Robert L. Millet Blog Posts
Publications Director of BYU Religious Studies Center
POSTED BY: holzapfel
This past month Andrew Lawler published an essay on the Dead Sea Scrolls in the Smithsonian magazine (“Who Wrote the Dead Sea Scrolls?” [January 2010]: 40–47). The media likes controversy, and Lawler highlights it in this interesting essay.
Since the first discoveries in 1947, the Dead Sea Scrolls have captured the imagination of the public, including Latter-day Saints. The importance of these textual discoveries on the northwestern shore of the Dead Sea can hardly be overestimated. They open an important window onto the past, particularly for the period when the paucity of sources made it frustrating for scholars attempting to reconstruct the Jewish world during the intertestamental period. They also illuminate the world of John the Baptist and Jesus of Nazareth, although it is doubtful that either of them spent time at the site where the scrolls were copied.
In the end, some 800 manuscripts were found in eleven caves near the northwest shore of the Dead Sea. Among them were the oldest copies of the Old Testament, except for the book of Esther. Additionally, numerous unknown texts were discovered at the site, increasing our appreciation for the complex and interesting world of Second Temple Judaism. Most of the manuscripts are written with square Hebrew characters (Aramaic or Assyrian script), but a few manuscripts exhibit what scholars call the Paleo-Hebrew script. The dating of the manuscript range from as early as 300 BC until just before the Romans destroyed the site in AD 68.
From the very beginning, many scholars believed those who collected, copied, and hid the massive library were the Essenes, a first-century Jewish sect known only, until the discovery of the Dead Sea Scrolls, by what other people had written about them. Scholars never unanimously accepted the identification, although a majority has done so reasoning that it as the best explanation for the documents and the site.
In the latest installment of the debate, some consensus has been reached. There is almost universal agreement that many of the scrolls found at the Dead Sea were not produced at the Dead Sea site. One of the current theories, highlighted in Lawler’s article, is that Jews fleeing the advancing Roman army during the Jewish War gathered at Qumran, a fort, and brought with them the writings they felt were sacred and important. This proposal suggest that “the scrolls reflect not just the views of a single dissident group [Essenes] . . . but a wider tapestry of Jewish thought” (p. 44).
If anyone ever wanted to get inside the world of academia to see how scholars deal with controversial topics, this essay will surprise and depress you as it highlights the intrigues of one such debate. In the end, the debate concerning who wrote the Dead Sea Scrolls will continue to attract attention, but it will most likely never be resolved, leading us to consider the possibilities.
POSTED BY: holzapfel
Hanukkah, the Jewish Feast of Dedication, begins this Friday night at sundown. The Hebrew word Hanukkah actually means “dedication.” The eight-day festival in 2009 runs from Saturday, December 12, to Saturday, December 19. It is a holiday period of considerable significance, both religiously and historically, to Jews the world over. But it should also be of some importance to Christians, including Latter-day Saints, for without the events celebrated in Hanukkah there would have been no Christmas.
Here’s the story: The ancient Jewish people in the land of Israel faced a grave threat when the Greco-Syrian despot Antiochus IV became king of the Seleucid empire in 175 BC. Syria controlled Judea at the time, but the Jews had been treated with tolerance by previous Syrian rulers. Antiochus IV, however, saw himself as a Greek deity in human form (he even adopted the name Epiphanes), and he set a goal to convert all the peoples of his realm to the worship of the Greek pantheon.
Seeking this goal with the Jews, Antiochus had his troops occupy Jerusalem and its Jewish temple, replacing the ceremonies that honored the God of Israel with pagan rites, and converting the edifice into a shrine for Zeus. The temple was defiled. Pigs were slaughtered on its altar by false priests in acts of disdain for the law of Moses and Jewish values.
