Interesting Facts

Here are some interesting facts found in the Bible -

> Italian in Palestine
> Does your beloved look like a horse?
> How happy is 'Happy Arabia'?
> The dove
> The elephant that disappeared
> The origin of paradise
> What was Saul really doing?
> Why 153 fish?
> World's most expensive perfume

 Italian in Palestine 

Acts 10 tells the story about a Roman officer who is converted and baptised. He is not the first gentile to join the Christian church - Act 8 mentions an Ethiopian official - but he is the first we know by his name, Cornelius. He was serving at high rank in the so-called Italian cohort in the city of Caesarea. This city was in the days of Jesus and the early church the centre for the Roman administration of the Judean province. The name given to the cohort of soldiers may indicate that it consisted of people born in Italy. Maybe they worshiped the Egyptian gods or the Jewish god, Jahwe. In year 19 A.D. many of such conviction were removed from Italy and enrolled in the army.

The name Cornelius may also imply that he was of Roman origin and even had Roman citizenship. Shortly before his death back in 78 B.C., the dictator Sulla who had fought and overcome Marius in a civil war, released 10.000 of his slaves. His name was L. Cornelius Sulla, and in gratitude all the freed slaves took over his family name, Cornelius. The Roman officer who became the earliest named gentile convert to the Christian message, very likely descended from one of these former slaves.

In modern day Rome, tourists may encounter soldier look-a-likes from ancient times. Soldiers dressed as this served in the occupation forces in Palestine in the days of Jesus.


Does Your Beloved Look Like A Horse? - And if so, will you tell her?

horseThe language of love may take strange forms. One example is found in the great love poem of the Bible, the Song of Songs. In 1:9 the male lover praises his beloved with the words, "I have compared thee, o my love, to a company of horses in Pharaoh's chariots." So says good old King James Version to whom it mattered less that the term for horse was neither plural nor masculine. That has been noted by the New King James which mentions "my filly among the chariots of Pharaoh", and by the New Jerusalem Bible and the New International Bible which both speaks about "a mare" being harnessed to Pharaoh's chariots.

I am not sure whether your love will feel much better. A horse is a horse, even a mare. Being told that you look like one may still not sound like the greatest compliment to her beauty. But none of the above translations have actually clearly expressed the original point of the text, a meaning hidden in the historical context of the time.

In front of the chariots of Pharaoh were always and only stallions. In fighting the Egyptian army, it was therefore a trick of warfare to let loose a mare in front of the chariots to confuse the stallions and make them uncontrollable. The Hittites are known to have used such strategy.

The purpose of the text is thus not so much to compare the looks of the beloved to a horse as to emphasize her sexual attraction. As a mare running in front of the Egyptian stallions would create confusion, so the beloved is turning the heads of everyone because of her attractiveness.

So, don't be afraid of telling her. But make sure that she understands the point.


How Happy is 'Happy Arabia'? 

From the Old Testament comes another story of a name. In Genesis 35:16-20 the favorite wife of the patriarch Jacob, Rachel is dying while giving birth to her second son. Knowing what was about to happen, Rachel named the boy Ben'oni, meaning "son of my suffering". Even though the beloved wife and mother died, father Jacob did not like the name and changed it to Benyamin which may mean "son of happiness." Present day politician Benyamin Netanyahu shares it with many others.

However, the name has several meanings. The first part is "ben" which simply is the Hebrew for "son". The second part yamim is actually "the right hand". As this hand was perceived to support man for his daily living, it often in the Old Testament takes the meaning of "strength, power".

Due to a misunderstanding during the Medieval age, the third meaning of the word gave rise to the term "Happy Arabia", in Latin "Arabia Felix". When people in the Middle East were to indicate the corners of the world, they faced the rising of the sun, that is, the east. To their right was south, shown by the right hand, yamim. Thus the word for "son" and "strength" also came to mean "south". However, Europeans in the Mediaval age were not aware of this linguistic origin. Not knowing that the term did not point to a happy land, but simply to a land in the south, they imagined a rich and happy, yet unknown kingdom, in Arabia, a country filled with gold, often identified as the gold of Ophir.


The Dove

To us, the dove has become a symbol of peace. In the New Testament and during the Christian era it became a symbol for the Holy Spirit because the Spirit in the form of a dove descended upon Jesus at his baptism.


The Jewish poet Marcia Falk has produced a beautiful translation of The Song of Songs (New York: Harper Collins, 1990), and Barry Moser has illustrated the book, here with the eye of the dove.

Apart from that we also know the dove from its remarkable ability to find its home, a characteristic used in modern betting as well as for actual mailing purposes. In the Bible, this feature may be part of the background for the homecoming of the people from Egypt and Assyria in a text found in the prophet Hosea in the Old Testament, 

They will come trembling like birds from Egypt And like doves from the land of Assyria; And I will settle them in their houses, declares the LORD (Hos 11:1).

