Monday, March 12, 2018

Review: Stern, Sacha. Calendars in Antiquity: Empires, States, and Societies.

A Review of
Stern, Sacha. Calendars in Antiquity: Empires, States, and Societies. Oxford ; New York: Oxford University Press, 2012.
From the biography page at University College London:
Sacha Stern is Professor of Rabbinic Judaism and Head of Department at the UCL Department of Hebrew and Jewish Studies. He holds a BA in Ancient History from Oxford (1986), an MA in Social Anthropology from UCL (1988), and a D.Phil in Jewish Studies from Oxford (1992). He has also studied in Yeshivot in Israel. Before joining UCL in 2005, he was Lecturer in Jewish Studies at Jews' College, London and then Reader in Jewish Studies at SOAS (School of Oriental and African Studies). [link]
Review by Joseph Abrahamson

Stern has done extensive academic research and publication on the reckoning of time in the ancient world, especially as those relate to the peoples and cultures of the Bible.

Calendars in Antiquity is 430 pages, 20 page bibliography, and index.

Stern's focus is to counter the generally held theories concerning the development of calendars which he belives are flawed. Two main issues addressed are:
  1.  that the development of the calendar "cannot be simply explained as the result of Egyptian influence" (p. 427)
  2.  that the calendar is not "the inevitable outcome of some deterministic progression from 'primitive' to 'advanced'; indeed, the evolution of calendars had little to do with what we would call scientific progress.' (ibid.)
In this review I will focus on just a few of Stern's arguments with some detail and then summarize. My hope is to help draw out some examples of the benefits of this work to the Biblical exegete.

Stern's methodology is to focus on the historical cultural aspects of how calendars functioned in their societies and the societal influences that can be shown or reasonably understood to have influenced the changes. Since those influences can be very broad, Stern focuses particularly on the political aspects of cultural forces. Stern limits his calendrical focus chiefly to units of time as they affect annual reckoning. Thus he does not go into detail on how each of the different societies reckoned the hours of the day except as it relates to how the begining of a month or year was fixed. He also limited his study to societies of Classical Antiquity and their interactions leading to the development of the Julian Calendar in late antiquity. Stern does not include calendar traditions from the Far East, ancient America, or later developments like the Islamic calendar.

The study is divided into two main parts: 
  • Part I: From City States to Great Empires: The Rise of the Fixed Calendar.
  • Part II: The Empires Challenged and Dissolved: Calendar Diversity and Fragmentation.
The first part looks at how the various societies that participated in Classical Antiquity reckoned time.

In ancient Greece and Babylon (Chaptes 1 and 2) the calendars were lunar, as was the calendar of Republican Rome. The evidence from Europe also leads us to conclude that the Celtic/Gaulic and German calendars were also lunar.
And there was, for example: among the Greeks and Babylonians, great variety in naming and reckoning months, festivals, and when the new year was to be counted. Individual city-states kept their own month-names and methods of intercalation. This is shown by multiple dating on inscriptions of treaties and contracts.

Intercalation and calendar "tampering" were essentially political tools which not only helped keep the lunar reckoning of time in line with the yearly seasons, but also allowed rulers to do things like: avoid missing a religious festival because a battle was taking place; extend the days to allow tribute and taxes to be brought in before a deadline; and extend their term of office. In the case of the Babylonian  city states and the rise of the neo-Assyrian (8th-7th cent. BC) it was the king who declared the first of the month.

The process of unifying calendars between these groups took place when city-states formed alliances or were made part of a larger regional political power.

Stern argues that these lunar calendars were not less rational, less scientific, or less emperical than our current Gregorian/Julian Calendar. These calendars were actually very much emperical as they depended upon the actual observation of the new moon to establish the beginning of a month. The intercalations were based on both natural and societal realities (agricultural, political, and religious). And, being tied to the moon, they were solidly based in a method of reckoning that was available to and understood by most members of their societies. 

They were not origninally solar nor were they originally stellar calendars. Thus the first month (moon) of a year would not begin on the same day of the solar year as we reckon time. Religious festivals, which also varied from one city-state to another, could be delayed with intercalation (the adding of a month) or hastened by suppression (ignoring or eliminating days from the count). But they were not at first tied to solar events (equinox, solstice, etc.) nor to the direct timing of stellar events (the heliacal rising of Pliedes). 

The development of astronomical calendars in Ancient Greece from the late 5th century BC (Meton) and early 4th century BC (Callippus) is a feature limited mainly to Athens. Stern uses inscriptional and historical writings from the period to demonstrate that the astronomical calendars were not used for civic dating. For example, astronomical dates based on these reckonings are ignored by Herotodus and Thucidides. Medical works from the Classical period reference astronomical phenomena, but not as a chronological dating tool. It is only in later with writers [like Diodorus and Geminus (mid to late 1st cent. BC)] who project the Callipic Cycle or Metonic Cycle back upon historical events as an absolute chronological dating scheme. Other lines of evidence include the later (3rd cent. BC) introduction of the parapegmata (a calendar peg-board set up in public) which mentioned astronomical and weather events as part of the count of days.

