The atmosphere of our church service was pregnant with expectation: four candles of the Advent wreath and the colored lights from the tree and wreaths lit the darkened room. My wife and I were among the tens of millions gathered on Christmas Eve to rehearse the Nativity story again. As one of the readers read aloud Luke 2:5, I was struck by the New International Version (NIV) translation: “Mary, who was pledged to be married to him and was expecting a child.” Chronologically, the narrative had advanced some eight months from Luke 1:26-27, where it stated that Gabriel was sent to a virgin named Mary “pledged to be married to a man named Joseph.” The Greek verb mnēsteuō was translated identically in both verses.
The translation suggested to me that an unmarried Jewish couple was traveling a long distance unaccompanied by other family members. And the woman—still only pledged in marriage—was in an advanced state of pregnancy. If such a situation is still scandalous in the Middle East, how much more in first-century Judea!1
Later I checked other translations of Luke 2:5. The English Standard Version (ESV) uses “betrothed,” an archaic Middle English word. The New Revised Standard Version (NRSV) uses “engaged,” while the New Living Translation (NLT) says “fiancée.” Again, these English versions suggest that the couple’s marriage was incomplete. This discovery led me into an in-depth word study as well as a look at ancient marriage. And what I found was surprising.
Matthew’s Gospel seems to be clearer. In the genealogy, Joseph is called the “husband of Mary,” who gave birth to Jesus (Matthew 1:16). Describing the background of their relationship, Matthew 1:18 reads, “His mother Mary was pledged to be married to Joseph.” Here Matthew uses the same Greek verb as Luke. However, after Joseph decides to divorce Mary because of her unexpected pregnancy, an angel warns him in a dream not to do so. The angel advises him to “take Mary as his wife” (Matthew 1:20). When Joseph woke up, he did what the angel commanded him: He took Mary as his wife (Matthew 1:24). Luke’s version seemingly contradicts Matthew’s, according to present English translations.
The Greek verb mnēsteuō is used eight times in the Septuagint (the third-century B.C.E. Greek translation of the Hebrew Bible). Four uses in Deuteronomy (22:23, 25, 27, 28) deal with the legal issues surrounding an engaged woman having illicit sexual relations. If the incident happens in a city (22:23), both the man and the woman are to be stoned to death; if a rape happens in the country, only the man is to be stoned. The man is considered guilty because he has violated another man’s wife (22:24). In the three uses in Hosea, God himself is speaking. Regarding Israel’s future day of redemption in 2:16, God declares: “You will call me ‘my husband.’” Then he states in verses 19–20: “And I will take you for my wife forever; I will take you for my wife in righteousness and in justice, in steadfast love, and in mercy. I will take you for my wife in faithfulness; and you shall know the LORD.” The NRSV translates “wife” here, while the NIV, ESV and New King James Version (NKJV) all read: “I will betroth you.” Because of the context wherein God declares that he is a husband forever, it is clear that his relationship with Israel extends beyond an engagement stage; they will metaphorically be husband and wife.
The Hebrew verb aras, translated mnēsteuō in Greek, refers to Jewish marriage practice in which the groom contractually pays a bride-price (mohar) to the bride’s father (Genesis 34:12). According to Old Testament scholar Douglas Stuart, “This was the final step in the courtship process, virtually equivalent in legal status to the wedding ceremony.”2 According to the Mishnah Ketubbot 5.2, the betrothal would last a year, with the bride remaining in the home of her father. Recalling the legal texts in Deuteronomy mentioned earlier plus the equation of David’s betrothal to Michal as marriage (2 Samuel 3:14), we see that under Jewish law, a betrothed woman was considered to be married.
Returning to Joseph, he would have paid the bride price to Mary’s father at their engagement (Matthew 1:20; Luke 1:27). Despite his misgivings, Joseph then obeyed the angel’s command to marry Mary (Matthew 1:20). The time of formal engagement, whether a full year or not, had passed between them. So Joseph and Mary had begun to live together except for sexual relations (Matthew 1:25). Luke’s understanding of mnēsteuō must be expanded to include both the betrothal/engagement as well as marital cohabitation. Therefore a better translation of Luke 2:5 would be: “Mary his wife who was expecting a child.” (The NKJV attempts a hybrid with “betrothed wife.”) English translations that suggest the couple was still only in the engagement stage of fiancé/fiancée must be discarded. Joseph and Mary traveled to Bethlehem as a full husband and wife under ancient Jewish law.
Joseph Fitzmyer anticipated my questions by suggesting that readers and listeners should not be overliteral because the account does not intend to answer questions such as: “What was she doing on a journey with Joseph, if she were merely his fiancée or betrothed? And worse still, pregnant as well”; see Joseph Fitzmyer, The Gospel According to Luke I–IX (New York: Doubleday, 1981), p. 407. To ask such questions, according to Fitzmyer, is to miss the point of Luke’s story. But in liturgical use such authorial nuances are lost. He also notes that Luke never calls Mary the “wife” of Joseph and perhaps was not aware of Palestinian Jewish marriage customs. This blog post assumes that Luke, because of his knowledge of Jewish customs and possible interview with Mary herself (cf. Luke 1:2), used familiar marital language that had a broader semantic range than translators give it today.
Douglas Stuart, Hosea-Jonah, Word Biblical Commentary, vol. 31 (Waco, TX: Word Books, 1987), p. 59.
The problem of names surfaced at a recent Bible study at the St. Paul Union Church in Antalya, Turkey. Pastor Dennis Massaro was discussing the three men named “James” in the New Testament: Two were apostles, and the third was the leader of the Jerusalem church and author of the eponymous letter—the Book of James. Participants in the study came from a range of countries, including the Netherlands, Iran, Mexico, Moldova and Cameroon. When I asked what the name of these men was in their languages, they all said “Jacob.”
