The appeal of modern celebrity is something we have all encountered; its imprint is unavoidable across all forms of media in our global culture. The prevailing idea is that celebrities are somehow beyond the day-to-day norm; they’re often described in such terms as 'star,' 'superstar' or 'idol,' evoking stratospheric or even divine attributes.
In his work titled Film Stardom, Myth and Classicism: The Rise of Hollywood's Gods, British author and academic Michael Williams makes the connection between the phenomenon of modern film celebrity and the gods and heroes of ancient myth, who were also celebrated as both stars and idols. In fact, Williams identifies Classicism as the foundation for modern stardom as invented by the Hollywood film industry of the 1920s.
The fact that modern star makers look back to Greece and Rome to define stardom has been "curiously neglected." Williams cites an excerpt from a 1928 feature in the fan magazine Photoplay, suggesting that "Hollywood is the new Olympus. Hollywood is bringing back the glory that is Greece." He describes the accompanying images of youthful actors Richard Arlen and Joan Crawford, posing as 20th-century incarnations of the ancient Belvedere Apollo and Venus de Milo sculptures. Sometimes pitched as tongue-in-cheek or playful, such images nevertheless constitute a very real foundation for the nature of stardom today.
According to American cultural historian Leo Braudy, the cult of celebrity has clear lines of connection to the ancient past. In The Frenzy of Renown: Fame and its History, Braudy draws attention to the fame cult as used by figures such as Alexander the Great, Julius Ceasar, Napoleon and Hitler, among others. Writing in the pre-Internet-infused world of the 1980s, Braudy says "the impact of the face of Alexander the Great on a coin where only those of gods and mythical heroes had been before becomes thinned out in a million fleeting images on the evening news, images that reach a larger audience than Alexander could touch in a life time—or for long after." Williams points out that this "paradoxical and somewhat perverse situation speaks to a need for something beyond the everyday, and something in which one can become passionately invested" (emphasis added).
The Hollywood scandals of the 1920s marred the divine aura in which star makers were seeking to shroud their young actors. Inevitable human fallibility quickly tarnished the grand illusion. Williams relates that in more recent times the "divinising language" applied to celebrities has gone underground, although "the discourse is still there." So, too, are the audiences. Indeed, "there can be no idol without an audience," he points out. If shows such as American Idol or Pop Idol are to be taken as modern embodiments of the star-making phenomenon, then human beings are still searching for "something beyond the everyday" and something to "become passionately invested in."
That being the case, why not consider investing time in the lives of real-life celebrities of the Bible? Unlike ancient mythological gods and modern-day Hollywood demigods, who can do little more than offer a temporary escape from the mundane, their words and their example have real relevance for society today.
Jesus referred to evidence about Himself in the Hebrew Scriptures. This series from Vision explores that section of the Bible known as The Law, the Prophets and the Writings.
Series: The Gospels for the 21st Century
Gospels for the 21st Century is the result of taking the New Testament at its word, reading it carefully for what it actually says. It weaves the four Gospel accounts into a single, compelling story—the story of Jesus Christ.
The Apostles series covers the lives of a number of heroes worthy of emulation.
“Don’t judge a book by its cover” is a popular axiom that points to something very important. What we see on the outside may not be representative of what is on the inside. Appearances can be deceiving.
Judging people based on appearances moves us into dangerous territory. It limits us from understanding what motivates and guides them. In our minds we might employ a label that is inaccurate. On a personal, emotional level we can understand why this could be hurtful and why we wouldn’t want to be labeled this way ourselves.
The Bible, too, warns that this type of judgment is wrong. In the Old Testament, or Hebrew Scriptures, God explains that there is a vast difference between man’s way of judging and His own. “Man looks at the outward appearance, but the Lord looks at the heart” (1 Samuel 16.7). The right type of judgment considers not just outward appearances but what makes up the whole person. This allows us to discern between right or wrong behavior without condemning the individual.
