Paul Doesn’t Want Christians Getting Married in Corinthians 7 Because the World is Ending

My latest Nashville Free Press column for No Holier Than Thou is out, and it’s all about the Apocalypse, the impending end of the world and the Christian and Mayan predictions about such things. It also has a brief analysis of Paul’s letter to the Corinthians, chapter 7 in which he says marriage isn’t a great idea.

You can read it by clicking HERE. The article is called, “In Case of Rapture, I Owe You Ten Dollars.” Feel free to leave comments there, here or in both locations if you really want to show me some love (or hate).

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Religion in the News: Exciting New Discovery of Syria’s Largest Ancient Church

In Palyrma, a town in central Syria, what is thought to be the largest church ever discovered in the state has been unearthed. Archaeologists think that it is 1500 years old; they have even discovered other building of significance, including an amphitheater, in the area of the church.

I love new discoveries like this: anything that sheds light on our picture of early Christianity and allows us to understand the religion’s dissemination and early theology better. Plus, it’s an interesting reminder to us all that Christianity was so popular in certain regions of the modern Middle East. In fact, Syria’s Antioch is one of the five patriarchates.

There is no period of Christianity (or history for that matter!) that I don’t find fascinating, but I’m particularly intrigued by the early period, which is often dated between the first and sixth centuries – though I don’t think it would be inappropriate to cut it off earlier. In any case, this church is a really cool find from that period, and I hope that the archaeologists continue to find other things in the area that shed light on the period and religion. After all, the dry dessert heat preserves scrolls really well, so it’s not impossible that some awesome texts stored in ancient jars will be unearthed!….but nothing yet.

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Fun with the Bible: The Many Interpretations of Deuteronomy 18:15

How We Arrived at This Topic

Last week, on Quran Read-A-Long Kay asked, What do the passages of Deuteronomy 18: 15-18 refer to? (there are different English versions of this passage and not all versions use the term “brother”). She also wrote, “There is a passage in Deuteronomy 18 (NIV) 15 to 18-15 says “The Lord your God will raise up for you a prophet like me from among your brothers. You must listen to him.” I don’t know what this passage means to Christians or Jews but the use of the words “from among your brothers” is interesting as from the Muslim perspective—the brotherhood of the sons of Prophet Abraham could possibly give these passages significance.”

The New Revised Standard Version (NRSV) of the Bible translates this verse as, “The Lord your God will raise up for you a prophet like me from among your own people; you shall heed such a prophet.”

Now usually I rely heavily upon the NRSV. It’s an excellent, scholarly translation that takes account of the most ancient Hebrew, Greek, Aramaic, and even sometimes Latin (the Vulgate) texts of the Bible in order to render the most accurate translation possible. It eschews translations that are misleadingly theological in nature; where discrepancies in the ancient texts exist, it footnotes those differences.

Kay has raised the issue of what exactly this verse means, and more importantly, to whom it means such things. Briefly, I’d like to say what it means to each religion and then comment on the interpretation itself.

Christians and Jews: Different Interpretations – How Strange!

For Christians, the meaning here is abundantly clear: this prophet raised up from among your own people is Jesus. How could it be anyone else? A prophet comparable to Moses, an Israelite, etc. Definitely the J-Man.

For the Jews, this isn’t anyone in particular. It wouldn’t be far fetched to say that this is a reference to the future messiah, but no such word is used and it certainly wasn’t written with that in mind. For the Jews, this could be any of the prophets that came in a long line of prophets after Moses. “Like me” doesn’t necessarily mean in extreme quality, as one who speaks face to face with God, but only “a prophet, like me.” This is simply, ‘be prepared for more prophets because you said that you wanted prophecy to know what God wants so be on the lookout.’ This coincides perfectly with the fact that the verse can also be translated acceptably with all of the references to “prophet” in the plural, as in “The Lord your God will raise up prophets for you like me from among your own people; you shall heed such prophets.”

