Fun with the Bible: Jesus as the Passover Sacrifice in the New Testament Gospel of John

My latest column in the Nashville Free Press is all about Passover and Easter and what that means for Jesus being John’s Lamb of God. Enjoy “Lamb – It’s What’s For Dinner.”

If you liked that then you’ll also enjoy my previous post, The Synoptic Gospels and John Crucify Jesus on Different Days – Want to Know Why?

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Fun with the Bible: The Importance of Charity in a Ten Commandments Time

I wrote an article for the Nashville Free Press in my column, No Holier Than Thou, about the importance of charity and the concept of charity among Judaism, Islam and Christianity. To check out this article, please click HERE and please feel free to leave comments either there or here.

Enjoy!

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Fun with the Bible: The Use of the Word Messiah/Christ/Mashiach/Savior in the Bible, Judaism and Christianity

Oh boy is this a loaded term, and once again we get the pleasure of such a fascinating topic thanks to Kay, who was wondering about the various usages, meanings and importance ascribed to this word.

The Word Messiah as it Was Meant to Be

Let me start by saying that the word messiah did not begin with what today one would call messianic inclinations. That is, the messiah was never about some wonderful, future savior in ancient Judaism (which we should really be calling the ancient Israelite religion, since Judaism would have come from the descendants of Judea and we’re really talking about the entire area’s religion before it was just Judea). In any case, “messiah” literally meant anointed and referred to the king who was anointed into his position with oil.

You may recall such a scene in the New Testament book of Mark (14:3-9) when an old woman comes and pours nice oil on Jesus’ head. Though Jesus speaks of this as a preparation for burial, Mark’s understanding of his quality as Savior was not particularly developed, and a story like this later became prized for its value of equating Jesus with the long-awaited Davidic king. Speaking of this, David himself is anointed by Samuel (I Samuel 16), and other kings are anointed too. It was an important ritual act to signify that someone had been chosen by God.

Cyrus as Messiah

The reference to Cyrus as God’s anointed one is made by Isaiah (45:1), and makes good sense when we think about what Cyrus had done (notably, Cyrus is the ONLY non-Israelite to ever be referred to by this term). After the Babylonians’ destruction of Jerusalem and the Temple and decades of Babylonian captivity, Cyrus, King of Persia, decrees that the people of Judea be allowed to return to Jerusalem and rebuild their Temple to their God. It would certainly seem that a benevolent and wonderful act like that could only come from a person that God himself had wanted anointed as king. (As a side note, my cat’s name is Cyrus, both because of this biblical story and because Herodotus seemed to me to describe this same king Cyrus as a mischievous fellow).

It is in the book of Daniel (9:25-26) that the term mashiach nagid (the great messiah) is used, and it is thought that this is a reference to Cyrus for the wonderful thing he did for the Jews. However, bear in mind that Daniel is not a prophecy. Though it purports to come from a captive in King Nebuchadnezzar’s Babylonian court in the sixth century, Daniel was written in the middle of the Jewish revolt against the Greek king Antichus IV (c. 167). That’s why he is able to so accurately run through the history of the Ancient Middle East’s rulers that affect the Jews, and get increasingly specific as he describes what goes on between the Greek kings that lead up to the war of his day.

Think about Cyrus’ motivation for allowing the Jews to return to their land after he conquered the Babylonian Empire and found so many subject peoples. It wasn’t just the Jews. Cyrus was a wise statesman and realized that if he conquered the Babylonians and let all of the people they had conquered go home, they would love him and do what he says (tribute, baby). Moreover, if they rebuild their temples and pray to their gods they will pray on behalf of him, his health, wealth, and success. And that’s exactly what Cyrus asked everyone to do.

Waiting for the Messiah

So after the use of this word in these various contexts and after the Jews returned to Judea, there was no more Davidic line of kings ruling over the people in the same way that there had always been, but looking back to the time of David filled the Jews with pride and longing because it was when they were strongest, unified and their religion and homeland were the least ‘corrupted’ with outsiders (or so they thought through the lens of their backward gazing). In any case, they looked back and desperately wanted independence and their Davidic king (a king who descended from the line of David, in case that hasn’t been clear), and as this person was always mashiach, anointed, they looked forward to a time when God would give them back their anointed one. And thus begins (in an overly simplistic fashion, mind you) the beginning and longing for a Messiah that would come and free the people.

