Accidental Tourist in the Land of Tob

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I want to very briefly introduce you to three biblical women we hear very little about: Anna, Sarah and Deborah. No, not the prophetess that blessed Jesus, the wife of Abraham or the judge of Israel. I’m talking about three women from a piece of ancient Jewish literature, The Book of Tobit, part of the Catholic canon. Fragments of Tobit were found with the Dead Sea Scrolls, an indication that the book was circulated among Jewish readers in the second century BCE. The fantastical story relates the adventures of the Israelite Tobit raised by his grandmother Deborah who taught him the Law of Moses. When Tobit went blind, his wife Hannah supported the family as a seamstress. As the narrative progresses, we meet Tobit’s daughter-in-law, Sarah, who sought out God in the depths of her despair after seven unsuccessful marriages. Although Tobit is by no means a feminist textbook, its portrayal of non-traditional gender roles make for an interesting read. Since some of the characters of Tobit are also characters in my novel Judith: The Wise Woman of Bethulia, I’ve studied the text in the past. Recently, the story leaped back into my life. Let me explain.

My sister and I woke up one morning last fall in Amman, Jordan with the intention of finding the site where archaeologists believe John the Baptist preached and practiced the immersions for which he received his nick name. Prior to the trip, I’d spend hours online trying to get driving instructions via Google Maps but always came up empty handed. It seemed there were no roads that connected point A to point B. But the baptismal site is considered one of the biggest tourist attractions in Jordan. There had to be signs pointing the way, right? So with a very sketchy and small map from the hotel, Shawna and I started driving in the right direction. Oh, did I mention that the GPS in the rental car stopped working?

An hour or two later Shawna and I came to a screeching halt at the end of a dirt road, having exhausted all the other roads heading west out of Amman. Now what? I just stared out the front of the car with no clue where to go next. Our only option seemed to be to return all the way back to Amman and start over again. That would break a deeply held family rule against backtracking. An adventurous person does not go back the way she or he came. It’s just not done.

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Then I finally looked at the sign at the end of the road and read the word “Tobiad.” “I know where we are!” I shouted while rummaging through my notes. “We are in the Land of Tob!” My sister, who is not a bible freak like me did not share my excitement. This bit of information did not impress her in the least. Undaunted I continued, “This could be the remains of the town of Thisbe from the Book of Tobit.” There are a variety of guesses about the location of the biblical Land of Tob mentioned in Judges 11:3-11 but generally it is agreed that it is in the region of the Ammonite kingdom, present day Jordan. It was the ancestral territory of the Tobiad family of Judean nobles who had strong political connections with the Judean royalty. The main characters of The Book of Tobit were members of this distinctive family.

I pulled out my typed notes I’d prepared and brought with me on the off chance that we could somehow squeeze in just one more biblical site to our jam-packed schedule. Shawna stared at me, incredulous that I knew the history of our accidental destination. Then she started laughing at me. I think I joined her. After we calmed down, I read what I’d written:

“The small but impressive Qasr al-Abad, west of Amman, is one of the very few examples of pre-Roman construction in Jordan. Mystery surrounds the palace, and even its precise age isn’t known, though most scholars believe that Hyrcanus of the powerful Jewish Tobiad family built it sometime between 187 and 175 BCE as a villa or fortified palace. Although never completed, much of the palace has been reconstructed, and remains an impressive site. The palace was built from some of the biggest blocks of any ancient structure in the Middle East – the largest is 7m by 3m. The blocks were, however, only 20cm or so thick, making the whole edifice quite flimsy, and susceptible to the earthquake that flattened it in CE 362. Today, the setting and the animal carvings on the exterior walls are the highlights. Look for the carved panther fountain on the ground floor, the eroded eagles on the corners and the lioness with cubs on the upper story of the back side.”

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My notes mentioned I should ask the gatekeeper to open the interior. Until that moment, Shawna and I had been the only people around but suddenly a man appeared. We had to assume he was the aforementioned gatekeeper. With hand gestures and big smiles he unlocked the gate and we stepped into the ruins of the massive palace. We spent a good 45 minutes exploring and upon exiting we thanked the gatekeeper. Just then the call to prayer sounded. The time had arrived for the site to be shut down for Friday afternoon services. It wouldn’t be opened again for several days. We had found the Land of Tob just in time.

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By the way, we ended up returning to Amman and eventually found the baptismal site. It was worth breaking family tradition.


For Further Reading

You can find The Book of Tob online here.

