Pagan Influences in Christianity & Judaism

Beth Alpha synagogue mosaic
Beth Alpha synagogue mosaic

Many people have disparaged Judaism as being filled with paganism, particularly orthodox Judaism’s rabbinic leadership. Some even claim that it is satanic at the root (G-d forbid). Many people have had similar remarks about Christianity, especially when they discover Messianic Judaism and discover all that Christianity has forgotten over the last two thousand years in relationship to it Jewish origins. Everything is then questioned, and its origins suspect. For instance: What is the origin of the Christmas tree? Was it originally an asheroth pole? What about the Easter bunny, and the name “Easter” itself? Are they connected to Ishtar, the pagan goddess of fertility? Was the star of David originally a magical symbol used by the pagans? Questions such as these continue to pound away at both Judaism and Christianity.

Biblical Archaeology Review recently published an article examining pagan symbols in Jewish worship, specifically looking at the various synagogues unearthed in Israel which portray zodiac symbolism in their floor mosaics. The most famous is the Beth Alpha synagogue, which sports a very large floor mosaic (28×14 meters, roughly 90×30 feet) whose central panel shows the complete zodiac. It is described as follows:

Figures of four women were at the four corners, with inscriptions (in Hebrew) identifying each as a season of the year. Inside the square was a wheel, 3.12 meters in diameter, with a smaller circle (1.2 m) in its center. The wheel was divided into 12 panels, each with a figure and a name identifying it as a sign of the zodiac. And in the center, a man was pictured driving a quadriga (four-horse chariot) through the moon and stars. Rays of the sun were coming out of his head; it was clear that he was Helios, god of the sun.1

This article continues to describe in detail several such synagogues found in Israel with this type of imagery. Although there is still some mystery surrounding the use of these symbols (particularly in a house specifically designed for study & worship), I feel the author’s explanation of them plausible.

This brings a lot of questions to mind (for which I do not have the answers). When and how were pagan symbols introduced into Judaism and Christianity? What do we “accept” and what do we “reject”? Where do we draw the line? How far is too far? Are there such things as coincidence? What are the “majors” and what are the “minors” in all of this? If others believers continue to unknowingly incorporate pagan symbolism in their sincere worship, what is our responsibility? These are a lot of difficult questions. Fortunately, someone has done a lot of homework on the subject.

What About Paganism?

First Fruits of Zion has recently published a 4-disc audio teaching on this very subject. It’s called “What About Paganism?” Toby Janicki tackles this subject and brings in a ton of information relating to both Christian and Jewish practice which may or may not be pagan in origin and gives suggestions as to our response. This is a good starting point to get some honest discussion on the table in regard to this topic, rather than living on our assumptions. It is based on historical evidences and the teachings of Yeshua. When we abide in the teachings of our Master, Yeshua, we will “know the truth, and the truth will set you free” (John 8:32).

  1. From the BAR article.

Jesus and the Dead Sea Scrolls, Part 2

In my previous post on the same topic, I related how the Melchizedek Scroll (11Q13) interpreted the passage of Isaiah 61 and it’s proclaiming “liberty to the captives, and the opening of the prison to those who are bound” in the same manner that Jesus understood it when he proclaimed this passage’s fulfillment in Luke 4. Both the author of the Melchizedek Scroll and Jesus understand these actions to relate to releasing the children of Israel from their sin.

In this post, I would like to continue with another DSS fragment also related to the same passage of Isaiah. It is fragment 4Q521. It is know by a few titles, but I think Geza Vermes’s “A Messianic Apocalypse” is apt enough for our purposes. A correlation between this fragment and Luke 7 has already been made by Martin Abegg, Jr. (Wise, M. O., Abegg, J. M. G., & Cook, E. M. (1996). The Dead Sea Scrolls: A New Translation. HarperOne, p.420.). I would merely like to introduce my readers to this, and expound upon it briefly.

In this passage we find a glimpse into the author’s envisioning of the Messianic redemption of the future where the Messiah will rule, and the reign of God will be over all the earth. The author describes this time as follows:

. . . [the hea]vens and the earth will listen to His Messiah, and none therein will stray from the commandments of the holy ones.

Vermas, Geza (1998). The Dead Sea Scrolls in English. Penguin Books, p. 391.