Jewish religion in general was outlawed. The scriptures (books of what we call the Old Testament) were confiscated and burned. Jewish ordinances and practices, such as circumcision and prayer to the Lord, became capital crimes. The historical book of 1 Maccabees reports that “the women who had circumcised their children they (the Syrians) put to death under the decree, hanging the babies around their necks, and destroying their families and the men who had circumcised them” (1 Maccabees 1:60). Had not something happened to change the course of Antiochus’ program of cultural genocide against the Jews, their religion and identity would have been obliterated within a few generations.
But something did happen. In 167 BC, inspired by an Aaronic priestly family known as the Hasmoneans, the people of Judea revolted against the Syrian occupiers. Their war of independence was led by a Hasmonean priest known as Judah Maccabee. Often called the Hasomonean Revolt, or alternatively the Maccabean Revolt, the insurrection gained strength and was ultimately successful in repulsing the Syrian forces. By the winter month of Kislev (around our December) in 164 BC, the Jewish freedom fighters had recaptured Jerusalem’s temple mount, and liberated the temple from the pagan Syrians. As the war continued, the Maccabean forces eventually drove the Syrians out of the land of Israel.
Having freed Jerusalem, the Jews undertook to cleanse and rededicate their holy temple. According to rabbinic tradition recorded in the Talmud (TB Shabbat 21:b), when the Hasmonean priests entered the temple they found only one jar of consecrated olive oil to light the great seven-branched lamp (menorah) in the temple holy place for a single day. But anxious to rededicate the edifice, the high priest poured the oil into the seven cups on the menorah branches, and lit the lamp. The oil that was only enough for one day burned for eight whole days, enough time for new oil to be pressed and consecrated. This was seen as a miracle and a sign that God had been with the Jews in establishing their freedom and saving their religion and identity. The eight-day dedication period was celebrated by the Jews in Israel, and eventually throughout the world, each winter from that very year until the present, beginning on the 25th day of Kislev, and has always been known as festival of Hanukkah, the “feast of dedication.”
Modern Jews do a number of things in their Hanukkah celebrations. The first, and most important, is the lighting of Hanukkah lights. A nine-branched Hanukkah menorah (known in Hebrew as a Hanukiah) is the main instrument of the lighting. Small candles or vials of olive oil are placed in the arms of the menorah, one of which is elevated above the other eight. On the first night of Hanukkah, the elevated candle (known as the Shamash) is lit, followed by one other candle which represents the first day of Hanukkah. On the second night of Hanukkah, the Shamash and two candles are lit, on the third night three, and so forth until the eighth night of Hanukkah, when the Shamash and all eight candles are lit. The lit Hanukiah is placed in a windowsill each night so that all in the community can see that the Jewish family is celebrating the festival.
Other Hanukkah activities include the preparation and eating of foods fried in oil, such as potato latkes (spicey, fried potato pancakes) and donuts known as sufganiot. The frying in oil is a reminder of the miracle of the oil. The old practice of giving children coins to spend at Hanukkah has evolved into a gift-giving tradition for the holiday season. And children often play a game with a small, four-sided top called a dreidel. Sometimes Hanukkah is called a minor festival, but this is only because it is not mandated in the Torah (the scriptural law of Moses). In practice it is a major Jewish holiday period, widely celebrated and loved.
Those who celebrate Christmas each December may find it of interest to know that Jesus, who was genuinely Jewish, traveled to Jerusalem to celebrate Hanukkah. The Gospel of John reports, “It was . . . the feast of the dedication, and it was winter. And Jesus walked in the temple in Solomon’s porch” (John 10:22–23). Jesus honored the Hanukkah festival the same way he honored the Passover and other feasts: he taught the people of his own divine identity and mission.
Christians also ought to consider this: If there had been no Hasmonean revolt, and if Jerusalem and the temple had not been liberated and rededicated—if Antiochus and the Syrians had succeeded in obliterating Jewish religion and identity—then there would not have been a Jewish village called Nazareth, nor would there have been a Davidic Jewish village called Bethlehem. There would have been no Jewish nation awaiting the coming of that Redeemer. The entire setting for the birth and life of Jesus of Nazareth would not have existed!
