Thursday, May 10, 2007

Faith Works 5-12-07
Jeff Gill

Herod Lives, Kinda

With all the fluffy, heavily edited for TV, agenda driven archaeology that’s been in the public eye lately, the latest news will probably get little or no attention.

Every year, right before Easter, we get some barely credible theory floated that has an artifact or two in the promo shots. Now we’re after Easter, and the storyline is, well. . .

What has been found is not earthshaking, nor does it disprove anything in the Bible, so where’s the big deal? It’s just Herod.
That’s right, the tomb of Herod the Great has been found.

Herod is called the “Great” because while he was an amoral, vicious, family killing sack of slime, he built and built and built. The version of the Temple Mount where Jesus walked, prayed, and preached, where Saul studied Torah and Caiaphas presided (another name recently discovered on a bone box in a tomb by Jerusalem), that’s Herod’s work; all still visible is the famous Western Wall plaza, and the monumental Foundation Stone, which can be seen in the tunnel along the base of Herod’s construction project.

Herod built the mountaintop fortress and palace Masada, and the scale version of the Temple Mount above the Caves of the Patriarchs in Hebron (Israel, not Ohio). His grandest palace was in Jericho, where he died.

That isn’t where he was buried, though. Scholars had long thought he was buried near an odd little hilltop palace and fortress (yes, he built quite a few of these) outside of Bethlehem, called Herodion (yes, he had an ego that was as outsized as his architecture).

None of the excavations around the Herodion had turned up a tomb, just two massive palaces. Even the most diligent archaeologist can take a few decades to excavate a palace, especially one with a documentary record like Herod left.

So it was just a little while ago that some Israeli archaeologist found the funding and time to go back out into the desert and dig . . . wait for it . . . in between the two palaces! Sure enough, there it was.

Empty, and desecrated, likely done when the Herodion was, like Masada, taken over around 70 AD in a Jewish revolt. Herod liked to point out he was Jewish, and had re-done the Temple in gold and glory, always feeling he got little appreciation for the upgrade.

This may have had something to do with his habit of killing his wives, sons, and assorted in-laws when they annoyed him. Not to mention the tradition, recorded in Luke’s Gospel, that Herod ordered the killing of “the innocents,” any boy below age two, just to be on the safe and thorough side, thinking he would kill the prophesied Messiah.

It was his son (by a surviving fourth wife) named Herod Antipas who plays a role in the death of the child Herod tried to kill, some thirty years and more later. The name and shadow of this megalomaniacal puppet of Rome falls across the entire story of Jesus of Nazareth, born in Bethlehem.

So now, outside of Bethlehem, the burial place of the homicidal tyrant is now confirmed for history. Another major character in the Gospel narratives is confirmed by independent inquiry.

We have inscriptions of Pilate from Jerusalem and Caesarea (and from later in his career in Europe), along with texts by Josephus, Philo, and Tacitus. Gallio, the proconsul of Acts 18, has turned up in carvings from Achaea where he in fact ruled. Caiaphas has been confirmed from an ossuary outside of Jerusalem noted above, and Rabbi Gamaliel (Acts 5) is a significant source quoted in the Talmud, as is his grandfather Rabbi Hillel.

The stone-cut evidence to confirm portions of the Old Testament is a double-length essay itself. (Remind me, I’ll get to it!)
Over and over, the evidence of inscriptions shows that the four earliest sources of the story of Jesus, and the narrative in Acts and the Epistles is rooted in as much solid historical sources as Tiberius and Claudius, or even Nero, Herod’s true child in spirit.

Octavian, who became Caesar Augustus, has a wide and rich body of sources, in texts and inscriptions, and even his story is still debated by scholars. As it should be.

I really don’t mind scholarship debating the exact understanding and connections of events in the New Testament. John Dominic Crossan, for one, has done an amazing job of tying our growing understanding of the early church and the claims of the Roman Empire with “In Search of Paul,” which I commend to anyone wanting to understand what it meant to say “Jesus is Lord,” versus “Caesar is Lord.”

But when folks want to say “Maybe this never happened, but was all made up for religious purposes,” I can’t help but wonder if they say that about Vespasian.

And why not.

Jeff Gill is a writer, storyteller, and supply preacher around central Ohio; share your historical notes with him at

Tuesday, May 08, 2007

Notes From My Knapsack 5-13-07
Jeff Gill

Tread Carefully On the Earth

So I’m walking backwards, slowly.

Warblers, cardinals, towhees, robins, all keeping up a steady symphony.

There’s a bird on a high branch of a nearby tulip poplar (yellow poplar, tulip tree, Ohio sequoia, whatever). The leaves are just past buds but not yet big and green enough to be anything other than springtime in two dimensions. And there’s a blue to the sky, behind the leaf and branch filigree, that we may not see again until fall, dry air and steady light spreading cerulean overhead.

A cedar waxwing had just coasted past me, tan and black accents, swooping up into a tree nearby. Truth be told, I’m not sure what a cedar waxwing’s song sounds like, even if I could spot their size and coloration from a township away.

This song is repetitive, but fairly musical; nicer than a starling, not quite a red winged blackbird trill. Somewhere above me, some forty or fifty feet, the bird is bouncing from branch to branch, and I want a clear look at whether this is my waxwing from a few minutes ago, or . . .

It turns out to be a Northern Flicker, also tan but with a dramatic red hood thrown back on his neck, but he’s singing and not pounding his tiny little head into the bark. That I hear him doing later in a mating display (listen to me build a home and hunt the bugs, ladies!).

What people don’t always seem to appreciate is how flexible you’d better keep your neck for birding. Birders may not be noted as Olympic athletes exactly, but along with an inhuman indifference to finding a comfort station for hours on end, they’re known for usually keeping their necks loose and mobile.

Walking backwards is also a useful skill in birding. Or for any outdoor activity. There’s giving tours to kids at a Licking Park District site, or around Dawes Arboretum, or as I was, at Flint Ridge State Memorial for the Ohio Historical Society. Even on your own, when a songbird has perched just behind you, up high, and often against the sun’s contrast, you don’t regret (much) all the time you’ve spent walking hindways.

Spring is a great time to watch birds and wander through forests, not yet too overgrown with underbrush, trying to figure out what that sunny shadow up three levels of branch is.

Sometimes, birds come to you whether you’re looking for them or not. Bird’s nests in the doorway, or animal adventures mixed with the gunpowder of curious children.

I had recently been looking up some information on William S. Denison, the namesake of a local university. His family migrated here from near Mystic, Connecticut, where the Denison Homestead is still standing and a noted area attraction, after the Mystic Seapot and, certainly, Mystic Pizza.

(And none of this can be confused with the local Denison Homestead program in Granville, which is having a 30th anniversary along with Commencement Weekened!)

There is also a nature center tied to the area of the 1717 Denison house, called the Denison Pequotsepos Nature Center. Their website has a “FAQ” page on wild animals and particularly birds that is the best I’ve seen about anywhere: what to do or not do with them, and so on.

The website is, and you can learn all the average outdoor wanderer needs starting there.
Congratulations to the ancestral Denison home in Connecticut for 290 years, and the environmentally-oriented community living experiment for college students in Ohio, celebrating 30 years. May they all have blue skies and singing birds and many years before them!

Jeff Gill is a writer, storyteller, and supply preacher around central Ohio who knows that there’s a bird related reason to those medieval funny hats they wear at graduation ceremonies. Tell him about a cool bird you saw (or thought you saw) in Licking County at