Sunday, November 12, 2017

A Hospital, Not a Court


Image by scem.info

"As many times as you sin, repent for your sin; do not become discouraged. And if you sin a second time, repent a second time. Do not be completely deprived of the hope for the proposed goods through indolence. And if you are in the depths of old age and you sin, enter into the church and repent, because the church is a hospital, not a court of justice."

John Chrysostom (349 - 407 CE)

Homilies on Repentance and Almsgiving 3.4.19

Tuesday, November 7, 2017

Where Did the Devil Get the Name 'Lucifer'?


"How art thou fallen... O Lucifer"
Image: Public Domain



The devil has a lot of names in the Bible. Where did he get the name 'Lucifer' especially since it doesn't appear anywhere in most modern Bible translations? A Quora question.

Q: Who was the true Lucifer and why he was related to the devil if he don’t even appear in the Bible?


A: What a great question! The answer is really in two-parts.

First, we need to recognize that there isn't really any origin story for the Devil in the Bible. There is no place where the scriptures plainly say, "This is the story of the Devil." He's just there -- even in the Garden of Eden if we equate "the serpent" with him.

So, humans being the way we are, people all the way back to the 1st and 2nd centuries BCE searched the Hebrew scriptures for clues to his origin. One place they found that sounded like what they assumed the devil's origin would sound like ("Glorious, supernatural being? Check! Not created evil but became evil through pride? Check!") was in the Old Testament prophetic Book of Isaiah chapter 14, verses 12-32.

This may not be apparent to us today but here is how the ancient church father Origen (185-254 CE) explained it:

It is most clearly proved by these words that he who formerly was Lucifer and who “arose in the morning” has fallen from heaven. For if, as some suppose, he was a being of darkness, why is he said to have formerly been Lucifer or lightbearer? Or how could he “rise in the morning” who had in him no light at all?… So he was light once … when “his glory was turned into dust.” (On First Principles 1.5)

(NOTE: Isaiah actually wrote this prophetic poem to make fun of the King of Babylon, not to explain where Satan came from).

The first line of this passage is the important one for answering your question. In Hebrew this line begins אֵ֛יךְ נָפַ֥לְתָּ מִשָּׁמַ֖יִם הֵילֵ֣ל בֶּן־שָׁ֑חַר Ek Napalta misamayim helel ben sahar (sorry no diacritical marks), literally "How you are fallen from the sky helel, son of dawn." The Hebrew word helel means "shining one." Most scholars believe that this word helel refers to the morning star -- Venus.

The 2nd part of the answer is very brief. The early Christians didn't preach or (for the most part) write in Hebrew, but in Greek. In the Septuagint -- the popular Greek translation of the Hebrew scriptures -- helel is translated by the word Eosphoros, meaning "Dawn-carrier." Somehow though that never caught on.

However when the church at Rome asked St. Jerome (347-420 CE) to revise the Old Latin translation, he translated helel as "Lucifer," which means pretty much the same thing as Eosphoros: "light-carrier."

Jerome's translation, the Vulgate, became the official translation of the church. So under the influence of the Vulgate and the widespread idea that Isaiah 14 told the story of where the devil came from, Lucifer became a name for Satan during the middle ages. And influenced by all that, when British translators set out to create an English version of the Bible (i.e., the King James Version) they took over the by now traditional name "Lucifer" in Isaiah 14.12: "How art thou fallen from heaven, O Lucifer, son of the morning!”

Most modern Bibles translate helel as “shining one,” “Day Star,” “star of the morning” or something else more accurate.



Sunday, November 5, 2017

Tuesday, October 24, 2017

Why Is the Bible Written?

An ancient scribe writing an ancient book
I had a comic book Bible when I was a kid and got a lot out of it, so I thought it was a worthwhile Quora question. 

Q: Why is the Bible written rather than drawn?

A: I kind of wish the biblical authors had added a few illustrations. Instead of his intricate description of his vision of God's throne with its wheels within wheels, it would be easier for me to grasp it with my impressionistic picture-book mind if Ezekiel just said, “And it looked like this,” and drew a picture. We know he could have done it too since a little later in his book he draws a picture of Jerusalem on a clay brick. 

 But the Bible for the most part is didactic literature, which doesn't lend itself well to artistic representation. Euclid may add diagrams to his works on geometry but one doesn't find Seneca or Marcus Aurelius drawing pictures to teach principles of Stoicism. Similarly, it is difficult to imagine the art St. Paul would need to create to accurately convey to the Ephesians that, “By grace you have been saved through faith, and this is not your own doing; it is the gift of God— not the result of works, so that no one may boast.” One would need a comic strip or graphic novel, I would think — a large one to convey even one of Paul's shorter epistles.

 It's also worth noting that most of the tales of Jesus and the Hebrew scriptures got their start as oral traditions. Think of an old man or woman at the campfire at night surrounded by a dozen villagers as they recite the rhythmic creation story or Ruth’s gripping tale. Or an apostle telling well-rehearsed stories of Jesus of Nazareth to a new crop of disciples in a Greek lecture hall. These would have been most naturally preserved later on in written form.