But, thanks be to heaven, there was a revolt, and the Jewish nation not only survived but thrived. And because of these events, the way was prepared for the first Christmas. It seems entirely appropriate at this season that we join in wishing each other “Happy Holidays.” Happy Hanukkah and Merry Christmas to all!
POSTED BY: holzapfel
Guest blog by Jeffrey R. Chadwick, Jerusalem Center professor of Archaeology and Near Eastern studies, and associate professor of Church history and doctrine at BYU.
Rosh Hashannah is the annual festival holiday marking the Jewish New Year. The Hebrew term actually means “head of the year.” The festival falls on the first day of the first lunar month of the autumn season. In 2009, Rosh Hashannah will begin on Friday night, September 18, and will be celebrated all day Saturday, September 19. In many Jewish communities, a second day of Rosh Hashannah will be celebrated on Sunday, September 20.
One of the most festive of all Jewish holidays, Rosh Hashannah is one of the two High Holy Days in Judaism, the other being the solemn fasting day known as Yom Kippur (the Day of Atonement), which falls ten days afterward. The period between these two High Holy Days is known as “the Days of Awe,” a period when the Jewish faithful consider their trespasses, personal and national, reflect upon the need for repentance, and consider the future. It is significant that such a period is commenced with a festival as joyful and full of hope and anticipation for the future as Rosh Hashannah.
On Rosh Hashannah there are different ways to celebrate. Of course, many Jews will attend the special service for the new year held in their local synagogue. A significant act, stated as a command in Leviticus 23:24, is to blow the shofar (Hebrew for “ram’s horn,” translated “trumpet” in the King James Bible) on the festival day. Combinations of short, medium, and long blasts are blown on the shofar up to one hundred times during the day of Rosh Hashannah. Another practice is to enjoy fall fruits, such as pomegranates, grapes, and apples slices dipped in honey, and to give gifts of apples and honey to family and friends. Apples and honey have become an iconic symbol of Rosh Hashannah, recognized by Jews everywhere as an emblem of the festival.
Jews greet their families and friends and wish them Shannah Tovah (“a good year”) and Ktivah Vehatimah Tovah (“may you be inscribed and sealed for good”), referring to being well inscribed in the metaphoric books of life. The Talmud teaches that “three books are opened (in heaven) on Rosh Hashannah: the book of life of the wicked, the book of life of the righteous, and the book of life of those in between” (Babylonian Talmud, Rosh Hashannah 16.b). This passage is interesting in light of New Testament references to the books from which we are judged (see Revelation 20:12) and resurrections to different glories (see John 5:28-29). The Talmud, in its own way, seems to be referring to three degrees of judgment and postmortal reward.
In the Jewish scripture called the Hebrew Bible (Christians call it the Old Testament), the day of this festival is noted as falling on the first day of “the seventh month” (Leviticus 23:24), and is not given a name. The commandment to observe the festival simply directs that day be regarded as a Sabbath and a holy convocation and instructs that the “blowing of trumpets” take place. In early Old Testament times before the Babylonian captivity, the festival was not regarded as the first day of the new year. So how did that designation come about?
While in Babylon, ancient Jews were exposed to an annual count that began with an autumnal new year, and it became expedient for them to adopt that cycle for their practical yearly reckoning. So counting the year from the first autumn month became something of a second, secular calendar for them. Though the biblical spring new year was not forgotten, over time the autumnal new year became more widely observed. And because that day fell on the same autumn day as the festival of trumpeting mentioned in Leviticus 23, the practice of calling it the “head of the year” (Rosh Hashannah) came into being—all before the time of Jesus. And one more interesting fact: it is quite likely that the “feast of the Jews” mentioned in John 5:1 was not Passover (as mentioned in some footnotes) but actually Rosh Hashannah!
So Shannah Tova to all!
