God-Man Talk At Christmas: Jesus' Birth In Context, Pt. 7 (A Repost)

During Christmastime, in the Christian tradition, we hear over and over that Jesus is God made flesh. To put it differently, Jesus is the "God-man". The traditional teaching in Christianity is that the Holy Spirit overshadowed Mary, she miraculously conceived a child as a virgin and gave birth to Him. Thus, He was "God's Son" or "The Son of God". In the opening verses of Mark's Gospel, the nomenclature is used: Jesus the Messiah, "Son of God" (Grk: υιος θεος). It also appears in Mk. 5 (Gerasene Demoniac story) and Mk. 15 (story of the Roman Soldier at the cross).

Interestingly, this title is not unique to Christendom and it is certainly not unique to Jesus. Nearly 50 years before Jesus stepped on the scene, Octavian was already referring to himself as the divi filius (the Latin of υιος θεος). For the 30 years prior to Jesus' birth Augustus was also being called this. During the rule of Tiberius, we know that his ruling son, Germanicus, also referred to himself (and had others refer to him) this way too. Elsewhere in Greek writings, we find that followers of Asklepius, Dionysius and Zeus, among other so-called deities, were referred to as the "sons" of that god.

In Jewish literature we find "son of God" language in Dan. 7 and Psa. 110. A. Y. Collins has also written an article that shows where this phrase can be found in Dead Sea Scroll literature. Among Hebrew persons, this phrase seems to have been a reference to a coming Messiah. The fact is, in scores of documents and inscriptions, all dated before Jesus, this label is used. It is found in both the biblical texts and in extra-biblical texts; it is found in Jewish lit. and Graeco-Roman lit. as well.

So, what do we make of this? How might it affect the language we use at Christmas? To answer the first question, I would suggest, along with A. Deissmann, that even if the "Son of God" characterization originated in Hebrew circles, by the time it came to be applied to Jesus, that is, in a predominantly Graeco-Roman society and culture, Gentiles were hearing and understanding it in a bit of a different light than their Jewish counterparts (and vice versa). Not only was this a "messianic" reference, it was also a socio-politically subversive title (e.g. there is a new King / Ruler on the empirical playing field now!). Moving on to answer the second question: What this means for us at Christmastime is that while this title is not unique to Jesus, it still has significant meaning. Probably, it is not a title that refers specifically to the "virginal conception / birth" but rather, to Jesus as the coming Messiah, again, the "new" Ruler. In other words, at Christmastime, during Advent, when we use the phrase "Son of God" it is probably more correct for us to use it in terms of focusing on the "coming" or "arrival" of the Messiah and not necesarrily on the notion that He was "virgin born". It would have resounded in the ears of the first believers as a type of subversive political mantra too: You don't have to submit to evil authorities, follow Me, I am your King.

All I am suggesting here is that when we use the title applied to Jesus by the first Christians, we use it to reflect on Jesus' advent, not necesarrily the way that advent happened. I realize it may seem like I'm splitting hairs here because reflecting on His advent leads to reflecting on His conception. However, many times the great theological truth of His arrival or coming simply gets overshadowed by how it happened. So, I am simply contending that this holiday season, we focus not only on the "how" but also, and maybe even moreso, on the "why" and "who" of Christmas. I am also suggesting that we do some socio-religio-political reflection; let us consider how Jesus affects and penetrates all of these spheres of our lives today. Also, think about how being a Christian during this season may cause you to be subversive to all sorts of evil and oppressive "empires"...even your own! But most of all, make sure you give Jesus the praise and honor that is due to Him, the Son of God, the Messiah, our King. Merry Christmas!!!

Was Mary Scandalous? Was She Raped?: Jesus' Birth In Context, Pt. 6 (A Repost)

What better time than Christmas to resurrect old arguments about the birth of Jesus, right? Let's take, for example, the dated notion that Mary, the mother of Jesus, was raped by a Roman soldier named Panthera. This, actually, is a viewpoint that the modern filmmaker (and member of theJesus Seminar), Paul Verhoeven, is attempting to make in a movie and write a book about. The title of the book is Jesus Of Nazareth: A Realistic Portrait. But is the notion that Mary was raped, actually realistic? Or better yet, is this an argument we can place any stock in? Not so much because it troubles me theologically but because I can find no good evidence that would cause me to subscribe it, leads me to say "No" to both answers. More on this in a moment!

Let me digress a little bit here and ask another question, one that has also been around a while but also seems to get brought up at Christmastime: Did God rape Mary? Was the miraculous conception an act of interpersonal violence? Did God force Himself on the young Jewish girl? Is God some type of serial rapist? Could this story only work in a culture where patriarchy silenced women and left them with no voice? Well, let's start with the last question, to which I would answer "No". For one, this story has persisted through the ages. For two, women were not totally silenced (even when raped) in antiquity, as the OT story of Tamar attests. Further, the society (dominated by males) actually developed laws to protect women from rape and to punish men who carried out such acts. See Ex. 22.15-6 and Dt. 22.25-9. On a side note, the OT is replete with links to rape (Gen 20, 26, 34; Ex. 22.15-6; Dt. 22.25-9; 1 Kgs. 1, Jer. 20.7, Ezk. 16, 23; Jdg. 19-21; 2 Sam. 13, etc.). Even Tamar, who was raped, is mentioned in Jesus' lineage. Realizing that women had a "right" to say "no", when we read birth narratives about Jesus, we actually find Mary saying "yes" (e.g. "I am your bondservant..."). She is choosing to proceed with the event.

I wish I could go more into this (and perhaps I will at a later time) but from a narrative point-of-view, Mary is not raped by God. As odd as it seems to say it, the act appears "consensual". So, did they have sex? Was there some kind of "divine hookup"? Well, not really. The Gospels say (and Christian tradition affirms) that it was through the Holy Spirit overshadowing Mary that she became pregnant. In Christian theology, the belief is that the Holy Spirit never forces Himself upon persons but that only enters their life upon invitation. Clearly, the Gospel story / stories depict Mary as inviting God to work in her life. So, did God rape Mary? If we take the point-of-view of the Gospels--written by males in a patriarchal culture, who, if they had wanted to show "male dominance" could have easily made it seem like "divine rape"--we can say "No".

Now, back to the Roman soldier named Panthera. Where did this story even come from? Well as best as I can tell, it pops up in a 2nd-century document written by the Christian philosopher named Origen (who, perhaps, recieved it from Ambrosius). In a work he titled Against Celsus, he notes that another philosopher, named Celcus, was promoting this idea. Now, I have included all of chapter 32 of Against Celsus below so that you can read it for yourself. But if you read it, and do that in context, you will see that Origen is not all that concerned with defending a theology of a virginal conception or birth. Instead, what he is concerned with doing--and this fact bears out through the entirety of the work--is to argue, against Celsus, that Christians aren't simplistic thinkers (or stupid). To be able to do this, oddly, Origen feels like he has to prove that Jesus was not born from an ignorant Roman soldier but that His birth was legitimate. As Origen says at the end of chapter 32: "It is probable, therefore, that this soul also, which conferred more benefit by its residence in the flesh than that of many men (to avoid prejudice, I do not say all), stood in need of a body not only superior to others, but invested with all excellent qualities." For Origen, it is important that Jesus be "superior" and have "excellent" qualities. In other words, to prove that Christians are great thinkers, Origen felt like he had to show first that Jesus was great. This is an odd approach to say the least.

Before leaving Origen, I should also point out that elsewhere, Origen is not hesitant to tie the incarnation of Jesus to the Pax Romana (Roman Peace). Origen thought Jesus' incarnation was God's way of proving that the Pax Romana was the way to establish world peace. The Graeco-Roman guild of NT scholarship argues the opposite of this view across the board; indeed, Origen would not find welcome in those circles today!

What I find most interesting about Origen's work is that it is not a defense of the virginal conception, in the main. In fact, he does not seem all that concerned with the theological concept. Of course, neither do any of the apostle Paul's writings point to the virgin birth (some have argued that Gal. does), nor do any of the other NT documents. Only Matthew and Luke mention it directly (though the saying in Mk. may be another allusion). There is little even in the NT dealing with this matter. Though Paul's letters were highly occasional, one wonders why he never drew any theological concepts from the conception if it were so significant? What about the other writers?

While there is little said about the virginal conception, it goes without saying that the Gospel writers aim to be clear on the matter: Mary was not raped and she was not the victim of scandal, neither was she scandalous herself. What took place was an act between Mary and God. If a rape consists of violating personal consent, taking advantage of a vulnerable person, misusing power and authority (as happens with so many ministers today!!!), then the Gospel story cannot be found guilty and as such, neither can God. Just as well, Mary is presumed innocent (as the Early Church's end-view attests to).

