Absolutely! Since taking David Brakke's freshman seminar "Images of Jesus in Western Culture" at Indiana University in 1998, I have known that Monty Python's Life of Brian is much more than an irreverent comedy. I would certainly say that it has strongly colored my understanding of life in first century Judea. Similarly, it has impacted my view of the historical Jesus. I would even say that (for better and for worse) Brian is always looming somewhere in the background whenever I study anything having to do with Greco-Roman antiquity: the gospels, Josephus, Herodian architecture ... and naturally, Latin grammar.
Apparently, lots of scholars agree because in June 2014 an academic conference devoted to the subject will take place at King's College London. Academic interest in the film formally started with Philip R. Davies' famous 1995 article entitled "Life of Brian Research" in which he writes the following:
Among tour guides in Jerusalem, one of the most memorable parts of the film is of course the scene towards the beginning ("Saturday Afternoon, About Tea Time") where Brian watches Jesus deliver the Sermon on the Mount from afar. It is here that a member of the crowd mishears "blessed are the cheesemakers" instead of "the peacemakers". When one bystander asks "what's so special about the cheesemakers?" her husband, an aristocratic Hellenized Jew, nonchalantly answers: "Well, obviously it's not meant to be taken literally; it refers to any manufacturers of dairy products." This one line has to be one of the most concise illustrations of trends in biblical interpretation in Jewish antiquity.
As Davies notes, "cheesemakers" is clearly a reference to the Tyropoeon Valley (τυροποιῶν = in Greek) which bisects Jerusalem's Old City, separating the lower eastern ridge (Mt Moriah) from its higher western counterpart (Upper City). This central valley was the commercial heart of Jerusalem in the Second Temple Period, as can be seen from the impressive remains of shops which have been excavated south of the Western Wall, beneath Robinson's Arch (see image below). The Tosefta's reference to the "lower marketplace" (השוק התחתון) might preserve a memory of this area as well (t. San 14:14). The valley begins outside the Old City in the vicinity of the Musrara neighborhood, running southeast toward the walls of the Old City and entering the Damascus Gate. At this point, it turns due south and cuts directly through the Muslim Quarter all the way to the Dung Gate. It skirts the eastern side of the City of David, eventually joining the Kidron Valley, which runs down to the Dead Sea.
Today, the Tyropoeon Valley is hardly recognizable. Unlike the impressive Kidron and Ben Hinnom Valleys which circumscribe the Old City, there is little to be seen of the humble Cheesemaker's Valley. Over the centuries it has become almost completely filled in with debris and buildings. In the Ayyubid and Mameluk periods many homes and public institutions (i.e., mosques and madrasahs) were built upon vaults that spanned the valley in order to be as close as possible to the Haram al-Sharif. These massive constructions made it possible to access the Temple Mount by means of numerous east-west streets (e.g., Suq el-Qattanin, Tariq Bab el-Silsila) without ascending almost any stairs. So where is the Tyropoeon today? It mostly runs deep beneath the main north-south artery of the the Muslim Quarter that runs from Damascus Gate to the Western Wall Plaza. The name of the street - Tariq Al-Wad / Rehov HaGai (= The valley street) - preserves a memory of the original topography of the city.
We have Josephus to thank for coining the phrase in his famous description of the geography of the city (Jewish War 5.4.136-141). He does not explain his use of the term and it is not corroborated in any contemporaneous texts. Its meaning has puzzled generations of scholars. A convincing theory has been offered by the eminent Jerusalem archaeologist Dan Bahat. He thinks that the original name was the Valley of the Silversmiths, which makes sense given the archaeological evidence for commercial activity here. In Hebrew this would have been עמק הצורפים. Τransliterated into Greek, צורפים became τυροπιμ = Tyropim, which has no meaning whatsoever in Greek. Later, a copyist altered Tyropim to τυροποιῶν = Tyropoeon, which means "cheesemakers". This is a far more picturesque name for Greek audiences and it has stuck to the present day. Interesting to ponder what would have happened had Josephus chosen to translate the name to ἡ ἀργυροποιών φάραγξ. Monty Python would have had to find another beatitude to poke fun at.
I am Jonathan Lipnick, tour guide and educator specializing in Christianity and Judaism. In this blog I explore questions (historical, linguistic) that come up in the course of my teaching and reading.