TXAB: The Christ Almighty Blog

27 April 2017

Textual variants.

’Cause sometimes the bible’s oldest copies won’t agree.

Textual variant /'tɛks.tʃ(əw.)əl 'vɛr.i.ənt/ n. Form or version of a document which differs in some respect from other copies or editions of the same document.

Before the printing press was invented in the 1400s, books were copied by hand.

Sometimes this was done carefully and conscientiously. The Masoretes, fr’instance, were Jewish scholars who wanted to be certain they got exact copies of the scriptures, with super-duper anal-retentive precision. So they invented a very careful procedure, including a system of checksums, to be sure every copy of the bible was an exact replica. It’s why, when you compare the first-century Dead Sea Scrolls with 10th-century copies of the Old Testament, you find astonishingly few differences. Dudes knew what they were about.

Other times, not so much.

Even when they knew this was a very important book. (Heck, back then most books were considered important. Hand-copying meant publishing was crazy expensive.) Copyists had a bad habit of duplicating books in a rush. Popular books were occasionally copied in a group: You get a roomful of scribes, one of whom slowly dictated the “original,” and the rest of whom wrote it down en masse. Naturally mistakes would happen.

Which was no surprise to any literate ancient: People make mistakes. An ancient Christian would assume if this was a verse they’d never heard before, or one they’d learned differently, it must be some scribe’s mistake. Fr’instance the Egyptian commentator Origen (185–254), in his commentary on John (my translation):

203 “These things happened in Bethbara beyond the Jordan, where John was baptizing.” Jn 1.28 204 Yes, it’s indeed printed in all the copies, “These things happened in Bethany.” We’re not ignorant it’s like this, and got this way long ago: We’re well aware it’s “Bethany,” according to Irakléon. But we’ve come to the conclusion it shouldn’t be “Bethany” but “Bethabara”—we’ve been to these places, following the history of the footsteps of Jesus, his students, and the prophets. 205 This evangelist declares Bethany is the hometown of Lazarus, Martha, and Mary, about 15 stadia [2.8 km] from Jerusalem. There isn’t any same-named Bethany in the area of the Jordan. They pointed out Bethabara, by the Jordan’s banks; our inquiries found that John baptized there. Origen, John 6.24  

Yep, Origen went to Judea, and his tour guides told him there wasn’t any Bethany near the Jordan, then pointed him to Bethabara, convinced him this was the right place, and probably sold him a few souvenirs. I once had some folks in Israel try to similarly convince me about the location of Jesus’s sepulcher, among other “biblical” sites they built churches atop.

So was Origen right? Nah. Thanks to archeology, we know there was another same-named Bethany on the east bank of the Jordan. (Today it’s called al-Maghtas, Jordan.) Hence our current editions of the Greek NT stuck with the Vitanía/“Bethany” which Origen groused was in all his copies of John. Most of our current translations follow suit.

The few who don’t are going off the Textus Receptus, which has Vitavará/“Bethabara.” That’s because Origen managed to convince some folks he was correct—and the editor of the Textus, Desiderius Erasmus, was one of ’em. Since the King James Version used the Textus as its baseline, that’s what we find in the KJV and NKJV. Jn 1.28 KJV

So there y’go: Two ways variants happen. Copyists, in their haste, slip up; and know-it-all interpreters rejigger the original to suit themselves.

26 April 2017

Do you know your bible quotes?

After centuries of influence, stands to reason some phrases from the scriptures are kinda familiar.

Generally if you’re gonna call yourself biblically literate, you oughta at least know these quotes from the bible. Probably already do; you just didn’t realize they were from the bible.

All have sinned and fall short of the glory of God. Or “come short” in the KJV. Comes from Romans 3.23; means nobody measures up to God’s standard of perfection, but God graciously forgives us and grants eternal life. Ro 6.23

All things to all people. Or “all men” (KJV): Paul’s claim he adapted his circumstances so he can find common ground with everyone, and share Christ with them. 1Co 9.22 Y’know, “when in Rome.” Certain Christians are quick to point out Paul didn’t compromise his beliefs or behavior in so doing.