POSTED BY: holzapfel
Latter-day Saints are fond of quoting a phrase from modern revelation, “Seek learning, even by study and also by faith” (Doctrine and Covenants 88:118). From the beginning of the Restoration in the 1820s, a common theme of the Prophet Joseph Smith’s religious quest was to seek knowledge, light, and understanding. When he went into a grove of trees near his home to pray in the spring of 1820, Joseph Smith was impelled by his trust in the biblical promise found in James 1:5 that he could find wisdom if he sought it. This prayer resulted in the First Vision, in which Joseph saw the Father and the Son—beginning a spiritual sunrise unexpected by men and women of Joseph’s own day, but anticipated by prophets and apostles of old (see Acts 3:20–21).
Gospel truths continued to roll forth through the young prophet as he personally sought wisdom from God. Interestingly, Joseph Smith not only prayed for such wisdom but also studied the word of God and the languages of the biblical world (for example, Hebrew and Egyptian), practicing the command to “seek learning, even by study and also by faith.” His example in this two-part effort set a pattern for Latter-day Saints that continues to challenge us today.
Recently, there has been an explosion of self-help books for “dummies” or books to make something easy. With less time in a busy world, we often look for a quick fix to our problems, even when it comes to scripture study. However, when applied to the scriptures these efforts, even though popular and well meaning, may not necessarily raise one’s understanding of the topic. My colleague Robert J. Millet opined sometime ago that we need the scriptures to be understandable, not easy. I do not believe that he was playing a semantic game but that he was identifying an important difference between the two approaches.
Fortunately, Joseph Fielding McConkie, professor emeritus of ancient scripture at BYU, helps us in making the scriptures more understandable with his latest book, Between the Lines: Unlocking Scripture with Timeless Principles (Honeoye Falls, NY: Digital Legend, 2009).
What I like most about this book is that it forced me to think about how we read and study the scriptures. Sometimes in order to focus our thoughts, it is important to consider how and why we do a routine thing such as studying the scriptures. McConkie is not interested in “procedures,” such as what color of pencils one use to mark the scriptures or whether one should mark the scriptures at all. His goal is to enhance our study by providing “timeless principles that facilitate sound scriptural understanding” (viii).
The book contains more than just ideas about scripture understanding. There are also concrete suggestions. For example, the author suggests that we take advantage of “various study Bibles” (29). He enjoys “the help of an Archaeological Study Bible, The Jewish Study Bible, The Catholic Study Bible, and a variety of Protestant study Bibles” (29) and even provides a brief list of such study Bibles in the section “Sources” (165–66).
There are some light-hearted moments scattered throughout the book as the author has some fun pointing out rather common practices that we have engaged in through the years that may in fact have diverted us from understanding the scriptures. It may be healthy to laugh at ourselves from time to time, especially when we consider that we all have likely endured our “fair share of scripture abuse” (viii). I recommend this book to all who want to improve the quality of their scripture study and teaching.
POSTED BY: holzapfel
For the past two hundred years, European thinkers such as Karl Marx, Emile Durkheim, and Max Weber believed that religion was doomed and that God was dead. However, history always seems to surprise us. Few political leaders and academics in the past would have guessed that people of faith and their institutions would play such an important role in the world today. Even the events of September 11, 2001, demonstrate that what is taught in a religious school in Saudi Arabia is important to understand no matter where you live. Additionally, the 2008 US presidential election revealed that religious beliefs are still very important even though the American Constitution requires no religious test for those seeking office (Article VI, section 3 states, “No religious test shall ever be required as a qualification to any office or public trust under the United States”).
One of the latest efforts to understand how and why faith is rebounding in the face of pervasive and profound secularism is John Micklethwait and Adrian Wooldridge’s God Is Back: How the Global Revival of Faith Is Changing the World (New York: Penguin, 2009). Of interest, Latter-day Saints are mentioned on several occasions (see pp. 18, 19, 65, 115, 124, 229, 233, 350, 357, 371).
