Tuesday, February 2, 2016

The Messianic Seal of the Jerusalem Church (Review)

"Tomb of David" on Mt. Zion and the "Messianic Seal"
The symbol known as the "Messianic Seal" (pictured above) has become quite popular among Messianic believers in Jesus [Yeshua] and among Gentile believers interested in their Jewish roots.  It symbolizes the intimate connection between Judaism and Christianity which, from an historical point of view, can no longer be denied.  However a quite separate question related to this symbol is whether or not it is ancient.

The idea that this is an ancient symbol was popularized in a book by Reuven Efraim Schmalz and Raymond Robert Fischer, The Messianic Seal of the Jerusalem Church (Olim Publications, Tiberias, Israel, 1999).  My interest in this question was sparked by two emails from a reader asking about specific statements made in the book.  Although I have not read the book, the statements sent to me about its contents are more than enough to give a good overall idea of its message.  Since the question about the symbol's origins will be of interest to more readers, I have altered the sequence of the original questions sent to me to deal with this topic first.  After that follows the other questions that deal in more detail with the contents of the book.

The “Messianic Seal”

Q:  I went online to try and find a picture [of the Messianic Seal] and found this. This is also what the book pretty much says about the seal… --Lisa S.

“About the Messianic Seal by Ari Levitt,
    Congregation B'nei HaMelech

“The emblem which has become known as the “Messianic Seal” was apparently used by Believers in Mashiach [Messiah] in first century Jerusalem in the Messianic Synagogue that was led by Ya`akov ben Yosef [James], the half-brother of Yeshua [Jesus]. Discovered on artifacts that were secretly excavated from Mt. Zion prior to the 1967 six-day war by a Greek Orthodox monk who was living as a hermit in the Old City, the Seal consists of a menorah whose base is intertwined with the tail of a fish, creating a Magen David, or Shield (Star) of David.

“The artifacts were discovered in a grotto near the Tomb of David and the traditional site of the Upper Room in the Old City, which was apparently used by the Miqra [Assembly] at Yerushalayim [Jerusalem] for their mikvah [ritual bath] and as a place for anointing with oil for healing…”

A:  There are many reasons to be skeptical about these discoveries.  Please note the following:  "Others, however, are not so convinced of the authenticity [of the Messianic Seal discovery]. According to Yehuda Repuano, a field and research archaeologist working for the Israeli government, there are a few 'archeological problems' with the seal. The first thing that aroused his suspicion that, in his opinion, it was not an ancient Jewish-Christian symbol was the use of a Magen David, the Star of David.   Although it is now the most common and universally recognized sign of Judaism and Jewish identity, its history is long and complex and it is commonly believed that it only became a symbol of Judaism beginning in Medieval times."  From http://www.wildolive.co.uk/messianic_seal.htm

Repuano is quite correct about this.  The Star of David was not a symbol with any special Jewish meaning until the Middle Ages. 

The use of the fish as a Jewish Christian symbol is also a problem.  In all the controlled excavations of Jewish Christian sites that have taken place so far (CapernaumNazareth, etc.), the artwork--of which much has been found--was in strict obedience to the Law of Moses.  This meant no depiction of animals, fish, birds, or people (Deut. 4:15-18).  The symbols discovered included crosses, nets, ladders, trees, ships, flowers, and crowns--but no fish.  Needless to say, the "Messianic Seal" did not appear in any of these excavations. 

The fish as a Christian symbol appears to have originated in the Greek-speaking church outside of Israel, where it was quite popular. One of the reasons for this was that the letters of the Greek word for "fish" (ichthus) could be seen to stand for Jesus:  Iesous (Jesus) CHristos (Christ) THeos (God's) Uios (Son) Soter (Savior).  The same correspondence does not take place in Hebrew. 

The dating of the objects on which the "Messianic Seal" was found is also a problem:  "According to Repuano, while the lamp was from the Late Hellenistic period (somewhere around the first century BC), before the birth of Yeshua [Jesus], the bowl was handmade from the Ayyubid/Mamaluk period (13th to 16th centuries AD), or Ottoman period (16th to 20th centuries AD). The symbol was etched on to the lamp. which though dated earlier than the birth of Yeshua, could have been added during the Hellenistic period or any time thereafter. Repuano pointed out that the bowl was typically painted with red pigment. He then noted that the symbol was also painted onto the bowl, but in a slightly different color which appeared to be on top of the original paint of the bowl. Thus, according to him, the symbol must have been painted no earlier than the 13th century AD, but he believes it was likely added to the bowl at a much later time." [From the same article quoted above.]