When I was teaching a course on the New Testament General Letters (Hebrews through Jude), I began by introducing the Book of Jacob, also known as the Book of James. Students were perplexed until they learned that Jacob is the proper translation of the Greek name Iakōbos. One student wrote later that knowing this “turned my understanding of the writing upside down.” Another observed that “with the name change, the loss of the Jewish lineage occurs.”
So how did the Jewish name Ya’akov become so Gentilized as James? Since the 13th century, the form of the Latin name Iacomus began its use in English. In the 14th century, John Wycliffe made the first Bible translation into English and translated Iakobus as James. (However, in both the Old and New Testaments he arbitrarily used the name Jacob for the patriarch). In all future English translations the name stuck, especially after 1611, when King James I sponsored the translation then called the Authorized Version. Since 1797 it has been called the King James Bible.
So what is lost by using James instead of Jacob? First, it has created an awkwardness in academic writing. Scholars providing a transliteration of James indicate Iakōbos, which even lay readers know is not the same. Hershel Shanks has noted that the reason Israeli scholars failed to understand the significance of the eponymous ossuary is that they didn’t connect James with Ya’akov.1
Second, James’s ancestral lineage is lost, as the student noted above. In Matthew’s genealogy, we learn that Joseph’s father was named Jacob (Matthew 1:16) and that his family tree included the patriarch Jacob (Matthew 1:2). James was thus named after his grandfather. As Ben Witherington writes, “It is clear that the family of ‘James’ was proud of its patriarchal heritage.”2 So Jacob was the third Jacob in the family.
Third, James’s Jewish cultural background is minimized. Tal Ilan identifies Jacob as the 15th most popular name in Palestine in antiquity, with 18 known persons carrying it.3 Including both the Eastern and Western Diasporas, Jacob was the third most popular Jewish name, with 74 occurrences.
Fourth, the Jewish literary heritage is muddled. The Book of Jacob (i.e., the Book of James) is addressed to “the twelve tribes in the diaspora” (James 1:1) and full of references and allusions to the Torah and Wisdom Literature of the Jewish Bible (Christians’ Old Testament). Scholars consider James the most “Jewish” book in the New Testament. Its genre is considered to be a diaspora letter like Jeremiah 29:1–23 and the apocryphal works The Epistle of Jeremiah, 2 Maccabees 1:1–2:18, and 2 Apocalypse of Baruch 78–86.
For these reasons, changing English translations of James to Jacob makes a lot of sense. In my lifetime we have adapted to a number of name changes: Bombay to Mumbai, Peking to Beijing, Burma to Myanmar, and Rhodesia to Zimbabwe. These changes were soon incorporated by the media as well as in subsequent editions of geographical and historical books. Making such an onomastic adjustment need not be too difficult in religious circles, either.
But can such a switch be made practically? Biblical scholars and publishers would need to agree that continued use of “James” is linguistically indefensible and culturally misleading. Most difficult to change would be Bible translations, which are very conservative. To start, a footnote could denote that James is really Jacob. And while we’re at it, let’s rehabilitate Jacob as the name of two of Jesus’ disciples/apostles. These connections, now lost only for English readers, were caught by Greek-speaking audiences as well as modern readers of translations in most other languages. Let’s give Jacob his due.
Hershel Shanks and Ben Witherington III, The Brother of Jesus: The Dramatic Story & Meaning of the First Archaeological Link to Jesus & His Family (New York: Harper Collins Publishers, 2003), p. 28.
Shanks and Witherington III, Brother of Jesus, p. 97.
Ṭal Ilan, Lexicon of Jewish Names in Late Antiquity. Part IV: The Eastern Diaspora 330 BCE–650 CE (Tübingen: Mohr Siebeck, 2011).
Until two years ago, St. Nicholas was little more than a legendary historical figure to me. Then my friend Stuart Bennett enlisted me as the academic resource to make a documentary video on his life—“St. Nicholas: The Real Story.” Researching his life and shooting scenes on location in Turkey and Italy gave me a fresh appreciation for this important church father and the legacy that he left. Here are some things about Nicholas that I learned from this experience.
According to tradition, Nicholas was born in Patara, the capital of Lycia. Paul stopped at its Mediterranean harbor to change ships on his way to Jerusalem on the third journey (Acts 21:1–2). Unfortunately the harbor is silted in today, but Turkish excavators have recently uncovered one of the two lighthouses that once guarded its entrance. The council building that housed the Lycian League, which Nicholas would have seen, has recently been restored. Alexander Hamilton and James Madison saw the league as an ancient model of government to imitate in the founding of the new republic.
Tradition holds that Nicholas was the only son of wealthy Christian merchants when this new faith was still illegal in the Roman Empire. The persecution inaugurated under Decius in 250 C.E. began to touch the local community of faith. In 258 C.E. two Patarans, Paregorius and Leo, were also among those martyred under the emperor Valerian. Into this hostile environment Nicholas was born around 260 C.E. It is believed that his parents died of the plague when Nicholas was young and that he made pilgrimages to Palestine and Egypt while a youth.
Nicholas was perhaps in his 20s when the story occurs that made him a legend. Near him lived a father and his three daughters who had fallen on hard times. Because the father was unable to supply a dowry for their marriages, he was considering an appalling alternative: to send them into prostitution for survival. Nicholas somehow learned what was happening and one night threw a bag of gold coins through his neighbor’s window. The father thanked God for this mysterious provision and arranged for the marriage of his eldest daughter. Encouraged that the father was using the gift properly, Nicholas returned some nights later and threw another bag of money through the window to provide the dowry for the middle daughter. After this marriage the father realized that the mysterious benefactor would probably repeat his previous actions. So he waited night after night for the stranger to return so he could thank him for his generosity. Of course, Nicholas provided the third dowry, and as he departed, the father caught the visitor and thanked him for saving his daughters from a life of debauchery. Not wanting to be exposed, Nicholas pleaded with the father to preserve his anonymity. However, the father was so moved by this young man’s generosity that he told everyone in town. And so the legend started about the generosity of Nicholas.