The authors describe their efforts as a “long journey” and add, “No doubt [this book’s] overall message will depress many secularists; at times it has depressed us too. Some terrible things have already happened in this century in God’s name. More are undoubtedly on the way.” They conclude, “Unevenly and gradually, religion is becoming a matter of choice—something that individuals decide or believe in (or not)” (372). This model, where choice plays a central role in the decision to believe or not believe, is thoroughly American. Hence, the wave of the future is the American model, in which there is no established state church and people decide on their own what they will believe.
- The book offers many surprising insights, including:
“By 2050, China could well be the world’s biggest Muslim nation as well as its biggest Christian one” (5).
- “Many older conflicts have acquired a religious edge. The poisonous sixty-year war over Palestine began as a largely secular affair. . . . Nowadays, in the era of Hamas, Jewish settlers and Christian Zionists, the Israeli-Palestinian dispute has become a much more polarized, sectarian battle, with ever more people claiming that God is on their side” (13).
- “One poll in 2006—fifteen years after the fall of the Soviet regime—discovered the 84 percent of the Russian population believed in God while only 16 percent considered themselves atheist” (13).
- “Most [statistics] seem to indicate that the global drift toward secularism has been halted, and quite a few show religion to be on the increase. One estimate suggests that the proportion of people attached to the world’s four biggest religions—Christianity, Islam, Buddhism and Hinduism—rose from 67 percent in 1900 to 73 percent in 2005 and may reach 80 percent by 2050″ (16). “However you look at it, faith is more likely to impinge on you than it once did, either because it is part of your life or because it is part of the lives of some of those around you—neighbors, colleagues at work, even your rulers or people seeking to topple them” (24).
- “The most thorough study of American religious beliefs . . . demonstrates clearly that the world’s most powerful country is one of the most religious. More than nine in ten Americans (92 percent) believe in the existence of God or a universal spirit” (131).
- “Social scientists have produced a mountain of evidence that religion is good for you. . . . Daniel Hall, a doctor at the University of Pittsburgh Medical Center, has discovered that weekly church attendance can add two to three years to your life, . . . [resulting in] ‘a substantially longer life expectancy’” (146).
- “Religion also seems to be correlated with happiness. One of the most striking results of Pew’s regular survey is that Americans who attend religious services once or more a week are happier (43 percent very happy) than those who attend monthly or less (31 percent) are seldom or never (26 percent)” (147).
- “Religion can combat bad behavior as well as promote well-being” (147).
- “Religion seems to provide social bonds. . . . Churches offer a safe place where people can get to know each other and pool information and expertise. They put people with problems in contact with people with solutions” (148–49).
In the end, the authors remind us how wrong past experts have been about God and religion, including Peter Berger, who assured the New York Times in 1968 that by “the 21st century, religious believers are likely to be found only in small sects, huddled together to resist a worldwide secular culture” (52).
POSTED BY: holzapfel
When Jesus came to Jerusalem on what would be his last visit, he walked from the Mount of Olives to the Holy City. As he did so, “the whole multitude of the disciples began to rejoice and praise God with a loud voice for all the mighty works that they had seen” (Luke 19:37). Luke adds, “And some of the Pharisees from among the multitude said unto him, Master, rebuke thy disciples. And [Jesus] answered and said unto them, I tell you that, if these should hold their peace, the stones would immediately cry out” (Luke 19:39–40).
Stones are everywhere in this rugged land. Not only do people see them everywhere; they walk on them and visit places made out of stone, such as the Garden Tomb or the rock-hewn tomb at the Church of the Holy Sepulchre; the bedrock where Abraham offered Isaac, now covered by the Dome of the Rock; the rock where Jesus prayed in Gethsemane (part of the altar in the Church of All Nations); and the massive Herodian retaining wall of the Temple Mount. I returned this past week from a visit to Jerusalem. Sometimes church bells, the call of the muezzin, and the Jewish Sabbath siren capture our attention—competing sounds floating through the air. But the real story is in the stones.