Jesus told His first-century followers to be careful in the way they judged, because the same judgment would be used against them (Matthew 7:1–2). This is good advice for us as well and calls for a certain amount of gravity. If we're careless about our judgment of others, perhaps condemning them for something we see but may not correctly understand, then we will receive the same type of judgment in return.
But it’s important to note that godly judgment applies in both directions. Consider, for example, those who offer spiritual instruction. If we esteem such individuals based on appearances—on how well they speak or how imposing they are on the outside—we could be making a disastrous mistake. Rather we should listen to their message and observe the way they live. Jesus said, “By their fruit you will recognize them.” Their words and actions will identify what is on the inside. We should put less emphasis on outward appearances, because that isn’t the true measure of what they are and what they teach. Do their words ring true when compared to biblical instruction, and furthermore, do they practice what they preach? Those who teach certain principles and behavior but live contrary to their own teaching negate the effectiveness of their words and undermine their own credibility. On the other hand, a person who may be less imposing as a personality but who teaches words of truth and lives by them should be judged accordingly.
Many Jewish instructors in Jesus’ time were examples of the first sort of teacher, and He had harsh words for them. He said they looked good on the outside—they dressed well and gave eloquent prayers—but inside they were full of extortion and self-indulgence. He called them blind and hypocritical (Matthew 23:25–28).
Jesus wanted to emphasize that deception abounds when religious deceivers are active. He told His audience, “Not everyone who says to Me, ‘Lord, Lord,’ shall enter the kingdom of heaven, but he who does the will of my Father in heaven” (Matthew 7:21).
He explained that, because of lawlessness, even some who claimed to be performing miracles in His name would not be in His kingdom. In other words, they were not keeping the words and laws that are found in the Bible. This is an important lesson to keep in mind as we live our lives as well.
Should we judge a book by its cover? It is rarely a reliable guide for identifying what is inside. By the fruits of people’s lives, however, we can learn to discern what really motivates their actions.
JERRY DE GIER
“He who dies with the most toys wins.” So said billionaire Malcolm Forbes, a man famous for acquiring a wide array of material goods. Yet like everyone else, he died unable to take it with him. Most of us regard this reality as a truism, but we nevertheless find it very difficult to strike a balance between grasping and letting go. The fact is, the pursuit of possessions is not just a potential snare for the rich; it can damage anyone’s outlook and peace of mind.
The conflict between the get and give ways of life is an ancient dilemma. Jesus said, “No one can serve two masters, for either he will hate the one and love the other, or he will be devoted to the one and despise the other. You cannot serve God and money” (Matthew 6:24; English Standard Version throughout). He also made it clear that “one’s life does not consist in the abundance of his possessions” (Luke 12:15).
If Jesus taught that the pursuit of material possessions is a diversion from life’s spiritual quest, how should we think about such everyday needs as food, clothing and shelter?
Jesus didn’t imply that we shouldn’t work. However, He assured His followers that God knows what we need, and that worrying about such things is futile: “Why are you anxious about clothing? Consider the lilies of the field, how they grow: they neither toil nor spin, yet I tell you, even Solomon in all his glory was not arrayed like one of these. But if God so clothes the grass of the field, which today is alive and tomorrow is thrown into the oven, will he not much more clothe you, O you of little faith?” (Matthew 6:28–30).
What He wants us to achieve is balance in how we approach work and in our various wants and needs. The apostle Paul wrote that if someone isn’t willing to work, then he should not expect to eat the fruit of someone else’s labor (2 Thessalonians 3:10). The author of Proverbs instructed us to look to the ant for an example of how we should work to feed our families and ourselves (Proverbs 6:6–11). The focus is on contributing to the welfare of those in our care, not on amassing wealth or collecting “toys.”
Jesus was teaching His followers the most important priority in life. His discussion of materialism ended with a remarkable promise regarding our material needs. “Seek first the kingdom of God and his righteousness,” He said, “and all these things will be added to you”(verse 33).
JERRY DE GIER
Few believers today would admit that they place the same importance on the contents of what is called the Old Testament as they do on the New Testament. But the apostle Paul tells us that “all Scripture is given by inspiration of God” (2 Timothy 3:16, New King James Version). This would include the Hebrew Scriptures.