For the early Babylonians the calenders consisted of months of either 29 or 30 days. This calendar length of the month determined by the sighting of the next new moon. The unification of calendars in Mesopotamia began in the 2nd millenium BC and is tied together with the unification of the city-states under the Assyrian kingdom in 1100 BC. From the influence of this kingdom the month names it chose as standard were spread throughout its region of influence. 

These month names and calendar practice influenced also the names of the months and how they were reckoned by the people of Israel as they settled in Canaan and were impacted by Assyria and neo-Babylonia.

While literature of astronomy/astrology began earlier in Mesopotamia than in Greece (Astrological Omen Lists, letters of astrologers to kings), the chief calendrical function of the astrologer was to site the new moon and report to the king. These documents demonstrate that they had the astronomical knowledge to predict when the new moon should occur. However the calendar still depended upon emperical sighting and political authority. The king would choose to declare the new month. The year consisted of 12 or 13 months, depending upon choice of intercalation.

Reports of new moon sightings from the astrologers to the king become very rare from the 6th-1st cent. BC. However, a group of documents called the Astronomical Diaries yield a great deal of information that allow for reasonably precise dates for this period when the modern calendar is retrojected upon the Babylonian lunar calendar. Stern points out that even though there is a very high degree of astronomical knowledge, this did not effect a change from a lunar to a solar calendar. The basic change in the calendar from the older to the newer is in a greater reliance upon predictions of new moons. This reduced dependency upon the limits of a courier to relay the proclamation of new moons, allowing political administration of wider territories.

It is not until the Achaemenid period (5th cent. BC) that evidence of a fixed calendrical cycle to regulate the lunar year. Firm evidence exists from Cyrus' conquest of Babylon in 539 BC. The main evidence comes from the astronomical texts called MUL.APIN and the Saros Cannon texts.

By the Selucid period (312-63 BC) a method of calculating the vernal Equinox was developed. This method differs from modern methods and yields different, usually later, dates than the actual equinox. But this calculation seems to have had no clearly evident affect on the method of intercalation used for the Babylonian calendar.

Data of regular intercalations for the Parthian period from AD 224 and following is unclear.

The Babylonian Calendar remained lunar, but became more fixed through time. The method of regularizing the calendar remained true to its emperical use with the lunar month through better and more reliable predictability of the new moon. This reliability of prediction allowed for the calendar's use over a much wider area of political control. The Babylonian Calendar influenced many regional and local calendars. Both its naming conventions and its methods were incorporated by subject peoples. The calendars of the Old Testament Israelites were strongly influenced.

The Egyptian Calendar (Chapter 3) represents the only fixed (and ideally solar) calendar in Classical Antiquity. But as the Egyptian Calendar was fixed at 365 days the first day of the year drifted forward through the actual solar year by 1 day every four years. This method of reckoning the number of days in the year was adopted by many peoples.

The Persian Zoroastrian Calendar, for example, used the same 365 day scheme with the first day of the year moving one solar day earlier every four years. There is no evidence of the Zoroastrian Calendar before the 6th century BC. Also, the only period at which the Persian Zoroastrian Calendar year actually began on or near the vernal equinox was the years 481-479 BC. The source of Egyptian influence most probably came after the Achaemenid empire conquered Egypt under Cambysus in 525 BC. 

Likewise, the Egyptian Calendar's soar length year became the basis for the Julian reforms of the Republican Roman Calendar. Julius Caesar included an extra day every fourth year. This was to prevent the solar drift that occured in the Egyptian and Persian Zoroastrian Calendars. 

The use of a fixed, predictable calendar was a tool of empire that allowed the Romans to manage a much larger region of influence more conveniently than under the previous lunar calendar of the Republic. 

However, the Julian Calendar reforms were not carried out well at first. The use of inclusive counting by Romans appears to have lead to an over intercalation of leap years in the early period so that Augustus had to revise the leap year schedule temporarily in 8 BC.  Also, while the calendar reforms spread very quickly and widely in the western provinces of the empire, the eastern provinces retained a great deal of calendar independence. 

The calendars of Antioch, Gaza, Ashkelon, Jerusalem, and many other cities individualistic. Often they adopted the form of the Julian calendar but retained regional cultural names for the months; maintained a different new year's date; or --as in the case of Jerusalem-- kept a parallel lunar civic calendar that was important to the culture and religion of the local people. The adoption of the Julian reforms in these regions also was not immediate, in some cases not being adopted until the end of the 1st or mid 2nd cent. AD.

In his second part, Stern describes various examples and ways in which local cultures expressed a kind of dissidence to political authority or subversion by modification of the Julian reforms. 

The data and study of the evidence in the above mentioned examples are more than sufficient to recommend this work to the Biblical exegete. The research presented on the Gallic and Jewish Calendars in the sixth chapter stand out as especially useful.

But the closing chapter is extremely valuable. "Secterianism and heresy: From Qumran Calendars to the Christian Easter Controversies."

In this chapter Stern describes, among other things, some of the formative issues for the Rabbinic Calendar as a distinct expression differing from the Judaean/Palestinian Calendar that preceeded it. And in his discussion of the development of the Christian Calendar Stern brings out some very good arguments about how the Christian Calendar began be a confession of Orthodoxy. Highlighted in this discussion are groups which diverged from this calendrical confession for the purpose of expressing their distinction from the Orthodox Catholic Church, such as the Nestorians, Novations, and the Arians when they were opposing the reinstatement of Athanasius.