At the same time, it warns that such prophets will only come from among your own people, that is, the Israelites. This would have been quite a warning for Jews when it came to Mohammed. He was not from among their people. He was an Arab, a notably different people, though Semitic, that exists in the Bible. So, in some sense, for the Israelites/Jews, this verse is cautionary against someone like Mohammed bringing revelation from God because he couldn’t possibly be a prophet.

From A Muslim Perspective

And that, of course, brings us to a Muslim perspective on this verse and the translation of the verse itself. The word used for “your own people” is achichah, which is a plural possessive of the Hebrew word, ach, whose most immediate and obvious translation is “brother.” It’s a curious place to use the word. Of course, ach can also be translated as “kinsman” or “friend,” hence the natural leap to “your own people.” Few would question the reach. However, rather than use a word like am (nation), in which case the meaning would be pretty blatant (though, notably, still not exclude Jesus), the text uses the word ach which even when translated otherwise, still has the connotation of brother.

It is this that makes Kay’s translation from the NIV so valid and the subsequent Muslim outlook on this verse so viable. She has pointed out, quite rightly, that Isaac and Ishmael were brothers. Thus, with the Israelites/Jews descending from Isaac and the Arabs descending from Ishmael, these two tribes are in fact, brother-tribes, or in a sense, kinsman. Thus, a line in the Bible that could acceptably be translated as foreshadowing the rise of a prophet like Moses (a big-time prophet) that comes from among your brothers, could quite easily be seen as a reference to Mohammed for Muslims.

The Historical-Critical Take

Where do I stand? I think that all of these interpretations, from a religious perspective, take into account the possible and appropriate translations of this verse, and therefore are equally viable depending on the perspective of where you’re sitting. I study these things because of the many fascinating and possible interpretations, what they reveal about each religion individually and the ways that they theologically interact with one another.

However, I also know that the book of Deuteronomy was written in the middle of the seventh century BCE and that this line has been written retrospectively. What this line is really doing is letting the future readers of this book know that Moses knew that there would be more prophets to come. Seeing as how the last five hundred years of Israelite history had been littered with prophets, this was a good way of showing Moses’ knowledge and verifying the legitimacy of prophecy.

It is possible that this line also ensured the exclusion of certain people who had been coming around Judea in these tough times claiming to be prophets (remember that the Assyrian and Babylonian Empires were taking over the known world at this time and people were claiming prophetic powers all over the place and there needed to be a way to discern who was legit and who was full of it – similar to what happened in Jesus’ time with the Romans). In this way, the writer of these lines used a word that would intentionally exclude all non-Judeans from possibly offering true prophecies so that his readers would have some criteria by which to discern legitimacy.

Later on, Christians and Muslims and Jews in their own ways, could look back at this line and see it as a way of foreseeing Jesus or Mohammed or whomever else – which, religiously, is fine – but reading it in the context of its historical circumstances can also help us understand what it’s doing here.

Summary

I would like to point out that interpreting this verse as Jews and Arabs being brother-tribes and kinsman, as long as no proselytizing efforts accompany the gesture, is an awesome way to look at this verse from a modern perspective. It’s a shame that more people aren’t focusing on this relationship, like Kay is. A brotherhood, kinsman perspective can sometimes help to reduce tensions and make people think a little harder about why the hatred is necessary.

What do you think? Anything to add? Questions?

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Around the World Pic: A Statue of Jesus with a Jewish Prayer on a Prague Bridge

When I first went to Prague I thought this statue was incredibly fascinating. It is a statue of Jesus on the cross but around him are the words, in Hebrew, “Holy, holy, holy, the Lord of Hosts.” These words are part of an important prayer uttered by Jews every day the world over. They, under no circumstances, refer to Jesus, and so finding this statue on the Charles Bridge in Prague was a bizarre discovery for me.