On my flight to Jerusalem, I read Simon Goldhill’s latest book, Jerusalem: City of Longing (Cambridge: The Belknap Press of Harvard University Press, 2008). It helped me in my visit, providing some insights that allowed me to tie together a mass of information and years of experiences in Jerusalem. As I thought about the people I met (guides, tourists, cab drivers, and a host of other people), I realized how often most of us want to see the stories about Jerusalem as “black and white.” However, as Goldhill proves in this well-written narrative, “the city has to be viewed from multiple perspectives if it is to be appreciated” (viii), and the stories are “much more complicated and much more interesting than the stereotypes” (ix).
Instead of producing a chronological storyline, the author provides a look at different places (most associated with rock or stone) connected to pivotal points in the story of Jerusalem. As he tells his story, Goldhill provides some of the “competing narratives” (Jewish, Muslim, and Christian—Orthodox, Catholic, and Protestant) providing their own black-and-white versions of the events (282). He adroitly concludes, “The tensions between the three Abrahamic religions [Judaism, Christianity, and Islam] are intently aimed at the holy places, their possession, their guardianship, their symbolic value” (47). In a very real sense, guardianship of each site allows each group to share its own validating narrative.
Goldhill concludes, “Jerusalem has a strange relation to stone” (224). He notes that even “the archaeologists try to make [them] speak” (225). Nevertheless, he acknowledges that there is “the inevitable disappointment of the lost, the fragmentary, the unknowable and shattered past” when relying upon archaeology (225).
Not everyone will agree with the sites and stories Goldhill decided to include, but readers will discover that he “tried to tell this story in as simple and as neutral a way as possible” (281). Whether you have visited Jerusalem in the past, plan to visit Jerusalem in the future, or are only interested in Jerusalem, this book is worth a visit—providing a nuanced approach to a complex city. He concludes, “To be in Jerusalem is always to wander in a city of longing, as one seeks to find one’s own place in the layers of history, imagination, belief, desire, and conflict that make Jerusalem what it is” (332).
POSTED BY: holzapfel
This week’s blog was written by guest writer Eric D. Huntsman, associate professor of ancient scripture.
During his conference talk of April 5, 2009, President Uchtdorf referred to Sunday morning as Palm Sunday. Looking forward to Easter, he encouraged members of the Church to focus their minds more fully on the great atoning sacrifice of the Lord Jesus Christ. President Uchtdorf said, “It is fitting that during the week from Palm Sunday to Easter morning we turn our thoughts to Jesus Christ, the source of light, life, and love. The multitudes in Jerusalem may have seen Him as a great king who would give them freedom from political oppression. But in reality He gave us much more than that. He gave us His gospel, a pearl beyond price, the grand key of knowledge that, once understood and applied, unlocks a life of happiness, peace, and fulfillment.” In his talk, Elder Holland also pointed to the events of the Savior’s last week: “As we approach this holy week—Passover Thursday with its Paschal Lamb, atoning Friday with its cross, Resurrection Sunday with its empty tomb—may we declare ourselves to be more fully disciples of the Lord Jesus Christ.”
Today is Good Friday, observed by much of the Christian world as a day of great solemnity and holiness. As a young boy, aware of the day because of my many Roman Catholic and high-church Protestant friends and neighbors, I thought the term “Good Friday” was an oxymoron. What was so good about the day Jesus died? Only as I became more mature in the gospel did I come to understand that Jesus’ death was holy, a sacred act sealing the atoning journey that had begun the night before when he took upon himself our sins and our sorrows and then, as a sacrificial victim, carried that burden to the altar—in this case a cross—where he paid the ultimate price. Later I came to understand another, linguistic nuance. Many see the use of “good” in Good Friday to be an archaic use as in “good-bye.” Here it may be a synonym for “God,” in which case it is “God’s Friday,” that day of cosmic significance when the Father reconciled the world to himself: “But God commendeth his love toward us, in that, while we were yet sinners, Christ died for us. Much more then, being now justified by his blood, we shall be saved from wrath through him. For if, when we were enemies, we were reconciled to God by the death of his Son, much more, being reconciled, we shall be saved by his life. And not only so, but we also joy in God through our Lord Jesus Christ, by whom we have now received the atonement” (Romans 5:8–12).