While Stern's focus is mainly on the political aspects of these divisions, combining his research with a reading of doctrinal and liturgical history is very helpful and enlightening. 

The book is expensive.  $180. Perhaps one can find it for less than that somewhere online. But I would highly recommend this book for seminary libraries, college libraries, and for those interested in chronology, chronography, ancient history, doctrinal history, and the history of the liturgical year.

Monday, March 05, 2018

Précis: Nadav Naʾaman 2011 “The Shephelah according to the Amarna Letters.”

Nadav Naʾaman 2011 “The Shephelah according to the Amarna Letters.”

pp. 281-299 in I. Finkelstein and N. Na'aman (eds.), The Fire Signals of Lachish. Studies in the Archaeology and History of Israel in the Late Bronze Age, Iron Age, and Persian Period in Honor of David Ussishkin, Winona Lake 2011, 281-299.
available at 


This article is important with respect to the relationship of archaeology and the claims made about the past based on archaeology over against what can be learned from textual evidence.

Nadav Na’aman is Professor of Jewish History, Emeritus of Tel Aviv University, where he served from 1975 to 2007. He is a renowned authority on the Amarna Letters with long experience in Archaeology, the Ancient Near East, and the history of the Amarna Period, and other topics.

His CV is available at

In 1887 the first 358 tablets of the Amarna Letters were discovered in Amarna, Egypt. Another 24 tablets were recovered later in the 20th century. The tablets are written in Akkadian cuneiform and consist mostly of diplomatic correspondence between Egypt and its subject kings in Canaan and Amarru. The correspondence covers about 30 years during the XVIIIth Egyptian Dynasty, starting in the last few years of Amenhotep III’s life. This period is now thought to start just before 1350 B.C. and extend down to the 1320s, though there are enough perplexities in Egyptian chronology which could argue for as much as 30 years earlier for the beginning of this period.

Précis by Joseph Abrahamson

Na’aman’s article presents a test case concerning the intersection of archaeology and documentary history through the examination of the political, geographical, and personal references in a small set of letters from the Amarna tablets which deal with a rebellion in the Shephelah called the Qiltu Affair. This grouping of letters is called the Shephelah correspondence.

In “Egyptian sources of the New Kingdom” the Shephelah is strikingly absent, except for the city of Gezer. “The Shephelah is also absent from all other Egyptian topographical lists that enumerate the cities in the Land of Canaan...and from Papyrus Anastasi I which describes various regions and towns in Canaan…” And the envoy list of “Amenophis II’s 18th year lists the envoy of Lachish apart from” other envoys. This lack of mention is “remarkable when it is compared with other districts in Canaan.” “[T]he Shephelah … is the least mentioned region among the districts of Canaan. [This absence] calls for an explanation.”

Na’aman’s procedure is to 1) the textual evidence concerning the features of the City-States in the Shephelah as recorded in the Amarna Letters, 2) the archaeological evidence for those cities/city states during the period of the letters; 3) “examine in detail the documentary evidence for the Shephelah in the 14th century B.C.E.” And 4) draw “an overall picture of the Shephelah in light of the documentary and archaeological evidence.”

For the first section Na’aman delineates the selection of which Amarna Letters are relevant giving explanation to the features with respect to authorship and location. He cautions that one must realize that this corpus represents only a fraction of the number of letters which would actually have been written. From these criteria he discusses how he intends to make only the most clear and empirical description of probable city-states and rulers in the Shephelah from these documents. This section contains detailed explanation of the preservation of the particular tablets, their content, and the weight of any relevant reconstructions in the texts. His result is that along with “Gezer, Gath, and Lachish…[i]t is clear that about six/seven different city-states existed in the time of the Amarna archive, and that large mounds, such as Tell !Aitun and Tell Beit Mirsim, might have been the seats of city-states’ rulers…” In addition “each of the identified city-states stood near one of the main rivers of the Shephelah.” Which may mean “that the territories of the city-states stretched along the main rivers and their tributaries, each dominating a number of villages and hamlets in its district.”

In his second section Na’aman investigates the archaeological evidence for the Shephelah in this period. But his results poze a puzzle. He explained some typical assumptions about what an archaeologist might expect to find with respect to governing centers. He asks; “Can archaeological research produce evidence for differentiating the centers of city-states from secondary towns in their territories?” “Upon reading the seven letters sent from Jerusalem, scholars would expect the excavations to reveal a medium-sized, thriving city in the Late Bronze Age, but these expectations were totally dashed.” There is a huge discrepancy which he believes can be explained “by the state of preservation of the settlement strata from the Amarna period.” Similarly with the archaeological record at Gezer Na’aman states: “If our knowledge of the place were based entirely on the archaeological findings, we would have concluded that Gezer was, at most, an unimportant city-state, and no one would have thought that it was one of the leading city-states in the array of Canaanite city-states during the Amarna period.” Regarding Lachish he writes: “We may state with certainty that, without the historical documentation, scholars would have assumed that Late Bronze Lachish became an important city-state only in the 13th century” after the Amarna period.