 That's not to say there couldn’t have been artistic representations among the Israelites. They were certainly capable of it. The historical books of the Bible preserve descriptions of large statues of cherubim (composite human-animal creatures depicted throughout the middle east) in the Jerusalem temple along with richly embroidered tapestries of plants and more cherubim. Seal impressions showing animals and decorations have been found by archaeologists. But as in other cultures, such as Assyria, Babylon, Rome, and Greece most devotional and mythological art, as well as some legal texts (e.g., Hammurabi’s code), were done as large public statues, reliefs, paintings, and mosaics where whatever messages they were intended to convey could reach a large audience. Books back then had a more limited reach.

 That’s as far as we know right now, of course. As with all of history, a discovery could be made tomorrow that upends everything.


Thursday, October 5, 2017

Noah Questions

Two questions about Noah today. Maybe the floods, hurricanes, and boat rescues is reminding the denizens of Quora (where I usually answer these first) of the Biblical deluge.


Q: Where did the idea of Noah preaching to the people about the flooding come from? I can't seem to find any account of it in the book of Genesis.


A: For Christians this idea may have come from the New Testament book of 2nd Peter 2.5 where Noah is depicted as “a preacher of righteousness… when He [God] brought a flood upon the world of the ungodly.”

Peter and many 1st century Jews would have heard these stories from the midrashic commentaries of the rabbis that elaborated on the stories of the Hebrew scriptures.





Q: How did Noah transport the 87 species of human parasites (https://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/List_of_parasites_of_humans)


A: Inside the humans, I would suppose. Except for the parasites that also afflict animals; they might take a different route.

Of course that's presuming that the story of the Deluge is a strictly historical account, as we modern westerners tend to expect, rather than a story probably based on an actual event (Mesopotamia is known to have had some pretty bad floods) and intended to teach the lessons it teaches: monotheism (as opposed to the multitude of panicky gods who can’t even control their own flood in the old Mesopotamian stories), the incorrigible evil in the heart of man, that evil will be judged, that God requires obedience, that, in the end, God forgives and shows mercy, etc., etc.

Oh yeah, and the origin of wine and need to drink responsibly. Very important. ;)



Tuesday, October 3, 2017

Are Gnostic Gospels Authentic?

A question I was asked back in August:

Q: What is the authenticity of Gnostic Gospels? Couldn't they have been written for selfish interests?

 A: Several Gnostic works claim to record the words or acts of people mentioned in the New Testament such as the apostles Thomas and Phillip, or Mary Magdalene and Judas. If by “authentic” you mean were they written by these people, then the answer is no, they are not authentic. Most scholars believe these books were written in the 2nd and 3rd centuries or later, although the so-called Gospel of Thomas was probably written around AD 100 - 110 and has portions that seem to be traditions from the earliest days of the church.

Could they have been written for selfish interests? Of course, but they also may have been written to publicize their teachings and provide teaching materials for their followers. When these books were written Jesus was just getting famous as the latest ‘mystic master’ in the Roman Empire. Gnosticism had been a tendency of long standing in the Mediterranean world deriving from the platonic teaching that matter is evil and the liberation of one’s soul from matter was the aim in life — and afterlife.

"Christian" Gnostics appeared at the end of the 1st century attempting to link the cache of Jesus’ name with this very popular Platonic philosophic idea. After all, the actual Christian teaching of Jesus and hi apostles with its bloody crucifixion, its ridiculous idea (to Greeks and Romans) of a man returning bodily from death, and its rigorous insistence that no other gods be worshiped — including emperors — was seen as woefully unsophisticated by many.





Thursday, September 28, 2017

A Question of Throats

Image by FotoFyl / Erifyli Tsavdari
Sometimes answering anti-Christian questions on Quora doesn't require any special knowledge of biblical scholarship or Jesus' teachings. Sometimes it just requires a little logic. And this time it seemed like some people might take my answer more easily if I approached it the way an evolutionary biologist might, then transpose it into the key of Christian belief. That may make it a bit easier for the questioner to see why we aren't "bothered" by God's design of the human throat.





Q: Why aren't Christians bothered by the fact that God made man with a throat that is used for breathing and eating? It’s a highly inefficient design.

A: From an evolutionary viewpoint, regardless of our opinions of the efficiency of this design, it's widespread development in numerous animal groups (e.g., birds, reptiles, mammals, etc.) suggests that it’s a dependable, tried-and-true mechanism. Although other designs are found in nature (e.g., the spiracles and air sac design found in bees), natural selection has seemingly chosen the ”throat design” for most land animals, including humans.

Therefore Christians who see humans as designed by God needn't worry. Although their God may not have chosen a design favored by modern engineers, he has installed a mechanism in his birds, reptiles, and primates, including humans, that has proven over time to be quite satisfactory.