Thursday, July 13, 2017

Jesus at the Hard Rock Cafe

Photo by Paweł Sikora Sikorr
Larry Hurtado, who is a favorite Bible scholar of mine and whom my wife, son, and I got to hear lecture recently, is probably the world's leading expert on how exactly Jesus' followers wrapped their minds around what for them psychologically was an utter impossibility: that this guy they knew was actually God. We can go into that sometime.

Another topic he is studying is just how unique in the world the early Christian movement was. He recently wrote a book called Destroyer of the gods:  Early Christian Distinctiveness in the Roman World, where he points out that a lot of what we take for granted about the whole idea of religion came from Jesus' movement, from Christians.

A little while back he blogged on one example he came across...


Passing by the Hard Rock Café in Edinburgh today, I noticed again their slogan: “Love all, serve all,” and noted that it reflects the (likely unconscious) influence of the NT upon western culture.  For the motto self-evidently owes to the sentiments first expressed in NT passages such as Matthew 5:43-48, with its distinctive injunction to “love your enemies” as well as your “neighbour”, and Matthew 20:26 (and Mark 10:43-44), with the striking demand that “whoever would be great among you must be servant of all.”

I suspect, however, that neither the founders (nor the Seminole Indians of Florida who now own the restaurant chain) are aware of this.  It just shows how the values and themes of the NT have now become part of the conceptual “ground water” of western culture.

My recent book, Destroyer of the gods:  Early Christian Distinctiveness in the Roman World (Baylor University Press, 2016) makes the points that early Christianity (in the first three centuries) had distinctive features, and that these once-distinctive features have now become cultural commonplaces for us.  I don’t refer to the Hard Rock Café or its slogan, but there’s lots of other (and, hopefully, more interesting) stuff that I hope will address our “cultural amnesia.

Tuesday, July 11, 2017

Those Mysterious Dead Sea Scrolls

The War Scroll
Courtesy of Matson Photo Service 

Have you ever wondered what's really in those Scrolls? Yes, the Bible but what else? Yesterday someone asked me this on Quora. True, it's not "Christ and him crucified" but the Dead Sea Scrolls are still cool. They give us an idea of what was going on in the background while Jesus and his students trod the dusty pathways of Judea.


Q: What are the other books that were found among the Dead Sea Scrolls besides the books of the Old Testament?

A: Of the 944 scrolls found at Qumran, 211 are “biblical” and 733 are “nonbiblical.” This latter group contains all sorts of writings. For example books from the Pseudepigrapha were found such as Jubilees and 1 Enoch along with apocalyptic books related to Enoch, such as The Book of Giants (1Q23) and Melchizedek (11Q13). (FYI, the notations with a Q in them tell you what cave they were found in and the manuscript number. This is how scholars denominate the different scrolls and fragments. “Etc.” after a notation just means there are too many copies to list them all).

There are numerous songs and liturgies thanking God for his deliverances, while other psalms claiming to be authored by David and Solomon are for exorcising demons causing various ailments, such as a "fever demon" or a "chest-pain demon." The Psalms Scroll contains not just the biblical psalms but a number of others, some of which were already known from different sources while others were entirely new to us.
The community that produced the scrolls (we’re not as sure it was the Essenes nowadays) penned several scriptural commentaries using a particular type of interpretation called "pesher" so as to find themselves featured in the Hebrew scriptures. The Commentary on Habakkuk (1QpHab) is an example of this. They also wrote directly about themselves, producing procedures and regulations such as the Rule of the Community, The Halakhic Letter, and the Damascus Document. There are many copies of these, and Damascus Document was originallly found in the 19th century all the way up in Syria, long before additional copies were discovered among the scrolls.
They produced their own apocalyptic prophecies, the most famous of which is The War Scroll which details the final battle between "the Sons of Light" and "the Sons of darkness." Wisdom literature has been found, including Wiles of the Wicked Woman (4Q184), Mysteries (1Q27, etc), and Instruction (1Q26, etc.). A copy of Sirach (aka Ecclesiasticus), which has long been known through the apocrypha, was there. A set of beatitudes, rather different from Jesus', was discovered there too (4Q525).
This really just scrapes the surface but should give you an idea of what was found besides the biblical texts.
The Dead Sea Scrolls Digital Library has all the scrolls and intends to provide complete transcriptions and translations in the future.
Two excellent translations of the nonbiblical scrolls are The Dead Sea Scrolls Translated by Florentino Garcia Martinez, and The Dead Sea Scrolls: A New Translation by M. Wise, M. Abegg, and E. Cook.

