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Rightly Understanding God’s Word: Bible Background, Part 2, by Craig S. Keener

 

Celebrating birthdays was at this time a Greek and Roman but not a Jewish custom, but Jewish aristocrats had absorbed a large amount of Greek culture by this period. Other sources confirm that the Herodian court indulged in the sort of immoral behavior described here. After taking his brother’s wife (Lev. 20:21), Antipas lusts after his wife’s daughter Salome (cf. Lev. 20:14). He then utters the sort of oath one might give while drunk, but which especially recalls that of the Persian king stirred by Queen Esther’s beauty (Esther 5:3, 6, 7:2), though this girl’s request will be far less noble. But as a Roman vassal Herod had no authority to give any of his kingdom away anyway.

Salome had to go “out” to ask her mother Herodias because women and men normally dined separately at banquets. Excavations at Antipas’s fortress Machaerus suggest two dining halls, one for women and one for men; Herodias thus was probably not present to watch Herod’s reaction to the dance. Josephus characterizes Herodias the same way Mark does: a jealous, ambitious schemer.

Although Romans and their agents usually executed lower class persons and slaves by crucifixion or other means, the preferred form of execution for respectable people was beheading. By asking for John’s head on a platter, however, Salome wanted it served up as part of the dinner menu—a ghastly touch of ridicule. Although Antipas’s oath was not legally binding and Jewish sages could release him from it, it would have proved embarrassing to break an oath before dinner guests; even the emperor would not lightly do that. Most people were revolted by leaders who had heads brought to them, but many accounts confirm that powerful tyrants like Antipas had such things done.

If a man had sons, normally the eldest son was responsible for his father’s burial; here, John’s disciples must fulfill this role for him. Since he had been executed, the disciples performed a dangerous task unless they had Herod’s permission to take the body. Their courage underlines, by way of contrast, the abandonment of Jesus’ male disciples during his burial.

10. A New King’s Birthday in Luke 2:1-14

Censuses were used especially to evaluate taxation requirements. A tax census instigated by the revered emperor Augustus here begins the narrative’s contrast between Caesar’s earthly pomp and Christ’s heavenly glory. Although Egyptian census records show that people had to return to their homes for a tax census, the “home” to which they returned was where they owned property, not simply where they were born (censuses registered persons according to property). Joseph thus must have still held property in Bethlehem. Betrothal provided most of the legal rights of marriage, but intercourse was forbidden; Joseph was courageous to take his pregnant betrothed with him, even if (as is quite possible) she was also a Bethlehemite who had to return to that town. Although tax laws in most of the Empire only required the head of a household to appear, the province of Syria (then including Judea) also taxed women. But Joseph may have simply wished to avoid leaving her alone this late in her pregnancy, especially if the circumstances of her pregnancy had deprived her of other friends.

The “swaddling clothes” were long cloth strips used to keep babies’ limbs straight so they could grow properly. Midwives normally assisted at birth; especially since this was Mary’s first child, it is likely (though not clear from the text) that a midwife would have been found to assist her. Jewish law permitted midwives to travel a long distance even on the Sabbath to assist in delivery.

By the early second century even pagans were widely aware of the tradition that Jesus was born in a cave used as a livestock shelter behind someone’s home. The manger was a feeding trough for animals; sometimes these may have been built into the floor. The traditional “inn” could as easily be translated “home” or “guest room,” and probably means that, since many of Joseph’s scattered family members had returned to the home at once, it was easier for Mary to bear in the vacant cave outside.

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Category: Biblical Studies, Winter 2005

About the Author: Craig S. Keener, Ph.D. (Duke University), is F. M. and Ada Thompson Professor of Biblical Studies at Asbury Theological Seminary in Wilmore, Kentucky. He is author of many books, including Miracles: The Credibility of the New Testament Accounts (Baker Academic, 2011), the bestselling IVP Bible Background Commentary: New Testament, The Historical Jesus of the Gospels, Gift and Giver: The Holy Spirit for Today, and commentaries on Acts, Matthew, John, Romans, 1-2 Corinthians, and Revelation. In addition to having written more than seventy academic articles, several booklets and more than 150 popular-level articles, Craig is is the New Testament editor (and author of most New Testament notes) for the The NIV Cultural Backgrounds Study Bible. He is married to Dr. Médine Moussounga Keener, who is from the Republic of Congo, and together they have worked for ethnic reconciliation in North America and Africa. Craig and Médine wrote Impossible Love: The True Story of an African Civil War, Miracles and Hope against All Odds (Chosen, 2016) to share their story. sites.google.com/site/drckeener

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