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31 January 2016

The ministry of John the baptist.

What Jesus’s first prophet was up to.

Mark 1.2-6 • Matthew 3.1-6 • Luke 3.1-6 • John 1.6-8

John 1.6-8 KWL
6 A person came who’d been sent by God, named John, 7 who came to testify.
When he testified about the light, everyone might believe because of him.
8 He wasn’t the light, but he’d testify about the light.
9 The actual light, who lights every person, was coming into the world.
Luke 3.1-3 KWL
1 In the 15th year of Tiberius Caesar’s governance, Pontius Pilatus governing Judea,
Antipas Herod as governor over the Galilee, Philip Herod his brother as governor over Ituría and Trachonítis provinces,
Lysanias as governor over Abiliní, 2 Annas and Joseph Kahiáfa as head priests,
God’s message came through John bar Zechariah, in the countryside.
3 He went into all the land round the Jordan,
preaching a baptism of repentance—to have one’s sins forgiven—
Mark 1.2-3 KWL
2 Like it’s written in the prophet Isaiah:
“Look, I send my agent to your face, who’ll prepare your road.” Ml 3.1
3 “A voice shouting out in the countryside:
‘Prepare the Lord’s road! Make him a straight path!’” Is 40.3
Matthew 3.1-3 KWL
1 In those days John the baptist appeared, preaching in the Judean countryside,
2 saying, “Repent! For heaven’s kingdom has come near.”
3 For this is the word through the prophet Isaiah. Quote:
“A voice shouting out in the countryside:
‘Prepare the Lord’s road! Make him a straight path!’” Is 40.3
Luke 3.4-6 KWL
4 like the prophet Isaiah’s sayings, written in the bible:
“A voice shouting out in the countryside:
‘Prepare the Lord’s road! Make him a straight path!’
5 All ravines will be filled; all roads and hills knocked down.
The crooked will be straightened; the rough into smooth roads.
6 All flesh will see God’s rescue.” Is 40.3-5

Jesus’s story begins with John bar Zachariah, “the baptist.” (As opposed to “the Baptist,” meaning someone from the Baptist movement, which takes its customs of believer-baptism and full immersion from John’s practice.)

John doesn’t come first just ’cause of the chronology—John was prophesied to his father before Jesus was to his mother; John was born before Jesus; John’s ministry began before Jesus’s. The chronology was kinda irrelevant, because as John himself pointed out, Jesus existed before he did. Jn 1.30 And as the gospel of John points out, the word of God, the light of the world: John came to testify about that light, and point people to him.

That was John’s job. He was Jesus’s opening act.

Yeah, Christians tend to call him Jesus’s forerunner. Which he kinda was. But a “forerunner” in antiquity was simply the guy who ran way in front of the caravan—whether a visiting lord or invading army—and announce they’re coming. Again, John kinda was that. But he didn’t just proclaim Messiah, or God’s kingdom, was coming. He got people ready for the coming, by getting ’em to repent, by washing them clean first.

Christians also tend to call him Jesus’s herald. He was kinda that too. But a herald came instead of the person whose message he brought. You know, like prophets tell us what God’s saying, instead of (or in addition to) God telling us what he’s saying. John wasn’t a substitute for the Messiah he preceded; he said his superior was coming right behind him, and he considered himself unworthy to take Messiah’s shoes off. Mk 1.7 But Jesus would soon speak for himself.

John’s ministry began, as Luke pins it down, in the year 28, when both he and Jesus (figuring they were born in 7BC or so) were about 34 years old. He’s described as being in the erímo/“countryside,” which the KJV and many translations render “wilderness”—but erímos means undeveloped, unfarmed land; places people didn’t live or work, and couldn’t drive John off as a nuisance. There, he announced the kingdom was coming—so people, get ready.

29 January 2016

God doesn’t have a dark side.

Yet too many people think the Almighty suborns evil for his secret purposes.

1 John 1.5-7

As I mentioned last time, a lot of gnostic religions were teaching all sorts of weirdness about Jesus. Some of their ideas had leaked into the first-century church; loads of them are still around. Some are outright heresy, stuff that leads us away from Jesus instead of towards him. John’s letter was meant to preemptively get to Christians before the wrong ideas took serious root.

One of the more popular wrong ideas is that God has a dark side. It’s based on the idea, taught by many philosophers, religions, and many Christians, that once we take everything back to its first cause, that’d be God. It’s called the “unmoved mover” idea, as described by Aristotle of Athens. Problem is, people really do assume God is the first cause of everything—including dark stuff.

Fr’instance God is sovereign: He’s in charge. He created the world, he sustains it, and he rules it. Right? But if God’s in charge, what about sin?—why is evil, chaos, and death still part of our universe if God’s running the show? Well, most Christians conclude God, though almighty and can easily run everything, chooses not to. He may be sovereign, but he’s no micromanager. So his creatures can have free will, he steps back, lets us make choices—good, bad, or evil—and lets us learn from the consequences.