The Hebrew word for dove is jonah which actually is the name of another minor prophet whose travel experience in the belly of a large fish is rather well known. His actions were not marked by wisdom, as he tried to flee from God, and some scholars suggest that the prophet Hosea therefore may be thinking also on his colleague Jonah when comparing the northern kingdom of Israel under the name of Ephraim to a dove,

So Ephraim has become like a silly dove, without sense (Hos 7:11, both translations from the New American Bible).

The dove was first of all regarded as stupid because it was so easy to capture. So was Ephraim/Israel, running without sense after Egypt and Assyria in stead of trusting God.

However, the dove is also mentioned in the Bible in a more positive setting. In the Song of Solomon its eyes have become a symbol of love,

How beautiful you are, my darling! Oh, how beautiful! Your eyes are doves (Songs 1:15).
How beautiful you are, my darling! Oh, how beautiful! Your eyes behind your veil are doves (Songs 4:1).

The object of comparison is of course the eyes of the dove, and throughout the ages these have often been used in both Hebrew and Arabic poetry as symbols of erotic love.


The Elephant that Disappeared


We all know about elephants. There are two kinds, the African and the Indian (or more correct, the Asian). The African is the largest, and both sexes have tusks, which among the Asian elephants only is the case for the male species.

The black obelisk is dated to the ninth century BC. It depicts various people bringing their tribute to the Assyrian king Shalmanassar III. Among these tributes is seen this Syrian elephant.

But what is less known is that there once upon a time was another Asian elephant living in the present Syria. The date of its extinction was about the time of the prophet Amos in the 8th century BC. The reasons were two: the cultivation of land and the hunt for ivory. No Greenpeace or the like in those days.

The Old Testament never mentions the elephant directly, but both Egyptian and Syrian sources describe hunts for ivory in the northern Syria in the 15th century BC close to the city of Karkhemish, an important centre of trade. Pharao Thutmosis III (1490-1436) tells how 120 elephants were killed for the precious tusks. On the famous black obelisk which today is exhibited in the British Museum in London, and which was erected by the Assyrian king Shalmanassar III (859-825), we find a detailed illustration of such a Syrian, Asian elephant. The black obelix is most famous for its depiction of king Jehu of Israel (842-815 BC) who kneels prostrate before the Assyrian king.

Many beautifully carved and decorated objects of ivory have been found from the period. But besides resulting in the extinction of the Syrian elephant, the hunt for ivory also made the prophet Amos sharply criticize the upper class of Israel.


The Origin of Paradise


However, we will raise another question, What is Paradise? That is, what is the origin of the word. The Hebrew word that forms the background for the reference in the New Testament, is "pardes" and is found three times in the Old Testament, all in the great love Song of Songs. Most beautiful is maybe the lover's praise of his beloved in SS 4:12-13, "she is a garden enclosed, my sister, my promised bride; a garden enclosed, a sealed fountain. Your shoots form an orchard of pomegranate trees, bearing most exquisite fruit."

paradise In southern Spain, in the city of Granada, the Maurish rulers build one of the most beautiful garden palaces of the world, the Alhambra. A famous American author who lived there sometime in the 19th century gave its beauty words by saying that the greatest sorrow in the world was to be blind in Alhambra. Coming from dry desert countries, the nomadic Muslim conquerors like people of the Old Testament days, appreciated the wonders of the green and fertile protected garden, Paradise.

The word "pardes" is originally a Persian loan word, meaning an enclosed garden. In a world of drought and infertility it is easy to understand how a protected and beautiful garden can come to signify the most idyllic existence, a Paradise.


What was Saul really doing?

Searching for David to kill him, 1 Samuel 24 tells that king Saul went into a cave. According to King James Version (1611), Saul did so "to cover his feet." This expression is still found in The New Jerusalem Bible, while the New King James Version of 1982 updates it. He now "attends to his needs." Modern English translations may be seen as even more direct and profane when stating, like the New International Version (NIV, 1984) and the New American Standard Version (1995), that Saul went "to relieve himself."

Human language often develops so called euphemisms for such daily matters, that is, phrases or expressions that say common things a little better. The original text of 1 Sam 24:3 employs such euphemism when literally stating that Saul went to cover (from Hebrew sakak) his feet. At the time people probably knew the meaning. Ancient translations use other euphemisms. The Greek translation of the Old Testament, the Septuagint, reads that Saul went "to prepare himself." Vulgate, the Latin Bible, said that he went "to clean his womb", which is, of course, not completely unfounded. Over time the meaning may have become obscure to many readers. Modern translations should be more readily understood.