As it happens, these golden Hebrew letters were part of a humiliating punishment assigned to a Jew at the end of the 17th century who’d been accused of blasphemy. He was forced to pay for them, and it made it seem that when the Jews said this prayer, they were referring to Jesus.

Needless to say, my love of European history and studying Jewish-Christian relations, made stumbling across this statue a wonderful treat.

Plus, a friend of mine stripped down to his boxers right here and planned to jump over the edge before something (Jesus?) compelled him to stop, because the river was likely more shallow than he imagined.

Have you ever been to Prague? Have you seen this statue? What’d you think?

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To read about Jesus’ connection to King David in the book of Matthew because of Hebrew lettering, click HERE.

Religion in the News: The Dead Sea Scrolls, One of the Greatest Finds of All Time, Are Coming to the Internet

I know, it’s exciting, but we’ve all go to keep our pants on.

Okay, okay. This may not be as exciting to some of you as it is to me, but this is a really big deal.

The Dead Sea Scrolls, discovered in 1947 in caves above the Dead Sea by a Bedoin, are perhaps one of the most amazing discoveries of all time. Not only are they the oldest Hebrew copies available of the books of the Bible (except the book of Esther) but they contain numerous other writings that tell us all about a fascinating, ascetic, Jewish sect from the first century of the Common Era (the time of Jesus, in case you were wondering).

This find and the information derived from it have had a profound impact on scholarship since its discovery, seriously affecting our understanding of Judaism in this period, arguably shedding light on earliest Christian theology, general history, biblical studies and so much more.

However, there’s always been a debate about who should have access to the scrolls, both because of scholarly dibs but also because of the difficulty of preserving the scrolls and keeping them intact. Finally, that problem is solved.

Now all scholars will be able to look at the Dead Sea Scrolls in their original form on the internet, opening up the world of scholarship to all who may wish to partake. This project, in my eyes, is similar to others that seek to put very old materials on the internet that are otherwise only available in particular archives (EEBO, SSB, etc.) so that everyone who wants to browse the originals can do so.

The decentralization and dissemination of knowledge is awesome and I, for one, frickin’ love it. The more people who have access to more information, the better our world becomes. I say, great call putting the Dead Sea Scrolls online.

What are your thoughts on the dissemination of knowledge? Have you ever read parts of the Dead Sea Scrolls or are you familiar with the Qumran sect? Do you think this will matter?

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What Are We Really Voting for This Election Season, Asks “Douche and Turd,” episode 808 of South Park

As we arrive at day 72 on our countdown to vote for the next president of the United States of America, we have to ask ourselves, What are we really voting for?

Some will say “CHANGE!” and some will say, “NOT BLACK PEOPLE!” but no matter what they say we’re presented with two choices that are likely to provide us, the American people, with very comparable outcomes. And this is what “Douche and Turd” is saying.

When South Park Elementary has to vote for a new school mascot, the boys think it will be funny to write in two ridiculous things: a giant douche and a turd sandwich. When there’s a run-off between these idiotic candidates, Stan just can’t figure out what the point of voting is and why he would even bother when the choice is going to be stupid, pointless, unable to be differentiated and nothing you’d want between two pieces of bread.

Now, of course, it must be noted that this episode was written and aired before the Bush v. Kerry election, when the two candidates had a lot more in common and America appeared a lot less in trouble. This election, admittedly, looks a little different.

To pose the more obvious observation of how the two candidates are different, one of them is white – much like John Kerry. Similar to John Kerry as well, one of them has actually served in the United States armed forces. But let’s take a quick peak at the bigger picture and remember that the two aren’t actually so different after all.

They are both members of one of America’s two big parties, the Republicans and the Democrats. Though one would like to convince you that the other spends more money or that they’re more “less-hand-in-government” as a political approach to governing, that’s crap. They’ll both spend a crapload of money; they’ll both interfere in your life in a way previously unprecedented in American history, and they’ll both provide us with rhetoric that is full of shit and excuses on a pretty regular basis. And then you can turn to The Daily Show to laugh at either of them as our country and its glory spin down the drain, only to be documented in 45 years when historians can finally be far enough away to recognize some identifiable patterns.