But some Christians insist no, God’d never cede control of any part of his creation like that. (Certainly they never would, if they were God.) But since he hasn’t clamped down on our evil, it has to mean he wants this evil to happen. It’s not just the results of our experiments with decision-making within God’s controlled environment. It’s part of the plan: In the beginning, when God mapped out his plan for the cosmos, he sovereignly decreed our evil would happen so that he could look good in comparison, and rescue us from it. He’d draw good out of it in the long run. But in the short run: Evil, chaos, and death. Because God sovereignly said so.

Okay, I’ve seen this plot in many a bad sitcom: Our protagonist secretly creates a problem, easily solves it, and everyone lauds him as a hero. (And then, ’cause it’s a sitcom, he gets exposed, and everyone rejects him as a fraud.) Except this is what certain Christians claim God did. Just they’d never call him a fraud, ’cause he’s good—according to their freakish new definition of “good,” which means “good in the long run.” And evil in the short.

This was not a new idea in John’s day. A lot of Pharisees believed God was deterministic like this—in his universe, he decides how everything plays out, and we humans only have the illusion of free will: God rigged things so we’d only ever follow the path he lays out for us. A lot of gnostics believed likewise. But John easily refuted it:

1 John 1.5-7 KWL
5 This is the message we heard from him and proclaim to you:
God is light. To him, darkness is nothing.
6 When we say we have a relationship with him yet walk in darkness, we lie; we don’t act in truth.
7 When we walk in the light like him, who’s in light, we have a relationship with one another,
and his son Jesus’s blood cleanses us of every sin.

God’s only the source of all good in the universe. Not bad. Not evil. That gets created by God’s wayward creatures, not him. Blaming God for it, directly or indirectly, may appear to get us off the hook. But since God’s gonna judge us for our own evil behavior, it obviously doesn’t get us off the hook with him.

28 January 2016

Figure out what God wants.

It’s not as complicated as we make it out to be.

Too many of us Christians know God expects something of his kids. Loads of us preach it all the time: “God has a wonderful plan for your life. Just seek his face.” Problem is, when we seek his face, it’s only to praise him, not know him. The wonderful plan? We don’t know it, and never bother to find out what it is.

In fact a lot of us assume God’s plan is unknowable. It’s part of his secret will, his intricate plan for the universe which has been micromanaged all the way down to every single action we take. Which is secret because—let’s face it—there’s no way any one human can fathom it in all its complexity. Way too many moving parts. God is thinking a billion steps ahead, and if he clued us in just a little, it’d blow our minds.

Or, which is more likely, we’d respond like a backseat driver: “You know what you oughta do, God, is this…” and since we have the smallest fraction of information, we’re really in no position to judge how God rules the cosmos.

Anyway, the complexity of God’s master plan is too intimidating for a lot of Christians. “It’s way beyond me,” like the TobyMac song goes. True, the song’s more about how God stretches us beyond where we’re comfortable, but most Christians use the phrase as our excuse to stay comfortable. God’s will for our individual lives, God’s plans for our individual futures, the nature of God’s personal relationship with us—that’s too deep for us. Probably too deep for everyone, seminarians and scholars included.

Rubbish. And, might I add, disingenuous. People want God’s will to be far out of our reach, because it might just mean we have to change our lifestyles. A lot. You know, like Paul wrote:

Romans 12.1-2 KWL
1 So I urge you Christians, by God’s compassion:
Present your bodies to God as a holy, pleasing, live sacrifice—your logical worship.
2 Don’t follow the scheme of this age. Instead be transformed. Mind renovated.
Find out for yourselves what God’s good, pleasing, complete will is.

If learning God’s will—God’s complete will—weren’t possible, Paul wouldn’t have advised the Romans to do it. It’s not enough to give him our warm fuzzy feelings. He wants our bodies. He wants us to follow. Stop conforming to this culture; it’s passing away. Conform to the next one.

How? Seek God’s will. It’s not beyond us. God made it available. You know what Jesus taught. If you don’t, read your bible. Then do that.

27 January 2016

The bible in “the original Greek”: The Septuagint.

Still the authoritative translation of a lot of Christians.

Septuagint /sɛp'tu.ə.dʒɪnt/ n. An ancient Greek translation of the Old Testament.
[Septuagintal /sɛp.tu.ə'dʒɪnt.əl/ adj.]

When you read the New Testament, and one of the apostles quotes the Old Testament, most of the time they’re not translating it from the original Hebrew. They’re quoting a Greek translation.

