There has been a lot of excitement this December regarding an astronomical phenomenon known as a great conjunction. This great conjunction, also known as a planetary conjunction, is an alignment of Jupiter and Saturn with Earth that is visible in our night sky. A great conjunction of Jupiter and Saturn last came this close in the night sky nearly eight hundred years ago. However, this year for a few days beginning on December 21st (which also just so happens to be the winter solstice), these two planets aligned so closely that they could appear as a single point of bright light in the night sky. Because this year’s great conjunction occurs so near the date of Christmas, some have referred to this great conjunction as a “Christmas Star.”
Anyone familiar with the narratives about Christ’s birth is aware that a star led certain magi to the newborn Jesus—details that are found only in Matthew’s Gospel (Matt 2:1-12 versus Luke 2:1-21). Was this star that appeared at Jesus’s birth a great conjunction, or was it some other kind of astronomical occurrence such as a supernova or comet? A close look at Matthew’s birth narrative indicates that the star seen by the magi cannot be reconciled easily with any natural, astronomical occurrence. First of all, it is by observing this star’s rising in the sky that the magi gain the knowledge that they must find “the newborn King of the Jews” (2:2) in Jerusalem where they travel from their distant “Eastern lands” (2:1). Moreover, this same star later leads them accurately from Jerusalem to Bethlehem, at which point the star finally stops above the house of Mary and Joseph where the newborn Jesus is to be found (2:9-11).
On the strength of anecdotal evidence, I’m convinced people are now especially interested in apocalyptic themes. Social unrest, fires, climate change, a global pandemic—all of these evoke themes found in apocalyptic texts from numerous traditions. Christianity has its own narrative of what will happen at the end of all things. The variety of interpretations that are offered, though, leaves us to wonder whether people are satisfied with what they find when they look to these texts. The idea of apocalypse intrigues us, but the question of how to draw sustenance from it remains.
If we look at Mark 13, for example, we are stunned by images that would portend disaster, should they actually occur. I propose that one helpful way to look at this chapter is to understand its images as portrayals of the kinds of trauma that sometimes occur at the extreme edges of our existence, and to understand its admonitions as pertinent to moments in which trauma separates us from our usual sources of assurance.
In Orthodox icons of Jesus’s empty tomb and resurrection, it is common to see Mary the mother of Jesus depicted as one of the myrrhbearing women. A related theme, although perhaps depicted less frequently in icons, is that the Virgin Mary saw the risen Jesus outside the tomb. Indeed, some Orthodox Christians today insist that Mary the mother of Jesus not only saw the risen Jesus outside the tomb, but that she was the first to see him there. Where did these traditions about Mary at the empty tomb originate, and are they corroborated by evidence from the four canonical gospels?
It is probable that these traditions about Mary the mother of Jesus at the tomb originated from the Diatessaron (attributed to Tatian c. 160-180), a harmony of the four gospels widely used by churches in Syria until the 5th century. Because the four gospels contain differences as well as contradictions that are difficult to reconcile, the Diatessaron selectively combines material from the four gospels to create a single, cohesive gospel. In the Diatessaron, the identities of Mary Magdalene and Mary the mother of Jesus seem to have been fused intentionally so that Mary the mother of Jesus—rather than Mary Magdalene as in John 20:1-18—can be understood as going to the tomb alone, where she saw the risen Jesus. One possible motivation for this fusion of Mary Magdalene with Mary the mother of Jesus may have stemmed from a desire to counter certain Gnostic groups that emphasized a special love Jesus had for Mary Magdalene. Nevertheless, the presence of Jesus’s mother at the tomb and her encounter with the risen Jesus also became elements in some apocryphal and Gnostic writings from the 2nd-4th centuries.
As a follow-up to my recent article “Where are the Orthodox Biblical Archaeologists?” it seems timely to present the fascinating story of the single greatest exception to the rule: Vassilios Tzaferis, the Greek Orthodox monk-turned-archaeologist who discovered the material remains of the only crucified man ever found.
Tzaferis was born to a rural peasant family on April 1, 1936, on the island of Samos, Greece. His childhood coincided with the Axis occupation during WWII, followed by the Greek civil war. In 1950, encouraged by his father and the village priest, fourteen-year old Vassilios traveled to the East Jerusalem to study theology at the Greek Orthodox Patriarchate of Jerusalem. He was ordained a deacon six years later, in the Church of the Holy Sepulchre, and assigned to the Greek Orthodox community of Nazareth, in the newly established state of Israel.
Two years later, Tzaferis was ordained a priest, but his thirst for learning compelled him to seek permission to study in Athens. His request was denied, but he decided to go anyway. Unwilling to lose such a gifted young priest, Patriarch Benedictos persuaded him to stay, permitting him to enroll in a degree program in history and archaeology at Hebrew University. In a 2010 newspaper interview, Tzaferis mused how students stared in wonder at his monastic garb, a sight so out of the ordinary that even David Ben-Gurion, Israel’s foremost founder and its first prime minister, asked to see the monk who was studying archaeology (Haaretz, Oct. 29, 2010). Continue reading →