When Christ taught the people of the first century—His first followers—He was using the same Hebrew Scriptures. Using the term Old Testament to describe them can privilege the New Testament in a way that debases the value of the Scriptures that Christ used to great effect in His teaching.
Jesus pointed out that His purpose was to uphold and magnify the law of God, not to make it of less effect. He said, “Do not think that I have come to abolish the Law or the Prophets; I have not come to abolish them but to fulfill them” (Matthew 5:17, New International Version).
The Old part of the term Old Testament is simply a reference to the covenant relationship God established with ancient Israel at Mt. Sinai, when the Ten Commandments were given.
The New part of the phrase New Testament refers to the new relationship offered through Jesus Christ to all humanity. This new relationship includes access to the Father of humankind through the gift of the Spirit of God. It would be a mistake to think that the Old Testament is no longer useful for instruction and correction just because we use the word old to describe it.
A first-century audience would have recognized that Jesus taught from the Hebrew Scriptures. Those words had meaning and authority in their lives. Christ’s followers conveyed His teaching in what became known as the New Testament, which supports the Old.
Jesus made it very clear that God’s law is still valid when He stated, “For truly I tell you, until heaven and earth disappear, not the smallest letter, not the least stroke of a pen, will by any means disappear from the Law until everything is accomplished” (Matthew 5:18, NIV).
First-century followers of Jesus understood and valued the Hebrew Scriptures as the inspired Word of God. By taking a studied approach, we should be able to come to the same conclusion.
In what has become known as the “Sermon on the Mount,” Jesus told his followers, “You are the light of the world.” Then He added, “A city on a hill cannot be hidden. Nor do [people] light a lamp and put it under a basket” (Matthew 5:14-15).
An oil lamp in the first century was put on a stand to give light to everyone in the house.
These references to things that give out light and are seen tell us that the actions of Christ’s followers should be the same; they should be visible.
The lesson became clear when Jesus added: “Let your light so shine before men, that they may see your good works and glorify your Father in heaven” (verse 16).
That is to say, in anything followers of Christ do, they should demonstrate the godly principles by which they live. It is not primarily by occasional acts of community service, but by living every day by Jesus’ principles that onlookers should notice a difference in them. That means everyday followership, not a once-a-week show of allegiance. It requires sincerity and truth in daily life.
What Jesus was saying flew in the face of the false piety the Pharisees and religious leaders practiced. They claimed to observe and teach the law of God, but their words and their actions were in contradiction.
Followers of Christ in the first century would have understood Jesus’ words as vital guidance
in living their lives. If we claim to have a relationship with Christ, we too must avoid pretense and allow these principles to guide us. People who come into contact with us should appreciate a notable difference between our attitudes and actions and those of the world around us.
For more on this topic:
Gospels for the 21st Century
This fascinating journey through the Gospels will change your perception of Jesus and His original followers. Gospels for the 21st Century is the result of taking the New Testament at its word, reading it carefully for what it actually says. It weaves the four Gospel accounts into a single, compelling story—the story of Jesus Christ. Whether you are a believer in Jesus as the Messiah or are simply interested in learning more about His life and teachings, what follows may surprise you and open the door to a more accurate and enlightened reading.
Read more and order this book.
A book recently published in the United Kingdom deals with a subject of interest, namely the history of the early church. It is written by Geza Vermes, whose works we have previously mentioned. The publishers, Allen Lane, a division of Penguin Books, provide the following information on this new title.
Geza Vermes, the author of The Complete Dead Sea Scrolls and acknowledged expert on the life and times of Jesus, tells the enthralling story of the first Christians and the origins of a religion.
