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22 August 2019

Targums: Pharisee translations of the bible.

The original New Testament was written in Greek. That’s because in the eastern Mediterranean, where Christianity originated, Greek was what Latin became in medieval Europe, and what English now is worldwide: Everybody’s second language, used because it’s everybody else’s second language. (Unless it’s your first. Greek’s my third.) When Alexander of Macedon took a shot at conquering the world in the 300s BC, he Grecianized everything he could find, left Greek colonies everywhere, and Greek became the language you needed to know for commerce and diplomacy.

But before that, it was Aramaic, the language of the Assyrian Empire and the neo-Babylonian Empire, both of which conquered northern and southern Israel in the 700s and 500s BC. The Hebrew-speaking Israelis were scattered throughout these empires, and when their descendants returned to Palestine, they spoke Aramaic. (And, after Alexander came through Palestine, Greek too.) Only scribes knew Hebrew.

Okay, but their bible (our Old Testament), with the exception of a few chapters here and there, was in Hebrew. If only scribes knew Hebrew, how were the rest of the population to know what was in the bible? Obviously the same way we do: Translation. The scribes’ usual practice was to read the bible in the original, then translate as they went, clause by clause.

And at some point, certain Pharisees decided to transcribe the scribes’ translations. Hey, if you don’t know Hebrew, and don’t always have a scribe around to translate bible for you, stands to reason you’d want your own copy available.

The scribes discouraged this. They didn’t want their off-the-cuff translations to become permanent translations, or to be considered official translations. Especially since they were in the bad habit of paraphrasing—adding details to the scriptures which aren’t in the text. Sometimes to clarify things, like when you’re telling bible stories to children or newbies… and sometimes to bend the text to suit their theology. I’ll explain that practice in more detail in a bit. In any event scribes didn’t want their alterations recorded for posterity.

But they were, ’cause we got ’em. The first written copies of these Aramaic translations appeared in the mid-first century. We call them targums, or targumím if you prefer the proper Aramaic plural ending. The Aramaic and Hebrew word תִּרְגּוּם/targúm simply means interpretation.

Aramaic-speaking Jews in Yemen still refer to targums because, duh, that’s their language. Aramaic-speaking Christians prefer the Peshitta, an Syriac translation of the Old and New Testaments first produced in the second century. But Christian scholars refer to the targums for two reasons: We wanna know how first-century Pharisees interpreted bible; and, like the Septuagint and Vulgate, we wanna compare ancient translations to the ancient texts to see how they interpreted it.

But because targums are Pharisee paraphrases, we study them with a certain amount of caution. You recall Jesus didn’t always agree with the Pharisees’ spin on the scriptures. Neither should we.

21 August 2019

When people believe Christianity is a myth.

Christianity is an historical religion. It’s based on a man named Jesus of Nazareth, who lived and breathed and died in the first century of our era. He proclaimed God’s kingdom and described what it’s like, informed us no one could get round him to the Father, Jn 14.6 and despite being crucified by the Romans, physically came back from the dead and sent his followers to proclaim this kingdom on his behalf.

If none of this stuff literally happened—if it’s pure mythology, a fiction based on cultural archetypes instead of true events, which reflects humanity’s fondest wishes, meant to teach greater truths and bigger ideas instead of being taken as fact—then we Christians have a huge problem. See, when we join God’s kingdom we’re kinda expected to change our entire lives based on its principles. We’re also promised Jesus is gonna come back to personally rule this kingdom. But if Christianity’s mythological, then Jesus won’t do any such thing, ’cause he’s dead.

Oh, and if he’s dead, we Christians don’t get resurrected and go to heaven either. ’Cause that’d be part of the myth too. We’ve been had, and are massively wasting our time: Not only is there no kingdom of God, but we die, stay dead, and go nowhere.

1 Corinthians 15.17-19 KWL
17 If Christ isn’t risen, your faith has no foundation.
You’re still in your sins, 18 and those who “sleep in Christ” are gone.
19 If hope in Christ only exists in this life, we’re the most pathetic of all people.

Yet believe it or don’t, there are people who identify themselves as Christian, and believe the bible is mostly, if not entirely, mythology. You’ll find them among the Unitarians, though most of them don’t bother with organized religion. You’ll find them among cultural Christians, who approve of Christianity’s trappings but don’t really believe any of it; who go to church to feel spiritual, but think we Christians are silly for literally believing any of this stuff.

20 August 2019

We need more people of prayer.

I read an old essay, written in the late 1800s, probably adapted from a then-recent sermon, entitled “Men of Prayer Needed.” Which is true; men of prayer are needed. Women of prayer too. Hence my title isn’t gender-specific. We need Christians to pray, period.

The point of the essay is God uses people who pray. He doesn’t so much need our skillsets, because God can either develop our skillsets for his purposes, or perform mighty acts of power despite our skillsets. (Never underestimate God’s skillset!) He doesn’t so much need our deep and through bible study, our intellect, our education, our knowledge, our wisdom; not that we shouldn’t pursue wisdom and get knowledge, but God’s knowledge and wisdom is far greater, and he can achieve way more through what he alone knows. He doesn’t need our ability to preach: We could present an extremely simple, even pathetic sort of sermon, and because the Holy Spirit’s already been working on our audience, thousands can come forward to embrace Christ Jesus despite our inability.

We’re not gonna grow God’s kingdom through what our abilities can do anyway. God’s gonna grow his own kingdom. We just need to pray.

What the essayist didn’t get into is why all this stuff is gonna happen because we pray. Maybe it’s because he assumed we’d already know. But when you look at all the Christians who consume prayer books, yet talk so much rubbish about the power we receive through prayer, what they’re sure it does, but what their lives don’t demonstrate at all… I don’t think it’s all that self-evident.