There wasn’t just one translation. Same as English versions of the bible nowadays, different translators had taken different shots at putting the Hebrew scriptures into Greek. Some Greek-speaking Jew in Jerusalem might put together something like a “King Jonathan’s Version,” or KJV; some Greek-speaking Jew in Egypt might’ve cobbled together an “Egyptian Standard Version,” or ESV; some curious gentile in Laodicea might’ve put together a “New Laodicean Translation,” or NLT… I could come up with more hypothetical reasons for these familiar initials, but you get the gist. But over time, copyists smooshed all these different Greek bibles together into one sorta-kinda-the-standard copy, and we call it the Septuagint.

Why’s it called the Septuagint? Funny story. According to a Pharisee legend, told in the Letter of Aristeas, King Ptolemy Philadelphius of Egypt wanted a copy of the bible for his famous Library of Alexandria. So he asked Jerusalem for translators; they sent him either 70 or 72 scribes, who cleverly answered Ptolemy’s test questions and got the job. Each were given their own room, got to translating, and when done all their translations miraculously matched, word-for-word. Therefore this is an inspired, inerrant translation of the bible. (Oh, and septuaginta is Latin for 70. It’s why people tend to use the abbreviation LXX, the Roman 70, for the Septuagint.)

Yeah, it’s as bogus as the myth KJV-only adherents have for their favorite translation. Because if it really were an infallible version of the bible, the New Testament authors would’ve quoted it, and only it, for their scriptures. Instead some apostles quoted it. And others translated the Hebrew for themselves. Paul went back and forth. Seems sometimes he just didn’t care for the way the Septuagint put it, and decided to phrase the original Hebrew in his own way.

26 January 2016

Dark Christianity.

When people who are supposed to love, instead choose to fear.

God is light. For this reason Christians ought not walk in the dark. 1Jn 1.5-10 People don’t bother to read this passage in context, and assume “light” and “dark” has to do with truth versus lies, or revelation versus mysteries. Nope; it has to do with obedience versus sin. Christians shouldn’t sin, and when we live in light, we oughta stay out of sin.

But more than that. We shouldn’t fixate on sin either. We shouldn’t obsess about what sinners are up to. We shouldn’t analyze the devil’s works in order to understand it better, Rv 2.24 on the pretense that knowledge is power. Our strength isn’t mean to come through our studies of devilish strategies: We’re to be strong through God’s power. Ep 6.10 Resist temptation. Lead others to the light.

However, there are loads of Christians who firmly believe a significant part of our duties—if not our only duty—is to study sin, fight it, and condemn it.

In preparation these folks spend an awful lot of time on the dark side of Christianity. They wanna instruct the church in Defence Against the Dark Arts classes, and be ever vigilant to battle He Who Shall Not Be Named. (Forgive all the Harry Potter references, but there are an awful lot of parallels. It’s like J.K. Rowling grew up Christian or something.) Namely these areas:

  • The fall of the angels, the fall of humanity, original sin, total depravity.
  • Sin, mortal sin, unforgiveable sin, spiritual death, spiritual suicide, apostasy, heresy, works of the flesh, temptation.
  • Satan and its fellow tempters: Unclean spirits, devils, demons, idols, antichrists.
  • Spiritual warfare, exorcisms, intercessory prayer, hedges, umbrellas of protection.
  • The End Times: Signs of the times, fulfillment of end-times prophecy, rapture readiness, tribulation, the Beast.
  • Theodicy, judgments, punishments, double predestination, hades, purgatory, hell, second death.

True, all Christian theologians deal with this stuff, ’cause it’s part of Christianity. It’s the stuff Jesus defeated and frees us from, so we now can have an abundant life in God’s kingdom.

But to certain dark Christians we’re not free of these things. Not at all. ’Cause there’s still evil in the world, isn’t there? We still have the gates of hell to knock down. Jesus’s mission may have been to destroy the devil’s works, 1Jn 3.8 but they don’t believe he’s yet accomplished it. They believe it’s now our mission. They don’t consider the fact our own depravity might get in the way of accurately identifying evil, or corrupt us into using devilish methods to fight it—that Jesus really does want us to have nothing to do with evil.

Because dark Christians figure our primary duty isn’t to proclaim the good news of God’s kingdom, but fight sin, people don’t see them as bringers of light, peace, hope, love, and good news. Just darkness. They make pagans flinch and fellow Christians facepalm. Our job of proclaiming good news becomes significantly harder, because now we gotta make up for the fruitless actions of these nimrods: Pagans think we’re all like that, or suspect any loving actions on our part have, at the back of them, hatred, fear, horror, and judgment.

25 January 2016

Spiritual warfare. Which is not solely prayer.

“Prayer warriors” call it that because it’s way easier than actual spiritual warfare.