Eskenazi, T. – “Tobiah” Anchor Bible Dictionary (Doubleday, 1992)

Gera, Dov – “On the Credibility of the History of the Tobiads” in Greece and Rome in Eretz Israel: Collected Essays, Aryeh Kasher, ed. (Yad Izhak Ben-Zvi, 1990)

Goldstein, J.A. – “The Tales of the Tobiads” in Christianity, Judaism and Other Greco-Roman Cults, J. Neusner, ed. (Brill, 1975)

Ji, C.C. – “A New Look at the Tobiads in ‘Iraq Al’Amir” LA 48 (1998);

Mazar, Benjamin – “The Tobiads” Israel Exploration Journal 7 (1957) 137-147.

McCown, C.C. – “The ‘Araq el-Emir and the Tobiads” Biblical Archaeologist (1957,3) 63-76.

Miller, Geoffrey David – Marriage in the Book of Tobit (Walter de Gruyter, 2011)

Porter, Adam – “What Sort of Jews were the Tobiads?” in The Archaeology of Difference: Gender, Ethnicity, Class, and the ‘Other’ in Antiquity: Studies in Honor of Eric M. Meyers, D.R. Edwards and C.T. McCollough, eds. (Boston: American Schools of Oriental Research, 2007) 141-150.

Spiro, Abram – Samaritans, Tobiads, and Judahites in Pseudo-Philo: use and abuse of the Bible by polemicists and doctrinaires (New York : American Academy for Jewish Research, 1951)

Eskenazi, T. – “Tobiah” Anchor Bible Dictionary (Doubleday, 1992)

Gera, Dov – “On the Credibility of the History of the Tobiads” in Greece and Rome in Eretz Israel: Collected Essays, Aryeh Kasher, ed. (Yad Izhak Ben-Zvi, 1990)

Goldstein, J.A. – “The Tales of the Tobiads” in Christianity, Judaism and Other Greco-Roman Cults, J. Neusner, ed. (Brill, 1975)

Ji, C.C. – “A New Look at the Tobiads in ‘Iraq Al’Amir” LA 48 (1998);

Mazar, Benjamin – “The Tobiads” Israel Exploration Journal 7 (1957) 137-147.

McCown, C.C. – “The ‘Araq el-Emir and the Tobiads” Biblical Archaeologist (1957,3) 63-76.

Miller, Geoffrey David – Marriage in the Book of Tobit (Walter de Gruyter, 2011)

Porter, Adam – “What Sort of Jews were the Tobiads?” in The Archaeology of Difference: Gender, Ethnicity, Class, and the ‘Other’ in Antiquity: Studies in Honor of Eric M. Meyers, D.R. Edwards and C.T. McCollough, eds. (Boston: American Schools of Oriental Research, 2007) 141-150.

Spiro, Abram – Samaritans, Tobiads, and Judahites in Pseudo-Philo: use and abuse of the Bible by polemicists and doctrinaires (New York : American Academy for Jewish Research, 1951)


Happy St. Junia Day


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I try to not read too much into coincidences. Weird stuff happens. I get that. But still, they are interesting. For instance I had one today that I’d like to share. While reading Ute Eisen’s Women Officeholders in Early Christianity: Epigraphical and Literary Studies, I came across the following about my favorite Jewish female apostle, Junia:

“In the Liturgikon, the missal of the Byzantine Church, Junia is honored to this day in the Menologion as an apostle…” (p.48).

In a quick flip to the footnote I discovered that Junia is honored on May 17. Umm. That would be today, right? How odd to read this bit of information on May 17 itself!

But what does this mean? Has this Byzantine Church (that I know nothing about) accepted Junia as a female apostle for eons while all the other Christians forgot about her? Boy am I curious. However, as a Jew raised by a Mormon mother and a Presbyterian father, I am way over my head when it comes to the nuances of the Catholic vocabulary. But I’m curious so I start with some definitions.

First, a missal or liturgikon is a book containing all the instructions and texts necessary for the celebration of Mass throughout the year. You know, the book in the pew you grab to follow along with what’s happening. I know what Mass is, but don’t be shy to look that up if you don’t know the term. We’re all learning here together.

Next up, the Byzantine Church. This refers to an Eastern Orthodox Church that uses the customary practices of public worship known as the “Byzantine Rite.” (I think I have that right, but for any Catholics out there who wish to correct me, jump right in and set me straight.) The Eastern Catholic Church together with the Roman Catholic Church make up the Catholic Church as a whole, by the way.