Sometime later Nicholas was ordained bishop of Myra, another major Lycian city east of Patara. Myra is known as the place where Paul changed ships at its port of Andriake on his captivity journey to Rome (Acts 27:5). The church at Myra had also experienced persecution under Valerian: the bishop Themistocles was martyred. Little is known about this period of Nicholas’ life other than he was busy discharging his duties as a pastoral leader in this important bishopric.
Trouble started again in 303 C.E. when Diocletian instigated another persecution that lasted for a decade. Copies of Scripture were destroyed and church property was confiscated. Christians were removed from public office and the military. Unless they sacrificed to the pagan gods and the emperor, they could not testify in court. The esteemed Methodius, bishop at the nearby Lycian city of Olympos, was martyred around this time. Diocletian’s junior colleague Galerius issued an additional edict in 304 ordering all bishops to be imprisoned and that all Christians make a public sacrifice or face punishment. Nicholas was undoubtedly among those bishops imprisoned and tortured, surviving the persecution to emerge as a “confessor.” On his deathbed Galerius issued another decree on April 30, 311, that repealed the anti-Christian laws on the condition that the Christians keep good order and pray for his safety.
However, that reprieve was short-lived. After Galerius’ death on May 5, 311, his successor Maximinus Daia reversed the decree and resumed the persecution of Christians. His actions were probably prompted in part by appeals from civic leaders in Asia Minor who were jealous of the rising power of bishops and wanted to curb the influence of this new faith. An important edict found in Arycanda is a copy of such a letter sent to Maximinus Daia and his co-emperor Licinius. The citizens of this Lycian city near Myra requested penalties be handed out to the “turbulent Christians” who had long suffered from “madness.” Their refusal to worship only Jesus was considered an offense to the established gods. An inscription found in the Pisidian city of Colbasa records Maximinus’ reply. He stated that apostates who had been restored to a good frame of mind from their blind ways could again enjoy a pleasant life. However, those Christians persisting in this abominable cult should be separated and removed from civic society.1 Eusebius (Church History 9.7.2-15) recorded a similar rescript from Maximinus that was seen in Tyre. This church historian from Caesarea Maritima wrote that many Christians in Phoenicia, Egypt, and Thebais also died at this time (Church History 8.7–9). He records that soldiers surrounded a Christian city in Phrygia, the region north of Lycia, and lit a fire that consumed every man, woman, and child in it (Church History 11.1). This was Nicholas’s world and of the church he was serving.
On June 13, 313 CE, that world was turned upside down again. The Christian apologist Lactantius (On the Death of Persecutors 48.2–12) tells us that Licinius, the new emperor of the Eastern Empire, issued an edict from his palace in Nicomedia that guaranteed religious freedom and restored confiscated property including churches. Christianity was finally a legal religion.
Over a decade later the emperor Constantine convened the first ecumenical council in 325 at his summer palace in Nicea. Whether Nicholas attended is debated as well as the number of delegates, for at least six lists exist. The list of early arrivals numbers only 200 including a sole delegate from Lycia, Eudemus of Patara. Multiple representatives participated from neighboring provinces, so the absence of delegates from Myra is noteworthy on the shorter lists. Eusebius of Caesarea names 250 attendees (Life of Constantine 3.9), Eustasthius of Antioch gives 270 (Theodoret, Church History 1.7) while Athanasius of Alexandria counts 318 (Letter to the Bishops of Africa 2). Since these three all attended the council, it is interesting that their numbers differ. However, all lists with at least three hundred bishops include the name of Nicholas. The difference in numbers and names among the lists perhaps stems from their time of arrival at the council.
One story from the Nicene council, seemingly spurious, is that Nicholas was so provoked when Arius was promulgating his heresy that he walked across the room and slapped the heretic’s face. The Roman historian Julian Bennett believes that Nicholas was not at the council and suggests that he did not “agree to the adoption of the homoousian creed decided there, with its identification of the Son as being of the same essence or substance with the Father.” Thus “the Christians of Lycia favoured strongly another doctrine, perhaps the doctrine espoused by Arius that had now been declared heretical.”2 That Nicholas was an Arian is highly speculative and indeed doubtful. If so, his reputation would certainly have been tarnished, and his memory undoubtedly suppressed and forgotten unless he had not been orthodox in faith.
Nicholas died sometime before 343 C.E. The list of bishops maintained by the current Metropolitan of Myra gives the date as December 6, 330. Over a century later his memory began to be venerated in Myra through the construction of a church in his honor. Two centuries later a second Nicholas, undoubtedly named after the legendary bishop, led a monastery at nearby Sion. He too was noted for his piety and miracles just like his namesake. Beginning in the ninth or tenth century the stories of the two became confused and combined, whether accidentally or deliberately. So it is difficult to know which Nicholas is being depicted in the scenes of the 12th-century frescoes in the Myra church annex. We do know that Nicholas of Myra became the patron saint of many, especially sailors, fishermen, and all things nautical, probably because his bishopric was in an important port city.
In 1087 merchants from Bari, Italy, stopped in Andriake harbor. Disguised as pilgrims, they went to the Myra church and stole Nicholas’s bones from his sarcophagus. These bones were installed in a new shrine in Bari that soon became an important pilgrimage center. Today these bones rest beneath the apse of the Cathedral of St. Nicholas in Bari. When restoration work was being done on the crypt in the 1950s, the Vatican allowed measurements and X-rays to be taken of Nicholas’s skull and other bones. From these, facial anthropologist Dr. Caroline Wilkinson constructed a model of the saint’s head in 2004. Using 3D interactive technology in 2014, Dr. Wilkinson updated the facial reconstruction. The results show a man in his 60s with a long beard, round head, and square jaw whose severely broken nose had healed asymmetrically. How the nose was broken is unknown, but torture under persecution might account for the disfigurement.3
Research about the historical Nicholas continues to be conducted by a Dominican priest, Dr. Gerardo Cioffari at the St. Nicholas Study Center in Bari, which was founded by him in 1990.4 One document that has caught Cioffari’s attention is the Praxis de Stratelatis (“Practice of Military Officers”) that was written by an anonymous Greek author around 400 C.E. The Praxis describes how Nicholas rescued three innocent civilians who had been falsely accused of stealing from local Myrans. The Roman governor Eustathius had ordered their execution, but Nicholas intervened by grabbing the sword from the executioner. After releasing the men from their chains, he rushed to the governor’s office and confronted Eustathius. Nicholas chastised him and accused him of corruption, even threatening to inform the emperor Constantine about his evil governance. If historical, and Cioffari thinks it is, this episode well portrays the fearlessness of Nicholas.
