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Again, ye have heard that it hath been said by them of old time, Thou shalt not forswear thyself, but shalt perform unto the Lord thine oaths: But I say unto you, Swear not at all; neither by heaven; for it is God's throne: Nor by the earth; for it is his footstool: neither by Jerusalem; for it is the city of the great King. Neither shalt thou swear by thy head, because thou canst not make one hair white or black. But let your communication be, Yea, yea; Nay, nay: for whatsoever is more than these cometh of evil. -Matthew 5:33-37 When I served a mission in Russia, I lived for a few months in the city of Novorossiysk, along the shores of the Black Sea. Though the city itself was founded in 1840, the human history of the region stretches back far into antiquity. Not far from Novorossiysk is the resort town of Anapa, built on the ruins of Gorgippia. This Greek city belonged to the kingdom of the Bosphorus which controlled most of the northern side of the Black Sea. Gorgippia, a wealthy city indeed, covered over 40 hecatres. Its wealth came mainly from the grain trade, but it also supplied Greece and Asia Minor with fish, fur and slaves. Trade opportunities are what appear to have attracted the Jews to the Bosphoran Kingdom, where, by Roman times, they had a substantial presence and influence in all spheres of life. Gorgippia's community was prosperous and seems to have had its own synagogue. Several decades ago, a rather intriguing inscription was found, which though brief, provides an unparalleled glimpse into ancient Jewish society. I reproduce the translation given by Lee I. Levine in his book The Ancient Synagogue: The First Thousand Years. This inscription deals with manumission, or the freeing of a slave. It is a written testimony that Chrysa the slave-woman is now free and that Pothos' heirs have no claim on her. The names of the two Jews mentioned in the text- Pothos and Strabo- indicate how Jews tended to adopt the names used by their neighbours, much like in 20th century North America when a whole generation was named Irving and Ira. While at first glance the typical Jewish formula of a threefold invocation of God's name might appear odd, nay, even shocking, when combined with the blatantly pagan formula of an oath by Zeus, the earth and the sun, let us look at some other Jewish documents. Maimonides, a staunch opponent of paganism and idoltary if there ever was one, in his Sefer Hamitzvot (the book of commandments) rules that swearing by astral bodies is acceptable if one has the Creator in mind. In 1961, Yigael Yadin headed an archaeological expedition to the caves above the Dead Sea. The caves were the last refuge for some of Simeon bar Kosiva's (Bar-Kochba) rebels as they fled the Roman onslaught on Ein-Gedi. Among the astonishing finds in what became known as the "Cave of Letters" was an archive of documents belonging to Babatha, a wealthy widow and landowner in Ein-Gedi and Petra. In the subscription to one document, we read, "I, Babtha, daughter of Simon, swear by the genius of our lord Caesar that I have in good faith registered as has been written above." Italics mine. NOVA | Ancient Refuge in the Holy Land | Babatha's Scroll | PBS In page 215 of his Hellenism in Jewish Palestine, Saul Lieberman provides a translation of a responsum by a 9th century Babylonian, the Rab Hai ben Nahshon Gaon. Lieberman logically surmises that ignorant or crooked Jews abused a loophole in these kinds of oaths by sun and moon, which their gentile neighbours considered binding, but which they themselves did not. In fact, the closing formula in the Gorgippia inscription was standard legal fare in the Bosphoran Kingdom, and as such, seems to have lost most of its pagan connotations. I'll share a final source from the last decade of the first century AD, though not a Jewish one. This was provided by Lieberman as well. Martial seems aware of a Jewish prediliction for not taking gentile oaths seriously, and demands a stronger one, one that Jews would find binding. For those interested in further reading on the subject, I highly recommend Saul Liberman and Lee I. Levine's books, mentioned above.
With the next Sunday School lesson being based around the Sermon on the Mount, I decided to post something I had written for an online debate with a certain concerning Christian and evangelical anti-Mormon over the context of certain portions of the Sermon on the Mount. He claimed that certain belligerent statements by Joseph Smith disqualified him as a Christian. Not only that, the nerve the saints had by defending themselves from the mob! There are five occurences of smiting the cheek in the Old Testament. Six, if you count a duplicate in Chronicles. The implications of smiting on the cheek are made clear in the following two scriptures. "They have gaped upon me with their mouth; they have smitten me upon the cheek reproachfully; they have gathered themselves together against me." - Job 16:10. "He giveth his cheek to him that smiteth him: he is filled full with reproach." -Lam. 3:30. In these verses, smiting on the cheek is linked