Gloomy, no? Do I really think it’s going to be that bad? I certainly hope not – but I will say that neither candidate has actually outlined in detail or demonstrated the executable-ness of any programs that will solve any of America’s many major problems. Though I hope this isn’t the downward sloping side of the America-on-top mountain (because I think we have a lot to offer the world by way of collective equality before no one is listening to us again), I do think that when historians look back in time and have to assess, neither candidate so far has differentiated himself enough in his actual planned execution (not just policy rhetoric) so as to make him any different from the other or cause this to be the presidency of change. That’s not to say it won’t be, but just that if we went forward with what’s been outlined so far, we wouldn’t see any tangible results because nothing is really being said.

I hope that come election day we’re voting for something other than a giant douche or a turd sandwich.

What do you think? Who will you be voting for? What did you think of this episode? Do you think it’s applicable to every presidential election or just every one before a black man got in there?

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Around the World: The Acropolis in Athens is an Incredible Place

Enjoying the View from the Acropolis

Enjoying the View from the Acropolis

Greece is a spectacularly beautiful place. Most of my time there was spent hopping around a few islands, and I only spent about 4 hours in Athens before I caught a plane to London at the end of my trip. All I really cared to do was explore the ancient forum and climb up to the Acropolis.

Like the Temple Mount in Jerusalem that is currently home to the Dome of the Rock, the Acropolis, meaning ‘sacred rock’ is an elevated mountain platform that has always been associated with the sacred and the holy. Since the sixth millennium BCE it has been inhabited or built upon and though it is no longer in use for worshiping the gods, it’s still a breathtaking place to visit.

The 360 degree views from the top are spectacular. The columns are insanely enormous and the entire structure dwarves you and all the people hopping around the edges of it. Funny enough, I saw the friezes that adorned the Acropolis a year earlier when I was in London visiting the British Museum. They’re also incredible, and I can’t imagine what they would have looked like at the top of this amazing structure.

Have you ever been to the Acropolis? What did you think? Have you seen the parts of it that are in the British Museum?

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Topical Tuesday: How Historical Should Historical Fiction Be?

I’m going to have to preface this with the qualification that I’m a historian by training, specializing in Judaism, Christianity and comparative religion. This makes me, for all intents and purposes, a little biased when it comes to my opinions on the necessary degree of historicity of historical fiction.

The Benefits of Historical Fiction

But this doesn’t mean I’m not a fan. It actually means I love historical fiction, because I think, when done well, historical fiction can provide a flavor and understanding of a time and place that is missed amidst facts and theories and trying to understand the whys of history. Historical fiction allows us to imagine dimensions of historical circumstances not previously thought about by creating characters with personalities and lives that before were only a series of dates and events.

Moreover, by including a complex story in a finite amount of space the disconnected facts can more easily be visualized as a multitude of simultaneously occurring factors and motivations that coalesced in that which we consider to be the relevant moments. That reflects history better than many history classes can. Though this is often the goal of historians – to properly blend the whys and hows in order to arrive at the historical circumstances in question – historical fiction allows far more people to achieve this outcome and see the beauty of the events as the historian might wish for them to be seen.

Good Historical Fiction

There are some television shows right now that I think do a particularly great job: Mad Men and The Tudors, to name but two (The Tudors is a complicated issue though). One book that I found to be particularly well done historical fiction was The Last Jew. Another excellent one was Lamb: The Gospel According to Biff, Christ’s Childhood Pal, by Christopher Moore, written as a lost gospel and the parts of Jesus’ life that are entirely absent in the Bible. Truly excellent stuff.