A brief observation is in order here. During this time, not only will the earth “listen to His [the LORD’s] Messiah, but the heavens as well. The reign of the Messiah during Messianic era is typically limited in scope to either a heavenly realm (as in much of Christian thought), or an earthly realm (as in much of Jewish thought). Here the author proclaims that both the spiritual and physical realms bend their will to the Messiah as they come under his leadership.

A second observation is that the subjects of the Kingdom will obviously have entered into the New Covenant spoken of by the prophet Jeremiah in which God “will put my law within them, and I will write it on their hearts” (Jeremiah 31:33, ESV). The problem of a unruly heart will have been cured, and we will submit ourselves to His lordship without any deficiency. However, in this text, the commandments of the Torah are said to come from “the holy ones,” rather than purely from God himself. I find this interesting, because it seems to attest to a tradition in the Apostolic Scriptures in which the New Testament authors declare that the Torah was administered by angels. This is too much information to insert here, so I will save this for a subsequent article.

Continuing on with our text, a few lines down we read:

For He will heal the wounded, and revive the dead and bring good news to the poor (Isa. lxi, I).

Ibid., p. 392.

The author links these events (healing the sick, reviving the dead, and bringing good news to the poor) to the time of the Messiah (whether through the Messiah or God himself is unclear), just as we have seen by Jesus. Yet there is something deeper in this text. Let’s take a look at another instance in which Jesus uses the text of Isaiah in a similar manner.

In Luke 7, Jesus is questioned by the disciples of John the Immerser as to whether he is “the one who is to come” or if they should “look for another.” Here is the full context:

And John, calling two of his disciples to him, sent them to the Lord, saying, “Are you the one who is to come, or shall we look for another?” And when the men had come to him, they said, “John the Baptist has sent us to you, saying, ‘Are you the one who is to come, or shall we look for another?'” In that hour he healed many people of diseases and plagues and evil spirits, and on many who were blind he bestowed sight. And he answered them, “Go and tell John what you have seen and heard: the blind receive their sight, the lame walk, lepers are cleansed, and the deaf hear, the dead are raised up, the poor have good news preached to them. And blessed is the one who is not offended by me” (Luke 7:18b-23, ESV).

Again, we see Jesus using this same passage of Isaiah 61 as a prooftext of his Messianic appointment. He speaks to John’s disciples in what Daniel Lancaster terms as a “cryptic answer” (see FFOZ’s Torah Club Volume 4: Chronicles of the Messiah, 2010, Parashat Mishpatim, p. 458.). Rather than coming out and answering the question in direct terms, Jesus, the master of remez, couches his answer in scriptural allusions in order to allow the hearer to make several conclusions at once. But his answer brings us back yet again to Isaiah 61.

Let’s return to the line from the Messianic Apocalypse. The text states that during the time of Messiah, “He will heal the wounded, and revive the dead and bring good news to the poor.” The incredible thing about this is how the author associates the resurrection of the dead with the events of Isaiah 61. Although this concept is never explicitly found in the Hebrew Scriptures, the author of 4Q521 associates the resurrection of the dead with the arrival of the Messiah. This is a rare glimpse into Messianic Jewish expectation of the Second Temple period which offers us a perspective we rarely see in today’s Judaism and its scriptural interpretation, which has been shaped over the last two millennia in reaction to Christian exegesis.

One can only assume that both Jesus and the author of 4Q521 view death as a time of captivity awaiting the final redemption, and interpret Isaiah’s use of “the opening of the prison to those who are bound” as glimpse into the time of this time in which all things will be restored, including life. In the presence of Messiah, not even death can hold his captive securely.

Jesus and the Dead Sea Scrolls, Part 1

Melchizedek Scroll fragment
Melchizedek Scroll fragment

I’ve recently begun giving the Dead Sea Scrolls a closer examination, particularly in light of research I am doing on Jewish worship in the Second Temple Period. While researching this, I have read through a few different translations of the Melchizedek Scroll (11Q13), which is known by various titles.