Origen, Against Celsus (chp. 32)

But let us now return to where the Jew is introduced, speaking of the mother of Jesus, and saying that when she was pregnant she was turned out of doors by the carpenter to whom she had been betrothed, as having been guilty of adultery, and that she bore a child to a certain soldier named Panthera; and let us see whether those who have blindly concocted these fables about the adultery of the Virgin with Panthera, and her rejection by the carpenter, did not invent these stories to overturn His miraculous conception by the Holy Ghost: for they could have falsified the history in a different manner, on account of its extremely miraculous character, and not have admitted, as it were against their will, that Jesus was born of no ordinary human marriage. It was to be expected, indeed, that those who would not believe the miraculous birth of Jesus would invent some falsehood. And their not doing this in a credible manner, but (their) preserving the fact that it was not by Joseph that the Virgin conceived Jesus, rendered the falsehood very palpable to those who can understand and detect such inventions. Is it at all agreeable to reason, that he who dared to do so much for the human race, in order that, as far as in him lay, all the Greeks and Barbarians, who were looking for divine condemnation, might depart from evil, and regulate their entire conduct in a manner pleasing to the Creator of the world, should not have had a miraculous birth, but one the vilest and most disgraceful of all? And I will ask of them as Greeks, and particularly of Celsus, who either holds or not the sentiments of Plato, and at any rate quotes them, whether He who sends souls down into the bodies of men, degraded Him who was to dare such mighty acts, and to teach so many men, and to reform so many from the mass of wickedness in the world, to a birth more disgraceful than any other, and did not rather introduce Him into the world through a lawful marriage? Or is it not more in conformity with reason, that every soul, for certain mysterious reasons (I speak now according to the opinion of Pythagoras, and Plato, and Empedocles, whom Celsus frequently names), is introduced into a body, and introduced according to its deserts and former actions? It is probable, therefore, that this soul also, which conferred more benefit by its residence in the flesh than that of many men (to avoid prejudice, I do not say all), stood in need of a body not only superior to others, but invested with all excellent qualities.


The Magi: Jesus' Birth In Context, Pt. 5 (A Repost)

Throughout Christian history, the magi (Grk: μαγοι) have become a central part in Jesus' birth narrative. Yet, there are some good reasons for us to step back, survey their roles in the story, and ask some new questions. We shall start with questions that challenge some of our presuppositions: Why have they been referred historically to as "kings"? Why have people suggested that they are "wise"? What makes us think that they were "men"? Why do we only include three in the episode? How do we know they traveled by camel? Is there any reason for us to believe that they were wealthy? Why do we assume that they were intelligent stargazers and that they could read the heavens? Is there evidence to suggest that they were from Babylon or Persia? Why do they give the gifts they do?

Now, answering all of these questions could lead to the writing of a book. But, I want to ponder them, so, I'll have to do so in a more brief manner than a tome. So, let me just explore the above questions one-by-one.

1. Why have they been referred historically to as "kings"? The proper answer to this, I think, is that to be seen as "fulfilling" OT texts like Isaiah, they must be viewed as kings. Isaiah says that kings will worship the Messiah. So, to "fulfill" predictions, people have connected the μαγοι with kings (even their gifts correlate with those mentioned in Isa.). But the truth is, every piece of ancient literature that we have never suggests that magoi were kings. Instead, all of the extant literature contends that they were indeed, servants to kings. (In the 2nd century, however, we do have a Christian writer who links them to kings, though he doesn't say they themselves are kings, he merely links them to them). When we read Matthew's account of the birth narrative we see this too. The μαγοι visit a king, take orders from him and proceed to find Jesus. Never are they depicted as the kings. What has happened then is that through prooftexting and making false scriptural connections (in hopes of prediction/fulillment) we have flipped Matthew's writing on its head: these μαγοι are not to be presented as kings but as servants to kings.

2. Why have people suggested that they are "wise"? The easy answer is that they were interpreted as stargazers, readers of the heavens. Yet, in antiquity, stargazers were looked on with suspicion and ridicule. Their jobs were seen as absurd; they were learned in nonsense. Mark Alan Powell has shown numerous examples of this. He contends that the "star" they were supposedly following is nothing complicated but rather, it was simple, right in front of them; anyone could have followed it. Notice that when they get to Jerusalem the first thing these guys do is ask "where is the one born king of the Jews?" Ever noticed that they came from the East only to ask a question? Ever noticed that they traveled to Jerusalem unsure of where they were going? Wise? Not so much. Ever noticed that had the angel not appeared to them, they probably would have gone back to Herod? The fact is, stargazers in antiquity were viewed as the opposite of wise: they were fools. Notice in Matthew that it is the "foolish" whom God chooses to reveal things to, not the "wise". So, we should see these μαγοι in their proper ancient social contexts as fools.

3. What makes us think that they were only "men"? Well, this is probably due to the fact that in antiquity, men were viewed as workers and travelers while women stayed at home. But the fact is, the text never suggests that they were only men. I must admit, however, that I have not read any ancient passages that depict them as women. Still, this should give us pause when we think about how to identify them.

4. Why do we only include three in the episode? The most likely answer to this is that there are "three" gifts that are given (gold, frankincense and myrrh). Yet, we can't say with confidence that one person gave all three gifts or that ten did, maybe even twenty, let alone three. It is reading way too much into the story that has led us to both identify the μαγοι as kings, wise, male and numbering three.

5. How do we know they traveled by camel? We don't! They could have traveled by boat (depending on where they were coming from; it could have been included part of their journey!), by foot, by donkey, etc. We have no clue. It is the late reworking of the nativity story that has led us to presuppose that camels were in the mix.

6. Is there any reason for us to believe that they were wealthy? No. Indeed, they gave great gifts but we don't know how much they gave. It could have been a small pouch full or an abundance. They could have brought the gifts from home or bought them on the way there. They could have sold their own goods to get the gits, they could have traded for them, purchased them or already owned them and just gave them up. We have no hard evidence to be in a position to say a lot about their social status. But the fact is, if μαγοι were typically despised and if they were generally servants, they probably weren't wealthy.

7. Why do we assume that they were intelligent stargazers and that they could read the heavens? The obvious answer is: They followed the star from wherever they were coming. But does Matthew seem to suggest that anyone could have followed this star? Or what if we consider the ancient view that stars were also considered celestial beings? Could they have been following an angel (of the Lord) then? Would this comport with other dreams, visions and appearances where angels are involved? Question #7 also relates to the next question.

8. Is there evidence to suggest that they were from Babylon or Persia? The phrase "from the east" (Grk: ανατολη) has led people to believe that they came from areas where astrology was popular in antiquity. This may well be the case but we just don't know. Perhaps they had only traveled twenty or fifty miles instead of coming from Babylon or Persia. If we are going to glean anything from "East" we have to presuppose and imply a lot. One may be able to offer a possible reconstruction as has been done in the past (e.g. astrologers lived in Babylon, traveled to Jerusalem following solar guides, etc.). But the truth is, it seems that Matthew wants to suggest that it is God who does the guiding in the story. Would reading the heavens suggest that it wasn't God who was leading them?

9. Why do they give the gifts they do? It would seem to me that the gold, frankincense and myrrh are gifts, as the song says, are fit for a king. But is there more going on here than just that? I could be terribly wrong here but it seems so. If gold is fit for a king, fankincense for a prophet, and anointing oil (myrhh) for one who is facing death, the point could be: This baby is a king/prophet who has been born to die. Or, we could simply argue that all three gifts are worthy of a king. Bearing this in mind, we see something interesting, something ironic going on here: In Matthew's story, it is not the actual kings that worship Jesus (indeed, Herod wants Jesus dead) but rather, servants of kings. Indeed, scripture is not "fulfilled" but inversed, flipped on its head. Matthew is using irony. It is not kings who come to Jesus (though kings should) but rather, servants of kings, foolish servants at that!

What does all of this mean for the Christmas story as we tell it today? Well it means that we should try to keep it in context so that we can get across what was really trying to be said and what was really trying to be focused on: That Jesus is the King of kings! Further, Jesus is a King of fools, a King whose servants are not wise by worldly standards but yet are privvy to the ways and voice of God. We should not try to read too much into this story so that the heart of it gets over-sentimentalized and lost. We must strive to retain the core of the story that focuses on Jesus' kingship and the fact that we are to be servants, even foolish servants for Him. During this Advent, I can hardly think of a greater truth!

Was Jesus' Birth Unique?: Jesus' Birth In Context, Pt. 4 (A Repost)

In my previous post on this series (A Miraculous Conception?), I raised a number of questions that Christians must ask and attempt to answer when thinking about Jesus' birth in its ancient context. I also showed a number of ancient accounts of the births of prominent persons in antiquity. Those narratives had many elements in them that were similar to the story of Jesus' birth (dreams, visions, natural phenomena [stars, etc.], deities impregnating women, persons called 'son of god', etc.). *Note: If you have not read that post, please click the above link and do so, it will really, really help you draw out a fuller meaning from this post.

So, I should remind us here that in Jesus' day (both before, concurrent with, and after His time on earth), there were birth narratives of others that were considered "miraculous". Historically, we are not in a position to really ask whether any of these things "really" happened. Nobody in antiquity probably would have asked that question or one similar to it, so, maybe we shouldn't focus on it either. They knew that the "signs" or "miracles" in the stories were at the very least, narrative markers, meant to point to things beyond the supposed event itself. All of this should lead us to ponder whether or not and how or how not, Jesus' birth might be considered unique. This question, in my view, takes us beyond debating whether or not Jesus was born (let's just say, for the sake of argument, that He was and so were the others...e.g. Plato, Augustus, etc.) and gets us talking about what the first Christians understood His birth to be about and to mean!

In other words, I am asking here: If we move beyond the issues of historicity to theology, what, to the first Christians, was theologically significant about Jesus' birth? What were they attempting to say by mentioning the traveling star, the magi, the singing angels, the attendant shepherds, etc.? And I would want to ask another question here too: If Jesus was still conceived of a virgin but the Gospel accounts of Matthew and Luke were embellished (perhaps, like the accounts of Plato, Heracles, Alexander the Great, etc.), does this affect your view of the importance of Jesus' birth at all? Also, just how central is a "virgin conception" to having a healthy Christian theology? Though Paul's (and other NT letter writers') correspondences were / are highly audience-contextualized, comprising 2/3 of the NT, why do they never ever mention this birth at any length? It seems to me that if it were so central they could have surely drew some theo-ethical principles from it. But perhaps there are contextual reasons for that.

