Some who think of me as a tradition-basher have asked me to comment on the recent discovery of the sarcophagus of St. Paul. Personally, it’s of less interest to me because I don’t foresee much helpful information coming from it, unless, as Paleojudaica jokes, there’s an airtight container with a copy of his letters inside.
Here’s the straight scoop:
1. The sarcophagus was not found in a random location, but was located in the very place that tradition said it was. Several years ago after a visit to the church, before they started digging, I noted that this altar is built over the traditional tomb of Paul. That is where this sarcophagus was discovered.
Church of St. Paul Outside the Walls
2. Constantine built the first church over the site in the 4th century. That means that the tradition is a very old one.
3. After three years of digging underneath the altar, they found a sarcophagus. That sarcophagus was found underneath a tombstone which had written, in Latin, “Apostle Paul, Martyr.” This means that whoever wrote the tombstone (presumably in the 4th century, but I can’t be sure from the news reports) believed this was Paul’s tomb.
The sarcophagus was found below this altar.
4. So instead of connecting the dots from the 20th century back to the 1st, we simply have to evaluate the potential accuracy that the site was preserved correctly from the 1st century to the 4th. This is the typical situation of holy sites in Israel as well; the earliest traditions usually date to the earliest Christian presence, which is in the 4th century. How reasonable is it to assume that the memory of a site was preserved for up to 300 years? My answer is that it depends upon the nature of the tradition. For the tradition of the place of Jesus’ crucifixion, I doubt that Christians would have failed to pass this on accurately. For the tradition of the place of Jesus’ birth, I have a little more trouble imagining Jesus pointing the site out to his disciples. Sometimes our knowledge shows that a traditional site cannot be correct, as in the case of the feeding of the 5,000 or the Transfiguration. In the case of Paul’s tomb, I am unaware of any evidence that rules the church out as a possibility. Would early Christians have remembered the site of Paul’s beheading? My guess is that they would. It’s also important to note that there was the continuous presence of a believing community in Rome from the time of Paul’s death until Emperor Constantine’s construction of a basilica.
I think it’s quite possible that curiosity is going to push Vatican officials to open the sarcophagus.
When they do, it will be interesting to see if 1) Paul’s head is missing, and 2) they can determine what sort of malady he suffered from (cf. Gal 4:13-15).
Two things frequently bother me about news stories: what they say and what they don’t say. An example of this is the recent story about the Byzantine church discovered at Shiloh. The Telegraph has the only report of this discovery I’ve seen.
Shiloh from west
I wish they had not said:
Headline: ‘Church of the Ark’ found on West Bank
That’s a fine name, I suppose, except that there is no evidence that the ark was ever in this church or associated with this church. Yes, the ark of the covenant was at the same city where the church was found, but that was about 1,400 years before the church was built.
“The church dates to the late 4th century, making it one of Christianity’s first formal places of worship.”
I guess someone fears that this story will have no interest if it’s not labeled the “first” or “one of the first.” But it’s nonsense. Byzantine Christians built many churches in the Holy Land before this one, including the Bethlehem Church of the Nativity, the Jerusalem Church of the Holy Sepulcher, and the Mt. of Olives Eleona church. If you count last year’s “earliest church ever found” at Megiddo, the best the Shiloh church can claim is that it was built in the first hundred years of church building in the the Holy Land. I guess that doesn’t sound as exciting.
Shiloh from east
“The team at Shiloh is considering whether to dig under the beautiful mosaics that they have uncovered, in order to find traces of the Ark.”
You’ve got to be kidding me. No one, and I mean no one, thinks that traces of the ark are underneath that church. Maybe, and that’s a very unlikely maybe, there are traces of the tabernacle underneath the church. But most scholars who have ventured to guess believe that the tabernacle was located on the north side of Shiloh, while this church is on the south side.
“We have to decide whether to fix the mosaics here or take them to a museum,” said Mr Aharonovitch.
There are two problems with taking the mosaics to a museum: 1) The mosaics lose much of their significance to the visitor because they are ripped out of their context. It is much better to allow the visitors to Shiloh to see the mosaics where they were discovered. 2) It’s unlikely any museum visitor would ever see them anyway, because museum space is very limited and mosaic floors are very common.
Mosaic from newly discovered church
David Rubin, a former mayor of Shiloh, said: “We believe that if they continue to dig they’ll reach back to the time of the Tabernacle.”