The creation of the Christian Church is one of the most important stories in the development of the world's history, but also one of the most enigmatic and little understood, shrouded in mystery and misunderstanding. With a forensic, brilliant re-examination of all the key surviving texts of early Christianity, Geza Vermes illuminates the origins of a faith and traces the evolution of the figure of Jesus from the man he was—a prophet fully recognisable as the successor to other Jewish holy men of the Old Testament—to what he came to represent: a mysterious, otherworldly being at the heart of a major new religion. As Jesus's teachings spread across the eastern Mediterranean, hammered into place by Paul, John and their successors, they were transformed in the space of three centuries into a centralised, state-backed creed worlds away from its humble origins. Christian Beginnings tells the captivating story of how a man came to be hailed as the Son consubstantial with God, and of how a revolutionary, anti-conformist Jewish sub-sect became the official state religion of the Roman Empire.
Geza Vermes, is an interesting author. Born a Jew, he took orders in the Catholic church before reconverting to Judaism. With this background, he provides a unique view of the genesis of the early church .
Historians and theologians have for many years sought to link the birth of Jesus Christ with December 25th. The internal evidence from the Gospel accounts indicates a timing of the fall or autumn of the year for the birth of Jesus, so scholars have probed the literature written by the church fathers to establish the exact date and determine when it was first associated with December 25th. All efforts to find conclusive evidence linking His birth to that date have failed.
Of recent date, a classical scholar, who is the Emeritus Professor of Classics at the University of Toronto, has made an observation that transforms the understanding of the relationship of December 25 to Jesus Christ.
Timothy Barnes has studied the Patristic period, from the 2nd through 5th centuries, specializing in one individual in particular, Constantine the Great. Barnes is considered a foremost authority on Constantine and his accomplishments. He has noted that December 25th first appears as a Christian event in Rome linked to the events of 312, the year that Constantine fought his battle at Milvian Bridge, conquering the city and thus becoming supreme Emperor.
In his 2011 book, Constantine, Dynasty, Religion and Power in the Later Roman Empire, Barnes writes: “In the winter of 312/313 Constantine began to grant fiscal privileges to Christian clergy and to raise the status of the Christian church within Roman society." Barnes notes that Constantine remained in Rome until January 6, 313, traditionally known as Epiphany day. By the end of his reign, Roman Christians were dating the nativity of Christ to December 25. So Christmas began in Rome with a newly ‘converted’ Roman emperor. Barnes questions whether it is “rash to suggest that it was Constantine who introduced this synchronism in 312, thereby in some way equating the traditional pagan god with his new Christian God” (Barnes 85).
It remained over half a century more before John Chrysostomas began to associate December 25th with the date of the birth of Jesus. But Chrysostom's misunderstanding of Scripture is a story for another day.
Just in case you thought that the Jewish Annotated New Testament reported in a previous blog was unusual, I have just received two other recent titles that speak to a growing field of Jewish New Testament studies.
Zev Garber is the editor of The Jewish Jesus: Revelation, Reflection, Reclamation, while Herbert Basser has produced The Mind Behind the Gospels: A Commentary to Matthew 1-14. Both Garber and Basser are notable and well published Jewish authors.
As editor of his volume, Garber has assembled a cast of 19 scholars, mostly Jewish or if not Jewish, then involved in Jewish Christian dialogue, to address the subject of Jesus. The chapters, each by a different author, are divided into three sections namely: Reflections on the Jewish Jesus; Responding to the Jewish Jesus; and finally, Teaching, Dialogue, Reclamation: Contemporary Views on the Jewish Jesus. Garber dedicates his book as follows:
To the courageous and devoted essayists of this tome. Jews, who practice the faith of Jesus, and Christians, who believe by faith in Jesus. By the authority of Torah and Testament, they merge as one in proclaiming the Jewish Jesus and restoring his pivotal role in the history of Second Temple Judaism and beyond. The rest is commentary and controversy. Read and see why.