I want to do two things at this point: 1) share a very short personal story, and 2) point you to a modern storybook. The personal story comes from an encounter with the book I'm going to mention in a moment. I stumbled across this book last Christmas and after reading it was floored. For the last year, I have thought repeatedly about this text and what it might suggest about Jesus' birth narrative. Now, the text I'm referring to is a children's book by Nancy Tillman titled On the Night You Were Born.

Last year, during Christmas, I found myself reading this book to my daughter, who had just been born a few months earlier. As I read it to her, there arose a tension inside of me. On the one hand, I felt like I was lying but on the other hand, I felt like I was conveying to my daughter, with broken language and images, just how wonderful I thought she was. If you do not own this book, order or buy it. If you do own it, read it again. Either way, I want to supply you with some of the text here. And as you read this, please, put yourself in my shoes and imagine reading this to your newly born child:

"On the night you were born, the moon smiled with such wonder that hte stars peeked up to see you and the night whispered, 'Life will never be the same.' Because there had never been anyone like you...ever in the world. So enchanted with you were the wind and the rain that they whispered the sound of your wonderful name. The sound of your name is a magical one, let's say it before we go on (you are the one and only ever you). It sailed through the farmland high on the breeze (Who in the world is exactly like you, who, who, who), over the ocean (you are a miracle), and through the trees until everyone heard it and everyone knew of the one and only ever you. Not once had there been such eyes, such a nose, such silly, wiggly, wonderful toes...When the polar bears heard they danced until dawn. From faraway places the geese flew home. The moon stayed up until the morning the next day and none of the ladybugs flew away..."

Now, there's more to this great story but I will not reproduce it here (again, go buy it!!!). If you were sitting next to me while I was reading that to my daughter, what would you think, do or say? Would you call me a liar? Would you think less of me? Would you say I was ridiculous? Probably not! Why? Because you know that the story is not meant to have every single detail read wooden literally!!! Because your know that nature and animals do not actually react like that when a child is born. But because the birth of a child is so special, you know that using these images and metaphors to express it is not wrong! It is merely one way to convey to your child that they are of the utmost significance. This type of poetic licensing isn't a problem and it isn't "untrue". It is simply one way to talk about a great moment in time or the wonderful experience of childbirth.

In light of the fact that scores of ancient birth accounts from antiquity exist, accounts full of natural phenomena, miracles, grand imagery, etc., I don't think we have to debate over whether Jesus was born or whether or not certain events transpired "wooden literally" as they are spoken of. In fact, I wonder if we could read an account like Luke's, in a fashion similar to the way we read Tillman's book? The truth is, Jesus' birth account isn't all that unique; indeed, the Gospel writers' accounts are strikingly similar to those I mentioned above and in the previous post of this series. The other truth is, the Gospel writers (Matt and Luke) did think Jesus' birth had something unique about it. That's what we should focus on!!!

So, what did they think was so unique? It might well be the case that when it comes to Jesus' birth, we can't quite say. It seems to me that the point of the birth accounts are there mainly to, at the very least, put Jesus on par with, in the category of, or to surpass the births of other prominent people. In other words, all they are meant to do, from a literary standpoint, is to make it clear that Jesus is signficant, important and unique. Yet, where the significance comes to the fore and where it is found to be unique is not in the birth but rather, in the resurrection and ascension. Perhaps this is why the first Christians didn't really focus on Jesus' birth like we do during Christmastime or Advent but rather, on Him being buried, raised and ascended! To be sure, those are the things that, in the eyes of the Early Church, made Jesus unique. And those are the things that make Him unique still today!

Other Posts (to date) In This Series:
* A Miraculous Conception?: Jesus' Birth In Context, Pt. 3
* Jesus & Prophecy: Jesus' Birth In Context, Pt. 2
* Born Of A Virgin?: Jesus' Birth In Context, Pt. 1

A Miraculous Conception?: Jesus' Birth In Context, Pt. 3 (A Repost)

For a great majority of Christians, the "virgin conception / birth" of Jesus is a cherished belief. In fact, I recall stumbling across a poll a couple of years back which said that something like 91% of Americans believed that Jesus was conceived of a virgin (even though 91% of Americans aren't Christians). Of course, this teaching, doctrine, belief or whatever you want to call it, has, since its inception, not been without its critics. As early as the 2nd century, just a few decades after Jesus' death, we already have persons and groups denying that Jesus' birth was "miraculous". Some even suggested that Mary was raped. The rumor also flew around that Mary was promiscuous (perhaps, even sleeping with or cheating on Joseph).

Rarely discussed, especially in evangelical or conservative circles (perhaps liberal ones too), are some interesting pieces of literature. I don't know if it is because of the fact that persons have no idea that these texts exist, that they have purposefully been suppressed, or that they are irrelevant. I can't say for sure if the previous two answers have any bearing to them but I can say that the third one isn't correct. So, what texts am I talking about?

Well, I'm talking about the birth accounts of Plato, Alexander the Great, Augustus, Pythagoras, Heracles, etc. (by the way, David Dungan, a great scholar who passed away recently, wrote a book titled Documents for the Study of the Gospels, which should be consulted on this matter). It is intriguing to me (not scary!) that in Mediterranean antiquity, the birth accounts of prominent persons, typically had what we could consider "miraculous signs" attached to them.

For example, Diogenes Laertius speaks of a vision surrounding the birth of Plato and also says that the philosopher was born of the deity "Apollo". Origen, in his "Against Celsus" (I.37) says (most likely to persons of Christian identity): "It is absurd not to use Greek stories (historia) when talking to Greeks in order that we might not seem to be the only ones using such an incredible story (paradoxes historia) as this one (e.g. Jesus' birth)."

If one reads about Alexander the Great's birth, as mentioned in Plutarch's "Lives", they find all kinds of "miraculous" things. There are visions (by both mother and father) accompanying the birth, strikes of thunder, lightning bolts hitting his mother's womb as well as a seal engraved on it, a great fire, encounters with animals (via dreams / visions), etc.

As for Pythagoras, like Plato, he was believed to be the product of Apollo. In Iamblichus's "The Life of Pythagoras", Pythagoras is said to have "sent down from heaven to be among men...having great wisdom in his soul". Iamblichus says that he was considered by many to be a "son of God". On a similar note, Diodorus says that Herakles was born of the great Greek god Zeus, who slept with Alkmene one night. Power and might were to go before and accompany this great being known as Herakles. Seutonius says that with Augustus's birth, there were natural phenomena like lightning, shooting stars, and odd actions of the sun. Out-of-place things also happened in the temple and there were also visions and dreams. As Christians, I would submit that we must take such accounts seriously when thinking about the birth narratives of Jesus. When we do, suddenly, Jesus' conception begins to look a little differently...perhaps because it "looks" a little more contextual.

I would also point out here that in antiquity, the language of "son of God" wasn't uniquely applied to Jesus. Instead, it was applied to great persons, especially emperors. Thus, using it to attempt to draw some totally unique theory about Jesus is probably not the best way for us to go, especially in regards to the birth account(s). Instead, we should ask how the first Christians were using it and how they were understanding what they meant by it.

So, we have to ask the question now: Was Jesus' birth considered uniquely miraculous in antiquity or were the NT authors attempting to (as Origen alludes to) cast and tell it in such a way that Greeks could easily relate to and understand it? To answer that question, however, I think one must first answer the following query: How, in light of the other birth accounts of great personages in antiquity, is Jesus' birth similar or different, more legitimate or less legitimate, more contextually and culturally shaped or not?

In closing, I want to ask you, if you read this post in its entirety, to please read the next one all the way through too. In that forthcoming post, I am going to make a connection between the evidences I offered here, which are from antiquity, and a very important modern example. I do hope that you will read the next post in conjunction with this one. Blessings to you and yours this holiday season!


Jesus & Prophecy: Jesus' Birth In Context, Pt. 2 (A Repost)

A few years ago, I attended one of Ron Luce's "Acquire The Fire" events and quite enjoyed myself. I was a youth minister at the time and had taken my students to the event mainly because the renowned apologist, Josh McDowell, was speaking. Prior to attending, I had read through and referenced a variety of McDowell's books. I admired what he was doing; he helped me through some tough, searching and trying times. At the conference, he came out and just blew everybody away with this bit he did on biblical prophecy. He claimed that there were hundreds of thousands of OT prophecies that had "come true" in the NT. He even showed this great little video that argued that the statistical analysis of the number of fulfilled OT prophecies should leave nobody with any doubts about the veracity of the Bible.

I got into this for a while, I must admit. But there came a point in time when, through a different, more critical approach to the biblical texts, I began to realize Mr. McDowell's approach was erroneous. Indeed, the cherished "messianic prophecies" view that I once clung to, now had to be relinquished or better yet, remodified. This was scary on the one hand but freeing on the other. What was freeing about it was that now I could read the Bible without attempting to force interpretations out of it and with more ability to be able to encounter it on its own terms. I know why so many evangelical Christians are so reluctant to let their cherished views be dropped and/or modified: they feel like a turncoat or they realize they were wrong and/or they sometimes feel threatened or embarrassed by it all.