His conclusion to this section is that archaeology is inherently unreliable without textual evidence. “[W]ith regard to the cities’ political status and strength vis-à’vis their neighbors, especially in periods of decline, archaeology is severely limited. We may conclude that the number of Canaanite city-states in the Shephelah should be established on the basis of the documentary evidence alone, whereas archaeology, useful as it is in many aspects of the urban and material culture, cannot supply concrete data for the investigation.”

For the third section Na’aman focuses a “prominent feature in the ‘Shephelah correspondence.’” These are the problems of rebellion and political and social unrest reported in the letters. These features “require elucidation.” He focuses on one particular event called the “Qiltu affair” to demonstrate how significantly careful study of the textual evidence fills in our information about the events of this region which are invisible to archaeology. This section contains careful analysis of the relevant Amarna letters which speak of this event. Na’aman also draws a political parallel with similar events of 1 Samuel 23:1-13 during Saul’s reign.

In Na’aman’s fourth section he analyzes the record of “rebellions in the Shephelah in the Late Amarna Period.” This section also contains careful analysis of relevant Amarna Letters “in order to establish the identity of the social groups that operated in the related events.” Several letters are scrutinized, and Na’aman draws a relatively clear historical but tentative reconstruction of these rebellions and their causes.

In his conclusion, Na’aman points out that there “is a marked contast between the Egyptian inscriptions, which entirely ignore the Shephelah region (except for Gezer) and mention only toponyms located outside its area, and the Amarna letters, which show that the Shephelah played an important part in the Egyptian administration of Canaan.” Na’aman highlights some of the main insights given by the Amarna letters. “The archaeological excavations and surveys supply important data that is not illuminated by the documentary evidence.” And the archaeological evidence must be used in light of the textual evidence. And the Egyptian topographical lists from the time period need to be reevaluated with respect to both their purpose and meaning rather than concluding that they would mention issues based on the expectations of historians or archaeologists.

Wednesday, February 28, 2018

Review: Bruce Metzger's 2001 "The Bible in Translation: Ancient and English Versions"

Metzger, Bruce
2001 The Bible in Translation: Ancient and English Versions. Baker Academic, Grand Rapids, Michigan.

Reviewer: Joseph Abrahamson

Bruce Metzger (1914 – 2007) was probably one of the most widely known and respected biblical scholars of the last 100 years. The obituary posted by the Society of Biblical Literature describes both his academic accomplishments and his personableness.

This volume, though published by Baker Academic, was written in a style more for the popular reader. The book is a historical “field guide” to two different but related topics: the Ancient Versions of the Bible and the English Versions. In this context the term “version” refers to a translation from the original language texts into another language.

Metzger does not cover every translation in each category. He covers those which he believed were of some enduring historical significance. His selectivity is especially apparent in his journey through the English versions through the latter half of the 20th century and later.

His review of the English versions mostly highlights selected new features of scholarship, translation, text, or publication which a particular version introduced and were adopted by later English versions. Occasionally his criteria for selection seem to be to highlight an historical curiosity which may resonate with the political sensitivities of post-sexual revolution American academia (Julia E. Smith’s version).

What Metzger avoids throughout his discussions of the English versions is consistent examination of the theological and philosophical positions of the translators and how these are reflected in their translations. He does make a few comments on the theological or philosophical positions of the translators on a few particular versions, but these are rare, and they seem to reflect more a personal note in Metzger’s reaction to a few particular versions.

The topics Metzger covers are:

Part 1: Ancient Versions
Ancient Versions of the Old Testament Made for the Use of Jews
  • The Septuagint
  • The Jewish Targums
Ancient Versions Intended Chiefly for Christians
  • The Syriac Versions
  • The Latin Versions
  • The Coptic Versions
  • The Gothic Version
  • The Armenian Version
  • The Georgian Version
  • The Ethiopic Version
  • The Arabic Versions
  • The Sogdian Version
  • The Old Church Slavonic Version
  • The Nubian Version
Part 2: English Versions
English Bibles before the King James Version
  • The Beginnings of the English Bible
  • They Wycliffite Bible (1382; 1388)
  • Tyndale and the First Printed English New Testament (1526)
  • Coverdale and the First Complete Printed Bible in English (1535)
  • Matthew’s Bible (1537)
  • Taverner’s Bible (1539)
  • The Great Bible (1539)
  • Edmund Becke’s Bibles (1549; 1551)
  • The Geneva Bible (1560)
  • The Bishops’ Bible (1568)
  • The Rheims-Douay Bible (1582-1610)
The King James Bible (1611)

Between the King James Bible and the Revised Version
  • Edward Harwood’s New Testament (1768)
  • Charles Thomson’s Bible (1808)
  • Noah Webster’s Bible (1833)
  • Julia E. Smith’s Bible (1876)
  • The British Revised Version (1881-85) and the American Standard Version (1901)
  • Early Modern-Speech Versions
  • The Twentieth Century New Testament (1901; 1904)
  • Weymouth’s New Testament in Modern Speech (1903)
  • Moffatt’s Translation of the Bible (1913; 1924-25)
  • Smith and Goodspeed’s American Translation (1923; 1927)
The Revised Standard Version (1952)
The Jerusalem Bible (1966)
The New American Bible (1970)
The New English Bible (1970)
The New International Version (1978)