As mentioned in the opening, I’ve become much more aware of things related to Nicholas. His relics can be found in many churches and museums, including our local archaeology museum in Antalya. Churches and chapels dedicated to Nicholas have been built on every continent. A gazetteer of these on the St. Nicholas Center website lists hundreds, many with pictures. While recently visiting a colleague at Radboud University in Nijmegen, I made it a point to visit the 11th-century St. Nicholas Chapel there, one of the oldest buildings in the Netherlands. On a family cruise to Alaska in 2016 we stopped in Juneau and made our way to the St. Nicholas Orthodox Church built in 1894. It has been on the National Register of Historic Places since 1974. The St. Nicholas Orthodox Church in New York City, destroyed when the south tower fell on September 11, 2011, was rebuilt and dedicated on September 11, 2017. Designed by well-known architect Santiago Calatrava, the plan of the church draws its inspiration from the Hagia Sophia and Chora Churches in Istanbul, ancient Constantinople. To see this church is a certain stop the next time I visit New York.
St. Nicholas is more than just a holly, jolly saint to be remembered once a year at Christmas. Rather his holy life of generosity, bravery, and service continues to inspire people everywhere all year long.
Stephen Mitchell, “Maximinus and the Christians in A.D. 312: A New Latin Inscription,” Journal of Roman Studies 78 (1988), pp. 105–24.
Julian Bennet, “Christianity in Lycia: From its Beginnings to the ‘Triumph of Orthodoxy,’” Adalya 18 (2015), p. 270.
This reconstruction along with other depictions of Nicholas can be found on the website of the St. Nicholas Center: www.stnicholascenter.org/pages/real-face.
Dr. Cioffari publishes his research in a newsletter called “St. Nicholas News.”
This Bible History Daily feature was originally published on October 11, 2017.
Myra is on my top-ten list of Biblical sites in Turkey. Often bypassed by groups because it is out of the way, Myra (modern Demre) is a two-hour scenic drive through the Taurus Mountains and along the Mediterranean coast from Antalya. The international airport at Antalya makes it an ideal jumping-off point for your excursion. Along the way you might want to stop at Limyra, where Austrian archaeologist Martin Seyer discovered two menorah plaques recently chronicled in Biblical Archaeology Review.1 The nearby town of Finike is noted for the best oranges in Turkey, so have a freshly squeezed glass from a roadside vendor while passing through.
Thirty minutes later—after driving along a VERY curvy coastal road—you’ll arrive in central Demre. There signs point to the Noel Baba Müzesi, that is, the Museum of St. Nicholas, whose life serves as the foundation for the Santa Claus tradition. In the late third and early fourth centuries, Nicholas was the bishop of Myra.
In the fifth century, a church dedicated to Nicholas was built in Myra, but archaeologists know little about this early phase. After an earthquake in 529 C.E., the church was repaired, and remains of this sixth-century structure are the earliest found at the site. The sixth-century church was typical of the period; it had a central nave with an apse facing east and aisles on each side. It was entered from the west via a courtyard and then a narthex. Over the centuries, the church was modified numerous times, especially from the ninth through 13th centuries.
Frescoes depicting scenes from the life of St. Nicholas adorn the church. For example, the story of the gift of the dowries—when St. Nicholas secretly provided dowries for a poor man’s three daughters by tossing bags of gold into the house through an open window at night—appears in the 12th-century grave room. The narthex also features scenes of six of the ecumenical councils held in Turkey. The floors still contain remnants of the colorful opus sectile mosaics that originally covered them.2
Pilgrims, mainly Russians, stop in the south nave to pray at a sarcophagus believed to belong to St. Nicholas. However, the sarcophagus in the grave room is a better candidate. It has two holes drilled in the top of its lid through which oil was poured to pass over the bones. This oil was then collected and distributed to pilgrims. (This custom is still practiced at the cathedral in Bari, Italy, where Nicholas’s bones were taken in 1087.) Unlike many churches in Turkey, the Church of St. Nicholas was never converted into a mosque.
While filming a video on the life of St. Nicholas in 2015, I met the Turkish archaeologists led by Dr. Sema Dogan of Hacettepe University, who are still excavating the church. Their ongoing work of preservation and restoration is challenging because tens of thousands of visitors file through the church each year. The current excavations west of the courtyard are uncovering additional rooms and crypts related to the church. To get to these areas, the excavators must dig through 10–12 feet of alluvium deposited by the Myros River over the centuries. Their work further clarifies the use of the church complex during the Byzantine period.
If you happen to be in Myra on December 6, as I was in 2016, you can participate in the annual Orthodox service celebrating St. Nicholas’s feast day. The church museum is open daily from 8 a.m. to 5 p.m. November–March, 8 a.m. to 7 p.m. April–October. The current admission cost is 20 Turkish lira (about $5).
The well-preserved Roman theater of Myra is located 1 mile north of the church at the base of Myra’s ancient acropolis. Built in the second century C.E., its capacity was 11,500 persons. Nearby are excellent examples of Lycian rock-cut tombs. The Lycian civilization flourished in this region during the first millennium B.C.E. With a columned façade, the house- and temple-style tombs are the most visible reminder of Myra’s rich culture.
