother,” and John took Mary into his house (Jn 19:27). That means John took Mary into the care of John’s brother James as well, and James and John, sons of Zebedee, surely asked Mary about Jesus’s boyhood and family.

Mary had more relatives who appear in the Gospels. We see a “sister,” or more likely a cousin, named Mary, the wife of Clopas (Jn 19:25), who had at least two sons, James “the younger” and Joseph (or Joses — see Mk 15 and Mt 13:55). These relations would assist Jesus in several ways; indeed, they might be called the first family of Christian believers. Mary, the mother, helped to serve Jesus’s needs during his public ministry. Clopas (or Cleopas) unwittingly met Jesus while walking to Emmaus on the morning of the Resurrection (Lk 24:18). Their son James could be the Church leader whom Paul called “the brother of the Lord” (brother in this context would have meant ‘cousin’; the term was expansive enough in Greek to allow for that reading) (Gal 1:19 and Acts 21:18). This James spoke at the Council of Jerusalem in 50 AD, and he has long been thought to have authored the Epistle of James. The Roman Jewish historian Josephus, writing around 94 AD, records that James suffered martyrdom by stoning in 62 AD (Antiquities, xx, 9, 1).

This James could have been a source for Luke the Evangelist and for the author of the Gospel of Matthew in telling of the boyhood of Jesus and the early days of his ministry. James probably died too early to have commissioned those two Gospels, but one wonders if he could have influenced the “Q Source” that they both cite. James presumably had an interest in getting the good word out to both the Jewish and Gentile communities, and quite possibly a consciousness that he stood at a moment when the lived, personal memory of Jesus must give way to a historical understanding that others could share — or be subsumed into myth, or lost altogether.

The Gospels tell another curious tale worthy of our consideration here. We should recall what happened to John the Baptist after his imprisonment by the tetrarch Herod Antipas, a minor potentate in Roman Palestine who is usually called a king in the Gospel narratives. Herod had John arrested for criticizing the propriety of his marriage to his sister-in-law Herodias. Not long afterward, Herod made merry in his palace and gave Herodias’ festering spite an opening. The result is infamous; Herodias’ daughter Salome pleased Herod with her dance, and Herod unwisely promised her anything she requested. Salome demanded John’s head on a platter, then gave it to Herodias (Mk 6:17–29). How on earth would this story have been preserved to come to the ears of Jesus’s disciples and later to the author of Matthew’s Gospel? John’s disciples would hardly have been privy to Herod’s thoughts and his conversation with Herodias and Salome. So who heard Herod’s response to Salome’s dance and her demand for John’s death?

We have a good clue. Mark 6:14 records a bit of dialogue from Herod’s palace as rumors of Jesus’s deeds reached the court. Hearing it rumored that this Jesus was John the Baptist or even the prophet Elijah come back from the dead, Herod gave his own opinion: “‘It is John whom I beheaded. He has been raised up.’” Herod’s servants surely heard this opinion. One of them could have been the steward Chuza, whose wife was named Joanna. How do we know? Because Luke mentions a follower of Jesus named Joanna, whom Luke calls the “wife of Herod’s steward Chuza” (Lk 8:3), who with other women provided for Jesus and the Apostles “out of their resources.” Luke even mentions that Joanna had gone with Mary Magdalene and “Mary the mother of James” to visit Jesus’s empty tomb that first Easter morning (Lk 24:10). One suspects that Chuza did not object to Joanna’s support for Jesus and his followers, as he surely could have stopped it. One could even imagine that Chuza might have been sympathetic to Jesus himself. It is almost as if Jesus and the disciples had an ear in the palace — a very useful thing, and one that could well have kept Jesus out of trouble longer than he might otherwise have been when he came to preach in Jerusalem before his Passion.

Back now to John the Baptist’s death. Joanna the disciple might have learned of Salome’s dance from her husband, himself possibly an eyewitness. Indeed, as steward, Chuza knew very well what was served up, so to speak, for Herod. This detail links to others that collectively explain the Gospels’ knowledge about Herod’s court, as Joanna at some point told her story to Peter and James, and to Mark, and perhaps even to Luke. Writers like to leave clues about their sources, as we noted above. Is this a riddle that Luke has left for his readers to solve with the hints he offers?