The essays cover the historical time frame from the first century to the present. Most are focused on the time of the Second Temple, with contributions examining the Byzantine period, the pre-modern as well as current responses. They also examine documentary evidence outside of the Gospel accounts such as Rivka Ulmer’s Psalm 22 in Pesiqta Rabbati: The suffering of the Jewish Messiah and Jesus. In that essay, Ulmer challenges the ideas that the Messianic expectation of Jesus was something imposed later and that the idea of a suffering servant as a messiah was not part of Jewish thinking. Such approaches have been used to create a sense of distance between Christians and the Jewish ideas of his day. Israel Knohl of Hebrew University, Jerusalem, has also written on the fact that such an idea was current in Jewish expectations at the time of Jesus. Such essays help relocate Jesus as a Jewish reformer within a Judean matrix rather than the founder of a new religious movement.
Herbert Basser is a noted Talmudic and midrashic scholar at Queens University, Ontario, Canada. It may seem strange to find a Jewish Talmudist preparing a commentary on the Gospel of Matthew, but Amy-Jill Levine sums up his contribution by commenting:
Herbert Basser’s commentary on Matthew 1-14 both offers fresh insights into the composition of the First Gospel and makes a major contribution to the understanding of the Jewish roots of Christian origins. Employing later compilations of Jewish literature along with the expected Tannaitic, Targumic, and Qumran materials, he is able to construct an interpretive model of how Jews read Scripture, discerned orthopraxy, and maintained community. His approach does not artificially force Judaism into a predetermined model; instead it recognizes that within the diversity of that thought there exist particular interpretive strategies and rhetorical modes of argumentation. Confirming many of his connections are both Septuagintal readings and Syriac translations of both Hebrew biblical material and early (Greek) Christian literature.
The volume covers half of the Gospel account. Basser leaves the reader in suspense as to whether another volume will address the remaining chapters (13). He does provide a listing of articles that he has already published which could or will form the basis for the second volume. For the benefit of a reader who does not have access to the sources of his articles, we hope that he is able to deliver that second volume.
Both books are part of larger series. Zev Garber’s volume is part of the Shofar Supplements in Jewish Studies, published by Purdue University Press, while Herbert Basser’s volume is part of the Reference Library of Jewish Intellectual History, published by Academic Studies Press of Boston.
Following the success of its Jewish Annotated Old Testament, Oxford University Press approached the editor and other Jewish scholars about producing a Jewish Annotated New Testament. The resulting New Testament Study Bible has just been released.
Using the New Revised Standard Version as the basic text, and Amy-Jill Levine with Marc Zvi Brettler as editors, they have assembled a phalanx of Jewish Scholarship to provide commentary on the entire New Testament. This may seem oxymoronic to most Christianity, but in reality, the New Testament addresses a Jewish audience with Jewish issues and challenges much more that a traditional Christian audience. As a result, they are able to illuminate various NT passages in a surprising manner.
Designed to follow the organization of other Study Bibles, the JANT provides introductions to the various books of the New Testament together with commentary on the various passages on the lower section of each page. In addition, some 18 essays on various background issues that are foundational to an appreciation of the New Testament, numerous maps, charts and sidebars are provided to add understanding for the reader.
Aimed firstly at a college student application, the book will also be valuable reading for the general Christian audience in providing a marked contrast and fresh approach to the traditional Christian creedal readings and interpretations of the New Testament provided in other study Bibles.
Care has been taken to avoid reading later Rabbinic teachings of the 4/6 th centuries back into the New Testament so that the commentary provided represents Jewish attitudes and understandings of the first century in which the New Testament is set. Some references to Rabbinic teachings are recorded when they throw light on the practice or teachings on the New Testament period.
For anybody who considers themselves a student of the New Testament, the Jewish Annotated New Testament is a volume that should be added to their library for regular use.
The Sea of Galilee was a principal setting for much of the Gospel accounts of the life of Jesus Christ. At least four of his disciples were fishermen who owned and operated fishing boats. In the recent decades, a first century boat has been recovered from the shoreline of the sea by archaeologists, providing valuable insight into the nature of the boats themselves and the way in which fishing was conducted.
In a recent article published in the Jerusalem Post, Wayne Stiles provides up to date details of the archaeological recovery of the boat and what we have learned from that discovery. Note that Kinneret is a alternative name for Galilee.
H/T to James Davila of PaleoJudaica