From the theater, it is a short drive to the harbor where tourist boats depart regularly on Mediterranean day trips. In antiquity this was Andriake, the harbor of Myra. The apostle Paul, who was a prisoner at the time, stopped here on his journey to Rome and changed to an Alexandrian grain ship (Acts 27:5). The harbor lagoon is now silted, but the settlement has recently been excavated by a team of Turkish archaeologists led by Nevzat Çevik of Akdeniz University. In 2009, their excavations uncovered one of three ancient synagogues found in Turkey (the others are at Sardis and Priene).
Accommodations in Demre are limited to only one hotel, but 45 minutes west is the picturesque coastal town of Kas (pronounced Kash), ancient Antiphellos. Situated opposite the Greek island of Kastellorizo, Kas offers many hotels and pensions. Plan to stay a couple of nights, for Myra and its surrounding area are so archaeologically rich that it takes several days to see everything.
“Site-Seeing: The Hometown of Santa Claus” by Mark Wilson was originally published in the November/December 2017 2017 issue of Biblical Archaeology Review. It was first republished in Bible History Daily on December 4, 2017.
Was Roman emperor Domitian really the great persecutor of Christians?
As I revisited a critical biography of the Roman emperor Domitian by the scholar Brian W. Jones recently,1 I was reminded that “alternative facts” and “fake news” are not just a contemporary phenomenon. On occasion ancient writers similarly tried to spin their version of the truth. Jones tackles the familiar line that Domitian, who reigned between 81 and 96 C.E., was a great persecutor of Christians. This “fact” is now standard stock in much popular writing on the book of Revelation and is even found in some scholarly tomes. In his discussion, Jones carefully rehearses how this “fact” developed.
Eusebius in his Church History (CH) provides the first reference to Domitian persecuting the church. Writing over three centuries later in the early fourth century C.E., this ancient Christian historian first quotes Melito of Sardis, who mentioned that Domitian brought slanderous accusations against Christians (CH 4.26.9). He also cites Tertullian, who claimed that Domitian was cruel like the emperor Nero (r. 54–68 C.E.), but that Domitian was more intelligent, so he ceased his cruelty and recalled the Christians he had exiled (CH 3.20.9). Eusebius also quotes Irenaeus, who claimed Domitian’s persecution consisted only of John’s banishment to Patmos and the exile of other Christians to the island of Pontia (CH 3.18.1, 5).
Despite these cautious statements by three earlier authors, Eusebius then spun his own alternative fact by claiming that Domitian, like Nero, had “stirred up persecution against us” (“anekinei diōgmon”; CH 3.17). From here the tradition was enlarged by Orosius (d. 420 C.E.), who, in his History Against the Pagans, wrote that Domitian issued edicts for a general and cruel persecution (7.10.5). Despite a lack of evidence, Jones observes that the tradition concerning Domitian’s persecution persists: “From a frail, almost non-existent basis, it gradually developed and grew large.”2 Thus the alternative facts sown by these ancient historians grew to a truism of Christian history.
No pagan writer of the time ever accused Domitian, as they had Nero, of persecuting Christians. Pliny, for example, served as a lawyer under Domitian and wrote in a letter to Trajan (r. 98–117 C.E.) that he was never present at the trial of a Christian (Letters 10.96.1). This is a strange claim for one of Domitian’s former officials if Christian persecution were so prevalent. The archaeologist Julian Bennett, who has written a biography of Trajan, also fails to mention any general persecution of Christians at this time. Domitian’s execution of Clemens has sometimes been linked to the senator’s apparent “atheism,” a term sometimes given to Christians. However, there is no “smoking gun” linking Clemens’s death to Christian persecution.3 So Jones concludes, “No convincing evidence exists for a Domitianic persecution of the Christians.”4
A related “fact” is that Domitian claimed the title Dominus et Deus (“Lord and God”). The evidence here is mixed. The poet Statius (Silvae 1.6.83–84) states that Domitian rejected the title Dominus as his predecessor Augustus (the first Roman emperor) had done. The historian Suetonius (Life of Domitian 13.2) does report that Domitian dictated a letter that began, “Our Lord and Master orders…,” but it was only his sycophantic officials who began to address him in this way. The story was again embellished by later historians to the point that Domitian is said to have ordered its use. Jones thinks the story incredible because Domitian was known for his habitual attention to theological detail in traditional Roman worship, so he would not have adopted such inflammatory divine language. After their deaths, the best that emperors could hope for was to be called Divus (Divine), not Deus (God). If Domitian were such a megalomaniac who ordered worship to himself, why haven’t any inscriptions been found using this formula? In fact, no epigraphic evidence exists attesting to Christians being forced to call him “Lord and God.”
Why is Domitian’s legacy so clouded in the ancient sources? Domitian’s assassination in 96 C.E. brought an end to the Flavian dynasty, and the dynasty founded by Nerva, the next Roman emperor, lasted into the third century C.E. Because Domitian had offended the aristocratic elite, the Senate ordered the damnation of his memory. Even though Suetonius (Domitian 8.1) stated that Domitian carefully and conscientiously administered justice, later writers such as Dio Chrysostom (67.2.4) perpetuated his damaged reputation using alternative facts.
Jones writes as a Roman historian outside of Biblical studies, but a New Testament scholar has similarly articulated this view. Leonard Thompson notes that a more critical reading of Eusebius raises doubts about a widespread persecution of Christians under Domitian. He concludes that “most modern commentators no longer accept a Domitianic persecution of Christians.”5 Some writers consider Revelation as a source for a persecution by Domitian, although John never identifies a specific emperor. If so, then Revelation would be the only ancient source pointing to such a persecution.
Over two decades since two Roman historians and a Revelation scholar have pronounced a Domitianic persecution moribund, such claims continue to circulate in articles, books and sermons. This shows how long it takes to repudiate “alternative facts” that have circulated for over 1,500 years in Christendom. Literary texts may sow alternative facts, but archaeological realia, such as inscriptions and coins, have assisted in discrediting those alleged facts. The “fake news” that Domitian instigated a severe persecution of Christians and that his claim to be “Master and God” provoked this persecution needs to be removed from our “facts” about the early church.