All things work together for good. In context, “to them that love God, to them who are called according to his purpose.” Ro 8.28 Various Christians pull it out of context and claim everything always turns out for the best. I remind ’em to read Ecclesiastes sometime.

All we like sheep have gone astray. Isaiah’s warning to his people: They turned away from God, like sheep who disregard their shepherd. Is 53.6

Am I my brother’s keeper? Cain’s excuse to God for not knowing where Abel was, Ge 4.9 though in fact he just murdered him. The phrase gets used to claim we’re not responsible for one other. In reality we often are.

Ask and it shall be given you. Jesus’s teaching that the Father wants to give good gifts to his kids. Mt 7.7

Be fruitful and multiply. God’s directives to his animals after creating them. Ge 1.22 Including to the humans. Ge 1.28

Be sure your sin will find you out. Moses’s warning to two tribes who promised they’d fight with the other ten; that if they broke their promise they’d get caught. Nu 32.23 Christians sometimes use this verse to claim every sin eventually gets found out. And many do… but some don’t.

Beat their swords into plowshares. A prophecy about future peace—or not—found in multiple books of the prophets. Is 2.4, Mc 4.3, Jl 3.10

25 April 2017

Do we perform sacraments or ordinances?

Many Protestants are weirded out by, and water down, this “sacrament” language.

Ordinance /'ɔr.dɪ.nəns, 'ɔrd.nəns/ n. Authoritative order or decree.
2. Religious ritual; particularly one ordained by Christ.
3. What Evangelical Christians call sacraments.

I refer to certain Christian rituals as sacraments. But you’re gonna find many Evangelicals really don’t like that word. To them, we don’t call these practices “sacraments.” We call them “ordinances.”

Why? Officially, lots of reasons. Unofficially it’s anti-Catholicism.

See, a lot of Evangelicals come from churches and traditions which are historically anti-Catholic. True, all the original Protestants originated from various spats with Catholicism. But these folks were raised to be particularly leery of Roman Catholic beliefs. To them, “sacrament” has a lot of bothersome theological baggage attached. So they refuse to use it.

But we gotta call our rituals something, and for some reason “ritual” is out. So what these folks have chosen to emphasize is the fact Christ Jesus ordained certain rituals among us Christians: He ordered us to do ’em, and that’s why we do ’em. The two these people single out are holy communion 1Co 11.23-26 and baptism. Mt 28.19 (Some of them also recognize Jesus mandated foot-washing, Jn 13.14-15 but not every church is willing to list it as an ordinance. Which probably merits its own article.)

You’ll also find these Christians still practice a lot of the other sacraments. They just won’t call ’em ordinances either, ’cause Jesus didn’t ordain them. Although often the apostles did.

CATHOLIC SACRAMENTSEVANGELICAL EQUIVALENTSWHO ORDAINED IT
BaptismBaptismJesus
ConfirmationConfession of faith at baptismPeter
EucharistHoly communionJesus
PenanceCounseling, confession, and intercessionJames
Anointing the sickAnointing the sickJames
Holy ordersLaying hands on people for ministryThe LORD, to Moses
MatrimonyWedding ceremonies9th-century Christians

As you notice, Evangelicals still anoint and pray for the sick. Still lay hands on people they’re sending out to do ministry. Still perform wedding ceremonies, funerals, and baby dedications. Still counsel and intercede for people. It’s just they won’t call these other things “ordinances” because they’re not the three ordinances Jesus gave us… and they’ll still try to avoid the word “ritual,” even though it’s precisely what we’re doing.

It’s all about “not doing as Catholics do,” even though we’re totally doing as Catholics do.

24 April 2017

“I’ve never heard that before.”

When ignorance disguises itself as skepticism.

In bible studies, whenever certain topics came up in the passages we’re reading, my habit is to bring up the different beliefs and interpretations which different Christians have about them. You might notice I also do this on this blog. Yeah, I do it all the time. For three reasons.