Having lived in Israel and heard many a tall tale there, I have become very skeptical of stories like the one associated with the "Messianic Seal." This discovery has been confirmed by no competent archeological authority, and there are the many questions noted above that make it highly unlikely. It's true that there is a cave under the Tomb of David, but it was thoroughly explored by the Italian architect Pierotti in about 1850.  He even published a plan of the cave in his book, Jerusalem Explored.  But the Messianic Seal was not found there.  

I hate to be a spoilsport, but the truth is too good to be mixed with legends and fabrications.  While the "Messianic Seal" may be a beautiful symbol for today, its supposed origins in the first century are unlikely.

Q1:  I just finished a book and although it was only 93 pages it packed a lot of information that I want to run by you.  It is called The Messianic Seal of the Jerusalem Church by Reuven Efraim Schmalz and Raymond Robert Fischer, Olim Publications, Tiberias, Israel [1999].  Where I preface the sentence with "Comment:" this indicates a comment from the book.  Can you elaborate on them? I have an occasional question, too. 

Comment: The church in Jerusalem was attended exclusively by a sect of Essene Jews who had accepted Jesus as their Messiah and the church of today has been built upon this Jewish foundation.

A1:  From the many quotes you sent, this book appears to be sensationalistic and has little or nothing to do with real history.  Although there were undoubtedly many Essenes attracted to Jesus' Messianic movement, presenting Christianity as an outgrowth of the Essenes is false, plain and simple.  This approach was tried by some sensationalistic writers when the Dead Sea Scrolls were first discovered but has since been discredited. Although there are several points of agreement between Essene beliefs and those of Christianity, there are many more points of agreement between Christianity and Pharisaic Judaism.  There are also many conflicts between Christianity and Essene belief. One simple example:  The Essenes rejected worship at the Temple in Jerusalem, while Jesus often taught and worshipped there, as did his disciples after his resurrection.  Hardcore Essenes could hardly have accepted such a faith.  

There is simply no way to reconcile the exclusivistic, isolationist, and bitter Essene movement with the evangelistic, outgoing, and friendly gospel movement.  Just one teaching of Jesus is enough to prove the difference:  "love your enemies" (Matt. 5:44).  The Essenes taught just the opposite:  that we should hate our enemies (Manual of Discipline i,1-).  

Q2: Comment: In 313 Christianity became the official religion of the Roman Empire after years of trying to destroy it.

A2:  In 313, Constantine issued the Edict of Milan which ended persecution of Christianity.  Christianity did not become the official religion of the Roman Empire until AD 380, in the time of the emperor Theodosius. 

Q3: Comment: Paul spent 3 years in the wilderness after his conversion to graduate from the Essene Academy and his writings have terms and euphemisms used by the Essenes.  That Jesus and his family and many of the disciples came from the Essene Quarter.

A3: Paul spent three years in Arabia (Gal. 1:17-18), which at the time referred to the Nabatean kingdom of Arabia with its capital at Petra in what is today Jordan.  The Essene center at Qumran (near Jericho) was not part of this territory.  To claim that Paul went to an Essene academy during this time does not match what we know of the Essenes and their teachings.  Essene training was for those who were committing themselves to join the Essene movement for life, which Paul did not do.

It would be very difficult to argue that Paul uses "terms and euphemisms used by the Essenes," since about the only exclusively Essene term found in the New Testament is "sons of light" which is referred to by Jesus (Luke 16:8), though even here the meaning is debatable. Rather Paul was trained as a Pharisee (Acts 22:3) and uses the terms and reasoning of the Pharisees.  In fact, he still considered himself a Pharisee even after his conversion (Acts 23:6).

Although Jesus may have eaten his last Passover meal with the disciples in the Essene Quarter of Jerusalem, this is not by itself evidence of a direct connection with the Essenes.  Nor is there any evidence that Jesus or his disciples had any connection with the Essene Quarter before this Passover meal.  The disciples were not from Jerusalem, but were all from Galilee, except for Judas, who was from a small village in Judea.  While there were probably many Essenes drawn to Jesus and his teachings, Jesus’ teachings were quite different than those of the Essenes, as mentioned above. 