Monday, July 10, 2017

Production Note: Continuing On

Photo by Onomatomedia
So, as I told my Facebook page members last week (which you can 'Like' and 'Follow' by clicking here if you have the notion, although I think you may need to join Facebook first. But who hasn't joined Facebook, right?) I am going to finish up the three series I have running on this page. That would be Life After Death, The Great Announcement (about what the Gospel really is), and the Trinity. And partly due to the death of my father last year, contemplating which is part of the reason I haven't posted since January (well, that and probate), I plan first to dive back into the subject of Life After Death.

If you'd like to catch up with that series you can  Part 1, Part 1.5 (aka A Revelation About Revelation), and Part 2.

Part 3 is still "in progress" and won't appear right away so until it does (which won't be long) I will be sure to post other interesting things. For instance, tomorrow I'll answer a question someone asked me just the other day: What was in the Dead Sea Scrolls besides Old Testament books...?

Sunday, January 22, 2017

Who Rules?

Photo credit: Hugo Heikenwaelder

The world and all that is in it is mine, (Psalm 50.12).


This is my Father’s world:
Oh, let me ne’er forget
That though the wrong seems oft so strong,
God is the ruler yet.
This is my Father’s world,
The battle is not done:
Jesus who died shall be satisfied,
And earth and Heav’n be one.

This Is My Father’s World,  Maltbie D. Babcock, 1901

Sunday, January 1, 2017

Everything is New

Happy New Years!

The ultimate New Years resolution (and the importance of keeping it, according to John Chrysostom).

"When anyone is in Christ, it is a whole new world. The old things are gone; suddenly, everything is new!"  (2 Corinthians 5.17, ERV )

Tell me, if we see new heavens and other portions of his creation, is there a profit in this which can match the benefit we gain from seeing a man converted from evil to virtue and changing from the side of error to that of truth? This is what the blessed Paul called a new creature, and so immediately he went on to say: “The former things have passed away; behold, they are all made new!” By this he briefly showed that those who, by their faith in Christ, had put off like an old cloak the burden of their sins, those who had been set free from their error and been illumined by the light of justification, had put on this new and shining cloak, this royal robe. This is why he said: “If any man is in Christ, he is a new creature: the former things have passed away; behold, they are all made new.”  
I exhort you, therefore, both you who have previously been initiated and you who have just now enjoyed the Master’s generosity, let us all listen to the exhortation of the apostle, who tells us: “The former things have passed away; behold, they are all made new.” Let us forget the whole past and, like citizens in a new world, let us reform our lives, and let us consider in our every word and deed the dignity of him who dwells within us. 

John Chrysostom (AD c. 344–407)
Baptismal Instructions 4.12, 16 (Ancient Christian Writers: The Works of the Fathers in Translation. Mahwah, N.J.: Paulist, 1946-.:71-72)

Thursday, December 29, 2016

Peter & Paul: Conflicting Gospels?

Peter and Paul
(4th century carving)
(A Quora question I answered yesterday.)

Q: Did Peter and Paul preach conflicting gospels or messages?

A: Not really. Both Peter and Paul preached the same gospel of the Kingdom of God that Jesus preached: That God’s universal kingdom had been inaugurated at the cross with Jesus as its king, that everyone was invited to give him their allegiance and join (at which point their sins would be wiped away).

The disagreement came about when some Jewish members asked, “But… don’t you have to become a Jew first?” The answer, hammered out at the Jerusalem Conference (c. AD 49), was, “No.”

It’s hard to understand just what an earthquake this was to the Jewish believers. They were the chosen people. The Messiah had come from them. Paul gives an entire list of “advantages” that the Jews had in the Letter to the Romans. That pagan gentiles could just waltz into the family of God on exactly the same terms as the Jewish people was extremely difficult for some to wrap their minds around. Some (often called “Judaizers” by scholars) never did, and roamed the Mediterranean world trying to convince members of the Christian movement that they needed to become Jews (via being circumcised, observing the Sabbath, and adopting other rituals) for their conversions to be valid.