Jewish Translations
  • Translations Sponsored by the Jewish Publication Society (1917; 1985)
  • Heinz W. Cassirer’s New Testament (1989)
  • David H. Stern’s Complete Jewish Bible (1998)
Revision after Revision
  • The New American Standard Bible (1971; updated ed. 1995)
  • The New Jerusalem Bible (1985)
  • Revised New Testament, New American Bible (1986)
  • The Revised English Bible (1989)
  • The New Revised Standard Version (1990)
Simplified, Easy-to-Read Versions
  • The Basic English Bible (1949)
  • J.B. Phillips’s Version (1958; rev. ed. 1972)
  • The Good News Bible (Today’s English Version) (1976)
  • The Reader’s Digest Bible (1982)
  • The Contemporary English Version (1995)
  • New International Reader’s Version (1996)
Paraphrases of the English Bible
  • Henry Hammond’s Paraphrase and Annotations (1653)
  • Philip Doddridge’s Family Expositor (1739-56)
  • F.F. Bruce’s Expanded Paraphrase of the Epistles of Paul (1965)
  • Kenneth Taylor’s Living Bible, Paraphrased (NT 1967; entire Bible 1971)
  • Eugene Peterson’s The Message (NT 1993; OT Wisdom books 1997; OT Prophets 2000)
Metzger follows the text with a Postscript in which he describes how the process of translation should be done. This section also leaves out any discussion of the influence of theological position or philosophical beliefs upon translation.

This volume is a very readable and brief survey, packed full of good information. The lack of the discussion of theology and philosophy and their relationship to the versions and the translation process is a serious defect. The lack of these considerations throughout with Metzger’s occasional comments on only a few versions tends to imply that the academic and scholarly translation of biblical texts is immune to theological or philosophical considerations. In this the volume is an example of the naivety of Modernism’s claims of objectivity. With this caveat, I believe this volume is a very handy “field guide” to these versions.

Wednesday, February 14, 2018

Ash Wednesday, Ashes, and Lent

Where did Ash Wednesday and Lent come from? Are they relics of paganism? No. They are not. The actual history is much more interesting and beneficial.

Early Practice of Lent

The ancient Church chose to keep a fast during the forty days before Passover/Easter to focus on repentance and the gift of the Resurrection at Easter. St. Athanasius, who led at the Council of Nicea to defeat Arianism—a denial of Christ being truly God and man in one person—was a bishop in Alexandria, Egypt. He wrote annual Festival letters to the Church as they prepared to celebrate Easter. In the year 331 he wrote in order to encourage his congregations in Egypt to keep the Lenten fast for 40 days. Athanasius directs the readers to many Scriptural examples and exhortations to moderation, self-control, and fasting for repentance, Athanasius gives several Bible examples of the 40 day fast, especially of Christ's 40 day fast, after which Athanasius wrote:
“The beginning of the fast of forty days is on the fifth of the month Phamenoth (we call Ash Wednesday); and when, as I have said, we have first been purified and prepared by those days, we begin the holy week of the great Easter on the tenth of the month Pharmuthi (Palm Sunday), in which, my beloved brethren, we should use more prolonged prayers, and fastings, and watchings, that we may be enabled to anoint our lintels with precious blood, and to escape the destroyer (Exod. xii. 7, 23.). Let us rest then, on the fifteenth of the month Pharmuthi (Easter Sunday Eve), for on the evening of that Saturday we hear the angels’ message, ‘Why seek ye the living among the dead? He is risen (Luke xxiv. 5).’ Immediately afterwards that great Sunday receives us, I mean on the sixteenth of the same month Pharmuthi (Easter Sunday morning), on which our Lord having risen, gave us peace towards our neighbours.
We learn from this that even at the time the Nicene Creed was written, at the time Constantine the Great ruled, the Western and Eastern Churches practiced a voluntary fast for 40 days before Easter.

That this was practiced in Rome and elsewhere is seen in St. Athanasius' letter from the year 340 A.D. when he returns from a meeting of pastors/bishops from all around the world, and he encourages his own congregations to continue in the same practice of the 40 day Lenten fast as does “the rest of the whole world.”

In order to count the 40 days of Lent the Sundays of that season are not counted as part of the fast. Rather the Sundays are each a minor feast day. If you add the six feast Sundays to the 40 fast days you get 46 days. That means that the first day of the Fast of Lent is a Wednesday, just as Athanasius explained.