Brian W. Jones, The Emperor Domitian (New York: Routledge, 1992).
Jones, Emperor Domitian, p. 114.
Julian Bennett notes that the charge against Clemens and his family was that they had adopted Jewish religious ways. He then considers whether Judaism or Christianity is meant and opts for the latter as “more likely.” See Julian Bennett, Trajan: Optimus Princeps (London: Routledge, 1997), p. 68.
Jones, Emperor Domitian, p. 117.
Leonard L. Thompson, The Book of Revelation: Apocalypse and Empire (Oxford: Oxford Univ. Press, 1990), p. 16.
The business of archaeology is booming these days in Turkey. For some sites, there is no longer a “season” for excavations; they continue year round. With each new discovery, this mantra is repeated: “More tourists will now visit the site.” To house all the fresh finds, new museums are being built. So I recently hit the road to see several of these.
While the archaeology museum in Antakya (ancient Antioch) was formerly in the city center, the new Hatay Archaeological Museum has been built north of the city past the Grotto of Saint Peter. Its displays are arranged chronologically with excellent presentations of the nearby sites of Tell Atchana and Tell Tayinat. The “Smurf-like” statue of King Suppiluliuma grabs one’s attention. The Roman period is represented with a well-preserved milestone from the period of Vespasian. Pride of place still goes to the Late Roman mosaics from the villas and bathhouses of nearby Daphne. However, their restoration has been shrouded in controversy with charges of an incompetent job. Compared to the mosaics in the other museums that I visited, the colors in these were dull and lifeless.
In Gaziantep I stopped at the Zeugma Mosaic Museum, the world’s largest mosaic museum. Although this museum is now several years old, I had only visited the old mosaic museum. Rescue excavations at Zeugma in the late 1990s on the Euphrates River brought to light outstanding mosaics from its Roman villas. These are now displayed in an attractive, well-lit fashion. I almost missed the mosaic with the iconic face of the gypsy girl, featured on all of the museum’s souvenirs. It is tucked away in its own corner room, so fortunately a guard directed me into its darkened corridor. This museum is a must-visit while in the area.
At Şanlıurfa I was astounded by the massive new archaeology museum there. Again arranged chronologically, artifacts from the Paleolithic site of Göbekli Tepe comprise many of these displays. The dioramas depicting life at that time were visually appealing to Turkish children visiting the museum. The artifacts from Late Antiquity were especially interesting because Edessa, the city’s ancient name, was a center of Syriac culture. The dress of the figures was definitely eastern, and their inscriptions were in Syriac. I was disappointed that no displays featured the rich Jewish and Christian history of Edessa, chronicled decades ago by Judah Segal. Several years ago construction work south of the museum revealed a number of mosaics. To their credit, local officials preserved the mosaics and built a large, dome over them. Unlike the mosaics in the museums at Antakya and Gaziantep, the mosaics in Urfa’s Haleplibahçe Museum are in situ. Displayed near the exit is the Orpheus mosaic repatriated from the Dallas Museum of Fine Art.
My visits to these super-sized new museums raised a comparison with the Ephesus Archaeology Museum that reopened earlier this year. Rather than build a new structure to house the multitudinous artifacts from Ephesus, Turkey’s most visited archaeological site, local authorities simply remodeled the old, small museum. The result is a disappointing display of familiar pieces with minimal explanation; for example, “Roman period.” Given that the Austrian Archaeological Institute has been excavating in Ephesus for over a century, it is surprising that the signage is not in German as well as in Turkish and English.
It is wonderful that the signage in these museums is now in English. But why isn’t a native English speaker brought in to proofread these? Frequent grammatical errors dotting these signs create an unnecessary annoyance. One object’s mistranslation brought a smile to my face in the museum at Urfa: “Wave Tunes.” The artifact was in a display of cooking utensils, and the Turkish phrase “Ezgi Taşı” should have been translated “Grinding Stone.”
Because of the unstable security situation along the Syrian border, few foreign tourists are visiting southeastern Turkey now. Our BAS trip to the area was cancelled two years ago. The only group that I saw was a small American one in the Gaziantep Museum. I purposely traveled by public bus between and in these cities and walked extensively in their streets. I never felt unsafe at all. Normal life continues, although many Syrian refugees can be seen in the cities. Hopefully the marvelous artifacts in these new archaeology museums will soon be seen by more than just local people.
Participants on my tours buy a variety of souvenirs—olive-wood crèches in Bethlehem, ceramics in Corinth, carpets in Ephesus and parchment in Pergamum. These days, however, I usually bring home only one thing—Starbucks mugs featuring archaeological sites.
On a recent trip to Crete I visited ancient Kydonia. Walking around the historic port of modern Chania, I saw the familiar Starbucks symbol. After drinking a cup of Ethiopian blend, I spotted a lacuna in my collection—Crete. The mug depicted the Minoan palace at Knossos. On this trip I also picked up the Rhodes mug showing the Doric Temple of Athena Lindia at Lindos. Paul visited both islands on his journeys (Acts 21:1; 27:7–13).
Starbucks has no shops in either Italy or Israel, so they are unrepresented in my collection. However, Turkey, Jordan, Greece and Cyprus are amply represented.
The city mug belonging to my hometown Antalya, ancient Attalia (Acts 14:25), depicts the temple of Apollo in Side. Only six columns still stand at the temple, which is now under restoration. A second Antalya mug depicts the theater at Aspendus (see below), the best-preserved Roman theater in Turkey. With a capacity of 7,000 persons, it still holds operatic performances. The back of the mug shows the falls of the Katarrhactes mentioned by the geographer Strabo, which today cascade over 100 feet into the Mediterranean Sea. Nearby is Magydus, the seaport of Perga, where Paul arrived in Pamphylia (Acts 13:13).