How Historical It Should Be

That said, I expect an incredibly high level of competence and understanding on the part of the author before s/he undertakes a project of historical fiction. A veritable expert s/he must be. I think it’s fine to invent people that don’t exist and conversations that didn’t happen amongst people that did, and to create new events so long as they don’t distort history. It’s a difficult line to walk.

I think that the characters who were real should reflect all current and respected scholarship on the personality of that character, though interpretive liberties are obviously acceptable so long as the character does not become someone else. If, in the Tudors, Henry VIII were portrayed as a courteous, non-self-centered, timid fellow, I would be pretty put off. Historical fiction should seek to better explain and bolster what we do know and our understanding of the people or era under discussion – as well as to entertain of course. Changing known historical events, which isn’t to say embellishing, is unacceptable.

I also think that all historical fiction should come with an explanation by the author of what’s being done: the goal, what’s being changed and what liberties taken, what’s not, why these decisions were made, and anything the reader should know to be able to differentiate between history and historical fiction. There’s nothing I hate more (hyperbole) than someone with a poor knowledge of history (or religion) reading historical fiction and then thinking that what they read is all true and having no way to differentiate the true from the invented. Case in point, The DaVinci Code.

First of all, horrible book – so bad I wanted to rip my own head off. Worse still, that a friend of mine thought he understood the fine points of Christian theology and the truth behind Christianity and the Church after reading this book. Yes, we are told up front that places and works of art are being described as they are, but I don’t think that helped everyone. Even if it was a sufficient explanation, the book itself sucked: three page chapters with suspense that turns out to be nothing at the end of every one. I thought I was reading R.L. Stine’s Goosebumps again.

But that’s more than enough from me for now. What do you think about historical fiction? What’s important to you and how historical should it be? What are your favorite works of historical fiction and why?

Check out Chandler’s different take on the matter HERE.

To read some other Topical Tuesday posts, click HERE. To read Fun with the Bible, click HERE.

Fun with the Bible: Philippians 4:8 and Paul’s Understanding of What is Right

The Basics

Philippians 4:8 reads: “Finally, beloved, whatever is true, whatever is honorable, whatever is just, whatever is pure, whatever is pleasing, whatever is commendable, if there is any excellence and if there is anything worthy of praise, think about these things.”

People love to quote this verse of the Bible. I see it all the time on Facebook profiles, but to be fair, it’s a great verse.

The plain sense of this verse in isolation tells us quite simply that we should think about that which is true, honorable, just, pure, pleasing, commendable and worthy of praise. Seems simple enough. Don’t turn your mind to evil things – think only of what is right and good. A pure mind leads to a pure heart and a pure body. It’s a simple exhortation about walking the right path and being good people. That’s a wonderful message to send others.

The Context

But, as I’ve been known to say, there’s a lot more to any biblical verse than the line itself – there are all of the lines around it, which we call context. Let’s just read the very next line, which says, “Keep on doing the things that you have learned and received and heard and seen in me, and the God of peace will be with you.” Now, when we put these two lines together, we’re getting a little bit closer to what Paul meant.

The context for this letter is that Paul, the architect of Christianity, is in jail (we’re unsure where), and the people of Philippi have written sending him a gift and their best wishes. Paul is writing back, and though his letter is generally lighter and spirited, he has a concern: other people preaching the gospel different from his message.

Reading the letter to the Philippians in full – the context, obviously, of verse 4:8 – we learn that these other people have a different concept of righteousness than Paul, one based on law and not, as Paul would have it, on Jesus’ crucifixion and resurrection (what Jesus himself wanted we won’t get into now). This conflict between the early followers of Jesus was quite a serious one and wasn’t over until after Paul’s death. What we see, though, is that there is a competition between Jesus’ followers to convert people to their version of belief in him. Paul wants to ensure that the people he converted to Christianity maintain his brand of Christianity. When Paul says in 4:8 to act and think on these things, he knows what true, honorable, just, pure, pleasing, commendable and worthy of praise things are: the things he’s taught the Philippians.