to insults. This holds true as well for the following three scriptures: "And the king of Israel said unto Jehoshaphat, There is yet one man, Micaiah the son of Imlah, by whom we may enquire of the LORD: but I hate him; for he doth not prophesy good concerning me, but evil. And Jehoshaphat said, Let not the king say so. Then the king of Israel called an officer, and said, Hasten hither Micaiah the son of Imlah. And the king of Israel and Jehoshaphat the king of Judah sat each on his throne, having put on their robes, in a void place in the entrance of the gate of Samaria; and all the prophets prophesied before them. And Zedekiah the son of Chenaanah made him horns of iron: and he said, Thus saith the LORD, With these shalt thou push the Syrians, until thou have consumed them. And all the prophets prophesied so, saying, Go up to Ramothgilead, and prosper: for the LORD shall deliver it into the king's hand. And the messenger that was gone to call Micaiah spake unto him, saying, Behold now, the words of the prophets declare good unto the king with one mouth: let thy word, I pray thee, be like the word of one of them, and speak that which is good. And Micaiah said, As the LORD liveth, what the LORD saith unto me, that will I speak. So he came to the king. And the king said unto him, Micaiah, shall we go against Ramothgilead to battle, or shall we forbear? And he answered him, Go, and prosper: for the LORD shall deliver it into the hand of the king. And the king said unto him, How many times shall I adjure thee that thou tell me nothing but that which is true in the name of the LORD? And he said, I saw all Israel scattered upon the hills, as sheep that have not a shepherd: and the LORD said, These have no master: let them return every man to his house in peace. And the king of Israel said unto Jehoshaphat, Did I not tell thee that he would prophesy no good concerning me, but evil? And he said, Hear thou therefore the word of the LORD: I saw the LORD sitting on his throne, and all the host of heaven standing by him on his right hand and on his left. And the LORD said, Who shall persuade Ahab, that he may go up and fall at Ramothgilead? And one said on this manner, and another said on that manner. And there came forth a spirit, and stood before the LORD, and said, I will persuade him. And the LORD said unto him, Wherewith? And he said, I will go forth, and I will be a lying spirit in the mouth of all his prophets. And he said, Thou shalt persuade him, and prevail also: go forth, and do so. Now therefore, behold, the LORD hath put a lying spirit in the mouth of all these thy prophets, and the LORD hath spoken evil concerning thee. But Zedekiah the son of Chenaanah went near, and smote Micaiah on the cheek, and said, Which way went the Spirit of the LORD from me to speak unto thee? And Micaiah said, Behold, thou shalt see in that day, when thou shalt go into an inner chamber to hide thyself. And the king of Israel said, Take Micaiah, and carry him back unto Amon the governor of the city, and to Joash the king's son; And say, Thus saith the king, Put this fellow in the prison, and feed him with bread of affliction and with water of affliction, until I come in peace. And Micaiah said, If thou return at all in peace, the LORD hath not spoken by me. And he said, Hearken, O people, every one of you." - 1 Kgs 22:8-28. At the city gates (centre of public life), in front of the leaders of the people, Zedekiah slaps Micaiah on the cheek, humiliating him. All this for attempting to deceive the kings. "Now gather thyself in troops, O daughter of troops: he hath laid siege against us: they shall smite the judge of Israel with a rod upon the cheek." - Micah 5:1 (4:14). The besieging enemy will smite the ruler with a rod (symbol of authority) upon the cheek, an humiliating gesture of subjugation. "I will not be afraid of ten thousands of people, that have set themselves against me round about. Arise, O LORD; save me, O my God: for thou hast smitten all mine enemies upon the cheek bone; thou hast broken the teeth of the ungodly." - Psalm 3:6-7 (7-8) The Psalmist calls upon the Lord to inflict a humiliating and crushing defeat on his enemies. If this was not a call for an humiliating defeat of his enemies, the psalmist's request would be comical. Now on to material from the rest of the ancient Near East: In the "Descent of Ishtar into the Netherworld," Ereshkigal of the abode of the dead curses a eunuch (or government official) with a great curse and says: "The food of the gutters of the city shall be your food; The sewers of the city shall be your drink; The shadow of the wall shall be your station; The threshold shall be your habitation; the besotted and the thirsty shall smite your cheeks." The eunuch will live in the gutter, and be humiliated by the lowest of the low- the drunks and bums. An Akkadian maqlu text preserves the following imprecation: "I strike your cheek, I tear out your tongue." - G. Meier, "Die Assyrische Beschworung Maqlu", 50, 8:101. As part of the Akitu, or Babylonian New Year ritual, the urgallu, or priest, would do the following on day five: "After reciting this, he