  1. My church is hardly the only one out there. Hardly the only denomination; hardly the only tradition. Hardly got a monopoly on the truth. Lots of other Christians have pitched their two cents on these issues. Some of their ideas are useful.
  2. And some of ’em aren’t. They’re problematic. So it’s a bit of warning: At some point you’re gonna run into people who actually believe such things. (Even in your own church—what with the way Americans switch churches so often, not everybody grew up with your traditions.) You’ll wonder why the two of you seem to be talking past one another. Helps to know where they’re coming from.
  3. In general, it’s not wise for Christians to develop the idea, “There’s only one way to think about this—and it’s how I think, and everyone else is wrong.” No; we’re all wrong. So these are my reminders no one Christian, myself included, has all the answers. But some of us have different parts of the whole.

Most of the folks listen. Or politely pretend to, anyway.

But in one bible study I attend, there’s a person (we’ll call her Marlies) who regularly scoffs, “I don’t know where you meet these people. I don’t know any Christians who think that way.”

She’s hardly the first person who’s told me this. I’ve met people like this ever since seminary. I used to be this person.

Marlies has been a Christian three decades. But like a lot of people, she’s chosen to exist within a handcrafted echo chamber. Back when she was a newbie, she determined generally what she will and won’t believe. She then shunned everyone who won’t believe likewise. She doesn’t really come to these bible studies to learn, but to judge: She’s trying to make sure her church isn’t quietly teaching heresy behind her back.

But because Marlies’s entire Christian life has been spent within this echo chamber, where nobody tells her anything other than what she chooses to believe, there’s a lot of Christendom she’s wholly unfamiliar with. She doesn’t know Christian history. Doesn’t know other movements. Doesn’t know other denominations. Doesn’t care: She’s never gonna read their books, listen to their podcasts, interact with their churches. They’re not Christian enough for her, so she’s gonna pretend they’re pagans and leave them be. That is, unless she’s trying to share Jesus with them… but because their beliefs don’t line up with hers enough, she’s pretty sure they only think they’re Christian.

So when I talk about different Christians, Marlies doesn’t really believe in different Christians. Can’t believe true Christians would actually hold such beliefs. Kinda wonders about me, since I seem to think these crazy people are nonetheless Christian. Hence the scoffing: “I’ve never heard such a thing before.”

After all, Marlies figures she’s the baseline for Christianity. If she’s heard of it, or agrees with it, it’s Christian. If not, it can’t be.

It’s actually how a lot of Christians practice theology. It’s just that they tend to be quieter about it. Marlies isn’t. She’ll publicly proclaim she doesn’t know what I’m talking about. And kinda take some pride in that… even though the room is occasionally full of people who grew up in churches like that, and know exactly what I’m talking about.

21 April 2017

Don’t just believe. Behave.

We’re not saved by good works. But no works is no better.

James 1.22-25

I grew up among Christians who believe they’re saved by faith. Not, as the scripture teaches, God’s grace. It’s weird, too; they read the very same letter of Ephesians as the rest of us (“by grace ye are saved” Ep 2.5 KJV), yet they somehow bungle their interpretation of 2.8 (“for by grace are ye saved through faith” Ep 2.8 KJV) and assume through takes precedence over by.

This isn’t a unique phenomenon either. To this day I run into Christians who think they’re saved by faith. All they gotta do is believe in Jesus—which is correct; it really is all we gotta do—and they’re saved. But they’re not saved by believing in Jesus. Nobody is. We’re saved by grace.

If we were saved by faith, it’d mean in order to be saved, I have to believe certain things. Believe ’em really hard. Reject every other belief, no matter how likely I might be to believe them instead. Sort out my beliefs so I’m believing all the correct things. Get my theological ducks in a row. And then I’m saved.

Um… doesn’t that sound like work to you? We’re not saved by works. Ep 2.9

“Well yes,” these folks reply: “We’re not saved by works. We’re saved by faith. Faith’s not a work! It can’t be, otherwise we wouldn’t be saved by it.” And then they proceed to demonstrate how they’re not saved by works… by not doing any.

What kind of [synonym for “messed”]-up Christians did I grow up among? Well, like I said, it’s not a unique phenomenon. Loads of Christians figure the only thing they need do, as Christians, is straighten out their theology. Good deeds are for those people who don’t really believe they’re saved by faith—who probably don’t have any faith anyway. So they practice “works righteousness,” and try to earn salvation. Unlike them, whose strenuous efforts to get every last obscure doctrine correct… somehow isn’t an attempt to earn salvation.