With me so far? So what is the “Menologion?” It’s a book arranged according to the months of the year. Unfortunately, I am unable to determine how long St. Junia has been honored in the Byzantine Church’s Menologion.

This all means that today is the day that some Catholics honor St. Junia, the only named female apostle mentioned in the New Testament. Here’s a link to get into the mood for the celebrations.

Orthodox Wiki calls Junia: “The holy, glorious, all-laudable Apostle Junia of the Seventy,” the “Seventy” referring to the disciples Jesus sent forth to preach (Luke 10:1).

“Junia is the subject of debate within the academic world concerning the implications of a female apostle leading within the early Church, that it might suggest the ordination of women. In Orthodox tradition, however, the title of apostle does not necessarily confer the kind of position that the Twelve had from Christ. Rather, especially when used in reference to the Seventy, it designates someone who served as a missionary for the Church, especially in its first generation. Apostle (from Greek apostolos) literally refers to one who is ‘sent out,’ and its origin is in military usage. Subsequent centuries’ saints who significantly spread the Orthodox faith are often referred to as equal to the Apostles, and this title is given without reference to gender.” (

Fancy footwork there. Yes, Junia was an apostle (without any debate whether she was a woman or not). But apparently “apostle” doesn’t mean that you have any leadership authority in the Orthodox tradition. Did the twelve apostles get that memo?

Still, I like the title “The holy, glorious, all-laudable Apostle Junia.”

Enjoy St. Junia day!

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For Further Reading

“Junia Gets a Sex Change” 

“Was Junia a Historical Person” 

“Who Was Junia?”

“Junia the Apostle”

On the Hunt for Prisca’s House in Rome


My handy-dandy Rome and Environs: Archaeological Guide states that the Church of Saint Prisca on Aventine Hill in Rome is one of the oldest Christian sites of the city. Of course I wanted to know if there was any possibility this could be the site of Prisca and Aquila’s house mentioned by Paul. “Greet Prisca and Aquila, my co-workers in Christ Jesus…greet also the church at their house” (Romans 16:3, 5). Obviously, the edifice standing behind me in the picture above does not date from the first century C.E. Keep in mind, however, that typically Roman churches were built above the houses of the saints to whom they were later dedicated. Could the current 5th century C.E. structure have been built over a home dating back 2,000 years?

There are two schools of thought about who the church was named after. One tradition identified her with Paul’s co-worker whom he met in Corinth. Prisca and her husband Aquila fled to the Greek city after Emperor Claudius expelled the leading Jewish and Christian leaders in 49 C.E. We have to guess that they returned to Rome after Claudius died because of Paul’s mention of them in his letter to the Romans. Scholars have concluded that the letter was written around 56 C.E. so if we expect to find evidence of their home, we should look for a structure built before or about that time.

The other tradition claims that the Prisca for whom the church was named was the daughter of the afore mentioned couple. This younger Prisca was martyred in the time of Claudius who ruled from 41 – 54 C.E. If true, this would make her Rome’s earliest martyr.

So what can my old friend Archaeology tell us about what lies beneath this church? In 1933, construction for the purposes of strengthening the foundations unearthed a mithraeum, a small underground hall used for the purposes of worshipping the Persian god Mithra. Though this cult was all the rage in Rome in the early centuries of the C.E., what is most interesting for our purposes is that the cultic shrine was built using the walls of a house dating back to the first century C.E. Could this pagan site have been cobbled out of the old house of Prisca and Aquila?

Every source I consulted states that neither the mother nor daughter Prisca can be identified with the site. I’m still looking for a good explanation for this conclusion. In the meantime, I’m assuming that brick stamps dating the first century house to around 95 C.E. means that neither Prisca could have lived there. The timeline is close, but no cigar. Nice try, Robin.

In the grand scheme of things, as fun as it is trying, it doesn’t really matter if we walk in the exact physical footsteps of the women of the Bible. It is far more important that we learn to be better people by studying their powerful stories.

For Further Reading

Coarelli, Filippo – Rome and Environs: An Archaeological Guide (Berkley/Los Angels/London: University of California Press, 2007)

Terrien, Samuel – Till the Heart Sings: A Biblical Theology of Manhood and Womanhood. Biblical Resource Series. (Philadelphia: Fortress, 1985)

Vermaseren, M.J. and C. C. Van Essen – The Excavations in the Mithraeum of the Church of Santa Prisca in Rome (Leiden: E. J. Brill, 1965)

Junia Gets a Sex Change


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How do we know if Junia, the only named female apostle named in the New Testament, was actually a woman?