Q4:  Comment: The Essenes expected 2 messiahs, 1 from the line of David to take his rightful place on the throne and the other of the line of Aaron as the priest of the Holy Temple.

A4: The belief in two coming Messiahs has been found among the Essene writings, but so has belief in a single Messiah. This indicates that no fixed belief in this regard had yet been established.

Q5: Comment: It was in the chaotic times of the Hasmoneans when they took control of both the temple and throne that messiah came to be spelled with a capital "M."

A5: There are no capital letters in Hebrew.  However, it is true that many currents of Messianic belief may have come together in Hasmonean times.  

Q6: Comment: Of all the differing parties mentioned in the N.T., the Essenes are never mentioned.  This omission becomes understandable when one considers that both Jesus and John the Baptist's positions were aligned with those of the Essenes.

A6: The Essenes are probably not mentioned because they lived lives intentionally isolated from the rest of Israel, just like many cults do today.  Most people would not have been familiar with their teachings--far less than today, thanks to the Dead Sea Scrolls discoveries.  It's just possible, though, that the Herodians mentioned in the New Testament included the Essenes, since the Essenes had politically aligned themselves with Herod. 

Q7: The heart of the Essene quarter was on the crest of Mt. Zion where the tomb of David was and above the tomb was a ceremonial room?

A7: Yes, the heart of the "Essene Quarter" (remember, this is a name given by modern archeologists) is on top of modern "Mt. Zion." But this is not the same as the Biblical Mt. Zion.  Although the tomb of David is revered here by orthodox Jews today, this is not the place of David's actual tomb.  David’s actual tomb was in the City of David, close to the newly rediscovered Siloam Pool, and not far from the Temple Mount.  The site was shifted in the Middle Ages because the actual location of Mt. Zion was forgotten over the years, and it was incorrectly thought to be on what today is called Mt. Zion on the western hill of Jerusalem.  But David was buried inside the city walls of his day (1 Kings 2:10), and the modern Mt. Zion was outside the walls in David's time.  

The Israeli archeologist Gabi Barkay once proposed  that a palace might have been built on the modern Mt. Zion by the later kings of Judah, the palace mentioned in Jer. 22:13-14, at a time when the city had grown much larger.  There may even have been royal burials here, which could be the kernal of truth connecting this site with the tomb of David (2 Kings 21:18).  But as fascinating as this speculation is, it remains speculation, unconfirmed by archeological evidence.  And the actual tomb of David was certainly elsewhere.  

The room in which the tomb of David is shown today was originally a synagogue, built after the war against Rome in the first century AD.  It has been identified by the archeologists as a Messianic (i.e. a Jewish Christian) synagogue.  The reason it was located here was probably because of Jesus' last Passover in this area and his early appearances here after his resurrection.   

There was no room above this ancient synagogue until the Byzantine period, when it was incorporated into a large church, and an upper level was first built as part of the church.  This newly built upper area came to be associated with the Last Supper, and so it is today.  But this was not until the Byzantine period, hundreds of years after the time of Jesus. 

Q8: The tomb was guarded by the Essenes, the priests of Zadok.

A8:  There is no record of a tomb of David on the modern Mt. Zion until the Middle Ages. 

Q9: Comment: The Zadokites who controlled the Essene quarter and the holy place long awaited the Messiah from the House of David to sit on David's throne again and the Passover Seder prearranged in this location where Jesus and His 12 ate was actually on the throne of David.

A9: This is starting to sound like a Da Vinci Code type of thing.  Needless to say, it is pure fabrication built on an extremely weak foundation.  As I mentioned, the earliest connection of this area with King David was in the Middle Ages due to a mistaken identity:  people had forgotten where the original Mt. Zion was.  This was because the whole city had been destroyed by the Romans, and completely rebuilt according to a Roman plan.  In Byzantine and Moslem times there were more changes.  So Mt. Zion was accidentally "moved" to a different mountain--what is called Mt. Zion today (the western hill of Jerusalem).  To claim that this area was a holy place before Jesus ate here has no historical basis, and is in fact contradicted by sources such as Josephus, who in his detailed description of the city before the war mentions no such thing. 

I know of no Essene document to back up the idea of an Essene Messianic hope associated with any specific part of Jerusalem, let alone the "Essene Quarter."  This is pure fabrication on the part of the authors. 