Anyway, these folks don’t know at all what to do with the letter of James. ’Cause not only did he equate faith with works in the next chapter (a lesson they’d love to call heresy, except it’s in the bible), he had lots to say about people who figured their beliefs matter, but their deeds don’t. Like so:

James 1.22-25 KWL
22 Become doers of the word, and not merely self-deceiving hearers,
23 because if you’re a hearer of the word, yet do nothing,
you’re like a man studying the face he was born with in a mirror:
24 He studies himself… and goes away, and quickly sets aside what sort of person he is.
25 You who look down into the perfect, freedom-giving Law, and remain there,
aren’t becoming forgetful hearers, but doers of good work.
What you’re doing is awesome.

James drilled directly down into their lifestyle. It’s not enough to listen to sermons. It’s not enough to shout “Amen!” when the preacher says clever things. It’s not enough to memorize bible verses and church doctrines. We gotta act on the word, the message, the prophecies, as given. We gotta behave like Christians. Not just believe like Christians.

20 April 2017

The explosive power of God?

Humans covet power. It’s why we regularly misinterpret what the scriptures have to say about it.

Dynamis power /'di.na.mis, usually 'du'nə.mɪs 'paʊ(.ə)r/ n. The extra-mighty sort of power God possesses.
[Dynamite power /'daɪ.nə.maɪt 'paʊ(.ə)r/]

“A little learning is a dangerous thing.” So wrote poet Alexander Pope in his Essay on Criticism, and a lot of people stop there. They figure what Pope meant was be careful with knowledge. Knowledge is power, and knowledge is dangerous.

Read the whole poem and you learn different.

A little learning is a dang’rous thing;
Drink deep, or taste not the Pierian Spring:
There shallow draughts intoxicate the brain,
And drinking largely sobers us again.

The Pierian Spring was a fountain in Macedonia dedicated to the Greek goddesses of wisdom and talent, the Muses. Drink from it, and you’re supposed to gain knowledge. Sip from it and you get half-truths. That’s what’s dangerous: A little learning, partial knowledge. Don’t be satisfied with tricks or trivia. Dig further.

One obvious example is popular Christianity’s teaching on “dynamis power.” I first heard it before I went to seminary, and learned Greek. I’ve heard it countless times since.

Pastors are impressed by how similar the word dynamis (or dunamis, depending on who’s converting ΔΥΝΑΜΙΣ from Greek to Latin letters) is to our English words dynamic or dynamite. They’ll spend a lot of time on the dynamis power of God. Or as one of them regularly put it, “the dynamite power of God!” ’Cause once the Holy Spirit gets in there and does something, BOOM!”

It’s an exciting image. It’s that excitement which indicates someone’s been sipping from the spring of knowledge again. Not drinking deep.

But when I first heard this idea, what did I know? I hadn’t learned any Greek yet. And even for quite a few years after my Greek classes, I perpetuated the error: God’s power is ’splodey like dynamite.

Anyway. One Sunday 10 years ago, after yet another sermon in which God’s explosive power came up, I decided to finally double-check the idea against a Greek dictionary.

19 April 2017

“The gates of hell”: Just how won’t they prevail?

Lots of weird pop culture interpretations of this one. Typically they’re wrong.

Jesus once asked his students who they thought he was. Simon Peter, his best student, correctly identified Jesus as Messiah and Son of God. Mt 16.16

(Since we Christians recognize Jesus is the Father’s only-begotten son, Jn 1.18 we tend to read that into it, rather than recognize “Son of God” as one of Messiah’s titles. In historical context it’s not what Peter meant. But I digress.)

In response Jesus pointed out how awesome this was (KJV “blessed”) because Peter hadn't just deduced it; this was a case of supernatural discernment, or special revelation. The Father had personally revealed this to Peter. Mt 16.17 Which is kinda awesome.