The Ankara mug shows its ancient citadel with walls dating from the Hellenistic to Ottoman periods. Ancient Ancyra, Turkey’s capital today, was formerly a Galatian center before becoming the capital of the Roman province of Galatia in 25 B.C.E. The colorful mug from Bodrum (ancient Halicarnassus) displays the Castle of the Knights of St. John on the back. Built with stones from the Tomb of Mausolus, one of the seven wonders of the ancient world, the castle now houses the noted Museum of Underwater Archaeology. Last but not least, the Turkey country mug shows the monumental heads of King Antiochus and some of the Commagenian gods standing on Mount Nemrut. This tumulus, 161 feet tall and 499 feet in diameter, was constructed in the first century B.C.E. and is a UNESCO World Heritage Site.
The Cyprus city mug shows the Greco-Roman theater at Kourion. Situated with its breath-taking view of the Mediterranean, it could seat some 3,500 spectators. The excavations there are now being led by my friend Tom Davis. A second Cyprus cup shows a rock-cut chamber from the Tombs of the Kings in Paphos, also a UNESCO World Heritage Site. Paul visited Paphos on his first journey (Acts 13:6).
The Jordan mug shows the Artemis temple at Gerasa (Jerash) completed during the reign of Antonius Pius. Eleven columns of the hextastyle portico still stand. Situated on a high point, the temple dominated Gerasa’s landscape.
On Thessaloniki’s city mug is its iconic structure—the White Tower. Although dating from the Ottoman period, it still reminds me of Paul’s multiple visits to the city (Acts 17:1; 20:2–3). Missing from my Greece collection, however, is the country mug depicting the tholos at Delphi and the Athens city mug showing the Parthenon. Hopefully on a future visit I can locate them.
I haven’t visited Egypt or Lebanon yet so more of the Biblical world still awaits me. Since the Starbucks mugs from these countries also feature archaeological sites, I look forward to adding them to my collection. It’s wonderful that this Seattle-based coffee vendor has put the archaeological wonders of the eastern Mediterranean on its mugs. Coffee drinkers like me get to appreciate them anew each time we take a sip.
Exploring the island of Rhodes, where Paul visited in the Bible
“Tradition, tradition! Tradition!” Tevye belts out in the opening song of the musical Fiddler on the Roof. In the world of Biblical archaeology, tradition can sometimes prove helpful. But as travelers on the recent BAS tour “Sailing with Paul in the Mediterranean” discovered, tradition can also provide a false trail.
We departed from the Turkish city of Marmaris and motored in our wooden-hulled gulet (schooner) to the Mandraki harbor on the Greek island of Rhodes. The visit was exciting for me, since I had never visited Rhodes before. Paul stopped at Rhodes during his third journey while returning to Jerusalem (Acts 21:1). But where? One purpose of our visit was to examine the historical and archaeological evidence related to his stopover.
Our Greek guide Maria met us on the quay to begin our walking tour of the town. At the base of the Crusader Castle near the shore, she pointed out where archaeologists believe the Colossus of Rhodes had stood. Completed around 280 B.C.E., this 100-foot-tall bronze statue of Zeus was one of the seven wonders of the ancient world before an earthquake toppled it in 226 B.C.E. Did Paul try to wrap his arms around one of its gigantic thumbs during his visit? Maybe, if this was where Paul had stopped. Tour highlights included visits to the impressive archaeology museum housed in the Hospital of the Knights of St. John built in the 15th century. At the Palace of the Grand Master a permanent exhibition presented the Hellenistic and Roman history of Rhodes. The polis was founded in 408 B.C.E. as a synoecism, or amalgamation of the island’s major towns. A major factor in locating the new city on the island’s northern tip was its five harbors. A map displayed in one hall illustrated these harbors: West, Military (Mandraki), Great, Acantia and South.
The next morning Maria led our BAS group on a 30-mile bus excursion down the eastern coast to Lindos. This ancient town is situated spectacularly on the rock acropolis of a small peninsula that overlooks the sea. Our first stop was at the so-called St. Paul’s Bay. Tradition states that Paul’s ship sought shelter in this small, sheltered harbor during a storm. The archaeological guide to Lindos produced by the Hellenic Ministry of Culture studiously omits any reference to such a visit. Yet a large sign and a small Christian chapel pointedly remind visitors that this is where Paul stopped in 57 C.E. Lindos was an archaeological highlight of our visit to Rhodes. I was particularly impressed by the relief dating to 180 B.C.E. of a trihemiolia carved into the rock near the base of the acropolis. This military vessel was developed by the Rhodians to counter the swift warships of the pirates. Even after the Romans abolished their navy in 46 B.C.E., the Rhodians continued to display a few as ceremonial vessels. So Paul undoubtedly saw such ships in the Rhodes harbor during his visit.
Sometimes tradition can point us toward history. But in the case of Rhodes the tradition about Lindos is dubious. Instead history suggests that Paul actually landed in Rhodes town. Why would the captain of his coasting vessel sail the extra distance to Lindos when some of the Mediterranean’s best harbors were at hand? In his account of this voyage in Acts 20–21, Luke names specific harbors, not just the general names of islands. And Patara, the next stop on the Anatolian coast, lay directly east. As our BAS group sat on the deck and bid farewell to the harbors of Rhodes, our gaze fell upon the same waters that welcomed Paul some 1,950 years ago.
Explore a Pauline site on Crete with Dr. Mark Wilson
Mother’s Day found me in the Tsiknakis country bakery on the island of Crete. I was eating a muffin and drinking a cappuccino while sending good wishes to my wife Dindy via Skype. My morning started at Fair Havens—Kalloi Limenoi—where I took photos of the harbor where Paul’s ship had stopped on his voyage to Rome (Acts 27:8–12). The ugly facilities of a modern oil terminal failed to dispel the magic of the location. Here Paul had tried to persuade the ship’s owner, its captain and his guard that continuing on their voyage could prove fatal. However, the promise of a large payout, if successful, caused them to ignore Paul’s warning. What did Paul know anyway? Quite a bit actually: He had already experienced three shipwrecks and had spent a day and night adrift at sea (2 Corinthians 11:25–26).