I say all of that to say that when I read the Scriptures today, particularly things like NT passages where authors say "it was fulfilled", I no longer understand that the way that I used to. You see, before reading contextually, I was coming to verses like Mt. 1.22: "And this took place to fulfill what the Lord had said through the prophet" and reading that quite wooden-literally. In the comments section of a previous post (HERE), someone asked me how I could see such a verse as not being "messianic prophecy". Well, there are a few things that contribute to my view:

1. As I have written about before, persons in antiquity did not think of time like we do today. For starters, they thought in more of a circular fashion and not such a linear (timeline) way. Just as well, as persons in an agrarian civilization, they had little time to be preoccupied with the future. For them, the emphasis (as the Lord's Prayer suggests) was on "this day". While looking ahead was not totally out of question or view, looking further than the next season or two was a rare thing. So, understanding how the ancients thought about and lived in light of "time", really forced me to reconsider some of my views.

2. In addition to understanding time differently, I also had to understand things in their proper contexts. For example, when I read in Isa. 7, as I pointed out HERE, I must read in light of the context of Ahaz's socio-political situations. Then, when I read of something similar in Mt., I must also read in light of his socio-political situations too. Even more importantly, I must consider how Isa. 7-9 influences Mt. 1-4. As I have shown, the issue of "naming" there is incredibly important. Thus, we begin to see that there is a reinterpretation and reuse of situations going on in Mt. This leads directly into my next point.

3. I realized that if I have to try to see things from an ancient, agrarian point-of-view, a non-linear view, I must relinquish my "linear" view of prophecy and fulfillment. Indeed, I would now suggest that thinking in those modes or categories is not all that helpful, in fact, it is quite distracting.

4. If I'm not thinking in terms of prophecy / fulfillment, then I must think in terms of reuse / re-application or re-implication. The truth seems to be that the NT writers often found similar situations to theirs in OT texts and then reused them. Paul's use of the muzzled ox in Lev. for instance, originally had nothing to do with paying missionaries. However, in Corinthians, Paul draws that analogy through creative interpretation. There is no fulfillment there, yet, there is reuse.

5. The Greek word for "fulfilled" is πληροω (pleroo). It has multiple meanings: to make full, to fill fuller, to be filled, to complete, etc. Now, when Mt. says in 1.23 (and this goes for those other places he says it too!), that the "prophet said...and it was fulfilled", what he's really saying is: "the prophet said ____ in his context and now, in my context, I'm reusing it, attaching new implications and applications to it, and thereby imbuing my current situation with a fuller meaning." There is no sensus plenoir reading or interpreting going on here! Matthew is simply filling out the meaning of his present context more than he already had, by injecting it with more meaning. The example of Civil Rights leaders quoting Scripture at rallys is something very similar. By invoking the Bible, they were filling the present situation even more full with meaning...namely, social and spiritual meaning!

6. It has taken me some time to own up to it, but at this point, as an honest interpreter, I must acknowledge that there were predictive items in the Bible that never came to pass (see Goldingay's commentary, which Greg Boyd recently mentioned and ingeniously expounded on HERE) and that sometimes, the prophets themselves disagreed (which I have written about HERE).

So, what does all of this have to do with the context of Jesus' birth? Well, a lot, really. It has a lot to do with it because in places like Mt. 1.22, we are now able to see what Matthew was actually doing (and what some have suggested he was doing, but wasn't). Matthew wasn't suggesting that "messianic prophecy," in the strict sense of the term, was being fulfilled! (And by the way, it is high time for Christians to stop making people-groups like Jews feel stupid because they don't believe in messianic prophecy! Why should they when that's not what the NT writers believed either!?) What he was suggesting, however, was that the contexts and situations surrounding Jesus' birth can be imbued with more ethical, social and spiritual meaning when some imagery and language from Isaiah's text is borrowed. You can read about that in the previous post, or HERE.

So, when it comes to Jesus and prophecy in light of the infancy narratives, let us read the texts anew and with more clarity. Indeed, let us be "filled" with more meaning than we have ever been filled with and let us see things we have never seen before. If that is accomplished, then this nativity story is truly one that can be life-changing and prophetic! More on Jesus' birth in context to come, stay tuned!!!


Born Of A Virgin?: Jesus' Birth In Context, Pt. 1 (A Repost)

On the heels of a brief discussion that previous post brought up, namely, controversies surrounding the birth of Jesus, I thought I'd start a brief series during Advent that explored, in context, that very subject. Since I was asked to decipher some of the language pertaining to the nativity story, particularly that of the "virginal" conception / birth, I am going to start there. I should say here that I am very excited about this series and that I have already made a lot of headway on it. I hope some of the posts provoke good discussion (and, perhaps, debate).

So, here, I want to start by addressing the use of Isa. 7.14 in Mt. 1.23. No doubt, scores of scholars have spent much time on this very issue throughout history. The majority of the conversation has focused on whether or not the Hebrew term 'almah, found in Isaiah, rendered "parthenos" in the Greek LXX (Septuagint, that is, the first Greek translation of the Hebrew Bible) and subsequently in Mt., mean "virgin" or not? Not to burst anyone's evangelical bubble, but the truth is, the term 'almah, has a wide range of meanings. For example, the term is used in the OT many times in reference to music! It can also mean "to conceal". Just as well, it can be used in a masculine sense, as it was of King David and Jonathon, and thus, have no sexual connotations attached to it whatsoever. In Isa. 54, it used to speak of widows who are barren. Thus, even the Isaianic author(s) can use it differently.

What, then, are we to make of its use in Isa. 7? Well, as I have already said, it does not have to be translated as "virgin"; even extra-biblical resources prove this to be the case. However, it can be translated that way, as many OT examples prove (if you want all of these Scripture references just ask for them and I will provide them, otherwise, I'm not going to cite a verse here every time I mention something; that gets tedious.) I should also say that there are other terms denoting virgin too! Thus, Isa. could have readily used different, and less ambiguous words.

As most (sadly, not all) Isaianic scholars have noted, the socio-political context of Isa. 7 is important to consider when reading and interpreting it. In short, the social circumstances are that Syria is about to wage war on God's people, of whom Ahaz is king. The prophet Isaiah is sent to Ahaz to tell him that if he trusts in God, there will be no reason to worry, however, he should not trust in Assyria as an ally (thereby, eschewing God). He even tells Ahaz to ask for a sign (though Ahaz is reluctant). Isaiah suggests that a woman, known both to himself and Ahaz, will bear a "sign" (Hebrew "ot"). Isaiah says, in the verse in question (7.14): "The Lord Himself will give you a sign: Behold, an 'almah will conceive and bear a son and she shall call his name Immanuel."

So, should the term 'almah be translated there as "virgin" or "young woman"? Well, let me posit that, at this point, that's not the right question to ask or to focus on. What is important, however, is the "sign". What is the sign? Is it something natural or super-natural? Does it have to be one or the other? Well, the text doesn't suggest that it has to be one or the other, so, it could be either. In my view, the sign, according to the verse (and context) is the "naming" of the child. Of course, in OT times, names were often very important. Indeed, in Isa. 7-9, we notice that 3 children are named and that each of those children have names that reflect the socio-political climate of the time.

Now, if you read Mt. 1-4 (NOT JUST MT. 1.23!!!), you will notice that Isa. 7-9 is cited twice. The point is: Mt. is not simply citing Isa. 7.14 as a lone verse, no, what he is doing is importing the entire conext of Isa. 7-9 into Mt. 1-4. In other words, Mt. is not suggesting that something akin to a "messianic prophecy" is being fulfilled. Instead, what Mt. is doing is comparing his current socio-political situation with that of Isaiah and Ahaz's. To put it more succinctly: Just as the 3 children and their names are of paramount importance in Isa. 7-9, reflecting their current socio-political climaxes and what will become of them, the same is true of Jesus, who will be "called" Immanuel.

In Isa., the name Immanuel was representative of a child that would be born at a time concurrent with the overthrow of Ahaz's enemies. In short, the current political regime was to fall. In Mt., the same thing is being suggested. But here's another link: Just as in Isa., where if God is rejected, there will be judgment, the same is true in Mt. It's up to Matthew's hearer's to figure out which side they are on (e.g. the judgment side or the deliverance side). Thus, the opposite of "God with us" must be "God not with us" or "God against us". Taking all of this into consideration, it seems clear to me that the most important reason for Matthew to draw on Isaiah was to make a connection between how the "names" were representative of the current socio-political contexts. And for both Isaiah and Matthew, it appears that they believed God was very involved in those contexts!!!

In my view, this type of contextual reading does a few things: 1) It properly orients us as to Matthew's reasons for using Isaiah, 2) It shows the similarities between the socio-political contexts, which readily allowed Mt. to draw on Isa. (because there were so many similarities), 3) It moves the discussion away from debates over 'almah and parthenos (among other terms), 4) It reminds us that there is an immediate context in both stories and that this is not "messianic prophesy", and 5) That God, in a major way, is involved in the situations of His people and is more than willing to be such. For me, the last supposition (#5) is of paramount importance, especially if we are going to use this narrative during Advent.

We cannot miss the larger and more important point (that God is for His people) at the cost of talking only about a "virgin" or "young woman". But then again, that very issue is probably why you've read this far. So, to take up that question in light of all of the contextual information above, Was Mary a virgin and Was Jesus conceived of virginally? To that, all I can say is that according to Matthew, that sure is a possibility. But for him, the bigger picture is that in some way, similar to that of the past, God is going to deliver His people from an oppressive empire if they trust in Him, an oppressive spiritual evil (satan) if they hope in Him and final judgment if they call on Him. If they don't, they face impending judgment. So, what Matthew is doing in the infancy narrative is laying out a choice for his hearers: Which side are you choosing to be on, "God with us" or "God against us"? It seems like a no-brainer! Which side do you find yourself on this Christmas season?