As a Latter-day Saint, so much of what Good Friday commemorate once seemed uncomfortable to me. “We worship a living Christ, not a dead Christ,” was the common refrain I grew up hearing. It was easier to acknowledge that Jesus somehow took upon himself the burden of our sins and sorrows in Gethsemane and then move as quickly as possible through all the unpleasantness of the trial, abuse, and crucifixion to the joy of Easter morning. The cross was particularly unfamiliar, if not uncomfortable, to me. The Church does not rely heavily upon images in our churches and temples, although other kinds of symbolism abound. Not understanding the theological details of the mass being a “real sacrifice” in the Roman Catholic tradition, I did not grasp why the crucifix carried such weight to my friends. Not bothering to ask my Protestant friends what the cross meant to them, until adulthood I was oblivious to the fact that to them the cross was not just a symbol of his death for us, it was also, to them, a symbol of his resurrection because the cross was empty!
Further study, however, has brought a new awareness of the scriptural and symbolic richness of the imagery of Jesus’ death on the cross. Here it is not the cross itself, whether it was an upright pole or simple scaffolding upon which the victim’s crossbeam was tied or nailed. Nor is it the religious iconography of a Latin or Greek cross. Instead, for me, the significance of the crucifixion lies in the image of Christ “being lifted up,” the cross itself as a tree, and in the lasting marks or tokens of his sacrifice that it left.
Three times in the Gospel of John, Jesus says that he must be lifted up as part of his returning to the Father and his drawing of all men to himself (see John 3:14, 8:28, 12:32–33), and the last time he makes it clear that this was a reference to how he would die. Crucifixion was a humiliating but above all a very public form of execution, but what seems to be significant here is that Jesus’ sacrifice is there for all, in every age and place, to see. John 3:14 directly connects it with the raising of the brazen serpent upon a pole in the wilderness (see Numbers 21:9), an image that Book of Mormon authors recognized and expanded (see 2 Nephi 25:20; Alma 33:19; Helaman 8:14–16). Therefore the crucifixion illustrates that Jesus’ salvific death provides healing and life to all who will simply look to him.
But perhaps the strongest endorsement of “lifting up” imagery came from Jesus himself, who told the Nephites: “My Father sent me that I might be lifted up upon the cross; and after that I had been lifted up upon the cross, that I might draw all men unto me, that as I have been lifted up by men even so should men be lifted up by the Father, to stand before me, to be judged of their works, whether they be good or whether they be evil—And for this cause have I been lifted up; therefore, according to the power of the Father I will draw all men unto me, that they may be judged according to their works” (3 Nephi 27:14–15).
Recognizing that crucifixion was tantamount to “being hanged on a tree” adds another level of symbolism. Under the law of Moses, cursed was anyone who was hanged on a tree (see Deuteronomy 21:22–23), perhaps explaining one of the reasons why Jesus’ opponents were anxious to have the Romans crucify him. While it is not completely clear what rights of capital punishment the Jewish authorities might have had (the prohibition against putting any man to death in John 18:31 might have referred to Jewish law, since they could not execute on Passover), having the Romans kill Jesus did more than shift blame. Jewish execution for blasphemy would have been stoning, whereas Roman execution for treason or rebellion was crucifixion. The high priest had asked Jesus the night before, “Art thou the Christ, the Son of the Blessed?” (Mark 14:61), and nothing could have proved that Jesus was just the opposite, cursed of God, than having him hanged on a tree. Nevertheless, this “cursing” was part of the Savior’s descending below all things. Indeed, Paul wrote, “Christ hath redeemed us from the curse of the law, being made a curse for us: for it is written, Cursed is every one that hangeth on a tree” (Galatians 3:13).