But why such a mundane detail in the midst of a sacred, biblical story? The only other biblical example of the phrase is, by the way, found in Judges 3:24 in a narrative that is even more peculiar. Such an event never occurs in the midst of a modern action movie. It is not an activity usually ascribed to James Bond.

May I suggest that one part of the answer is significantly simple. It is told because it happened. It is part of the genuine historical realism of the biblical narratives.


Why 153 fish?

In the last chapter of the Gospel of John, the apostle of Peter is asked by the resurrected Jesus to cast out his fishing nets. In counting the number of fish caught, the number 153 is mentioned. This figure has created a lot of fascinating suggestions. It may be one of those questions where the answer will never be obvious. And it is, of course, not of major significance for either salvation or church doctrine. Yet, it is interesting. Here follows some background for the possibly explanations.

I. There are no significant manuscript variations. 

II. Interpretations are divided whether to understand the figure realistic and/or allegorical. Modern critical scholars generally deny that there is any reality behind the figure. From a conservative point of view, John is describing the actual number, yet the reason that the fact is included in the narration must be due to literary and/or theological reasons. Only few accept that the statement is a simple statement of fact, irrelevant to the message as such. 

III. Judged from the content, the number must have something to do with the proclamation of the gospel and the conversion of people. 

IV. Suggested solutions: 

1. Most attempts to solve the problem rise from the fact that 153 is the triangular of 17, and some speculate from the fact that 17 = 10 + 7:
a. Augustine saw the ten commandments + the sevenfold Spirit
b. 17 is the number of peoples hearing the gospel at the Pentecost (Acts 2:7ff.), indicating the results of the worldwide proclamation of the gospel.
c. 10 and 7 are two numbers of perfection, indicating the complete result of the gospel proclamation (there are seven disciples mentioned in this narrative in John 21).

2. According to Jerome, some ancient zoologists counted the number of variations of fish to 153. It has not been possible to verify this claim which would indicate that all peoples would be reached by the gospel preached by the disciples. 

3. Several attempts make use of the widespread phenomen of gematria, that is, calculating from the numerical value of the individual letters (as both Hebrew and Greek letters each had a numerical value):
a. The numerical value of the expression "the coming age" in Hebrew - ha'olam haba, or h'lm hba - is 153. Being interesting, this does not really explain the text as this expression is not part of the narrative.
b. Using the Greek letters, the combined numerical value of the name "Simon" (= 76) and the word for "fish" ('ixthys' = 77) is 153. 'Fish' as, of course, an old Christian symbol for Christ, the five Greek letters also forming the first letters of the words in the expression "Jesus Christ, God's Son, Saviour". Both Simon Peter and fish are part of the narrative, yet this solution has no special theological significance.
c. John may be playing on the text in Ezek 47:10-12, a symbolic or allegorical description of the new temple age, using the idea of the "living water" so widely used in his gospel (cf. John 4:10; 7:37-38). The numerical value of Gedi and Eglaim (the first part of the names, "En", simply means "spring" and is not in itself a place name) are 17 and 153, respectively. The number would then refer to the results of the spiritual fishing done by the disciples of Christ in the time of a new temple period. This solution may be combined with the statement by Jerome (see 2) that 153 refered to the full number of kinds of fish, that is, all people.


World's Most Expensive Perfume


But actually the specific perfume is only mentioned few times in the Bible, twice in the New Testament in connection with the above story (Mark 14:3 and John 12:3), thrice in the Old Testament, all in the Song of Solomon (1:12; 4:13-14). Here the perfume is used by the beloved woman.

The perfume nard was a product of a rare flower that only grew in the Himalaya regions of northern India.

However, the sparse occurrence has a reason. It was extremely expensive because it was very difficult to get hold of. It was produced from a plant that only grew in the Himalaya regions of northern India. Realizing the geographical distances and the challenge of transport in biblical times, it is easier to understand how exclusive nard was in Palestine in the days of Jesus.

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Among the many perfumes mentioned in the Bible, nard is perhaps the best known due to the story about the woman who at the party of Simon the Leper anoints Jesus with this exquisite oil. The event is described in all four gospels (for instance Luke 7:36-50), and the touching narrative about the love and forgiveness of Jesus has always been loved by Bible readers.
One of the most well known dialogues in the New Testament is found in Luke 23 where Jesus in verse 43 promises the repentant thief on his one side fellowship in Paradise. The discussion is often about the place of the comma in Jesus' response. Such signs were of course not original.
The Old Testament prophet Amos did not polish his preaching to the upper class of his day with smooth politeness. In his critique of their sumptuous and luxurious life style, he at one point mentions their "beds of ivory" (Amos 6:4). Our question does not deal with the moral situation, but with the matter of ivory. Where did they get it?