The 40 days was not counted the same way in all areas. About the year AD 380 a woman named Egeria (also called Etheria or Aetheria) documented her trip to Jerusalem and the liturgical practices in the area. Regarding Lent she says this:
“And when the Paschal days come they are observed thus : Just as with us forty days are kept before Easter, so here eight weeks are kept before Easter. And eight weeks are kept because there is no fasting on the Lord's Days, nor on the Sabbaths, except on the one Sabbath on which the Vigil of Easter falls, in which case the fast is obligatory. With the exception then of that one day, there is never fasting on any Sabbath here throughout the year. Thus, deducting the eight Lord's Days and the seven Sabbaths (for on the one Sabbath, as I said above, the fast is obligatory) from the eight weeks, there remain forty-one fast days, which they call here Eortae, that is Quadragesimae.” (Chapter 27 Egeria's Description of the Liturgical Year in Jerusalem: Translation, Based on the translation reproduced in Louis Duchesme's Christian Worship (London, 1923) )
Though the 40 day Lenten Fast was scheduled differently in Jerusalem, it was still the 40 day Lenten Fast.

Ashes and Ash Wednesday

The practice of believers using ashes to represent sorrow and repentance is well testified in the Bible. In the ancient world it was the natural formal response of those who are sorry for their sins:

For example:
  • Mordecai's repentance and the repentance of the Jews in exile; Esther 4:1,3 When Mordecai learned all that had happened, he tore his clothes and put on sackcloth and ashes, and went out into the midst of the city. He cried out with a loud and bitter cry. And in every province where the king’s command and decree arrived, there was great mourning among the Jews, with fasting, weeping, and wailing; and many lay in sackcloth and ashes.
  • Job's repentance: Job 2:8 And he took for himself a potsherd with which to scrape himself while he sat in the midst of the ashes.
  • See also Isaiah 58:5; Jeremiah 6:26; Daniel 9:3; Jonah 3:6; and Christ's harsh words to the cities of Chorazin and Bethsaida in Luke 10:13.
The Christian Liturgical use of ashes is documented by Tertullian(c. 160 – c. 225). In his On Repentance Ch. 11 Tertullian complains about those who claim repentance but do not want to demean themselves with fasting, sackcloth, and ashes.

Eusebius (c. 260- c. 340) records a particular liturgical use of ashes as a sign of public repentance by an individual (Church History Bk5, Ch 28, par. 12).

Documentation on Ash Wednesday

Ash Wednesday was not a uniform practice in the church, but by the late 7th and early 8th century we have strong evidence of uniformity of practice in Western Europe.

Bede (672-735) dates sermons based on Ash Wednesday; for example: Homily 37 “in die Cinerum” (Minge PL 94:349); Homily 38 “in fiera quinta post Cinerum” (Minge PL 94:350), etc. )

8th Century Gelasian Sacramentary begins Lent (Quadragesima) on Wednesday (Minge PL 74:1065 )

Ælfric of Eynsham (c. 955 – c. 1010), an English abbot in a sermon on Ash Wednesday (Aelfric’s Lives of the Saints, ed. p. 236 )

“On the Wednesday, throughout the whole world, the priests bless, even as it is appointed, clean ashes in church, and afterward lay them upon men's heads, that they may have in mind that they came from earth, and shall again return to dust, even as the Almighty God spake to Adam, after he had sinned against God's command….
“Now let us do this little in the beginning of our Lent, that we strew ashes upon our heads,
Sarum Use of the 11th Century has special service for Ash Wednesday including the imposition of ashes. (in this English translation it begins on p. 52 )

According to Nicolaus Nilles it was at the Council of Benevento in AD 1090 that Pope Urban II standardised the use ashes on Ash Wednesday making it uniformly the liturgical head, or beginning of the Lenten Fast. (Nilles, 1897 Kalendarium Manuale vol II, p. 94. )

The Suppression of Ash Wednesday

I don’t have the library resources available to examine the Lutheran Church Orders of the 15th and 16th centuries. What I have gathered is from the development of liturgical practice in English.

The origins of the Book of Common Prayer in England were greatly affected by Luther through the chief author, Archbishop Thomas Cranmer. In turn, during the shift from the German language to English in America, both before World War I and later, the Anglican Book of Common Prayer was a significant resource for the framers of the liturgical practice of English speaking Lutherans from the beginning of the 20th century in America.

The Parliament and King Edward VI enacted An Act for Uniformity of Service and Administration of the Sacraments throughout the Realm in 1549. This law mandated the use of the Book of Common Prayer for every citizen of the realm. It also made using other forms or services an act punishable by civil law. Cranmer was not Lutheran, he was Calvinist. By 1552 he had readied a second edition of the Book of Common Prayer which eliminated many liturgical practices and specifically condemned Lutheran teaching on the Sacrament of the Altar.

Cranmer’s non-Lutheran but Calvinist Reformed theology embraced what they called the Regulative Principle of Worship: which means that they asserted that anything not explicitly commanded by God for worship is sin. In Cranmer’s view he needed to improve the Book of Common Prayer according to this principle. His first edition was a concession to the weak, but he aimed (in his way of thinking) to eliminate any liturgical teaching or practice that was not explicitly commanded in Scripture.