For my Jewish friends, this may not be a question keeping you up at night. But if you knew that most of the women of the Christian Bible considered themselves to be Jewish, and that many of them held positions of leadership in the early church, and then you discovered that their very existence was covered up, perhaps you’d have a few moments of insomnia. This is an injustice in Jewish as well as Christian history.

Her true identity makes a big difference in the debate over whether women should currently hold positions of authority in the Catholic and many Protestant denominations. This subject has real consequences in the real world.

Most Christians I meet have never heard of Junia and when I tell them that she’s in plain sight, sitting there quietly in the New Testament (Romans 16:7), they run to their Bibles to have a look-see. Then it gets weird and confusing. Some translations use the male form of the name: “Junias.” Others do not. Some bibles reference the two names using footnotes. None of them explain what’s going on here. So was Paul talking about a woman apostle or not?

It’s time to answer this question once and for all. In preparation for writing my historical novel Junia: The Forgotten Apostle, I read everything I could lay my hands on regarding the biblical figure. After careful analysis, I came to the conclusion that her name had been altered. I also discovered a blog that describes how this change in translation came about. It’s the easiest evaluation of the facts that I’ve run across. I highly recommend following Brant Clements’ six part series outlining the deception. He also provides a comprehensive list of which bibles use the latest research with the correct spelling and which do not. Each section of the series is fairly short and to the point so don’t be scared. Go ahead click the links below. You’ll be glad you did.

Part One

Part Two

Part Three

Part Four

Part Five

Part Six


Biblical Women and the Use of Mikvot (Jewish Ritual Baths)

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I had the privilege of visiting the most prominent Jewish site of Sicily: the mikvah of Syracuse, the most ancient ritual bath discovered in Europe. A mikvah (also miqvah or mikveh; mikvot, pl.) is a specially designed pool of water used for purification purposes. In the 1980’s a Sicilian noble woman purchased a crumbling palazzo in the ancient Jewish quarter of Syracuse (the Giudecca) on the connected island of Ortigia. Clearly the area has undergone extensive renovation in the last few decades but retains the original labyrinth of narrow medieval streets and walkways.

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During the extensive restoration work to convert the old palace into a boutique hotel, a stone staircase was revealed that descended 30 feet underground. After draining the underground chamber, five immersion pools were discovered, all connected by a common source of water, as required by Jewish law. Archaeological evidence left no doubt that an ancient Jewish ritual bath had been uncovered. The bathing complex is believed to have been constructed in the 6th century CE but its fresh water source dates back to a clearly visible Hellenistic well. It is possible that the Jews of Sicily present during Roman times also utilized the original spring for ritual purposes but no archaeological record remains.

During the Late Middle Ages (circa 1400 CE), the community of Ortigia consisted of as many as 5,000 families and several synagogues. A year after the expulsion of the Jews from Spain, the Inquisition came to Sicily in 1493 and almost overnight the Jewish population either left the island or converted to Christianity. Known as marranos or conversos in Spain, the newly converted Jews were known as neofiti in Sicily. It appears that they filled the mikvah with sand and rock to hide its existence. Eventually their secret was forgotten. Rediscovered 500 years later, the “secret” mikvah still uses the original spring water. The restored mikvah on Via Alagona is occasionally used by Jewish congregations, making it a living legacy.

Immersion in the ritual bath is an important part of Jewish tradition, especially for women who used the mikvah following menstruation, childbirth and before marriage. Men use the ritual bath less frequently. For either gender, the purpose of the immersion was (and still is) not for the purpose of a physical cleansing, but for achieving spiritual renewal. The mikvah ritual was the precedent for the baptism practices of Christianity and the ghusl rites of Islam.

How old is the Jewish tradition of absolution? The only place “mikveh” is specifically mentioned in the Hebrew Bible is Lev. 11:36. Mikveh literally means gathering [of water] without mention of an accompanying ritual. The Hebrew Bible records the tradition of washing in preparation for the Sinai theophany in the 10th century BCE. By the time the story of Bathsheba’s famous rooftop bath is recorded in the 5th century BCE, scholars speculate that ritual washing had become more than a one-time event in a person’s life.

“Given the inclusion of the detail of Bathsheba’s bathing as an integral part of the story, it is likely that bathing after menstruation was practiced during the time of the monarchy” (Klee, p.100; see also Cohen, p. 277).