My drive westward had taken numerous turns along a spectacular coastal route beneath Crete’s White Mountains. A weather phenomenon related to these mountains is well known to meteorologists: northerly winds from the Aegean strike their northern face. After ascending to its peaks, the winds then flow down the southern slopes and cause intense turbulence in the sea below. A blast of air from the northeast—the Euraquilo—caused the tremendous storm that threatened Paul’s ship (Acts 27:13–15).
The plan had been for Paul’s ship to winter in Phoenix, a port with natural harbors facing southwest and northwest. My own travel to Phoenix was easy: Disembarking by ferry from Hora Sfakion, I arrived at its eastern harbor, modern Loutro. I passed the ruins of ancient Phoenix as I followed the path to the other side of the peninsula. A half hour later I was drinking iced coffee in the Old Phoenix Hotel. A copper plate hanging on a wall caught my attention: It was a wind rose written in ancient Greek. A month earlier I had never heard of wind roses. But after reading a doctoral dissertation by Dan Davis on ancient sailing on the Mediterranean, I knew their purpose. Ancient sailors used these graphs, which name either eight or twelve winds, as primitive compasses to orient themselves on the open sea and to determine the direction for sailing. A wind rose naming the Euraquilo wind was found inscribed in a stone pavement in Thugga, Tunisia. The Tower of the Winds in Athens is the most famous example of a wind rose with personifications of the eight winds carved on its elegant friezes.
But Phoenix was not to be for Paul. The Euraquilo caused Paul’s ship to be blown south toward the island of Cauda, modern Gavdos. My hope was to visit Cauda also, but the ferry’s twice-weekly schedule did not fit mine. Cauda likewise failed to provide a refuge for Paul’s ship, which was cast adrift for two weeks with 276 persons aboard before wrecking on the coast of Malta (Acts 27).
As I looked back at Phoenix’s eastern harbor from the ferry returning to Sfakion, I got to thinking: What if Paul’s ship had made it there? He wouldn’t have had an angelic visitation announcing the salvation of all on board. Paul wouldn’t have received the hospitality of Malta’s governor Publius or healed his father. Phoenix represented those “might have been” places that I had never reached either. But Paul did eventually arrive at his goal: Rome. And I decided that I will arrive at my destination too, if I persevere and don’t dwell on the places that might have been.
Basilika Therma. Photo: Mark WilsonOrganizing and leading archaeological tours in the Middle East can be challenging, given its unstable political situation. Two years ago when I planned that the BAS Abraham Country’s tour begin in southeastern Turkey, I was unable to divine that in mid-September 2013, a perfect political storm would develop. Ten days before the tour was to begin, the U.S. State Department issued a travel warning that strongly discouraged nonessential travel to the region. The American embassy in Ankara told me by phone that the consulate in Adana was closed and that there would be no support in the region should an incident occur. The reason: the anniversary of 9/11, the anniversary of the consulate deaths in Benghazi and the threatened air strikes in Syria. So we were forced to cancel the Urfa-Tarsus portion of the tour. I quickly revised the itinerary, and Tutku Tours scrambled to make new domestic flight and hotel reservations. Needless to say, the registrants were greatly disappointed that these last-minute adjustments had to be made, because they had looked forward to visiting the archaeological wonders of southeastern Turkey. Despite this, 21 of 23 of them still decided to come.
The upside was that the group got to see other significant archaeological sites. At Limyra, Austrian archaeologist Martin Seyer gave a personal tour of the site, including a look at a possible synagogue discovered at the city’s East Gate. A visit to the Neolithic site of Çatalhöyük helped assuage the disappointment of not seeing Göbekli Tepe. Ours became the first American group to visit the new excavations at Derbe with a personal tour provided by student archaeologists from Konya University. Our “brief” stop at the Roman bath complex at Basilika Therma (Sarıkaya) turned into an interesting cultural experience. The local Turkish Radio and Television (TRT) reporter showed up and interviewed our guide Meltem Çiftçi and me. According to the archaeologist from the Yozgat Museum, we were likewise the first American group to visit this new excavation.
The final stop on Day 5 was at the nearly mile-high fortress of Kerenes Dağ (Mountain), tentatively identified by its excavators as ancient Pteria of the Medes, a city best remembered from Herodotus’s accounts of the campaigns of the legendary king Croesus. The Medes are well known from the Bible with Darius their most famous king (Daniel 5:31; 11:1). In 612 B.C.E., the Medes allied themselves with the Babylonians and overthrew the Neo-Assyrian kingdom. They then expanded westward into central Anatolia. Led by King Cyaxares, they engaged the Lydians under Alyattes II in a five-year war that culminated in the “Battle of the Eclipse” on May 28, 585 B.C.E. The eclipse was interpreted as a heavenly sign that hostilities should cease, so a peace treaty was brokered. The Halys (Kızılırmak) River became the Median kingdom’s western boundary and Pteria its western capital. Kerkenes Dağ is the largest Iron Age city discovered on the Anatolian plateau. As our group climbed into the city, we could see part of its 4.4 mile-long defensive wall made of solid, uncut stone that is visible from space. Most impressive was the excavated Cappadocian Gate with its glacis walls and entrance with five towers. The city is believed to have been burned and abandoned a generation after its founding, when the last Median king Astyages was overthrown by Cyrus the Great in 550 B.C.E. The Medes were then absorbed into the Achaemenid Empire, and with the Persians became its two most important peoples (Daniel 5:28; 6:8, 12, 15).
None of the aforementioned sites were in the original itinerary. By the tour’s end, the participants expressed enthusiasm with the new agenda and the outstanding sites they had seen. So the serendipities of archaeological travel can sometimes provide alternative gems.