Then Jesus said this:

Matthew 16.18 KJV
And I say also unto thee, That thou art Peter, and upon this rock I will build my church; and the gates of hell shall not prevail against it.

The words Jesus used were pýlai ádu/“hades’s gates.” Latin turned this into portae inferi/“inferno’s gates.”—inferno being their word for the underworld, but in the day’s popular culture, this’d be hell. So that’s how Martin Luther, John Wycliffe, the Geneva Bible, and the King James interpreted it; and the ESV, ISV, Message, and NLT follow their lead.

But as I explained in my article on the four hells, that’s not what hades means. Hades is the grave. The afterlife. The place of the dead. That’s why other translations went with “the powers of death” (Expanded Bible, J.B. Phillips, NCV, RSV) —although that interpretation also has its problems.

18 April 2017

Prayer’s one prerequisite: Forgiveness.

God puts a huge priority on our ability to share his grace with others.

Mark 11.25 • Matthew 6.14-15

In the Lord’s Prayer we have these two lines,

Matthew 6.12 BCP
And forgive us our trespasses,
as we forgive those who trespass against us.

Jesus briefly elaborated on this in his Sermon on the Mount:

Mark 11.25 KWL
“Whenever you stand up to pray, forgive whatever you have against anyone.
Thus your Father, who’s in heaven, can forgive you your misdeeds.”
Matthew 6.14-15 KWL
14 “When you forgive people their misdeeds, your heavenly Father will forgive you.
15 When you can’t forgive people, your Father won’t forgive your misdeeds either.”

Elaborated on it even more in his story of the unforgiving slave.

Matthew 18.21-35 KWL
21 Simon Peter came and told Jesus, “Master, how often will my fellow Christian sin against me,
and I’ll have to forgive them? As much as sevenfold?”
22 Jesus told him, “I don’t say ‘as much as sevenfold.’
Instead as much as seven seventyfolds.
23 For this reason, heaven’s kingdom is like a king’s employee,
who wanted to settle a matter with his slaves.
24 Beginning the settlement, one debtor was brought to him who owed 260 million grams silver.
25 Having nothing to pay with, the master commanded him to be sold
—and his woman and children and as much as he had, and to pay with that.
26 Falling on his face, the slave worshiped his master, saying,
‘Be patient with me, and I will pay you back everything.’
27 Compassionately, that slave’s master freed him and forgave him the debt.
28 Exiting, that slave found his coworker, who owed him 390 grams silver.
Grabbing him, he choked him, saying, ‘Pay what you owe!’
29 Falling on his face, the coworker offered to work it out with him, saying,
‘Be patient with me, and I will pay you back everything.’
30 The slave didn’t want to, but went to throw him in debtor’s prison,
until he could pay back what he owed.
31 Seeing this, the slave’s coworkers became outraged,
and went to explain to their master everything that happened.
32 Then summoning the slave, his master told him, ‘Evil slave:
I forgave you all that debt, because you offered to work it out with me!
33 Ought you not have mercy on your coworker, like I had mercy on you?
34 Furious, his master delivered him to torturers till he could pay back all he owed.
35 Likewise my heavenly Father will do to you—
when you don’t forgive your every fellow Christian from your hearts.”

The “delivered him to torturers” bit Mt 18.34 makes various Christians nervous, and gets ’em to invent all sorts of iffy teachings about devils and curses and hell. And misses the point: God shows us infinite mercy. What kind of ingrates are we if we don’t pay that mercy forward?

17 April 2017

Who’s the Man? That’d be us Christians.

American Christians’ persecution mentality… and the sober reality.

There’s a 2006 Sprint commercial pertinent to this discussion. I attached the video… which has been on YouTube a while, so let’s see how long it continues to stick around. The dialogue:


Stickin’ it to the Man.
Assistant. “Is that your new Sprint phone?”
Boss. “Uh-huh. With Sprint’s new Fair and Flexible plans, no one can tell me what to do. I can talk when, and how I want. It’s my little way of… sticking it to the Man.”
Assistant. “But… you… are the Man.”
Boss. “I know.”
Assistant. “So you’re sticking it to yourself.”
Boss. “…Maybe.”