Paul stood up to judaizing teachers wherever he encountered them because they were putting unnecessary obstacles in the way of followers of Jesus.


Peter, to his credit, got this. In fact, the Book of Acts portrays him as being among the first to get it. Paul attests to this himself in his Letter to the Galatians, where he describes how Peter was happy to eat with Gentiles in the city of Antioch, and even,“live[d] like a Gentile and not like a Jew.” “Table fellowship” was much more than just eating food in the ancient near east; it meant you accepted and respected the people you were with.

But, rather in line with his character as the Gospels describe him, Peter got spooked by men from “the circumcision party” who arrived from and withdrew his table fellowship with the gentile members. Paul roundly chewed him out for that.

But there is no evidence of any significant difference in the gospel Paul and Peter proclaimed, other that what is mentioned right before the Antioch incident in Galatians: “I (Paul) had been entrusted with the gospel to the uncircumcised, just as Peter had been entrusted with the gospel to the circumcised (for he who worked through Peter for his apostolic ministry to the circumcised worked also through me for mine to the Gentiles).

Tuesday, December 27, 2016

On the Other Side of Christmas

Stoning of St. Stephen, by Rembrandt
Even though it's not technically connected with Christmas, yesterday -- the first day after Christmas -- is the day many of Jesus' followers for centuries commemorated the execution of Stephen, the Christian Movement's first martyr. Perhaps it's just a coincidence that Stephen is remembered here, but it serves as a none-too-subtle reminder that the Messiah wasn't born to bring us bright baubles and candy canes; this is serious business.

Let's rehearse what happened here. The powers-brokers back then were not terribly happy with Jesus' early followers. Stephen was one of the major exponents of what we stood for and, as the story goes, when his opponents couldn't out-debate him they simply accused him of "speaking blasphemous words against Moses and God." In short order Stephen was "seized and brought... before the Council," (Acts of the Apostles, chapter 6 verses 11 - 12).

In his defense Stephen delivered a long and rather blunt speech showing point by point that his people had an abysmal record of obeying God and now had capped it off by crucifying their own Messiah. His listeners did not take it well:
When those in the council meeting heard this, they became very angry. They were so mad they were grinding their teeth at him. But Stephen was full of the Holy Spirit. He looked up into heaven and saw the glory of God. And he saw Jesus standing at God’s right side. Stephen said, “Look! I see heaven open. And I see the Son of Man standing at God’s right side.” 
Everyone there started shouting loudly, covering their ears with their hands. Together they all ran at Stephen. They took him out of the city and began throwing stones at him. The men who told lies against Stephen gave their coats to a young man named Saul. As they were throwing the stones at him, Stephen was praying. He said, “Lord Jesus, receive my spirit!” He fell on his knees and shouted, “Lord, don’t blame them for this sin!” 
These were his last words before he died.
(Acts of the Apostles, chapter 7 verses 54 - 60, ERV)

One may fault Stephen for tactlessness but not for lack of courage. Jesus offered his people a revolutionary way to be rescued from Rome, rescued from sin, rescued from failing repeatedly to fulfill the mission God had created them for. Even at this late date, when they had utterly failed to recognize their Messiah and turned him over to the Romans for a hideous execution, Jesus' offer still stood. Israel could still fall in behind their King. Stephen saw his duty clear and decided his best shot at shaking up the august leaders of his people was to rub their noses in the truth of what they'd done.

It got him killed, with many more to come.

On this day we are reminded that the line of martyrs with Stephen at its head has by no means come to an end, as dozens of Jesus' people are blown up in Egypt for celebrating his birth. Meanwhile in China Christians are routinely kidnapped and tortured.

In the comfortable, hermetically sealed western world we inhabit it's easy to assume the days of Christians being martyred for their faith is long past, that it may have happened back in "barbaric" Roman times, but not today. It's particularly easy when we are warm and full from the traditional holiday buying binge.

The Feast of Stephen helps us remember right after Christmas that that's not quite the case.