In the centuries hugging the year zero – particularly after the Romans took over the region – every person and his brother claimed to be the messiah: sent from God to rescue the people. People also claimed to be prophets at this time – in unusual abundance.

And no, to answer a question previously posed, prophets and messiahs are not the same thing. Prophets brought a message from God and the Messiah was not a messenger but a savior – the person sent to do the dirty work. He didn’t have words to deliver but a better life for the people. That idea wasn’t otherworldly in Judaism (too much, at least). It was literally about getting the king back and having independence. Jewish messianic aspirations were not always about ending this world or the world-to-come – that’s the result of two millenia of Christian influence.

Christianity and the Messiah

However, when Jesus came and was believed to be the long-awaited descendant of the Davidic line, jubilation erupted among some. His death, though, put a damper on people’s spirits (no pun intended) because they believed that he would restore the line and rescue them from the Romans. When that didn’t happen, the idea of Jesus as the anointed one was used in different ways, most successfully by Pauline Christianity who made the rest (an insanely complicated) history. Thus, Jesus was the Messiah, and when that saving was not able to be earthly salvation (the Judean kingdom), it was transformed into the other-worldly salvation of Christianity. And now Christians still await the Messiah – Jesus’ return – to bring those end of days and the good times.

Khristos, the Greek word from which we get Christ, is the term used to refer to Jesus in the language that Paul’s Christianity spread through the Greek-speaking world. That’s why that word become the popular one.

Summary

Any questions, comments or thoughts? Please don’t be shy. Leave them below!

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Acts 2, the Coming of the Holy Spirit and the Giving of the Law on Mount Sinai – Wait! Where Did These Connections Come From

The Background

The first scene in Acts 2:1, we are told in the opening line of the chapter, takes place on the day of Pentecost, which is the fiftieth day after the death of Jesus, which we should remember happened at Passover.

In Jewish tradition, Pentecost corresponds to a very important holiday about the harvest, known as Shavuot. This holiday was once about collecting the first fruits of the spring harvest and bringing a portion of them to God as a sacrifice acknowledging his hand in making it a fruitful year. Thanks God!

Returning to the book of Acts, we are told that it is the day of Pentecost and then something very amazing and special happens: the Holy Spirit descends on a community of those assembled (vague language, I know), and they all believe in Jesus and what happened to him. This begins the descent and spreading of knowledge of the Holy Spirit and in a certain sense, involves the giving of a new law or order (read Acts 2:1-13 for more).

So why is this interesting?

Lookin’ at the OT

Way back in the day, which is to say, throughout the text of the Old Testament, there is no other significant thing worth associating with the holiday of Shavuot (Pentecost, if you prefer). The Israelites were simply instructed to celebrate the harvest and go to Jerusalem to give some of it to God. However, in the first few centuries of the common era (which I will qualify by saying after the assembly and spread of the New Testament), we see an increasing association in Jewish writings between the holiday of Shavuot and the giving of the Torah – which is to say the Jewish law – on Mount Sinai by God to Moses and the Israelites.

Now, to be fair, when we do the math and look at the dating and time provided in Exodus and Deuteronomy it does not become inconceivable that Shavuot and the giving of the Torah come close to coinciding – it’s not like we’re trying to align two totally disparate times of year (think about the fact that the Jews left Egypt at Passover and wandered for a while towards Sinai). Nonetheless, the text doesn’t actually share this crucial fact with us and so it remains unfair to assume that Shavuot happened at the time the Torah was given.

So Why This Later Association

Basically, I contend, and though I’m not alone in this and have argued for it before, scholars can fall on both sides of the fence, that Jewish rabbis saw this Christian association, and whether or not they took it only from there or brought back older sources that contended the same thing, and began emphasizing the giving of the law at Shavuot. Christians in the first centuries as well as rabbis – and the intellectual interplay of the two groups is difficult to follow and chart with any real assurance – began to insist that the day of Pentecost (or Shavuot) was a day on which God gave laws. For the Jews, it happened at Sinai. Christians agreed and said that the new law as given by the Holy Spirit happened on this day too and then Jews said that Christians were just saying that because they knew that this was a day on which God gave laws.

Do you see what I’m driving at? Traditions arose, and it’s unclear entirely from where, but Jews and Christians then competed for the supremacy of their tradition as the two religions developed in the first few centuries of the Common Era.