In the time of the Maccabean Revolt, around 150 BCE, The Book of Judith emphasizes regular absolutions, an indication that the ritual was beginning to be held up as a standard of righteousness, particularly among the pious community (the precursors to the Pharisees) who sought to “go the extra mile” in following the commandments. By the first century CE, ritual bathing had become a routine and widespread practice, evidenced by the great number of mikvot uncovered by archaeological excavations, with the greatest concentration around the temple mount. After the temple was destroyed in 70 CE, ritual bathing continued with increasingly detailed specifications outlined by the rabbis.

Throughout the world, contemporary Jewish communities of any size have at least one mikvah. For many women, the sacred space is revered as highly as if they bathed in preparation for the awesome visitation of God on Mount Sinai. The details of the ancient tradition has changed over the millennia but the impulse to find renewal under the waters of purification has not. I feel blessed that in my travels I’ve had the opportunity to visit these special places from so many different epochs of Jewish history. It has been another way to reach back in time and hold hands with the women of the Bible.


For Further Reading

Adler, Rachel – “Tumah and Taharah: Mikveh” in R. Siegel, M. Strassfeld, S. Strassfeld, eds., The Jewish Catalog (‪Jewish Publication Society of America, 1973) 167—171.

Cohen, Shaye J.D. – “Menstruants and the Sacred in Judaism and Christianity.” in Women’s History and Ancient History, Sarah B. Pomeroy, ed. (Chapel Hill and London: University of North Carolina Press, 1991) 273-299.

Dahl, N.A. – “The Origin of Baptism” in Interpretationes ad Vetus Testamentum pertinents Sigmundo Mowinckel, N. A. Dahl and A. S. Kapelrud, eds. (Oslo: Forlaget Land og Kirke, 1955) 36-52.

Frymer-Kensky, Tikva S. – “Pollution, Purification, and Purgation in Biblical Israel” in The Word of the Lord Shall Go Forth: Essays in Honor of David Noel Freedman, Carol Meyers and Michael Patrick O’Connor, eds. (Eisenbrauns, 1983) 399-414.

Kaplan, Aryeh – Waters of Eden: The Mystery of the Mikveh (Mesorah Publications, 1993)

Klee, Debora – “Menstruation in the Hebrew Bible.” PhD diss., Boston University, 1998

La Sor, William Sanford – “Discovering What Jewish Miqvaot Can Tell Us About Christian Baptism” Biblical Archaeology Review (Jan/Feb 1987) 52-59.

Lawrence, Jonathan David – Washing in Water: Trajectories of Ritual Bathing in the Hebrew Bible and Second Temple Literature (Society of Biblical Literature, 2006)

Miller, Stuart S. – “Stepped Pools and the Non-Existent Monolithic ‘Miqveh'” in The Archaeology of Difference: Gender, Ethnicity, Class, and the ‘Other’ in Antiquity: Studies in Honor of Eric M. Meyers, D.R. Edwards and C.T. McCollough, eds. (American Schools of Oriental Research, 2007) 215-34.

Polak-Sahm, Varda – The House of Secrets: The Hidden World of the Mikveh (Beacon Press, 2010)

Reich, Ronny –  “They Are Ritual Baths: Immerse Yourself in the Ongoing Sepphoris Mikveh Debate” Biblical Archaeology Review, March/April 2002

Reich, Ronny –  “More on Miqvaot” Biblical Archaeology Review, 13,6 (1987)

Reich, Ronny –  “The Great Mikveh Debate” Biblical Archaeology Review 19,2 (1993)

Reich, Ronny –  “The Hot-House (Balneum), the Miqweh and the Jewish Community in the Second Temple Period.” Journal of Jewish Studies 39: 102-7 (1988)

Schwartz, Baruch J. – Perspectives on Purity and Purification in the Bible. Library of Hebrew Bible/Old Testament Studies 474 (Sheffield Academic Press, 2008)

Slonim, Rivkah – Total Immersion; a Mikvah Anthology (Urim Publications; 2nd revised edition, 2006)

Wise, Carol Selkin – “Miqwaot and Second Temple Sectarianism” in The Archaeology of Difference: Gender, Ethnicity, Class, and the ‘Other’ in Antiquity: Studies in Honor of Eric M. Meyers, D.R. Edwards and C.T. McCollough, eds. (American Schools of Oriental Research, 2007)

Wood, B.G. – “To Dip or Sprinkle? The Qumran Cisterns in Perspective.” Bulletin of the American Schools of Oriental Research 256 (1984) 45-60.