This implies that archaeologists haven’t already discovered remains at Shiloh from the time of the Israelites. Indeed, they uncovered much from this time in the excavations of Israel Finkelstein in the 1980s.
I wish they had said:
This isn’t the first Byzantine church discovered at Shiloh. I suppose that it takes some of the drama away when you learn that about 50 yards away a Byzantine church sits that was excavated 80 years ago. A third church is less well-preserved but is known as the “Pilgrim’s Church.” It’s quite possible that there are other churches yet unexcavated.
Apse of Byzantine church, mostly unexcavated
The church is located next to and underneath the “Mosque of the Orphans” (Jame Yetim). This would help the knowledgeable reader to know the precise location of the church. The long-abandoned mosque appears to be untouched, but I wonder if there was some political motivation to not publicize the specific location of the excavation.
Excavation of Byzantine church around “Mosque of the Orphans”
The inscription that mentions Shiloh is important evidence in confirming the identification of the site. A translation, even tentative, of the inscription would be helpful. (Is this the inscription in question?
UPDATE: Theoblogian has begun a translation of it. UPDATE Jan-2: Dr. William Varner and Brian Gee have provided this translation: Lord Jesus Christ, remember and consider worthy in your kingdom Eutonius your bishop and Germanus your holy regional bishop. Draw near to Him and be enlightened.)
There are some nice photos of the excavation by Eyal Dor Ofer here.
A good follow-up to the Beyond Cyprus post is yesterday’s article in the Star-Telegram about a reporter’s visit to Jordan. The article is well-written and interesting, but the author doesn’t mention some of my favorite sites in Jordan, including:
Kerak – capital of the Moabites (ancient Kir/Kir-hereseth)
Too few students of the Bible go to Jordan, and those that do, usually miss the best places. The University of the Holy Land periodically does a two-week trip in Jordan; it is led by Dr. Ginger Caessens and is excellent. Their website indicates the next one planned is June 2008.
One other thought from the Star-Telegram article: Bethany beyond the Jordan is quickly becoming over-commercialized. And it is very likely not the place mentioned in the Bible.
The best multimedia Bible ever made, as far as I know, is iLumina. Over the last couple of years, it has been released in several versions, but now I see that the Gold Premium edition (a step above the Parent-Teacher-Student edition) is out and available for the very good price of $50 (retail is $90).
I’ve given a number of copies of iLumina to friends and it has always been well received (and we’re giving a few more this year).
The program includes:
multiple commentaries, including the Life Application Study Bible Notes, concordances, interactive charts, interactive maps, DIGITAL animations and virtual tours, photographs, and discussion Bible study questions, plus much more….
22 Volume Searchable Bible Encyclopedia
35 animations and 25 virtual tours
10,000 Bible Study notes
8,900 in-depth articles
200 maps and Bible charts
1000 HolyLand Photos
478 Guided Study and Quizzes
Full search and concordance features
New Living Translation and KJV
Personally, I’m not so enamored with the Bible translations or the Bible study notes (you can find these in plenty of books and software programs). But I love some of the reconstructions, screenshots, and photos.
If I could do only one trip to the Middle East to learn about the Bible, I would go to Israel. Second, Turkey and Greece, though for most only western Turkey would be included in the itinerary (and I profited more from eastern Turkey than western). Jordan and Egypt would be next. Near the bottom of the list would be the islands of Cyprus, Crete, Malta, Rhodes, and the city of Rome. If someone can do it all, then they’ll gain from it, but most have to choose one or two trips, and for that, I recommend they skip some things. But this recommendation probably isn’t necessary because there aren’t many trips going to these places as part of a biblical tour anyway. I can’t speak to Lebanon, Syria, Iraq and Iran because I haven’t been. Yet. I do think a second trip to Israel is worthwhile, moreso than a first trip to some of the biblical countries.
I would not recommend someone to try to do Israel and Turkey/Greece on the same trip. This is because there is just so much to digest and you don’t have the time necessary to do that if the two are put together on an initial trip. Israel largely introduces one to the Old Testament world; Turkey and Greece are a new window into the NT arena. I do believe understanding these “worlds” is very valuable for understanding the Scriptures, even apart from seeing the biblical sites themselves. You just understand Paul better when you see the gods they were worshipping in his day, see the temples that dominated the cities, and see the way of life of the Greek people.
The BiblePlaces Blog provides updates and analysis of the latest in biblical archaeology, history, and geography. Unless otherwise noted, the posts are written by Todd Bolen, PhD, Professor of Biblical Studies at The Master’s University.