A 1,500 year old Byzantine basilica has been discovered in the village of Aluma, near Tel Aviv, Israel. Interestingly, archaeologists also discovered there an ornate floor mosaic, which contains, among other things, a "Christogram."
In a Yahoo! news article reporting the discovery (appearing originally on LiveScience), excavator Davida Eisenberg Degen claims the christogram is a "type of monogram of the name of Jesus," but this is incorrect. That same Yahoo! news article claims that the christogram is a "like a 'chi rho' symbol, which puts together the first two captial [sic] letters in the Greek word for Christ, and often looks like an X superimposed on a P." Later in the news article, the author refers to the symbol as a "chi rho." This description is also incorrect, as it is not a "chi-rho" device at all. Rather, this symbol is a stand-alone staurogram that occurs quite frequently in early Christian art and manuscripts. The tau-rho compendium is formed by superimposing the Greek letter rho onto the tau.
From what we can observe, it seems that in its earliest form the staurogram was written by Christian scribes as part of a nomen sacrum ("sacred name") for the words "cross" (σταύρος) and "crucify" (σταυρόω) in reference to Jesus' death on the cross. But the symbol eventually came to be used as a standalone visual reference to Jesus' crucifixion, which is precisely what we have here in the floor mosaic discovered in Aluma. Here is an example of a standalone staurogram or tau-rho device:
Contra Degen, the staurogram is not a "type of monogram of the name of Jesus." In his book The Earliest Christian Artifacts, Larry Hurtado, who has written about the staurogram more than anyone else, explains that "[the staurogram's] component letters neither derive from nor refer to Jesus' name or any of the familiar christological titles...and therefore the tau-rho is not a monogram in the proper sense" (pp. 139-140). Therefore, it is not a monogram or chi-rho. In my opinion, the title of the Yahoo! news article is also misleading ("Ancient Church Mosaic with Symbol of Jesus Uncovered in Israel"), since the symbol is not one of Jesus per se.
The find is certainly significant and my comments are not meant to detract from it. But the explanations and designations of this device are incorrect and I would encourage the media to consult scholars for additional opinions on such matters before taking it straight to the public. For those interested in learning more about the Christian staurogram, see chapter 4 in Larry W. Hurtado, The Earliest Christian Artifacts: Manuscripts and Christian Origins (Grand Rapids: Eerdmans, 2006).
Since Christmas is quickly approaching, I thought I would point my readers to a fantastic article by Stephen Carlson published in NTS in 2010 titled, "The Accommodations of Joseph and Mary in Bethlehem: Κατάλυμα in Luke 2.7." Carlson's study turns the traditional interpretation of the "inn" as being a kind of ancient hotel on its head. He also denies the view that Jesus was born in a stable or barn. Through a detailed lexical and semantic analysis of κατάλυμα and Jewish patrilocal marital customs during the time of Jesus, Carlson demonstrates that the reference to κατάλυμα in Luke 2.7 alludes to a marital chamber built on top, or onto the side of, the main room of a family village home. According to Carlson, the phrase διότι οὐκ ἦν αὐτοῖς τόπος ἐν τῷ καταλύματι should be rendered "because they did not have room in their place to stay." The reference to "their place" is the marital chamber attached to the family village home of Joseph where the married couple would have stayed for some time before finding their own place. Since there was no space in their room, Mary had to give birth in the larger main room of the house, where the rest of the family slept. Carlson also shows that it was common for a "manger" to be present in the main room of most Jewish homes and so this detail of the birth account is in keeping with Jewish living customs. I quote Carlson's conclusion found on page 342 of the article:
"Luke's infancy narrative therefore presupposes the following events. Joseph took his betrothed Mary from Nazareth to Bethlehem (2.5). Bethlehem was his hometown (v. 3) and, in accordance with the patrilocal marital customs of the day, it must also have been the place where they finalized their matrimonial arrangements by bringing her into his home. As a newly married man, he no longer would have to sleep in the main room of the village house with his other relatives, but he and his bride could stay in a marital chamber attached to the house until they could get a place of their own. They stayed there for some time until she came to full term (v. 6), and she gave birth to Jesus in the main room of the house rather than in her marital apartment because it was too small, and she laid the newborn in one of those mangers (v. 7) common to the main room of an ancient farmhouse. After staying at least another forty days in Bethlehem (v. 22; cf. Lev 12.2–8), Joseph and Mary eventually moved to Nazareth to make their home together in her family's town (v. 39; cf. 1.26–27). To be sure, this scenario as presupposed in Luke's infancy account diverges greatly from the conventional Christmas story. There is no inn, no innkeeper, and no stable. But it is grounded in a careful exegesis of the text."