Sprint’s sales pitch follows.

What makes this commercial funny is the idea someone in the ruling class, underneath all his success, still has a little bit of rebellion in him, getting satisfaction from the idea of resisting someone who’s got one over him.

What also makes it funny is it’s self-delusion. In fact he’s resisting no one. Sprint wants people to have their phone and data plan. They invented the packages and sell them to anyone, whether the Man or not. Hence the ad. This guy can imagine he’s sticking it to the Man all he likes, but nobody’s harmed by the fact he can spend all day on the phone. Well, depending on what he does on that phone.

By “the Man” we usually mean someone in the ruling class who can actually get consequential stuff done, even change things for the better… but doesn’t, ’cause the status quo profits him. For that matter, the Man created the status quo to profit himself, and won’t change it until he sees profit in another direction. If fighting pollution suddenly became super profitable, we’d see a whole lot of people miraculously come to believe in climate change. (The downside is the common misbelief that when something is profitable, it’s probably a scam; it’s a view which keeps the gears of conspiracy theorists spinning.)

Here’s the issue. If this dude is the Man, but he imagines someone else is the Man, you do realize he’s not utilizing any of his power to improve anything. He figures that’s someone else’s job.

It’s a common problem we have in the United States. Because we’re a democracy, we imagine everyone’s equal. And yeah, as far as votes are concerned, we are. But as far as power’s concerned, we’re not even slightly equal. Some of us wield a great deal of power: Authority, wealth, charisma, public influence, political capital. Others wield little to none. As Stan Lee famously put it, with great power comes great responsibility. Or as Christ Jesus put it, “For unto whomsoever much is given, of him shall be much required.” Lk 12.48 KJV

But those who can make positive changes, who are best equipped to do and fix and improve things, don’t. Not ’cause they really can’t, or don’t care: It’s because they believe it’s not their duty. They don’t have the power. They aren’t the Man. Someone else is.

And there’s a popular mindset among Christians where not only are we not the Man, but the Man’s busy crapping all over us.

14 April 2017

Easter.

Or “Resurrection Sunday,” for those who are paranoid about what “Easter” might mean.

On 5 April 33, before the sun rose at 5:23 a.m. in Jerusalem, Jesus of Nazareth rose from the dead. Executed only two days before, he became the first human on earth to be resurrected.

He died the day before Passover. This was deliberate. This way his death would fulfill many of the Passover rituals. Because of this relationship to Passover, many Christians actually call this day some variation of the Hebrew Pesákh/“Passover.” In Greek and Latin (and Russian), it’s Pascha; in Danish Påske, Dutch Pasen, French Pâques, Italian Pasqua, Spanish Pascua, Swedish Påsk.

But in many Germanic-speaking countries, including English, we use the ancient pagan word for April, Eostur. In German this becomes Ostern; in English Easter.

Because of the pagan origins of the word, certain Christians avoid it and just call the day “Resurrection Sunday.” (Which is fine, but confuses non-Christians.)

Easter is our most important holiday. Christmas tends to get the world’s focus (and certainly that of the merchants), but it’s only because Christmas doesn’t stretch their beliefs too far. Everybody agrees Jesus was born. We only differ on details.

But Easter is about how Jesus was raised, and that’s a sticking point for a whole lot of pagans. They don’t buy it. They don’t even like it: When they die, they wanna go to heaven and stay there. Resurrection? Coming back? In a body? No no no.

We’ll even find Christians who agree with them: They’ll claim Jesus didn’t literally return from death, but exists in some super-spiritual ghostly form. Which returned to heaven, and that’s where we’ll go too. No resurrection; not necessary. Yes, it’s a heretic idea, but a popular one.

So to pagans, Easter’s a myth. It’s a nice story about how we Christians think Jesus came back from the dead, but it comes from ancient times, back when people believed anyone could come back from the dead if they knew the right magic spell. Really it’s just a metaphor for spring, new life, rebirth; just like eggs and baby chicks and bunnies. They’ll celebrate that. With chocolate, fancy hats, brunch, and maybe an egg hunt.

But to us Christians, Easter’s no myth. It’s history.