Wright III, B. G. – “Jewish Ritual Baths – Interpreting the Digs and the Texts: Some Issues in the Social History of the Second Temple Judaism” in The Archaeology of Israel. Constructing the Past, Interpreting the Present, N. Silberman and D. Small, eds. Journal for the Study of the Old Testament Supplement 237 ( Bloomsbury T&T Clark, 1997) pp. 197-214.

The “Gospel of Jesus’s Wife” Found to be Authentic

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I sit up straight in my chair when Harvard Divinity School hosts a site under its auspices with the banner, “Gospel of Jesus’s Wife“.  For years I’ve read the Harvard Theological Review (HTR), a publication of the aforementioned institution, and I’ve learned first-hand that the HTR publishes articles of the highest quality. The authors invariably provide deep analyses and sometimes startling, but sound conclusions. Startling because often times no one has followed through the previously well-studied data to the logical conclusion.

All right, enough fawning over HTR. Let’s get down to business. On April 10, 2014, via a press release, Harvard Divinity School announced that based on a preponderance of evidence, the ancient fragment nick-named the “Gospel of Jesus’s Wife” is not a forgery. In the fall of 2012 at the International Coptic Congress in Rome, Professor Karen L. King announced the existence of a papyrus fragment containing the words, “Jesus said to them, my wife…”

“Twice in the tiny fragment, Jesus speaks of his mother, his wife, and a female disciple—one of whom may be identified as ‘Mary.’ The disciples discuss whether Mary is worthy, and Jesus states that ‘she can be my disciple’” (Beasley).

Nothing is known about where the one-and-a-half inches by three inches papyrus fragment came from except that it is written in Coptic, an early Christian language used in Egypt. Extensive research has determined that the document dates to between the sixth and ninth centuries CE with indications that the text may have originally been composed between the second to the fourth centuries CE. The big news is that extensive analysis of the papyrus, the ink, the handwriting, grammar, radiocarbon testing as well as a bunch of other cutting-edge technology confirms that the document is not a forgery and that it is indeed an ancient text and a product of the early Christian community.

In 2012, Dr. King’s announcement of the existence of the fragment instigated a firestorm of protest from a variety of traditionally-minded sources who immediately described the document as a forgery. For example, Dr. Depuydt, an Egyptologist at Brown University, claimed that testing the fragment was irrelevant. After seeing a newspaper photograph of the text he saw “no need to inspect it” because to him it was obviously a fake. An editorial in the Vatican’s newspaper also declared it a fake before the text had been put to any scientific testing.

“But even some of those casting doubt are also applauding her work. Many scholars said in interviews that they were excited by the discovery, because if it is genuine, it suggests at least one community of early adherents to Christianity believed that Jesus was married” (Goodstein, “Coptic”).

King has never advocated that the fragment provides evidence that Jesus was married. Rather, the document reveals that the early Christian community wondered if Jesus had been married or not. King contends that the community that might have produced this document debated “whether it was better for Christians to be celibate virgins or to marry and have children.” The early Christian community expected the immanent “Second Coming” of Jesus when he would reign over the world, mete out justice and instigate the general resurrection. Whatever previously constituted normal life, such as procreation and sustaining future generations, was meaningless in the face of waiting for the “angelic life of the resurrection” (Seim, p. 257). What was the point of marriage and children when life as they knew it was about to fundamentally change? On the other hand, if Jesus had been married, then what did that mean in practical terms for the fledgling church intent on emulating the man from Nazareth?

Traditionally the Jewish religion adhered to the commandment to be fruitful and multiply. However, even in the time of Jesus, there were exceptions. For example, the Jewish philosopher Philo described the Therapeutrides, a group of Jewish women who lived as celibates in an isolated community in Egypt with their male counterparts. They devoted their lives to prayer, studying the Torah, and composing hymns. At approximately the same time, the fledgling Christian community instituted the Order of Widows which provided a variety of women (whether previously married or widowed) with the opportunity to live independently of male supervision. Let’s just say that the early Jesus movement was faced with a diversity of cultural and social options not easily summarized in black and white terms.