shall remove the table; he shall summon the craftsmen together, he shall deliver the table with all that is on it to the craftsmen, and shall cause them to carry it to Nabu; the craftsmen shall take it, they shall go in the…to the bank of the canal; when Nabu arrives at ….they shall set it up for Nabu; when they have placed the table before Nabu, while Nabu is getting out of the ship Id-da-he-du, they shall offer the loaves of the table; then they shall place on the table water to wash the hands of the king. Then they shall conduct the king into Esagila; the craftsmen shall go out of the gate. When the king has come in before Bel, the urigallu shall come out of the chapel; then he shall receive from the hands of the king, the scepter, the ring, and the harpe, or ceremonial weapon; he shall take his royal crown; he shall bring these things in before Bel, and shall place them on a seat before Bel. He shall come out of the chapel; he shall strike the king's cheek; he shall place…behind him; he shall bring him before Bel; he shall pull his ears; he shall make him kneel on the ground; the king shall repeat the following once: I have not sinned, lord of the countries; I have not despised thy divinity; I have not destroyed Babel; I have not caused it to be scattered; I have not shaken Esagila; I have not forgotten its rituals; I have not smitten suppliants on the cheek; I have not humiliated them; I care for Babel; I have not broken down its walls." - James Pritchard, "Ancient Near Eastern Texts Relating to the Old Testament", pg. 334. Around 750 BC, the Aramaeans Mattiel, king of Arpad, and Bargayah, king of KTK entered into a parity treaty. On stela I from Sefire the following curses are recorded, to be heaped upon the violator of said treaty: 40. [Just as] this calf is cut in two, so may Mattiel be cut in two, and may his nobles be cut in two! [And just as] 41. a [har]lot is stripped naked], so may the wives of Mattiel be stripped naked, and the wives of his offspring, and the wives of [his] no[bles! 42. And just as this wax woman is taken] and one strikes her on the face, so may the [wives of Mattiel] be taken [and… The laws of Eshnunna and the laws of Hammurabi both treat knocking out eyes, teeth, and slaps on the face as severe offences, for which large fines are levied. A little after Christ’s time, we read in the Mishnah, t. Baba Kama 8:6 that, “If one boxes another man's ear, he has to pay him a sela. Rabbi Yehudah in the name of Rabbi Yosei HaGalili says, [He has to pay him] a maneh [i.e., one hundred dinar;]. If he slapped him he has to pay him two hundred zuz; [if he did it] with the back of his hand, he has to pay him four hundred zuz. If he pulled his ear, plucked his hair, spat so that the spittle reached him, removed his garment from upon him, uncovered the head of a woman in the marketplace, he must pay four hundred zuz.” The Tosefta Baba Kama 9:31 expands the ruling: "If one struck someone with the back of his hand… he must pay four hundred zuz, not because it is a painful blow but because it is a humiliating blow." Smiting the cheek was part of the humliations Christ was subjected to after his arrest. “And the men that held Jesus mocked him, and smote him. And when they had blindfolded him, they struck him on the face, and asked him, saying, Prophesy, who is it that smote thee? And many other things blasphemously spake they against him.” - Luke 22:63-65. Nahum Sarna, in his article "Legal Terminology in Psalm 3:8," relates an account from the life of Abraham Shapira: “In modern times, Abraham Shapira (1870-1965), head watchman of Petah Tikvah and a keen student of the ways and customs of the Bedouin, once observed the trial of two members of a tribe. One had been accused of stabbing someone with a sword, the other of having smacked someone on the face. The presiding sheikh dealt leniently with the stabber but severely with the other one. In explaining his verdict, he stated: ‘The striking of the cheek is a graver offence than stabbing with a sword, for the latter enhances the dignity of a man, while striking him on the cheek humiliates him.’" Earlier in the same study, Sarna comments that “the various contexts make it absolutely clear , beyond the peradventure of a doubt, that to be struck on the cheek was an intolerable insult, a deep humiliation, not a mere slight to be soon forgotten.” From personal experience growing up in Israel, I remember that fights, both among Jewish kids and Arab ones, did not get truly nasty until someone spat on another, or slapped him on the face. If that happened, knifings or severe beatings would immediately follow. Things could be patched up at any moment BEFORE such insults. After them, this was impossible without third-party intervention and serious peace-making efforts. Back to the Sermon on the Mount, we saw that eye, tooth and smote cheek are mentioned together. The context could not be any clearer: Christ talked of not returning the ultimate personal insults. Nowhere does he say that man must not defend himself, family and friends. Nowhere does he say that if one does not follow that, then one is not a Christian.