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In the mid-20th century,...
In the mid-20th century, the unearthing of the Dead Sea Scrolls—to cite just one of many modern finds—deepened our understanding of the Biblical world, its peoples, and their beliefs. Since then, new evidence has appeared—the Tel Dan inscription, the Merneptah Stele, and the Gabriel Revelation—with each revelation providing richer insights into the scriptural narrative and the way these stories were written and handed down, confirming the details of historical events and personages, or clarifying the meaning and chronology of biblical ideas.
Meticulous, scholarly, yet always accessible, this is required reading for anyone interested in both Old and New Testaments and the creeds, cultures, and civilizations of ancient Hebrews and early Christians alike.
As Sir Leonard Woolley and his team were excavating at Ur, they came upon a stratum very different from the rest–a uniform layer of clay that had clearly been deposited by water. This clay layer, wrote Woolley, “continued without challenge” through a depth of eight feet, when it ended as suddenly as it had appeared. The archaeologist could find only one possible explanation: It was, he concluded, unmistakable evidence of a great flood–and one “not less than 25 feet deep.” news of the discovery generated a buzz of excitement. Finally, it was claimed, here was evidence of the great Flood described in Genesis.
After continued excavations across Mesopotamia, other signs of greater and lesser flooding emerged. Soon it became clear that the ancient “land between the two rivers” was frequently submerged under the waters of the two rivers. The region was one that had repeatedly suffered mild to severe flooding. Literary evidence seems to point to one devastating deluge that may have taken place around 3000-2900 B.C.E., its impact so great that it was enshrined in a number of Mesopotamian myths and tales that have many similarities with the biblical account of the Flood. The most famous of these tales–the world’s first great work of literature–is the epic of Gilgamesh.
Our knowledge of the epic comes from inscribed clay tablets found in the library of Assyria’s king Ashurbanipal (ruled 669-627 B.C.E.) at Nineveh and at various other sites in Mesopotamia. Some 3,500 lines long, it recounts the adventures of Gilgamesh, the mighty warrior-king of Uruk. The epic also recalls an original state of innocence for humankind, a temptation, and a fall. And it tells how at one point, because humans made so much noise, the sleep-deprived gods determined to wipe them out in a great deluge that would cover the earth. However, the god Ea instructs a good man named Utnapishtim to save himself and his family by building a great ark. In language similar to God’s instructions to Noah in Genesis, chapter 6, Ea tells Utnapishtim: “Let her beam equal her length, let her deck be roofed like the vault that covers the abyss; then take up in the boat the seed of all living creatures.” Utnapishtim obeys. As the floodwaters begin to subside, he releases a dove, a swallow, and then a raven to test whether the earth had become habitable.
“In those days a decree went out from Caesar Augustus that all the world should be enrolled.” Luke 2:1-3
In his Antiquities of the Jews, Flavius Josephus recounts how, after the dismissal of Herod Archelaus, Emperor Augustus appointed new officials to carry out a census of Syria and Judea:
Now Cyrenius, a Roman senator . . . came at this time into Syria, with a few others, being sent by Caesar to be a judge of that nation, and to take an account of their substance. Coponius also, a man of the equestrian order, was sent together with him, to have the supreme power over the Jews. Moreover, Cyrenius came himself into Judea, which was now added to the province of Syria, to take an account of their substance, and to dispose of Archelaus’s money.
Coponius was the first prefect of Judea, who served under the authority of Cyrenius, Roman governor of Syria. The purpose of their census was taxation. The Jews resented the imposition of Roman taxes. And according to Josephus, “they took the report of a taxation heinously.” Indeed, one of their number, a certain Judas of Galilee, “became zealous to draw them to a revolt, who both said that this taxation was no better than an introduction to slavery, and exhorted the nation to assert their liberty.”
This, Josephus claims, marked the beginning of the Zealot movement. Despite its failures in this instance, the Zealots would go on to mount stiffer challenges to Roman rule in Judea. The census decreed by Augustus is also mentioned in the Gospel of Luke. In chapter 2, Luke writes: “This was the first enrollment when Quirinius [Cyrenius] was governor of Syria. And all went to be enrolled, each in his own city.”
The papyrus opposite, which dates from 160/161 C.E., records a census statement from a certain “Paesis” in response a census decree similar to the one that Joseph had to obey. This one was issued by Gaius Vibius Maximus, the Roman prefect in the province of Egypt, and commanded all in his province to return to their homes in order to give account of their wealth. The papyrus fragment records the following from Paesis:
From Paesis son of Nebteichis . . . I declare for the house-by-house census of year 23 of our lord Antoninus Caesar: myself, Paesis, son of Nebteichis, over-age
72 years; Horus, my son whose mother is Athenais alias Kinna daughter of Besis, under-age in Year 23, 8 years; Women: Athenais alias Kinna, my wife 57 years; Tereus, my daughter, whose mother is the same; Athenais 40 years. And there are in the possession of my wife Athenais daughter of Besis son of Harpechis shares in landed property in Alabanthis, and in other places other shares inherited from her father in other landed property and appurtenances. And I swear by the Fortuna of Imperator Caesar Titus Aurelius Hadrianus Antoninus Augustus Pius . . .
Likewise, in response to Augustus’s decree, Joseph had to travel from his home in Galilee to register in Bethlehem in Judea. The journey was necessary, since Joseph was a descendant of the House of David, which was based in Bethlehem and was therefore the city in which he had to register. And so he set out from Nazareth.
In verse 5 of chapter 2, Luke adds more startling detail about Joseph’s journey: “He went there to be enrolled with Mary, his betrothed, who was with child.” By now, this may have been “old news” to Joseph. But when he first learned about Mary’s condition, Joseph had planned to “divorce her quietly.” Elsewhere in the gospels, though, an angel is said to have appeared to Joseph and told him that Mary’s conception was through the Holy Spirit. Thus, they traveled together from Galilee to Bethlehem. Luke 2:6 then announces the next dramatic development in the story, “While they were there, the time came for her to be delivered.”