The throne of David was in David's palace in the City of David down near the Temple, on the flank of Mt. Moriah (the original Mt. Zion).  Portions of this palace may now have been found by archeologist Eilat Mazar.  The "Essene Quarter" on the western hill was outside the city in David's time, and was not incorporated within the walls until Hezekiah's time.   

Q10: Comment: This room was also the place where the Spirit fell on the Disciples at Pentecost and became the site of the first church.

A10: Although in the Catholic (Latin) tradition, the Upper Room is the place that the Holy Spirit fell, if you read carefully, the location is described differently in Acts than in the passages that talk about the Upper Room (Acts 2:2).  It was the Passover custom in Jerusalem for strangers to borrow someone's guest room to hold a Passover (Seder) meal, as Jesus and the disciples did, After that, Jesus and the disciples retired to the Mount of Olives and did not return (Matt. 26:30).  Nor did Jesus stay at night in Jerusalem before the feast (Matt. 21:17, Matt. 26:6).  

But Acts 2:2 says that the Spirit fell at the "house where they were staying."  This implies that they were now sleeping in a house in Jerusalem, something that Jesus had not done that year.  Some connect this house with the house of John Mark mentioned in Acts 12:12.  There is a Syrian Orthodox church on the traditional location of this house a short walk north of the Upper Room near the modern boundary between the Armenian and Christian quarters.   

With regard to the Upper Room being the site of the first church, remember, this upper room as it exists today was first built in the Middle Ages.  All the buildings in the city of Jerusalem were destroyed by the Romans at the time of the first Jewish Revolt, which took place 40 years after Jesus' crucifixion.  So even if this is the genuine location of the Upper Room, nothing of that original structure was left after the war. 

It does seem to be the case that the early Messianic community returned to this area (which today we call "Mt. Zion") after the war and established itself, complete with a Messianic synagogue oriented toward the place of Jesus' crucifixion.  This one room synagogue is today what is known as David's tomb.  However, an upper storey associated with the Last Supper was only added in the Byzantine period when this structure was incorporated into one of the side aisles of a church.  The room that we see there today dates to the Middle Ages. 

Remember that through all this history (until the Middle Ages) there was never any association of this area with the tomb of David, nor is there any actual tomb.  The stone shown there today is a cenotaph, that is, a monument honoring a dead person whose body is known to lie elsewhere.  There is no actual burial there.

Q11: James was the first bishop of the Jerusalem Church and when James was killed the successors that followed James to guard the tomb came from the lineage of Jesus and James?  Comment: Only highly regarded Essenes could hold these positions?

A11: James could not guard a tomb that did not exist.  There is no evidence that the succeeding bishops of the church in Jerusalem were relatives of Jesus, other than James himself and his successor Simeon, who was a cousin of Jesus.  Simeon was succeeded by Justus, whom Eusebius calls "a certain Jew," in other words, not a relative.

Though our historical sources tell us quite a bit about the earliest church in Jerusalem, not a single one breathes even the slightest mention of any connection with the Essenes.  On the contrary, all of the early Christian writings that give lists of sects and heresies include the Essenes as a false, non-Christian group, not to mention that the Essenes (like the Sadducees) ceased to exist after the war against Rome

The Essenes were destroyed in the war because they were caught up in the war effort, and were killed (or discredited) as a result of the war.  Nobody ever went back to bring out the scrolls they had hidden in the desert until modern times.  On the contrary, the Messianic Jews avoided participation in the war, and escaped from Jerusalem in obedience to the instructions of Jesus.  This differing attitude to the war is another indication of the radical differences between the views of the Essenes and the Christians. 

Q12:  If James was the first bishop of the first Church why do the Catholics state Peter is the first?

A12:  Catholics claim (incorrectly) that Peter was the first bishop of the church in Rome.  James was the first bishop of the church in Jerusalem.  Remember that originally, churches were organizationally separate from one another, just as the synagogues were.  These early "bishops" (a word that just means "overseer" or "elder") were in fact nothing other than the chief elders of their local congregations.  They were the presidents of their synagogues, a position like that of Jairus in Mark 5:22.  Only later did bishops become what today we call pastors, and later still to have supervision over many regional churches. In Rome, the church had already existed many years before either Peter or Paul showed up there. 