We cannot know the answer, but the mere question opens new possibilities. Could Chuza and Joanna have been the source for something else, namely Jesus’s trial before Herod? Recall that, according to Luke 23:6–12, Pilate had sent Jesus to Herod on the morning of his Crucifixion. Luke subsequently notes that Herod and Pilate became friends after the Crucifixion — a detail that could explain how we know of some of Pilate’s exchanges with the Jewish authorities. And one more speculation seems too tantalizing to leave unmentioned. Chuza as steward knew which visitors and delegations came and went in the king’s presence. He could even have heard about the visit of the Magi to Herod Antipas’ father (Herod the Great) and the latter’s order to slaughter every male in Bethlehem under the age of two. If the post of steward had been a quasi-heriditary one in Herod’s service, one of Chuza’s relatives might have told him about that. Bits of history come down to posterity by the strangest paths. This one is no more unlikely than so many others.

Conclusion

The Bible can indeed be read in many ways. Reading Scripture with an eye to its preservation of original documents and memories reveals unexpected relationships between the people it sketches and the events it narrates. As we saw, portions of the Old Testament reflect sources that were written to conserve the memory of the names, dates, and deeds of political and religious rulers in the Kingdom of Judah. The Old Testament as a whole, of course, constitutes the saga of the Jewish nation — the children of Jacob the patriarch. More particularly, however, the Hebrew Bible tells of two allied families within that larger assembly: the descendants of David and the descendants of Aaron. Here lies a crucial point: rulers and priests were supposed to came from separate families under the Old Law — clearly establishing the division of labor between religious and civic duties, and the supremacy of God’s law to human law.

If the Old Testament tells how those families together made a nation — a whole subject people, including the prophets who tried to keep the heirs of David and Aaron devoted to their God — then the New Testament represents another story of how those families blended in Jesus. Hence the genealogies at the beginnings of Matthew and Luke: both of these evangelists took pains to show Jesus’s earthly father came form the lineage of David, and Luke mentions that his mother Mary was a kinswoman of Elizabeth, wife of the priest Zechariah (and thus of the line of Aaron). Perhaps of equal importance, however, is Jesus’s interaction with his own extended family and the families of his disciples, the sons of Zebedee (James and John), Simon and Andrew, the sons of Jonah, and of course Clopas, Mary, and James.

We know so much more about these families because a handful of other people kept their eyes open in Jerusalem around the year 29. Chuza and Joanna seem to have provided us with chronicles of priests and kings in a different way. Not by listing their mighty deeds, of course, but rather by witnessing the very human ways in which these luminaries treated the people in their entourages and the average citizens and believers under their authority. Here is where the kings and priests failed in Jesus’s time, for they were proud and blind. They passed judgments that were not only hasty but personally and politically convenient, rather than taking the time to look at John the Baptist, and then ultimately at his cousin Jesus, and to talk to him, in order to establish the truth of the reports about these men.

We have so many ways to read the Bible. The ways described here bid us reflect on how many events related in the Bible’s narrative have come down to us because of the observations of one human being who happened to record or preserve their occurrence. How can this be? Surely an all-powerful God could have found more reliable ways for transmitting central truths of what would grow into a world-historical faith. Perhaps He could — but He did not, and that is truly humbling. We know a few names of these individuals, but others are lost to history. The Bible subtly teaches us that a single person, even one who remains anonymous, can do something that will resonate for centuries to come. What is happening in our day that might be recalled in future centuries thanks to the efforts of one person among us who preserves the story of what God has done?

  1. Translated by D. Spillan and Cyrus Edmonds, and available at gutenberg.org/files/10907/10907-h/10907-h.htm#c62.
Michael Warner About Michael Warner

Dr. Michael Warner serves as a historian in the US government, and lives near Washington, DC. He is the author of Changing Witness: Catholic Bishops and Public Policy.

Comments

  1. Victor Manuel Ramírez Aguirre says:

    Thank you very much for this article. Just yesterday I was wondering why Scribes were so relevant in those times.

  2. Rudolph I Ramirez says:

    As a historian I found Dr. Warner’s essay fascinating and a credit to our profession. In that vein, I questions his account of the authorship of the Pauline epistles. Many Biblical scholars maintain that there are only seven epistles that can be confidently ascribed to Paul, neither Timothy I and II are in that group. In addition, it is doubtful that the apostles John and James (and possibly Peter) authored any letters. This could have been written by some unknown scribe or community leader who in order to give their exhortations and instructions the ring of authority used the names of Christ’s apostles as authors.

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