This is one of those articles that can be described as truly being groundbreaking. Carlson's conclusions are so convincing that it would take considerable evidence to overturn them. Indeed, some may be uncomfortable with how this evidence changes the face of the traditional Christmas story, but it is, as Carlson admits, "grounded in a careful exegesis of the text." This article needs to be circulated widely, not only among academics, but also pastors and lay people alike, because it has serious implications for how we should understand this story as told by Luke. Carlson has posted this article on his personal website and it can be found here. Happy reading and happy holidays to all!
One of the questions for my New Testament comprehensive exam was: "How did Rudolf Bultmann contribute to the field of New Testament studies? What was his perspective on Historical Jesus research?" I am glad this question appeared on my exam because I have always been a fan of Bultmann. His History of the Synoptic Tradition is one of the first places I go when I want to learn more about a certain pericope, and his New Testament Theology is just remarkable. One may not agree with all of Bultmann’s conclusions, but one cannot deny that he was always barking up the right tree. One of my favorite quotes about Bultmann is by the famous English systematic theologian, Ian Henderson (1910-1969). Here is what Henderson says:
"Quite a lot of people have got round to writing refutations of Bultmann by now. The fact that there is always room for one more gives rise to the uneasy suspicion that some of the earlier writers may have underestimated their theological prey and made the mistake of going hunting for a tiger with a .22 rifle."
P.S.: For those who don't know anything about guns and hunting, a .22 caliber rifle is a small gun that would hardly kill a tiger. But I suspect that this could easily be deduced from the context.
The healing of Jairus' daughter in Mark 5:41 is described in the Greek New Testament in this way:
καὶ κρατήσας τῆς χειρὸς τοῦ παιδίου λέγει αὐτῇ·
ταλιθα κουμ, ὅ ἐστιν μεθερμηνευόμενον· τὸ κοράσιον, σοὶ λέγω, ἔγειρε.
"And grasping the hand of the child, he said to her:
'Talitha koum,' which means, 'Little girl, I say to you, get up!'"
There has been some discussion in modern scholarship about whether or not the phrase "Talitha koum" constitutes a magic word in the context of Jesus' healing. Aside from that question, however, there are a few variants of this phrase in the manuscript tradition and it is not at all clear which form the author of Mark actually wrote. The first reading, and what many would identify as the earliest recoverable reading, is ταλιθα κουμ, which is attested, among others, in Codex Sinaiticus (01), as seen here:
There is another variant that is slightly different: ταλιθα κουμι. The variation between κουμ and κουμι reflects the difference in gender of the Aramaic imperative singular; Cranfield refers to this form as "Palestinian." κουμι is found in many manuscripts, including Codex Alexandrinus (02) as seen here:
The NA27/NA28 cite Alexandrinus as reading κουμι, but the exact reading, confirmed by the image above, is κουμει (itacism).
Another interesting variant is found in Codex Washingtonianus (032) and a few other manuscripts: ταβιθα. Most exegetes attribute this variant to scribal confusion of the proper name Tabitha in Acts 9:40. Interestingly, it would seem that that story of Peter's healing of the girl in Acts 9:40 is modeled on this story in Mark. In Acts, Peter says to the girl, "Ταβιθά ἀνάστηθι." So in Acts, ταλιθα has become Ταβιθα, a proper name, and some scribe of Mark likely introduced this reading into Mark 5:41 on the basis of Acts 9:40—which is itself a mistake of Mark 5:41! Here is the reading in Codex W:
Now if that isn't confusing enough, then there is this bizarre reading of Codex Bezae (05): ῥαββι θαβιτα κουμι.
This is often explained as a mistake for ραβιθα, the Greek transliteration of the Aramaic dialectal form רביתא, meaning "girl." But if this is right, then how does one explain the doubling of the betas, and the (redundant?) ending βιτα?
Another question concerns the origin of this saying. Did Mark's author create it? Did Jesus actually say it? If not, then why was an Aramaic expression used? Cranfield's concusion is that "the original words were remembered and valued as being the actual words used by Jesus on a memorable occasion" (The Gospel According to Mark, Cambridge, 1972, p. 190). What we do know is that some scribes wrestled with the reading, whether it was due to an unfamiliarity with the Aramaic language, a mistake, or a conflation with Acts 9:40.