Q13: I have not read much on the Essenes and Nazarenes yet in this book they appear to be connected somehow.  Can you explain?  They also add in the Zadokites. The Essenes and Nazarenes were two different groups of people but the Essenes had an area in the city?  Qumran?  This is where the Essenes fled to during the time of the Hasmoneans?  Did the Nazarenes flee there too?  The Dead Sea Scrolls were written by the Essenes before the time of Jesus that they would have been teaching from?  The Essenes were a big threat to the Hasmoneans because they were the true heirs as priests to the temple as well as trying to protect the rightful heirs to the throne of David?

A13: The Essenes were one of the four major sects of Judaism mentioned by Josephus before the war against Rome.  They split from mainstram Judaism in the time of the Hasmoneans, likely in objection to the termination of the Zadokite line of the high priesthood.  This is when they established themselves in the desert, including at Qumran among other places.  They were isolationist and exclusivist--cutting themselves off from the rest of Israel, which they considered to be in gross violation of God's law. 

The Essenes were obviously not considered much of a threat by the Hasmoneans, or the Hasmoneans would have come out with armies against them (as different Hasmonean contenders for the throne did with each other). 

There is not a hint in all the Essene writings, and we have a whole library of them--the Dead Sea Scrolls--that they were protecting the heirs of the throne of David, or were even interested in doing so.   

Over time, the Essene movement grew, although never reaching much more than about four thousand people.  Small groups could be found scattered throughout the cities of the Jews, including Jerusalem, where Josephus calls the southwest city gate the "Essene Gate."  On the basis of this historical mention, and some ritual baths and latrines in the area that are like those at Qumran and match the Essene ideology, modern archeologists call the southwest corner of the city the "Essene Quarter."  But this is a modern idea, and there is no evidence that this is how people thought of it at the time.  At most we can say that there were likely a significant number of Essenes living in this part of the city. 

The Essenes completely disappear from history after the war against Rome, and have nothing to do with Christianity.  If individual Essenes helped Jesus during his lifetime, it was because they were looking for more than the Essene ideology offered.  If they finally became Christians, they would have had to stop being Essenes (as I mentioned the ideologies are quite different and often opposing).

The Nazarenes are simply the early Jewish Christians. Even today in Hebrew, Christians are called Notzrim (Nazarenes).  Just before the Roman seige of Jerusalem, the Christians fled to Pella, which was a Decapolis city (i.e. a Gentile city) in the Jordan Valley across from Beth-Shan up toward the Sea of Galilee.  They could not flee to Qumran, which by this time had been destroyed by the Romans. 

Yes, the Dead Sea scrolls were copied and used by the Essenes before the war against Rome.  They were hidden in caves near Qumran when the Roman army was approaching and just before Qumran was destroyed.  If the Essenes continued to exist after the war in association with the Christians, as these authors claim, why didn't they come back to rescue their precious library? 

Q14: Comment: Zion and the tomb of David are on the western hill [of Jerusalem].

A14: Today Mt. Zion and the tomb of David are identified on the western hill of Jerusalem.  But remember, this is not the original location of Mt. Zion (which was originally over where the Temple was located), nor is it the original location of the tomb of David, which was down in the City of David. The Mt. Zion of today was not even within the city walls in the time of David.  

Q15:  The next part of the book discusses the Messianic seal.  It talks about its origin in the first church, the markings on the wall in part of the upper room that has been sealed off to visitors and several artifacts with the symbol.

It states that this symbol has been known about for a very long time by both Jews and they state Catholics but both have hidden it for years, each for their own reasons and what would happen if it was known to the world.  The book also talks about an original writing called the "Book of Hebrews," which later was called Matthew.

A15: Any markings on the walls in the Upper Room date back no later than the Middle Ages when the current room was constructed.

The Gospel of the Hebrews is a controversial book which, unfortunately, has not been preserved except in a few scattered quotations.  It is mentioned in early Christian writings as an earlier Hebrew version of the gospel of Matthew, but the few preserved quotes are quite different than our gospel of Matthew.  Complicating the situation is that there was another Gospel of the Hebrews associated with a heretical sect known as the Ebionites. 

So to conclude:  there is no evidence that the Messianic Seal is ancient, nor is there any evidence for an early alliance between the Essenes and early Christians connected with a tomb of David on the western hill of Jerusalem.  

(For more on this topic, see the index category Messianic Jews.)


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