A Dual Lesson

So what can we take away from this? In the first place, we learn about the importance of reading in context if we want to understand what a line of the Bible means the way it was originally written. People love this line – as they should – but I imagine that it’s rarely thought about just as Paul thought about it. Though Paul’s theology was still developing at this point, he meant something very specific when he exhorted people to meditate on what was just and good, etc. – he meant, among other things, Pauline Christology.

As luck would have it, no one in the world (or at least no founded church that I’m aware of) follows Pauline Christology exactly. Yes, Christianity today is descended from Pauline Christological conceptions and Paul definitely won his battle with the early Judeo-Christians who favored the law, but there has been significant development since then in Christological thought. If we read all of Paul’s letters start to finish and create a theology precisely on what he said, this becomes rather apparent.

In part, the result of this has been the cherry-picking of certain lines from the Pauline letters, particularly Philippians 4:8, a favorite amongst many. On the one hand, this process ignores what I see as a fascinating history that for me, deeply enriches the original text and this line, but on the other hand, doing this allows Christians – and non-Christians, for that matter – to take the very best gems of Paul’s thought and carry them around in their pockets for use when necessary.

If people walk around telling themselves to think about that which is true, honorable, just, pure, pleasing, commendable and worthy of praise – and they don’t have a warped conception of what these terms refer to but just use it as a reminder when they are thinking about doing something they really shouldn’t – then I couldn’t be happier that the Bible is influencing them in positive ways.

What do you think of this verse? What do you think about the context of the verse? Have you been told that the verse means something else? Was this something else explained to you with the verse’s surrounding context or as an individual line? Will you share that with us? If your denomination understands this verse a certain way will you please tell us about that? I would be delighted to learn more.

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Around the World Pic of the Day: Spinoza Street in Amsterdam

Jay at Spinoza Street

Jay at Spinoza Street

After 5 trips to Amsterdam I finally made it to the only place that I ever really wanted to go (aside from coffee shops and live sex shows, of course): Spinoza Street.

I really never cared about seeing that much else in Amsterdam, though I guess I have. Five times there and I’ve still never been to the Anne Frank House. I just don’t care. I’ve taken canal tours, hung out all over the city, relaxed in parks, and seen plenty of the great sites and museums. Once, two friends and I even took a nice day trip to Utrecht (beautiful place).

But here I am at Spinoza Street. Why do I care about this and why am I sharing with you what hardly seems like a religious site? Well, Baruch (Benedict) Spinoza was perhaps one of the greatest and most important philosophers to ever think and write about religion. His thought pretty much changed the face of the European Enlightenment, sending it in directions no one could have predicted. His intellect was truly mind-boggling and his words sensationally fascinating.

One of my favorite books of all time, Spinoza’s Theological-Political Treatise, is overwhelmingly incredible in the scope and depth of its thought as well as the magnitude of its impact. I can read it again and again without my amazement ceasing even momentarily. Everyone should read this book (click HERE to purchase it now!).

Spinoza, though not the first to know it, was the first to make a stink out of the fact that there is no conceivable way that Moses could have written the Torah, the first five books of the Bible (Genesis-Deuteronomy), also known as The Five Books of Moses (I was asked if this could be the subject of a Fun with the Bible Monday – it will be). He investigated the Bible in a truly scholarly way, and indeed, was the first person ever known to live outside of any religious community. In abandoning his Judaism he never actually converted to Christianity, an unprecedented move that resulted in an amazing, if lonely life.

My reverence for Spinoza and his brilliant mind made me concerned only with visiting the street in Amsterdam – his home town – that bears his name. So, it’s a “religious” site for two reasons. First, because it commemorates a man whose life was dedicated to the scholarly study of religion and philosophy and second because I effectively made a pilgrimage there (even though it took me five times to get the pilgrimage right, but hey, Amsterdam can be a pretty distracting place….pretty lights…).

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