There are several things that link this particular text to the New Testament, in that is paints Melchizedek in much the same light as the author of the Epistle of Hebrews. From this text I believe we can better understand and appreciate the Melchizedek imagery of the book of Hebrews. I believe the correlation in the Melchizedek Scroll also gives us solid evidence that the author of Hebrews’ interpretation of the Messiah’s role as a Divine High Priest was not limited to Christian interpretation or a late Christian-influenced theological development (I hope to share more on this later).

What I would like to share now is the scroll’s view of Melchizedek functioning as one who, in the year of Jubilee, proclaims not only a release from captivity, but from sin as well. Commenting on Deuteronomy 15:2 (which details the release of debts during the year of Jubilee), the Melchizedek Scroll states:

“[the interpretation] is that it applies [to the L]ast Days and concerns the captives, just as [Isaiah said: “To proclaim the jubilee to the captives” (Isa. 61:1) . . . . just] as [ . . . ] and from the inheritance of Melchizedek, f[or . . .  Melchize]dek, who will return them to what is rightfully theirs. He will proclaim to them the jubilee, thereby releasing th[em from the debt of a]ll their sins.” (emphasis mine)

Wise, M. O., Abegg, J. M. G., & Cook, E. M. (1996). The Dead Sea Scrolls: A New Translation. HarperOne, p.456.

In Luke 4:16-21 we find Jesus saying almost the exact same thing:

And he came to Nazareth, where he had been brought up. And as was his custom, he went to the synagogue on the Sabbath day, and he stood up to read. And the scroll of the prophet Isaiah was given to him. He unrolled the scroll and found the place where it was written, “The Spirit of the Lord is upon me, because he has anointed me to proclaim good news to the poor. He has sent me to proclaim liberty to the captives and recovering of sight to the blind, to set at liberty those who are oppressed, to proclaim the year of the Lord’s favor.” And he rolled up the scroll and gave it back to the attendant and sat down. And the eyes of all in the synagogue were fixed on him. And he began to say to them, “Today this Scripture has been fulfilled in your hearing.” (ESV, emphasis mine)

In the Melchizedek Scroll, the author has done exactly what Jesus does when he reads the text of Isaiah in the Nazareth synagogue. He links the text in Deuteronomy concerning the jubilee year and the release of debts to the passage in Isaiah where the speaker is “anointed” (Hebrew: mashach / מַשָׁח) in order to “proclaim liberty to the captives.” Many times Jesus couples his miracles of healing with the forgiveness of sin. In both the Melchizedek Scroll and in the thoughts of Jesus, bringing liberty to captives involved not only a physical release (and with Jesus, it began many times with healing and exorcism), but a spiritual release from the bondage of sin.

In the Melchizedek Scroll, however, it is not merely the Messiah who accomplishes this, but Melchizedek himself. We shall look at the scroll’s understanding of this Melchizedek figure more in subsequent articles.

New Text of Ben Sira Found Among Cairo Geniza Fragments

Ben Sira Fragment T-S AS 118.78, recto imageAs reported just a few days ago by the Taylor-Schechter Genizah Research Unit, there has been a new discovery of two leafs of the apocryphal book Ben Sira (also known as Ecclesiasticus) found among the Cairo Geniza fragments, which are still being organized and catalogued more than a century after their discovery by Solomon Schechter 1. Although these new leaves are badly damaged, they are still recognizable for the most part, and represent chapters 7:18 – 8:18 of the text. The significance of Hebrew Ben Sira texts such as this is that we had not seen their Hebrew version for nearly a thousand years prior to their discovery in the late 19th and early 20th century. Finding these Hebrew manuscripts has been a remarkable watershed in the significance of Hebrew in Jewish religious texts. It was proof (once again) of a Hebrew original behind a beloved sacred text.

In regard to this most recent discovery, scholars are saying that the most exciting aspect of the discovery is that  fills in one small gap of the previously known manuscripts, related to an “interpretive problem” of 7:31. They do not elaborate at this time, but assure us that their illumination will be forthcoming.

Yet another exciting discovery in the world of archaeology and biblical texts! Now, if someone would just be able to find that 5-volume work of Papias…!

Read the full article here.

  1. If you would like to learn more about Solomon Schechter and the Cairo Geniza treasures and how they correspond in many ways to the Dead Sea Scrolls, I recommend reading “Understanding the Dead Sea Scrolls: A Reader from the Biblical Archaeology Review” edited by Hershel Shanks, 1992.