So the first edition of the Book of Common Prayer (1549) has the propers for “The first day of Lent, commonly called Ashwednesday”
( )

The second edition of 1552 has only
“The first day of Lent” (

A similar change was made elsewhere. The 1549 edition contained a whole section dedicated to Ash Wednesday:
“ xii. A declaracion of scripture, with certein prayers to bee use the firste daye of Lent, commonlye called Ashwednesdaie.”
This was retitled for the 1552 edition to remove any reference to Ash Wednesday:
“Xx. A Comminacion against sinners, with certain praiers to be used divers tymes in the yere.”
With the publication of this volume a renewed Act of Uniformity in 1552 required the use of this new version with it’s elimination of Ash Wednesday, the use of ashes, and several other liturgical practices previously legally accepted. Along with this the new edition added at the end of the Service of Communion a paragraph that became called the “Black Rubric” which warned against kneeling and condemned the Scriptural teaching of the Lord’s Supper:
Although no ordre can be so perfectlye devised, but it may be of some, eyther for theyr ignoraunce and infermitie, or els of malice and obstinacie, misconstrued, depraved, and interpreted in a wrong part: And yet because brotherly charitie willeth, that so much as conveniently may be, offences shoulde be taken awaye: therefore we willing to doe the same. Whereas it is ordeyned in the booke of common prayer, in the administracion of the Lord's Supper, that the Communicants knelyng shoulde receyve the holye Communion. whiche thynge beyng well mente, for a sygnificacion of the humble and gratefull acknowledgyng of the benefites of Chryst, geven unto the woorthye receyver, and to avoyde the prophanacion and dysordre, which about the holy Communion myght els ensue: Leste yet the same kneelyng myght be thought or taken otherwyse, we dooe declare that it is not ment thereby, that any adoracion is doone, or oughte to bee doone, eyther unto the Sacramentall bread or wyne there bodily receyved, or unto anye reall and essencial presence there beeyng of Christ's naturall fleshe and bloude. For as concernynge the Sacramentall bread and wyne, they remayne styll in theyr verye naturall substaunces, and therefore may not be adored, for that were Idolatrye to be abhorred of all faythfull christians. And as concernynge the naturall body and blood of our saviour Christ, they are in heaven and not here. For it is agaynst the trueth of Christes true natural bodye, to be in moe places then in one, at one tyme. ( )

The 1552 edition lasted six months, King Edward VI died of tuberculosis at the age of 15. His half-sister Mary (Bloody Mary) took the throne and re-established Roman Catholicism. She died in 1588, and her half-sister Elizabeth I took the throne. Elizabeth I re-established the Anglican Church and issued a new Book of Common Prayer in 1559. This edition followed the 1552 edition in eliminating any reference to ashes or Ash Wednesday.

During the reign of Elizabeth I, Fox’s Book of Martyrs, was published by John Day in 1563. This volume was an anti-Roman Catholic polemical text. Its aim was to demonstrate the historical legitimacy of the Church of England by showcasing the abuses of the Roman Catholic Church and the Papacy. When the 3rd edition (1576) and 4th edition (1583) of Fox’s Book of Martyrs were produced this anti-Rome sentiment had grown more strong.

In 1571 English law required that Fox’s Book of Martyrs be placed beside the Bible in churches and read alongside Scripture during the services. The 1576 edition first records how after the death of Henry VIII (1547) Thomas Cranmer, the Archbishop of Canterbury, worked to abolish the use of candles at Candlemas; ashes at Lent, and the use of palm branches on Palm Sunday. (1576 ed, bk 9, p. 1286

For the English liturgical world, Ash Wednesday was expunged from language and practice.

Claims of Pagan Origin

So, what are the supposed pagan origins of Ash Wednesday and Lent?

The claim that Ash Wednesday and Lent are based on pagan origins is a relatively new fiction that comes mainly from two different sources.

The chief source is the irresponsible work of Alexander Hislop in the mid 1800s and those who followed him; both those who claim to be Christian and those who oppose Christianity.

Second main source is the neo-pagan movement today that falsely imagines that paganism is the most ancient of religions and rejects the Bible totally. But, as we have seen above, Lent and Ash Wednesday have no origins in paganism.

You will find all kinds of books, articles, videos, and websites on the Internet that claim that Ash Wednesday and Lent are not Biblical because Christ never commanded them. In this way they base their argument upon the Calvinist Regulative Priciple of Worhsip.

Their claim is partly true. And Satan likes to use truth to give credibility to his lies.

It is true that Christ didn't command any such celebration. Christ did not command His followers to celebrate Ash Wednesday. Nor did he command that we worship on Sunday. Nor did He command that we sing “Rock of Ages.” Nor did he command that we use chairs or pews when we gather. Nor did he command we use Advent Candles, etc… .

The problem with the Regulative Principle is this: If Christ didn't specifically command us to do something, then it is a sin to do it. So, think about how little sense that logic makes. Take this example: Christ did not command that I have my children wash dishes. Is it therefore a sin to have them do so? No.

What Christ did command and give to His Church was that the Word of God be preached for the remission of sins; that is, that the Law and the Gospel be taught, so people would be brought to repentance; and that faith in Christ would be given to them. He commanded that sins be forgiven in His name through the absolution to penitent sinners and withheld from the impenitent as long as they do not repent. He commanded that all nations, young and old, regardless of race be baptized for the forgiveness of their sins. He commanded that we celebrate the feast of His Holy Supper where He gives us His Body and Blood together with the bread and wine in the Sacrament for the forgiveness of our sins. He gave us the promise that the Father hears our prayers in Christ's name because He has made us His brothers and sisters through the forgiveness of sins—won for us on the cross and distributed to us through Word and Sacrament. The prayer and celebration of these gifts can be held any day.