Now, I should note before I totally end this post that I purposefully did not answer the question of the title fully here because I hope to make my view on the issue more clear with subsequent posts. So, I hope you will continue reading and discussing this matter.


Rejected At The Inn?: Christmas Tradition vs. Scripture, Pt. 3 (A Repost)

In the past, I know that scholars such as Ben Witherington have made mention of the fact that Jesus' family was not turned away from an inn; I will argue the same thing here. However, in addition to the textual evidence that exists (which Witherington picks up on), I want to provide a few more insights. So, I hope you find this post helpful. May your heart and mind be blessed as you read!

In various and sundry English translations of the New Testament, we find an interesting word at the end of Luke 2.7. The verse reads: “…and she gave birth to her firstborn, a son. She wrapped him in cloths and placed him in a manger, because there was no room for them in the inn.” The inn? The Greek word used here for “inn” is καταλυμα. Further on in Luke’s book, at 10.34 to be precise, in most English translations the word “inn” is used again. The NIV reads: “He went to him and bandaged his wounds, pouring on oil and wine. The he put the man on his own donkey, took him to an ‘inn’ and took care of him.” Normally, we would expect that if we looked at the Greek here, we would find that previous term, καταλυμα, but that’s not the case. The word here is πανδοχειον.

The question arises then: Is there a difference between a καταλυμα and a πανδοχειον? Actually, yes there is! A πανδοχειον really was an ancient inn. The lexicons define it as a place that “receives all”; that’s literally what the term means.  Perhaps a look at one more passage in Luke’s work will shed some more light on the topic at hand. Luke 22.11 says, “…the Teacher asks: ‘Where is the ‘guest room, where I may eat the Passover with my disciples?” The term used in 22.11 for ‘guest room’ is καταλυμα. As we’ve seen, a πανδοχειον is actually an inn while a καταλυμα is the guest room of someone’s home. So, Luke reports Jesus here as going into the guest room of a house to eat The Last Supper.

It is quite interesting, then, that in both 2.7 and 22.11 the word is καταλυμα, yet the English translations render this one word differently. In my estimation we should either use the word “inn” in both places or the word “guest room” in both places. And since the word does not mean “inn” (again, Luke is perfectly fine using a different word for this term), “guest room” is our best option. I mean, it kind of ruins The Last Supper story if we try to import πανδοχειον into it. It would read: “…The Teacher asks: ‘Where is the inn, where I may eat the Passover with my disciples?”

However, if we take “inn” out of 2.7 and use the original, more fitting “guest room,” in context the story makes a lot of sense: “and she gave birth to her firstborn, a son. She wrapped him in cloths and placed him in a manger, because there was no room for them in the guest room.”

Think about this: Bethlehem wasn’t exactly a huge town. Some argue that in Jesus’ day, there were maybe 5 or 6 hundred people in the town proper; that’s not a lot. Others have been a little more generous on the numerical side suggesting that maybe 2,000 made up the town. Either way, the fact is, Bethlehem wasn’t that large of a town and so, there wasn’t much need for a hotel there. Archeology has yet to uncover any such thing either. So, we can reasonably conclude that there was not an inn there. As a kind of side note we might also refer to the writing of the prophet Jeremiah (41.14) who says that there was an inn miles outside of Bethlehem but not in the town itself. (See also 2 Sam 19.37-40). The point is, there was no inn in Bethlehem. There was a καταλυμα, however. In fact, there were probably quite a few of these—guest rooms that is!

Furthermore, when Luke talks about having the Passover meal in the guest room of a home, he of course, expects his ancient hearers to be able to relate (they would have been familiar with what a house containing a καταλυμα looked like, usually a two story house where the guest room was on the top floor). Let us consider another piece of evidence. If Joseph was going to his hometown, Bethlehem, it is practically unthinkable that in the ancient world, someone from his town would have turned him away. This would have brought shame upon that household. Even more, to turn away a pregnant woman would have been that much more shameful. Nobody would have done this, especially if, as I said, it was Joseph’s hometown. Moreover, this being Joseph’s hometown, if he had bypassed his family’s home or the homes of relatives to try to stay at an inn (with a pregnant wife), he would have been looked upon with shame by his family. Joseph would not have done this!

So, the evidence (textual, contextual and archeological) suggests that when Joseph and Mary returned to Bethlehem for the census, it was the “guest room” of his family’s home that had no room—this probably because everyone else had traveled there to register too. Since the guest room was full, Joseph and Mary would have slept downstairs in what we might consider a living room. This comports really well with how the birth narrative plays out. In Matthew 5.15, we read, “…if you put a lamp on a stand it gives light to all who are in the house.” This gives us a good image of what the downstairs portion of the ancient home was set up like. The living room was one big, open room and it was often separated from the kitchen / cooking portion of the home by a step (that is, the living room was a bit lower than the cooking room.

Here’s something else to consider: the animals often stayed in the living room portion of the home. Troughs and mangers were built into the floor. Often times these mangers also acted as partitions between rooms. In antiquity people brought their animals in at night so they wouldn’t get stolen. Just as well, in Jesus’ culture, to leave animals in the house during the day was unacceptable, so, they brought them back outside in the morning (by the way, this is how Jesus knows that the donkeys will be outside and can thus, tell His disciples to go and get them - Lk. 19.30). In the winter, this was actually quite helpful for heating the house as the larger animals put off much heat. So, in all likelihood, this bottom room of Joseph’s family’s home is where Jesus was laid in a manger (a manger which was readily available).

Thus, there was no inn at Bethlehem that Jesus was turned away from. Instead, there was not space in the guest room of the family’s home. This tells us that there were other family members there already, most likely, including other women. It is speculation but given the cultural norms, these women probably helped Mary birth Jesus. One last piece of evidence is in order. When you read on in Luke’s narrative, at 2.21-22 he writes this: “On the eighth day, when it was time to circumcise Him, He was named Jesus, the name the angel had given Him before He had been conceived. When the time of their purification according to the Law of Moses had been completed, Joseph and Mary took Him to Jerusalem to present Him to the Lord.” Now, this is based off of Leviticus 12.2-4 which says that after giving birth, a woman could not go to the temple for 33 days—this was to ensure her cleanliness and purity. If you add 8 days to 33, you get 41. 41 days is a lot of time, about a month and a half. Joseph and Mary, then, were planning to stay a long time, not just a few days. Thus, it seems that they would have not tried staying in a hotel (think of the cost!) but with family who lived in that town. Besides, in that culture, this would have only been expected.

Hope this sheds some light on the subject for you!


Where Was Jesus Born? Christmas Tradition Vs. Scripture, Pt. 2 (A Repost)

My conviction is that in a skeptical world, Christians need to do their homework, know their facts and have their story straight! This is especially true when it comes to Scripture. All believers should be studied up! It is incredibly important to me that when we speak about the Bible or related subjects, we speak as honestly and accurately as possible. For some reason, though, every year when Christmas rolls around, many believers seem to throw these principles out the window; even if only in the name of embracing Christmas traditions. In fact, being a minister, I've noticed that the Christmas story has become so commonplace and domesticated that when one tries to say something fresh about it, even if from an exegetical standpoint, peoples' feathers get ruffled.

However, ruffling some feathers in the name of truth is fine with me; passing on corrupted stories is not. Take for instance, the claim that so many commentators and preachers have made through the ages, that Jesus was born in a cave. Well, if we do our homework, we find out that this idea began about 90 years after Jesus' death. It can be found first in an early work titled the Protoevangelium of James, which ultimately, was a document voted down by the Early Church. Then, forty or fifty years later, a guy by the name of Justin comes along and what does he do? Of course, he writes the same thing! From there, the idea is passed on to Origen and can later be found in a book titled The Armenian Infancy Gospel.

In my research, then, I realized that in what seemed like no time, this idea of Jesus' birth in a cave moved from the second to the fourth century AD. It was in the fourth century that the emperor Constantine built a Church house over a selected cave, a cave he believed these "legends" attested to (and as we who are churchgoers know, once something is built, Christians immediately grow attached to it and never want to let go of it). Anyways, St. Jerome, a Latin speaking man, actually spent thirty years in part of this cave translating the Bible (see how it was becoming a fixture!) and in the sixth century, Justinian remodeled the cave and fixed it up rather nicely (can you say "tourist attraction"? this is done with much of what is uncovered in the Bible lands; if you've ever been, you know exactly what I'm talking about; in fact, the "cave" is still a tourist attraction). Years later, though, in the tenth century, the passing-it-on game continued and a guy by the name of Hrotswith of Gandersleim handed off the "birth cave" baton. A number of years later, Philip the Carthusian used this story and in the 1900's, Werner the Swiss did the same thing. And as you may be well aware of, sadly, there are many preachers today who are still saying this.

What we see happening here is simply the handing down of faulty information. Hopefully, you find this as problematic as I do. I think we must strive to remedy such problems. The world doubts Christians and their story enough, not having our facts straight only makes it worse. We must share our story carefully, accurately and truthfully.

So, if not in a cave, where was Jesus born? Well, that will be answered in my next post in this series! In the meantime, may you strive to get the story straight and not fall into the pit of placing Christmas traditions over Scriptural truths.