Summary

Quickly, I’d like to mention that there is one source that definitely predates the New Testament and that does mention the giving of the Torah as being on Shavuot, but it’s still way after the Old Testament writings and we can’t be sure where it lies along the trajectory of this tradition. Definitely before Acts, though. What are the odds that the author of Acts invented his tradition independently of a previous author?

There’s a great deal more to this story than just this, and a lot of arguments to be made on both sides but I just wanted to draw your attention to the developments that occurred in Rabbinic Judaism and Christianity in their early centuries, how the two religions interacted with each other in a complex and fascinating way and how it is unclear where many of their traditions began but that in some form or another they can be connected to the Bible.

What do you think about this whole issue? Does it interest you that Rabbinic Judaism and Christianity formed due to their interactions and did not happen in the Mother-Daughter religious development that many people like to insist upon? Any other thoughts?

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Fun with the Bible: The Synoptic Gospels and John Crucify Jesus on Different Days – Want to Know Why?

What!? The gospels have contradictory stories?! Yes, I’m afraid it’s true. Now, I’m not going to do all of the legwork for you – you’ll have to read through the stories (at least the key parts at the end) to see for yourself what’s going on – but I will tell you what’s written and, as briefly as possible, what it means.

The Synoptic Gospels are Matthew, Mark and Luke, which are all telling effectively the same story. In their story, there is a Last Supper (you remember – Jesus gives out the bread…’my body’ … etc.), and that Last Supper is what Jewish holiday meal? Passover. Correct! So, Passover is the same day every year: the night of the 14th of the month of Nissan. That means that the next day, the 15th of Nissan, Jesus is crucified (making the 15th a Friday, right?), and then he is resurrected on Sunday the 17th (three days later – Bible counts each of the days whether it’s whole or not).

You with me?

Now, in John, there is a symbolism different than in the Synoptic Gospels: there is no Last Supper (well, at least not an important one that’s mentioned and thought to be Passover), and Jesus is actually crucified on the 14th of Nissan (which is thus, in this story, a Friday) and resurrected on Sunday, which in this story is the 16th of Nissan. But why different dates?

Well, on the 14th of Nissan, during the day, Jews would sacrifice the lamb that was then eaten that night during Passover (an important ritual we won’t get into here). The lamb was always sacrificed on that day, the 14th of Nissan, and the Passover meal eaten that night. For John, Jesus was the Lamb of God (no other gospel uses this language) and John wanted Jesus to be the Passover sacrifice – the ultimate sacrifice that atoned for our sins (which is mostly the purpose of sacrifice – atoning).

John felt this symbolism stood above all else in importance – making Jesus the ultimate passover sacrifice – and so he crucifies Jesus on Friday, the 14th of Nissan. However, considering the Last Supper, as the Passover meal that had the symbolism of the bread and wine as Jesus’ body and blood, to be of utmost importance, the writers of Matthew, Mark and Luke made Jesus’ crucifixion the following day, Friday the 15th of Nissan (since the Passover meal is always the night of the 14th).

Pretty crazy and cool, huh? Today, the symbolism of either gospel is used to create a much larger theology though the dating ultimately makes the two stories irreconcilable with their portrayal of facts. Fascinating theology but impossible factually. Which one is true? We’ll never know, but both are holy canon in Christianity and considered to be 100% accurate.

What do you think? Did you go read for yourself and see? Is anything unclear or would you like to know more? Please just ask – the fascinating literature surrounding these facts in the first few centuries after Jesus (and the simultaneous development of Judaism and its understanding of Passover) is incredible.

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Jesus’ Connection to King David in Chapter 1 of Matthew Utilizes Gematria to Confirm Messiahship

As many people know when they read the New Testament, it’s very important that Jesus be connected to King David because it is supposedly a descendant of David who is the rightful heir to the thrown over the Jewish people, and by extension, their savior.

The Abraham-David-Exile-Jesus Genealogy

Bearing this in mind, we can take a look at the opening chapter and verses of the New Testament, Matthew 1, which begin with a genealogy. The genealogy is in three parts, starting with Abraham, a natural beginning, and ending in Jesus. Part one goes Abraham to King David; part two is David to the time of the Babylonian exile – when the monarchy came to an effective end; and then from the exile to Jesus, the period when the Jews desperately needed a savior.

In between each of these groupings are fourteen generations, a fact that is highlighted in Matthew 1:17: “So all the generations from Abraham to David are fourteen generations; and from David to the deportation to Babylon, fourteen generations; and from the deportation to Babylon to the Messiah, fourteen generations.”