It is very important to remember that the use of the Regulative Principle was the justification Cranmer used to deny what the Scripture actually teaches about the Christ’s presence in the Lord’s Supper.

The ancient Church recognized that it was free from legalistic obligations, both from the Old Testament Law, and from new invented laws of men. As St. Paul wrote in Colossians 2. They also knew from Scripture that they were not to use this liberty as an excuse for sin. (Romans 6) They knew that they were not to let their consciences be bound by new human regulations as if their salvation depended upon them. (Galatians 1-2) Whatever was beneficial for the teaching of God's word and for the practice of the Christian life-consisting of repentance and forgiveness in the Means of Grace-was encouraged.

With regard to Lent in general:

The 40 day fast does not come from the so-called “weeping of Tammuz” as claimed by the radical anti-Roman Catholic writer Alexander Hislop in his book The Two Babylons. Hislop made up myths and connections out of thin air because of his hatred for Roman Catholicism. Hislop's views were adopted whole cloth by many Reformed denominations and others. One should note that these views were wholely embraced by the Jehovah's Witnesses, who continued to republish Hislop's book until 1987. Hislop's book was cited in 22 different issues of the Jehovah's Witnesses periodical The Watchtower from 1950 to 1978, and several times in the 1980s. From 1989 the Jehovah's Witnesses stopped referring to Hislop's book, but they have kept Hislop's teaching and use other sources.

The month of Tammuz in Old Testament times is roughly equivalent to our July. To the best evidence, that was when the Babylonian pagans, and the fallen Israelites mentioned in Ezekiel 8:14 would “weep for Tammuz”. Also, this weeping took place on the second day of that month, right after the new moon. Not for forty days.

Two basic facts: 1) The weeping for Tammuz was not a 40 day thing. That is Hislop's fiction. 2) The month of Tammuz is 4 months after Easter. They aren't even in the same time of year. ( From the The Electronic Text Corpus of Sumerian Literature: Inana and Bilulu: an ulila to Inana: c.1.4.4 English Translation)

With regard to Ashes and Ash Wednesday:

Many websites claim that the use of ashes comes from pagan sources.

The ironic thing is that these websites cannot get their own stories straight. Some people assert that the ashes and Lent come from Nordic Odin worship, others that they come from pagan Roman cults, others that they come from ancient Hindu religions—and some try to maintain irrational combinations of the above very different imagined sources. We have seen above the reasons the churches gave for using ashes. They were based in Biblical examples of repentance.

But didn't Jesus tell us not to put on a show while fasting? Yes, that's in Matthew chapter 6:
“Moreover, when you fast, do not be like the hypocrites, with a sad countenance. For they disfigure their faces that they may appear to men to be fasting. Assuredly, I say to you, they have their reward. But you, when you fast, anoint your head and wash your face, so that you do not appear to men to be fasting, but to your Father who is in the secret place; and your Father who sees in secret will reward you openly.”
He said the same of prayer and of giving charitable gifts. His point is that these things should not be done as a show of righteousness. He did not prohibit praying in public or as a group in worship. He did not prohibit giving something publicly or to a group. And he did not prohibit using outward symbols of repentance like ashes.

What Christ condemned in these passages is thinking that we can show others how good, how sincere, how devout, and what kind of a Christian we are with these outward symbols. The ash on the forehead is a confession that the person is worth only ashes, has no righteousness, is not better than another, and needs God's grace if there is to be any hope for him or her.

It might be helpful to think of the use of ashes in comparison to the use of an Advent Wreath. Both are helpful reminders that can be used to focus upon the teaching of God’s Word. This would be a proper use.

Can the symbol be abused? Yes, of course it can. But that does not make it a bad symbol. Every gift of God can be abused by sinful people. We should expect that because of sin. So we should recognize that the ways that Christians choose in their freedom to celebrate God's gifts can also be misused.

So we see, first of all, that neither forty day fast of Lent nor the ashes of Ash Wednesday have anything to do with pagan origins. The use of ashes in the Christian faith as a sign of repentance is as old as Job, and probably older. It certainly is the outward act chosen by believers throughout thousands of years, from the earliest times as outward sign to confess unworthiness and sin.

No human can require a Christian to use the fast of Lent as a saving work. A congregation can recommend the practice as a serious self-examination of one's own sin and sinful appetites; of one's own weaknesses. This is, indeed, what Luther says, “Fasting and bodily preparation are indeed a fine outward training.” No human can require Christians to use ash on Ash Wednesday or any other day as a way of proving their faith.

And neither can any human forbid the use of the Lenten fast or the use of ashes either. Both are legalism, a replacing of the Gospel for a new law. The whole point of Ash Wednesday and the Lenten Fast is to look on ourselves as worthless and utterly needy: to look only upon Christ, to celebrate His feast in the Lord's Supper, preach His passion and death upon the cross, and proclaim the Resurrection of Christ as the final seal upon our salvation.

We should reject any fictionalizing about pagan origins of Lent or Ash Wednesday with both the truth of Scripture and real history.

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