Christmas Carols: Christmas Tradition Vs. Scripture: Pt. 1 (A Repost)

There are a few things I love about the Christmas season and then there are some things that just straight up bother me. One thing that really irks me is when Christmas tradition replaces Scriptural truth and teachings. So, I am going to do a short series of posts this month exploring areas where I see Christmas tradition encroaching on or even overriding Scripture. It is my conviction that in a world where Christianity often has little credibility, is viewed with great skepticism and is often asked questions of, as believers, we "must" have our facts and our story straight. We must be honest and knowledgeable about our faith and its narrative. That said, the current post will focus on a few select Christmas carols.

1. We Three Kings of Orient Are - Okay, even the title of this song is off. Firstly, the Scriptures never say that kings brought gifts to Jesus. What the Scriptures do teach, however, is that magi came bearing gifts. If one does their homework, they will find out that magi (magoi) were astronmers of antiquity (and usually not looked upon very favorably; I will say more about the magi in a forthcoming post). Secondly, though magi is in the plural in the Scriptures, it never says how many of them there were. It is simply tradition that there were three because there were three gifts. For all we know, there could have been two or ten.

2. Silent Night - My biggest problem with this song is that it doesn't fit contextually. When you read the Scriptures you get the idea that the night Jesus was born, the world was everything but silent and calm. Indeed, Jesus' parents can't find a place to stay, angels are coming to Joseph in dreams, angels are singing aloud before shepherds, the empire is broiling, etc.

3. The First Noel - One of my problems with this tune is that it refers to the magi as "wise men", a nomenclature assigned to them much later, around the 8th century AD. The text never portrays them as wise men or kings but as magi (astronomers). Again, I believe that as Christians we need to get the details right.

I'm sure that there are more examples I could give but at present, I cannot think of any others. When I come across these songs or I am in a group that is singing them, I do one of two things: 1. I either do not sing, or 2. I consciously change the lyrics. Personally, I see no point in teaching the story incorrectly through sermon or song!


Call For Papers: Gospel of Mark

I am pleased to announce the "Call for Papers" for the "Mark Group" at 2014 annual Stone-Campbell Journal Conference.  For more details see the flyer below.  All submissions related to Mk are welcome.

* Please note that 1 paper has already been accepted, which means that we have only 2 or 3 slots remaining open.  

The RSV: Want A Communist Bible For Christmas? (A Repost)

I ran across an intriguing piece of information today regarding Christmas & the Bible back in 1952. Of course, Harry Truman was the president during this period and if you didn't already know, this was also when the new RSV (Revised Standard Version) of the Bible came out. In fact, Truman happily recieved a copy from the publishers at the White House. This was big news.

It was such big news because, going into Advent, a lot of Christians argued that this new translation was a direct assault on Christmas. Why? Well, one reason is because of how it rendered Isa. 7.14, you know, the verse where the traditional rendering of "virgin" was now translated as "young woman". In turn, this led to a re-reading of the Gospel accounts and Mary's conception and birth of Jesus. A firestorm debate arose over whether or not Mary's pregnancy was of supernatural origin or human agency. According to the RSV, said some, Mary had been relegated to a "young woman" and the infancy narrative, the nativity, Christmas, etc. were now all under attack. Even the Air Force training Academy dubbed the RSV the "Communist Bible".

Just a little tidbit of history that I found intriguing and thought I'd pass on. Any thoughts?

*See Peter J. Thuesen, In Discordance with the Scriptures: American Protestant Battles Over Translating the Bible (New York: Oxford University Press, 1999) and Sheila Whiteley, Christmas, Ideology and Popular Culture (Edinburgh: University of Edinburgh Press, 2008).


Why December 25th? (A Repost)

A couple of years ago a number of mega-Churches decided that they would close down on Christmas Day, which fell on a Sunday. As many of you are aware, this provoked a lot of controversy. As I listened to the arguments on both sides (I also partook in them), I heard a couple of statements that sent me searching: 1) Nobody knows the exact date Jesus was born, and 2) Christmas began as a pagan holiday. What follows are my thoughts on these comments.

It is probably safe to say that when researching the history of Christmas, most people trace its origin to the early years of the fourth century CE. It was around that time that the emperor Constantine was ruling. Constantine came into power, in many ways, with ease. So easily won was the battle over an enemy, Maxentius, that everyone regarded Constantine as favored by the gods. In fact, an arch still stands in Rome today that is engraved with pictures of his enemies drowning with the inscription that notes this victory came by the “prompting of a deity”.

The deity or god that this inscription refers to is the “Unconquered Sun”. While Constantine is commonly spoken of as a Christian, it is true that he worshipped the sun god. In the late Roman Empire, Mithraism, a cult that worshipped the god of light (or the sun) began to flourish. They believed that this light would protect them from all evil. Constantine believed this too.

Prior to entering battle one afternoon, Constantine looked up at the sun. In that moment, he claimed that he saw a cross amid the sun and heard a voice which said, “by this [cross], conquer.” Constantine saw this as a sign from God. For him though, there was no differentiation between the sun god and the God of Christianity. He thought of them as one in the same. Soon after, worship and celebration of the birth of the sun god became popular. The date of the celebration? December 25th. (Others have suggested that something similar took place with Aurelian in CE 274. Whether one champions a Constantinian or Aurelian argument is moot. The argument focuses on whether or not Dec. 25th was developed by Christians before or after pagan celebrations with the same date.)

But Christianity, contrary to popular opinion, did not start celebrating the birth of Christ as a reaction to pagan festivals such as these. In my view, this is simply a widespread rumor that is incorrect. Actually, it seems to be the other way around. Pagans were concocting celebrations to combat the rapidly growing religion of Christianity. You see, in the early second century, a man by the name of Hippolytus went to great lengths in one of his commentaries (Commentary on Daniel) to defend the date of Christ’s birth (this is in the 2nd century CE!!!). What is more is that as Christians in the early second century (again, long before Constantine in the fourth century) sought to define a date for Christ’s crucifixion, in the process, some arrived at December 25th as the date of Christ’s birth. How did this happen?

Christian historian William Tighe (see more from a recent interview with him below) says that there was a common belief that existed among those of Jewish origin that can be referred to as the “integral age concept”. Simply put, this was the belief that great prophets died on the same day of the month that they were born. So, if a prophet was born on the 25th day of some month, he would also die on the 25th day of a month as well. Tighe contends that when the early Christians set the first Passover date (the time of Jesus’ death by crucifixion / Easter), they set it at March 25th. If you add nine months to that, this is how they arrived at December 25th.

Up until three centuries ago, nobody (as far as I have found) was using the argument that the pagan celebration had come first (this is a modern argument). Tighe shows that two men, Protestant historian Paul Ernst Jablonski and Catholic monk Jean Hardouin, were the first to make the “pagan origins” argument. Thus, according to Tighe’s research, of which I find rather compelling, the Christmas holiday did not start as pagan or have its roots in paganism. Nor was it invented to simply combat pagan celebrations. Again, it was the pagans who wanted to combat Christianity that developed festivals promoting false worship.

While in the big picture the particular day of Jesus’ birth might not change anything about our faith, it is still important to be able to discuss the matter. Further, using the arguments that the mega-Churches used a few years ago is, in my eyes, incorrect and unacceptable. But then again, that’s the reason for writing posts that deal with the issue of Christmas Traditions vs. Scripture. Lastly, here is a segment of a 2004 interview done with Tighe, some fascinating food for thought:

"Last year, Inside the Vatican magazine also supported Dec. 25, citing a report from St. John Chrysostom (patriarch of Constantinople who died in A.D. 407) that Christians had marked Dec. 25 from the early days of the church. Chrysostom had a further argument that modern scholars ignore:Luke 1 says Zechariah was performing priestly duty in the Temple when an angel told his wife Elizabeth she would bear John the Baptist. During the sixth month of Elizabeth's pregnancy, Mary learned about her conception of Jesus and visited Elizabeth "with haste."The 24 classes of Jewish priests served one week in the Temple, and Zechariah was in the eighth class. Rabbinical tradition fixed the class on duty when the Temple was destroyed in A.D. 70 and, calculating backward from that, Zechariah's class would have been serving Oct. 2-9 in 5 B.C. So Mary's conception visit six months later might have occurred the following March and Jesus' birth nine months afterward."


Christmas Commercialism As A Good Thing? (A Repost)

It is this time of year when I often hear folks lamenting (especially preachers!!!) over how "commercialized" Christmas has become. On the one hand, folks want to complain that the "reason for the season" has been forgotten, but on the other hand, they get right out in the mix with everyone else and shop. But I wonder if, instead of whining or putting on guilt-trips, we could finally just say that the commercialism can be quite a good thing?!?

If we go back and look at the story of St. Nicholas himself, a bishop of Myra in 40 CE, we find that the feast / festival or holiday that has come to be associated with him, has always carried a sense of gift-making, gift-buying and/or gift-giving. The spirit in which St. Nick (or Sinterklaas in Dutch and now Santa Claus in English) and his giving charades are celebrated today is not all a bad thing. I mean, on the one hand, we are boosting the economy when we get gifts (that is, if we buy them), which can be a good thing. I think, however, that the real problem arises when the focus is on "getting" gifts instead of "giving" them. A healthy middle ground kind of anticipates participating in both; this is a good, satisfying, communal practice!