As far as whether Jesus was actually married and his wife was Mary Magdalena, I’m still mulling over the evidence. In the early Christian literature contemporaneous with the canonical New Testament, several texts indicate that Jesus was married to Mary. Was this pure speculation or based on eyewitness accounts passed down through oral traditions? There might even be archaeological evidence for Jesus’ marital status in a burial chamber popularly known as the “Jesus Tomb” discovered in the Jerusalem suburb of Talpiot. Again, I’m sifting through the evidence in an attempt to come to an educated decision on the subject. One thing is certain: segments of the early Christian movement were convinced that Jesus did indeed have a wife and he considered her to be one of his disciples.

For Further Reading

Beasley, Jonathan – “Testing Indicates ‘Gospel of Jesus’s Wife’ Papyrus Fragment to be Ancient” –

Goodstein, Laurie – “Papyrus Referring to Jesus’ Wife Is More Likely Ancient Than Fake, Scientists Say” The New York Times, April 10, 2014 (

Goodstein, Laurie – “Coptic Scholars Doubt and Hail a Reference to Jesus’ Wife” New York Times, Sept. 20, 2012.

King, Karen L. – “‘Jesus said to them, ‘My wife…’ A New Coptic Papyrus Fragment.” Harvard Theological Review 107.2 (2014), 131-159.

King, Karen L. – “The Place of the Gospel of Philip in the Context of Early Christian Claims about Jesus’s Marital Status” New Testament Studies 59.4 (October 2013), 565-587. []

Seim, Turid Karlsen –  The Double Message: Patterns of Gender in Luke and Acts (Nashville: Abingdon, 1994)



Was Junia a Historical Person?

I’ve been asked if there is any historical or archaeological evidence for Junia’s ministry and life. On a strictly scientific basis, no. Based on the standards of plausibility, we might have something to work with. We can’t identify Junia as a historical person outside of her mention by Paul in Romans 16:7. However, if Junia was the same person as Joanna mentioned by Luke in (cf. Luke 8:3 and Luke 24:10), then there is a possibility that she might have been a historical figure. So let me begin by explaining why there is a probability that Junia = Joanna.

Paul describes Junia as “in Christ before I was.” In other words, she believed that Jesus was the Messiah before Paul was converted to the same idea on the road to Damascus in approximately 34 C.E., just after Jesus died. Junia then, would have been, at the very latest, a member of the band of disciples awaiting the Messiah’s return, probably in Jerusalem. Since the writer of Luke tells us that Joanna was an eyewitness of Jesus’ death and resurrection, this places Junia and Joanna in close proximity in time and perhaps place.

Paul also described Junia as an “apostle among the apostles” by which he means that she was well known among the members of the apostolic body. (For many decades there has been a great deal of debate over whether Junia was a woman’s name and how the phrase “apostle among the apostles” should be translated. Currently it is widely accepted in the scholarly community that Junia was a woman and that she was indeed a prominent apostle.) Paul uses the term “apostle” in a broader sense than that of Matthew, Mark and Luke who use the term to refer to the “twelve.” Other wise, how could he consider himself an apostle? By the term, he meant someone who had been commissioned by the risen Jesus to spread the Gospel. Paul also emphasized that he was the last of the apostles (1 Cor. 15:9; cf. 9:1). Once again we learn that according to Paul, Junia was an apostle before 34 C.E. and she was commissioned personally by Jesus. As an eyewitness to the crucifixion and resurrection, according to Luke, Joanna matches this description perfectly.

It turns out that the name Joanna (Hebrew:  Yehohanah) would have been pronounced “Junia” in Latin. Those within the sphere of the Herodians would have been known by their Latin names. However, in humbler settings (such as traveling on the road with an itinerant preacher?), few Palestinian Jews would have wanted to use a name that “proclaimed allegiance to Rome” (Bauchman, p. 182). Thus, if Joanna/Junia was a historical person, she would have used both names in different settlings, especially since the two names were audibly equivalent.

Based on these observations, I feel confident in equating Joanna and Junia as the same person. So if we can find epigraphic, textual or archaeological evidence supporting the historicity of Joanna, then we will have also found evidence for the authenticity of Junia.

The trail starts with the ossuary of Yehohanah brought to my attention by my friend Robin Jones. Ossuaries are Jewish secondary burial containers commonly found in Jerusalem dating from 100 B.C.E. to 100 C.E. By their very definition, ossuaries can be dated to a fairly narrow timeframe which includes the time of Jesus and the nascent Christian church.