Too many of these petitioners give us the idea that if we pray, and persist in prayer, God’s gonna reward all the Brownie points we’ve been racking up on our knees, on our faces, with our hands lifted high… and give us what he owes us based on how much and how fervently we’ve been begging him for stuff. In so doing, they’re teaching karma. It’s not mere works righteousness; it’s more like prayer-righteousness.

Even this essay gives us the idea talking at God, just because we talk at God, is gonna make us holy. It’s gonna transform us. Make us more saintly. Develop our character. The more time we spend pouring out our hearts to God, the mightier we’re gonna grow.

Okay, true: This sort of growth might happen. And it might not.

Because when we pray, we have to understand what’s going on. We’re not just unidirectionally talking at God. We’re not just telling him what we want him to do, begging for stuff, and spending so much time focusing on our needs and lack and wants, we recognize how pathetic and sad we are, and how great he is. Prayer isn’t an exercise in debasement, crawling and scraping before a God who doesn’t care to answer us, whose answers are shrouded in mystery.

Prayer is talking with God. We ask questions. He gives answers. We act on his answers: We take leaps of faith, accept the Holy Spirit’s encouragement or correction, submit to his wisdom, repent where necessary, and obey our LORD. That’s where the growth comes from.

If we didn’t get any answers, either ’cause we’re not listening, or we don’t know how to listen, or we presume these can’t be God’s answers because we hate those answers: Such prayers are exactly what the antichrists claim prayer is: We’re talking to no one, and psyching ourselves into thinking it’s good for us. We’re not gonna develop wisdom or faith; we’re not gonna practice the humility mandatory of anyone who truly follows Jesus; we’re not gonna grow. At all.

The church needs its Christians to pray. The world needs its Christians to pray. Because when we’re truly talking with God, we’re gonna follow God.

And as things currently stand, we don’t pray. Or we pray, like pagans, to nothing, expecting no answers, and “follow God” without having actually heard from God… and imagine all sorts of things which we expect God wants, but they’re really what we want, and we’ve projected our desires upon him. When Christians don’t pray, Christendom looks like what we’ve currently got. It looks like the world… with a shiny shellac of Christianity coating it, but you don’t have to stand too closely to make out all the termite holes in the wood.

Yep, we definitely need more people of prayer.

19 August 2019

Fair judgment.

John 7.19-24.

The people of Jerusalem found Jesus teaching in temple, and wondered where he got his education; Jesus pointed out if we really pursued God instead of our own bright ideas, we’d know where he got his education.

Then he took a bit of left turn:

John 7.19-20 KWL
19 “Moses didn’t give you the Law, and none of you does the Law: Why do you seek to kill me?”
20 The crowd answered, “You have a demon! Who seeks to kill you?”

Where’d that come from? Well, largely the fact, two chapters ago, they totally sought to kill him.

John 5.17-18 KWL
17 Jesus answered them, “My Father works today, just like I work.”
18 So the Judeans all the more wanted him dead for this reason:
Not only was he dismissing Sabbath custom,
but he said God was his own Father, making himself equal to God.

And they still wanted him dead. Oh, they might’ve pretended otherwise, but Jesus knew better. So he bluntly called them on it: “Why do you seek to kill me?” And they flagrantly pretended otherwise: “You have a demon”—that culture’s way of saying, “You’re nuts.”

Yeah, certain Christians claim the Judeans meant “You have a demon” literally. Y’might recall the other gospels, in which the Jerusalem scribes decreed Jesus’s exorcisms were done by devilish power. John’s gospel doesn’t include that story; in fact Jesus never performs an exorcism in John. But this wasn’t an accusation of Jesus working via Satan’s power; it was the culture’s presumption about how madness works. Nowadays we’d leap to the conclusion you’re off your medication (or need some); back then they’d leap to the conclusion you had some critters in you. So we can dismiss the Judeans’ comment as mere hyperbole… for now.

But Jesus wasn’t nuts. He knew they intended to destroy them; he’d known it since they first started plotting. He knew they’d ultimately succeed. He was gonna use it as part of his grand plan to save the world. But he didn’t want them to think they were cleverly slipping anything past him, or getting away with anything. He knew what they were up to.

16 August 2019

Wrongly defining God by his almightiness.

Recently a friend was trying to emphasize to me how mysterious God is:

SHE. “God is almighty, right? So can he create a rock so heavy, he can’t lift it?”
ME. “Yes of course he could create such a rock.”
SHE. [figuring she got me] “But if he can’t lift it, then is he really almighty? Is he really God?”
ME. “Well first of all, God isn’t defined by his almightiness. But second of all, it’s a poor sort of almightiness that can’t create paradoxes.”

Yeah, she didn’t realize this wasn’t my first go-around with this particular question. I grew up inflicting it on my Sunday school teachers, just to see whether I liked any of their answers. (Seldom did I.) Theology professors still use it to mess with the minds of their students. I came up with my own answer back in seminary, just to mess with the minds of my theology professors.

But like my professors, she wanted to go back to my first comment, and object to it a little: The idea God isn’t defined by his almightiness.

Yep, the belief he is defined by it, is one of those things people think is a given. ’Cause it’s what we were taught as children. Even pagan kids, when they’re first taught what a god is, are taught it’s an almighty being, or at least an extremely powerful one. And Christians are taught God is by definition Almighty. The Creator. The Prime Mover. The only one who can do absolutely anything. Omnipotent, omniscient, omnipresent. It’s what makes him God, innit? If he’s not almighty, he can’t really be God, right?

Wrong. That’s human thinking. That’s how we define gods. It’s not how God defines himself.

You wanna know how God defines himself, you look at Jesus. ’Cause Jesus is God. Yet when he was walking around on the earth during his first coming, Jesus actually wasn’t almighty. He gave that up. Deliberately. On purpose.