Putting the thought into making or getting gifts can be very rewarding to both the giver and getter. This is not to say that one MUST give presents to others. It is, however, to suggest that commercialism isn't a demon that we must exorcise from the holiday in the name of pseudo-piety; in fact, it has always been a part of the festivities! Even for St. Nicholas, who, while a very serious man (probably not as jolly as we're prone to thinking), giving because God gave is central to the holy day we celebrate. Yes, Jesus is "the reason for the season" but our giving should be done in the spirit that we give because God gave first. And if giving takes buying or making, that's just fine; again, commercialism isn't always antithetical to religious faith. If giving simply means being present, that is, giving the gift of presence, then that is fine too! However, maybe we should be a little more cautious about how caustic we often are during Christmas about shopping and gift-giving. Besides, we don't condemn people for shopping throughout the other 11 months of the year! Sure, if we do all of this shopping during Christmas while ignoring everything else, that is problematic. But if we are doing it with the right motives, then there should be no real problem with it. This is not to say that people should spend beyond their means or shop just because they can, it is to say, however, that when we spend, we should do so with a sense of economic justice. Just as well, many should try to be a lot less hypocritical for, if they do not want to give gifts that is their choice but they should not condemn or patronize others, especially those with pure motives!


Jesus' Genealogy at Christmas (A Repost)

Recently (12/16/07) I preached on the genealogy of Jesus, something I had never attempted before. (I think that visiting the graveyard last week where a number of my relatives are buried is what ultimately got me reflecting on the genealogies.) Anyways, as one who is highly interested in using the social sciences to interpret the Scriptures, that is the angle from which I approached Mt. 1.1-17. What follows are some insights into Jesus’ genealogy at Christmas (or any other time of the year for that matter).

To begin, we should keep in mind that in Jesus’ world, honor was the thing most sought after and shame was the thing most avoided. It has been said more than enough that antiquity was an honor/shame culture. When reading Matthew’s genealogy, then, and the rest of the birth narrative for that matter, I think we see Matthew doing all he can to show that Jesus is due honor. As would be expected, Matthew even uses the infamous 3 g’s (gender, geography, genealogy) all within the scope of 1.1-2.1.

For example, Matthew’s opening verse notes that Jesus is a “son” of David and a “son” of Abraham. That might seem simplistic to us and there may be a tendency to gloss over it but the fact is, in the 1st century Mediterranean world, the birth of a “male” was usually more honorable than the birth of a female. Gender is doubly emphasized in the first sentence of the New Testament!

As for genealogy, we see that in 1.1 as well. For Jesus to be a “son” of Abe and Dave is an incredibly honorable thing. To be part of their lineage automatically, in Jewish eyes, attributed honor to Jesus. Moreover, the simple fact of being listed with these great “men” of faith, was an honor in and of itself. So, in Mt. 1.1 we already see a number of ways that Matthew is making the point that Jesus is worthy of being honored. In 2.1 we read that Jesus was born in Bethlehem of Judea. This is a “geography” reference. I will abstain here from going into a long speech about how “place” of birth or “place” of dwelling determined whether or not one was attributed honor or shame and say that, for Jesus to be born in Bethlehem was an honorable thing. This was the birthplace of King David and any Jewish male born there would have been ascribed some sort of honor because of it. (*Note: When we read things like “Can anything good come out of Nazareth?” we should see this as a shaming technique. Evidently, those challenging Jesus thought that living in Nazareth was not worthy of honor.)

So, at this juncture, we’ve seen how in 1.1-2.1 Matthew has used the 3 g’s to bring up Jesus’ honor. I submit that he does this on purpose and that, even more, this is likely his main purpose in telling the birth narrative! Matthew wants persons to pay Jesus honor. This is also why Matthew includes magi bringing Jesus gifts (though, in some circles these magi would have been despised), angels visiting Jesus’ parents and giving directions that would ensure the baby’s protection, cosmic phenomenon, etc. All of this is to reveal Jesus’ honor.

But there is something else that Matthew does too: he includes 5 women in the genealogy. Why exactly does he do this? Well, I am of the persuasion of R. Brown that when we place the 5 women and their stories side-by-side, we notice something: each of them was, at some time or another, surrounded by what appeared to be (or was) sexual scandal. (I will not recount the stories of each of the women here.) However, another thing that they share in common is that despite the seeming scandal, in the end, God vindicated or used them to accomplish some divine purpose. Thus, Matthew’s reason for including them is to essentially say: “Look, people are questioning Mary’s pregnancy; they think she has committed some scandalous sexual act. Yet, if you look at those in Jesus’ genealogy and you reflect on their lives, you will see that, at some point their lives were shrouded in scandal but really, it was God at work. The same thing is happening with Mary!” Thus, what appears to be a shameful act on the surface, actually becomes a way of honoring Jesus; God the Father is acting on behalf of Jesus and His parents. This is an honorable thing indeed!

Apart from the fact that Joseph, Jesus’ father is pictured as such a righteous and honorable man (which automatically gives Jesus some honor), Matthew also desires to portray Jesus as the new Moses (even the overall book is arranged in 5 parts). Jesus is now the prophet par excellence—an honorable thing indeed. Because many books have already been written and still could be written on this topic, I will not say much more about it here. There is one more thing I should point out, though. It seems to me that Matthew is using numbers to bring honor to Jesus as well.

Matthew uses 14’s and 5’s in his first few chapters repeatedly. (e.g. 14 sets of generations, 5 dreams, 5 uses of the title Messiah, 5 women mentioned, etc. The 5’s are probably intended to hearken back to Moses and the Pentateuch.) But the 14’s suggest something else. I think that Matthew (not recounting all of Jesus’ ancestors by any means) is attempting to say to his people: “Look, at 14 generations God acted this way. 14 generations later, God did it again. Now, we’re 14 generations out, so, it shouldn't surprise us that God is doing a similar thing yet again.” Thus, this is Matthew’s way of saying that God is acting in Jesus’ situation in ways similar to that of Israel’s history. Here, then, Jesus is intimately attached to Israel’s history (also via the Moses connections) and thus, much honor is assigned to Him.

What I have tried to show here is that from a socio-cultural perspective, that is, viewing the text through an honor/shame paradigm, reveals how passages that we often gloss over, come to life with new meaning. It is clear to me that Matthew’s original audience(s), would not have missed this as much as we do. Indeed, they would have much more easily gotten Matthew’s point that Jesus is due great honor. From the standpoint of modern application, we might teach and preach on this text during Christmas or any time of year asking those around us if honoring Jesus is as central to their lives as it might have been to, say, Matthew’s. In the end, preaching the genealogy isn’t that hard when we take into consideration its purpose (then and now): to give Jesus the honor that He deserves.


Free Book: The First Christmas (A Repost)

A few years ago this book was being given away online.  Here it is again, at no cost.  Download this free book titled The First Christmas: The Story Of Jesus' Birth In History And Tradition, which is about 70 pages in length and contains essays by 6 renowned scholars including: Dale Allison, Jerome Murphy-O'Connor and more. Click the image-link below to download the book! (*Note: The download may take a few moments to start!)


Dissertation Defense Successful!

For the most part, today has been stressful.  Why?  Because I spent it preparing for my 4pm dissertation defense.  Having the whole day to do that is draining.  But it was worth it.  I'm glad to share the news with you all that I successfully defended my dissertation.  I was so pleased to hear my doctoral supervisor, Dr. Ben Witherington, greet me back into the defense room (I had to step out for a few minutes while the profs deliberated) and say, "Dr. Halcomb, come on in."  It was also nice to hear my examiner, Dr. Craig Keener, and my Reader, anthropologist Dr. Steve Ybarrola, say the same. It has been a long time coming but I'm glad that it has come!  Thanks to everyone who has supported me along the way, especially my lovely wife.  Blessings to you all and Merry Christmas.

Is It Emmanuel or Immanuel? (A Repost)

At Christmastime especially, it is not uncommon to hear Jesus being referred to as Emmanuel. Or wait, is it Immanuel? Christmas cards say it, parishoners and carolers sing it, preachers wax eloquent on it, churches are named after it, but...How is it really spelled?

Well, the question isn't really "How is it "spelled?", the question is "How is it transliterated in English?" Because it is a name, we transliterate. Transliteration is not the same as translation. Whereas translation is a "meaning for meaning" equivalent, transliteration is merely a "letter for letter" equivalent. So, that's what we're going for...a letter for letter equivalent.

There are three verses, then, in the Bible where the name is used. Two of those are in Hebrew (Isa 7.14 and 8.8) and one of them is in Greek (Mt 1.23). In Isaiah, we find a Hebrew compound used: (עִמָּ֥נוּ אֵֽל) ʿimmānû + ʾēl (immanu means "with / together with", while El means "God"). In Greek we have the single word (Ἐμμανουήλ) Emmanouḗl. Notice that in the Hebrew we have the ayin with the subscripted hireq. It is for this reason that we use an "I" when we transliterate the name. In Greek, we have the smooth breathing mark followed by the capital Epsilon, giving us the transliteration that begins with an "E". The LXX (Septuagint) transliterates the Hebrew this way also.

So, back to the question then: "How is this name transliterated in English?" To that we must say, "It depends on whether or not you're following the Hebrew or Greek! The Hebrew transliterates with an "I" while the Greek does so with an "E". So really, they're both right! (However, Jesus himself is only mentioned in the NT, so, technically, one could also say that the "E" spelling when referring to Jesus is a little more accurate, that is, if you accept that that NT was originally written in Greek.) But still, if you can tell people which one you're using and why at the Christmas party or gathering, they just might be impressed! And if you forget...send 'em here!