What was amazing, however, was that the cross, the Tree of Cursing, became, in effect, a Tree of Life to us. After Jesus expired, a soldier pierced his side with a spear, “and forthwith came there out blood and water” (John 19:24). Hearkening back to Jesus’ discussion of living water with the Samaritan woman in John 4 or his discourse on the life-giving Spirit in John 7 in which rivers of living water flow out of him, this sign suggests that Jesus’ death brought forth life. Indeed, in medieval iconography there developed the image of the “verdant cross,” or green cross, which was often portrayed as sprouting leaves and fruit.
Finally, crucifixion left lasting tokens of the Lord’s saving act, marks that were used to impart a sure witness that he was the Lord and God of those whom he saved. Although the experience of Thomas after the Resurrection does suggest that we should be believing before we receive such assurance (see John 19:24–29), Jesus’ display of the marks in his hands, feet, and side took on almost ritual significance when he appeared to the Nephites at the temple in Bountiful: “Arise and come forth unto me, that ye may thrust your hands into my side, and also that ye may feel the prints of the nails in my hands and in my feet, that ye may know that I am the God of Israel, and the God of the whole earth, and have been slain for the sins of the world” (3 Nephi 11:14).
For these reasons, as I read, review, and ponder the Savior’s last acts on this day, I am no longer skittish of imagery that was once foreign to me. Instead, I rejoice in what Jesus did for me and see it as a necessary precursor not just to Easter morning but to the great gift of eternal life, the precious fruit of the tree, which “is the greatest of all the gifts of God” (1 Nephi 15:26; see also D&C 14:7).
POSTED BY: holzapfel
The most recent National Geographic (December 2008) arrived this past week with a cover story announcing the “Real King Herod.” During the Christmas season, we often reflect on Herod because of the story preserved in Matthew: “Then Herod, when he saw that he was mocked of the wise men, was exceeding wroth, and sent forth, and slew all the children that were in Bethlehem, and in all the coasts thereof, from two years old and under, according to the time which he had diligently enquired of the wise men” (Matthew 2:16).
While I found the article insightful, I challenge a few claims. Although the National Geographic author argues that Herod was “almost certainly innocent of this crime” (40), there is significant evidence that Herod, like other Hellenistic kings and the Roman emperors themselves, killed anyone thought to be a threat to the political stability of the kingdom. Matthew’s account is a firsthand, early Jewish source for some of the events in the first century, recorded well before Josephus, a first-century Jewish historian, began writing the story of the First Jewish War against the Romans (AD 66—70). Matthew’s story highlights Herod’s motives and tactics that accord with other primary sources, so historians should certainly be cautious about rejecting him while reconstructing the life of Herod.
Nevertheless, this article does provide some important insights to Herod’s reign beyond the few incidents noted in the New Testament. First, it brings to a much larger public the details of the discovery of Herod’s tomb earlier this year. Ehud Netzer, a prominent Israeli archeologist, had been looking for Herod’s tomb for thirty years before its monumental discovery. Second, this interesting article reveals, through word-pictures and reconstructed drawings of some of Herod’s most significant construction projects, that Herod was a master builder. His greatest achievement for his nation and for Judaism was the reconstruction and expansion of the temple, later known as Herod’s Temple, in Jerusalem.
This article helps us picture the world of Jesus as we become familiar with the people and places he visited. Shortly after Christ was born, Joseph and his mother Mary presented him to the Lord, according the Torah commandment, in the temple at Jerusalem (see Luke 2:22-40). There, a godly man and woman found him in the temple built by Herod and identified him as the long-promised Messiah. Herod the Great ruled Judea and adjacent territories as a client-king of the Roman Empire—the world that witnessed the birth of God’s Son, a world that has nearly vanished away. Only through the efforts of archaeologists and scholars like Ehud Netzer has that world become partially visible again. The recent discovery of Herod’s tomb southeast of Jerusalem adds another tile into the reconstructed mosaic of the world of the New Testament.