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Previously I’ve briefly mentioned that the ossuary of Yehohanah, granddaughter of the High Priest Theophilus, might be the burial box of Joanna mentioned in Luke. The Israeli Department of Antiquities acquired the box in 1984. As Professor Mykytiuk noted in my discussion regarding Jezebel’s seal, “Of course, it is risky to buy anything on the antiquities market… if an item is of unknown origin (provenance) it cannot be used to draw conclusions. It could be a forgery or a fake.” As far as I know, the authenticity of the Yehohanah’s ossuary has not been questioned, so the possibility that this stone box might be the final resting place of the Joanna noted in Luke’s gospel is not impossible, just not archaeologically verifiable.

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Inscribed on the front of the ossuary were the following words written in Aramaic (the everyday language of Judea at the time):


Yehohanah daughter of Yehohanan

Son of Theophilus the high priest”

For quick reference here is the genealogy of Yohahanah’s family as depicted by Barag and Flusser:

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As you can see, Yohahanah was related by marriage to Caiaphas, the high priest involved in Jesus’ conviction.

So what are the chances that this Yohahanah is the Joanna of the New Testament? Using Tal Ilan’s study of all known Jewish women’s names from 330 BCE to 200 CE in Palestine, we discover that there are eight occurrences of the name Joanna (aka Johanna), making it the fifth most common name at that time. For the purposes of making sound historical identifications, Professor Ilan established the following criteria:

1)    If the person is mentioned in a dated document, there can be no discrepancy in chronology. In other words, if the document says that so and so lived in first century C.E., the historical person with the same name must also have lived at that time.

2)    If both the historically established person and the person of the same name under question are from the same geographic area, the certainty of the identification is increased.

3)    Just because someone has the same name as a historical person, it doesn’t mean that they are identical. However, if the name is rare, if the title of both entities are given and the family names match, it is more likely that a correspondence can be found between the two names.

Not all of these criteria must be met for a solid identification to be made, but the more boxes that can be ticked on this list, the more certain the proof of identity. In the case of Joanna, both the chronology and geography of Joanna of the Gospel of Luke and the Yohahanah of the ossuary match.

In addition, the Gospel of Luke was dedicated to an unidentified Theophilus, a rare Jewish name according to Ilan’s research.

“…when the two name combination of Johanna and Theophilus appearing together on the ossuary and also appearing together in the Gospel of Luke (and only in the Gospel of Luke) when considered together with the rarity of the Theophilus name in Palestine is strong circumstantial evidence that the proposed identification is correct.” (Anderson, Kindle Locations 694-698)

The writer of Luke addresses his intended audience as “most excellent Theophilus,” a title or designation consistent when referring to a high priest of the Jerusalem temple. “Thus, the conclusion that Luke is addressing ‘most excellent Theophilus,’ the High Priest, is warranted.” (Anderson, Kindle Location 706-707).

In addition, only the wealthy could afford burial in an individual ossuary (Tzaferis, p. 30). As the wife of Herod Antipas’ right hand man responsible for the tetrarch’s financial affairs and all of his properties, Joanna and her husband belonged to the wealthy retainer class of a royal household (Hoehner, p. 304). “Thus, the facts establish both Johanna, the granddaughter of the High Priest, and Johanna, wife of Chuza, are persons of means” (Anderson, Kindle Locations 753-754).

So I have to ask myself, what are the chances that all of these markers of identity are just coincidences? For historians, the bridge between the ossuary and the Gospel of Luke can’t be crossed with certainty. But for the historical fiction writer intent on probability and plausibility, the bridge is sturdy enough for me.


For Further Reading

Anderson, Richard –  “Theophilus: a Proposal [as to his identity in Luke 1:3 and Acts 1:1],” The Evangelical Quarterly 69.3 (July-Sept. 1997): 195-215.

Anderson, Richard – Who are Johanna and Theophilus?: The Irony of the Intended Audience of the Gospel of Luke. Kindle Edition, 2010.

Barag, D. and D. Flusser – “The Ossuary of Yehohanah Granddaughter of the High Priest Theophilus”, Israel Exploration Journal, 36 (1986), 39-44.

Hoehner, Harold W., – Herod Antipas, (Cambridge [Eng., University Press, 1972).

Ilan, Tal, A Lexicon of Jewish Names in Late Antiquity: Part I: Palestine 330 BCE-200 CE, (Tübingen: Mohr-Siebeck, 2002).

Tzaferis, V., “Jewish Tombs at and near Giv’at ha-Mivatar, Jerusalem,” Israel Exploration Journal 20 (1970) 18-32.