Playing with Hebrew in the New Testament

Yeehaw, you might say. That’s great….but why are we being told this seemingly irrelevant fact? Well, this has to do with a fascinating linguistic trick with Hebrew, whereby each letter correlates to a particular number and the manipulation and analysis of those numbers reveals interesting facts.

So why 14 generations? Well, the name David (as in, King David), in Hebrew is three letters with the sounds D-V-D (vowels are not independent letters). D (or daled) is the fourth letter and so has a value of four, and V (or vav) is the sixth letter and therefore has a value of six. Thus, d-v-d correlates to 4-6-4 which has a total value of 14. David, then, equals 14. The fact that 14 generations each separate Abraham and David, David and the exile, and the exile and Jesus, when the object is to connect Jesus to David and David’s name equals 14, serves to reinforce the connection between Jesus and David.

What This Means

Now, do I think that the gematria proves that Jesus is the messiah? No – the rabbis were masters of manipulating letters and words to correlate them to other things in mesmerizing ways, and Jesus and those who told of his life are a product of this time. It is interesting, I think, that Matthew (or the person who wrote Matthew) does not mention this element of David and Jesus’ connection. Perhaps he is leaving it for us to figure out, but I find it more likely that by the time the story got to him, it no longer reflected its linguistically Semetic origins (that is, Aramaic, Jesus’ language, and Hebrew, a related tongue), but rather, was a story in Greek whose Semetic elements would have been lost on the writer and his audience. Nonetheless, it’s interesting that this element exists in the story, reminding us of how well-crafted the tale of Jesus was and how crystallized the notion of his messiahship was by the time this story was related to the author of Matthew.

Afterthoughts and Questions

What do you think about this genealogy? Do you have anything to add to what I’ve said? If you are a Christian who has ever discussed these verses in Church or religious study, has this fact come up and if so, how was it discussed and portrayed?

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Fun with the Bible: Abraham’s Trip to See Sigmund Freud

The Situation

Everybody knows about Father Abraham right? That patriarch of all monotheistic people who everyone likes to trace his or her roots to? You remember: God spoke to him, gave him descendants and Canaan and all that jazz?

Do you remember the story where he goes to sacrifice his son Isaac as a test from God (Genesis 22) but before he can do it God stops him? It’s a great story. Rather popular, and boy is there a lot to say about it. But do you know the story of Abraham and his other son, Ishmael?

Well, in Genesis 21, (yes, the chapter immediately before he tries to off Isaac), Abraham sends his other son (and his mother) out into the wilderness to, presumably, die. Why? Sarah, Abraham’s wife, is getting testy about Ishmael, the son of a slave woman, playing with her son. Jealousy? Maybe. But no matter the reason, we have two back to back stories of Abraham doing things that will kill his sons.

I don’t know about you, but when I hear things like this, I start thinking of everyone’s favorite mother fucker, Sigmund Freud. Now, there’s no real indication that Isaac or Ishmael was trying to sleep with either of their mothers or subsequently tried to murder their father, Abraham. But perhaps this was a preemptive strike on Abraham’s part while his sons were still young.

The Approach

There’s little that annoys me as much in scholarship as a reductionist approach. That is, the attempt to understand and explain information all through a particular lens without taking account of the entire situation. For instance, like attempting to interpret everything through a Freudian, Oedipal Complex, eye. (By the way, interpreting the entire Old Testament like it’s forecasting Jesus is also reductionist.)

However, with two back to back stories about killing sons, I can’t help but wonder if we’re not getting glimpses of some very long standing emotions about familial relations. We know that the ancient Greeks thought about these things – why not Ancient Near Eastern people as well?

The Questions

One big question internal to the story is, how can Abraham get everything that God has promised him (descendants and land for them), if he is killing his sons (while claiming that God is telling him to kill them – sounds delusional, no?)? So, if these Freudian drives are correct, is this in part a story about Abraham overcoming his internal drives (son-murder) in order to acquire his long-term goals: Id v. Superego? Should he smoke a cigar?

If you like this family murder stuff, Genesis is filled with some great fratricide and attempted fratricide stories too (e.g. Cain and Able, Joseph and his brothers).

Have you read Genesis 21 and 22? What do you think about this Freudian interpretation on the whole thing? What are your thoughts on Abraham’s psyche? Are there other places you can think of in the Bible that lend themselves to Freudian interpretation? God does let his only son get murdered, right?

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