How Do You Tell Your Kids Santa Isn't Real? (A Repost)

This is a post I wrote a few years ago that I have been re-sharing each Advent season.  I hope you find it thought-provoking and helpful.  Happy Advent!  *Note: My kids' ages have changed since I first wrote this but since they are still young, my wife and I like to go back through this story each year with them.

The question posed in the title of this post is an interesting one. Many times, when people ponder this question, they are also asking something like "How do I tell my kids the truth about Santa?" or "Is it wrong for my Christian kids to celebrate a Christmas that has Santa included in it?" For me, however, I think the question raised in this post's title is a good starting place for all such questions.

This year at Christmastime, my daughter is 3 and 1/2 years old. For the first time, she's beginning to associate Santa with the holiday. Just as well, my wife and I have already started to tell her the truth about Santa. The truth is: Santa was real but no longer exists! However, the truth is, a man named Saint Nicholas, the person on whom our modern day Santa Claus is really based, did exist at one time and to be sure, was real! Saint Nicholas of Myra was a bishop around 4 CE. He was known for both his seriousness and his practice of giving gifts, especially to those in need.

So, when we tell our daughter about Santa, to avoid confusion, we just tell her the truth, the truth that he lived long ago and now, a lot of people, people who are friends of Santa and who dress like him, are doing what he used to do, namely, giving gifts. And we tell her that we give gifts too, just like Santa, because God gave us a gift, the gift of Jesus. And Jesus gave us a gift too, the gift of His love and the Holy Spirit. And the Spirit gave us the present of spiritual gifts and a connection to God. And really, this is a lot for a kid to take in but it is not completely over their heads. Even my daughter can grasp some of these basic things.

So, we have no trouble letting Santa be a part of our Christmas, however, we don't pretend that Santa himself is still alive. We don't have our daughter "ask Santa for things." But if we were to take her to say, a mall and let her sit on Santa's lap (which we have done), we wouldn't have a problem if she told that "friend of Santa" the things she likes or might like to have. Also, we have no problem with singing the songs or watching the movies / cartoons or even embracing some of the fun mythological embellishments of the holiday. Some of those things help a child's imagination. For example, talking about Santa living in a far-off place, well, there's no problem with that because as it stands, where Santa lived was far-off. Or talking about Rudolph the flying reindeer or the North Pole, the more mythic elements of the story, those are not problematic either. Again, I defer to the value of imagination here; we've even explained that we just add such thing to Santa's story because they make it more fun to talk and sing about.  She gets that!  But when it comes right down to it, we have no problem telling our kids that the reindeer were added to the story, as was the North Pole, etc.

We don't think that the story of St. Nick is contrary to the story of Christ; instead, we see it as complimentary. If our child grows up knowing the truth about Santa as opposed only to knowing the myth, well, then she is in a better place for that because she may not have to endure the "heartbreak" of finding out that a mythological figure she believed in really didn't exist and that her parents and everyone else has been lying to her for years. This could even damage a kid's imagination and / or faith down the road. The fact is, Santa did exist and for us, that is something worth sharing. And really, it only compliments the story of Jesus, which really doesn't make it hard at all. Probably, the toughest part is explaining that St. Nick "lived a long time ago" but isn't "living" today. That, then, brings up the issue of death, which is something much harder to explain to a kid than anything about a fictitious man (who, in America has had his identity totally made-over by the Coca-Cola company) who is making a list and checking it twice!


Go Ahead, Say "Merry Χ-Mas" - It's A Very Christian Phrase! (A Repost)

Today begins a number of posts/reposts on Pisteuomen dealing with Advent.  I hope to continue this through the rest of the Advent season.  I'm a Christian. But I'm a Christian who, to be quite frank, is just incredibly sick and tired of a lot the public antics of other so-called Christians. Or, maybe it's just the idiocy or ignorance of them that really gets me. Either way, I just wish these folks would get their heads out of the clouds and come back to reality. I say this right now because at perhaps no other time during the year are these types of people more arrogant and ignorant than during the Christmas season. I am ashamed that people within the church, people who perceive themselves as pious and devout and knowledgeable, are often none of the above. It often makes every Christian look bad AND stupid!

I'm thinking in particular here of the notion of "The War on Christmas." Lots of church-folk have been led to believe that saying anything but "Merry Christmas" during this season is borderline if not fully heretical. So, in what they believe to be a litmus test of faith, they will not back down; whether it is offensive or not, they will say Merry Christmas to Muslims, Jews, Atheists and anyone else they know is not a Christian. They will also go on the news and complain about cashiers or waitresses who do not use the phrase "Merry Christmas" and how it is an affront to the principles this nation was founded on. I say "Hogwash!" But the whole "nation's foundations" argument is something we shall save for another day. Here, I want to focus briefly on the phrase "Merry X-mas" and show why it is COMPLETELY Christian to say such a thing!

First, I just want to say a word about the idea of what social-scientists refer to as "presentism." Now, we in the West, we here in America are incredibly good at practicing presentism, even if we don't know it. Basically, presentism is the notion that what something is now is the way it has always been. This happens a whole lot on the mission field for example. Missionaries will often travel to different cultures and when they get there, they will encounter different types of lifestyles and practices. For instance, they find out that communion is being dispersed differently during worship. Instead of attempting to understand those customs for what they are, because they are different, they are seen as wrong or sometimes even sinful. So, what do the missionaries do? They say, "No! This is wrong, it needs to be done this way (= our way); this is the way it has really always been done and this is the right way." This is presentism! (I'm not talking about the Buddhist idea of presentism here!)

This same principle applies with the issue of "Merry Christmas"! When Christians hear someone say Merry X-mas, they freak out! Why? Because they believe that this is different than the way it has always been done. They believe that by saying Merry X-mas, people are trying to "take Christ out of Christmas." They believe that history is being sacrificed. They believe that faith is under attack. But...they are wrong! They are VERY wrong; they are completely misguided, in fact.

The truth is, saying "Merry X-mas" is a good thing and it is absolutely in-keeping with Christianity. Why do I say this? Well, the fact is, the "X" in "Merry X-mas" is not meant to cross-out or remove or replace Christ. Early on in Christianity, writers were using this letter as a sort of short-hand, an abbreviation, for the name of Christ. The English or Latin letter "X" actually comes from the Greek letter Chi (pronounced "key"). Chi is written as Χ (upper case) / χ (lower case). Some early Christian writers actually used two Greek letters, the first two letters of the word "Christos" (Christ or Messiah), which where Chi (X ,x) and Rho (Ρ, ρ). Now, in Greek, the letter Rho, which is "Ρ" actually looks like an English letter "p." So, the abbreviation could be ΧΡ.

So, why did the early Christians use these abbreviations? Well, in antiquity, writing materials were very expensive. Papyrus and ink were costly and used sparingly. So, to save ink, the early Christians when they were writing, would use abbreviations like Χ or ΧΡ. Papyrus (the paper-like material) was often hard to acquire. To preserve space on the papyrus, abbreviations were used. Thus, in biblical manuscripts, sometimes instead of spelling out the full word "Christos", authors would use Χ or ΧΡ. For them, then, saying Merry X-mas would not have raised one eyebrow or sparked one argument. In fact, they would likely look at modern folks getting in a hissy fit over this and shake their heads; they wouldn't be able to stomach or believe it!

And before some of you Christians out there start going haywire over what I'm suggesting here, I'd suggest you take a look at all of the cars in your church parking lots (or driveways perhaps) with all of the little fish symbols on them! Typically, inside those Christian fish emblems, you will find these 5 Greek letters: ΙΧΘΥΣ. In English, that's the word "Ichthus." In fact, here in the town where Asbury is, there is a HUGE music festival each year called "Icthus." Millions have attended over the years!

Ichthus is Greek shorthand; it is a Greek abbreviation. The Ι (iota) stands for "Jesus", which was spelled Ihsous (Ιησους) in Greek. The Χ (chi) stands for "Christos", which we have already covered here. The Th (theta) stands for "Theos" (Θεος), which means "God" in Greek. The U (upsilon) stands for "Huios" ('Υιος) which means "son" in Greek and the Σ (sigma) stands for "Soter" (Σωτερ), which means "Savior" in Greek. Put all of this Greek shorthand or abbreviation together and you have Ichthus, which means "Jesus Christ God's Son, Savior." Many times it is the very same Christians who cry foul when the abbreviation X-Mas is used, that have these abbreviated Christian symbols attached to their cars. One could, I suppose, cry foul against them saying that they are trying to write the words Jesus, Christ, God, Son and Savior out of the Christian faith because they use symbols. This could be especially true of those who have the fish symbol without the Greek letters!!! But, alas, I have said enough!

The point is, Christians who raise a stink every Advent about "taking Christ out of Christmas" are often walking contradictions; they are often practicing presentism, which is really just a form (in this case) of arrogance mixed with ignorance in a religious context. The end result, however, is that it makes us all look bad. If more Christians were aware of their history, the faith would be so much better off. Yet, instead of doing the hard work of historical research, they'd rather make a public spectacle of the faith.

I suppose that much of this is because we don't have a lot of real physical persecution in this country. So, to make themselves feel like they are sacrificing for the faith, they whine and whine about things like this so that they can feel like they are enduring persecution and that they are faithful. Really, this is nothing more than a pseudo-piety, that is, a false piety. So, with all of that in mind, I wish you all a very Merry X-mas! And I say that knowing that I'm in the good company of many of our earliest Christian writers and their documents!