Spiritual warfare /'spɪr.ɪtʃ.(əw.)əl 'wɔr.fɛ(.ə)r/ n. Actively opposing the activity of evil spirits. Usually through exposing their hidden involvement, in exorcism, and in otherwise standing against them.
[Spiritual warrior /'spɪr.ɪtʃ.(əw.)əl 'wɔr(.ri).ər|/ n.]

Yeah, “prayer warriors” react badly whenever I point out prayer isn’t the beginning and end, the be-all, do-all, and end-all, of spiritual warfare. Because they honestly think it is. They equate the two. They’re “doing battle” against evil by fervently praying against it, by emotionally draining themselves, by taxing their bodies. “I contended for that person in prayer,” they’ll point out; “don’t tell me it’s not warfare.”

Contended nothing. They twist their bodies in a way which unnecessarily hurts them. They think their strong emotions, their acts of self-torture, make God take their prayers more seriously than usual. They’re no different than people who whip and cut themselves. 1Ki 18.25-29 And their prayers make just as little impact on the LORD.

God never told us to torture ourselves to get his attention. Nor does he even want such a thing. Our stressing out, our emotional gyrations, don’t make him any more likely to answer a prayer with yes or no. We’re literally going through the motions—and achieving nothing. Call it “warfare” all you like. The only thing we’re fighting is our own bodily comfort. And not in a good way.

What’s spiritual warfare then? It’s fighting evil. It’s standing up to the devil. It’s resisting temptation. It’s freeing others from evil influence, even devilish possession.

You probably know the passage about God’s armor. If not, here’s a refresher.

Ephesians 6.10-18 KWL
10 Lastly: Get powerful in the Lord, in the authority his strength gives you. 11 Wear all God’s gear.
Then you’ll be able to stand fast against the devil’s tactics,
12 because we aren’t in a battle against blood and muscle:
We’re against types of authority, power, things which govern this world’s dark places,
supernatural evil in the high heavens.
13 For this reason put on all God’s gear, so you’ll have a fighting chance on the evil day:
You’ll be entirely ready to stand fast.
14 Stand: Belt your waist with truth. Wear a vest of rightness.
15 Lace your shoes in preparation for the good news of peace.
16 Carry the shield of trust in God at all times,
which you’ll use to put out every flaming arrow of evil.
17 Accept the helmet of your salvation and the machete of the Spirit,
which is God’s spoken word, 18 praying every second in and to the Spirit,
consistently watching out for every request of every saint as well.

Yes, prayer is in there. We gotta pray. Constantly. We gotta stay in communication with our master. But that’s in concert with a whole lot of other actions and instructions: Truth, rightness, peace, trust in God, salvation, God’s word. And as you’ll regularly see, a lot of “prayer warriors” only do the praying. The other stuff? Redefined till it’s all about prayer.

  • The belt of truth: Truthful prayers.
  • The vest of rightness: Righteous prayers.
  • The good news of peace: Peaceful prayers.
  • The shield of trust: Trusting prayers.
  • The helmet of salvation: Prayers where we remind God of our relationship.
  • The machete of the Spirit: Prayers where we quote lots of bible, just in case God plans to weasel out of his own word like some other fathers we know.

There ya go. Don’t have to literally fight evil. All we gotta do is pray, and let God and his angels do all the fighting on our behalf. And in this way, “prayer warriors” fight nothing but the Holy Spirit’s insistence to get off our knees and get into the actual battle.

24 January 2016

Jesus of Nazareth, child prodigy.

A reminder to his parents of whom they were raising.

Luke 2.41-52

Growing up, I’ve usually heard this story taught this way: Jesus, now that he’s old enough to go to temple, went there with the folks for Passover. Afterwards, he stuck around and got into an interesting chat with the rabbis, and lost utter track of time. Extending into days, if you can believe he never noticed the need to sleep, eat, pee, etc.

Meanwhile his unwitting parents got halfway back to Nazareth before finally noticing their son was absent. They turned back, finally found him talking shop in temple, and Mary rebuked him: “Your father and I were worried!” But Jesus came back with, “I was doing the work of my real Father.”

But, in order to maintain appearances—in order to look like an ordinary human boy, instead of exposing the fact he was secretly a God-boy—Jesus went back to Nazareth with them. Back to their confining, non-intellectual existence. Behaving himself, quietly waiting for another 18 years for his time to come.

Yeah, that interpretation’s got problems.

First let’s look at the actual story.

Luke 2.41-42 KWL
41 Jesus’s parents went to temple every year to the Passover festival.
42 When he was 12 years old they took him to the festival as customary.

As devout Jews, Joseph and Mary would’ve gone to temple three times a year, as the Law commanded. Ex 23.17, 34.23, Dt 16.16 It wasn’t an option; it’s what they did. It was katá to éthos/“by the custom,” or customary. They, and everyone in Nazareth who also followed the Law, would caravan to Jerusalem for Passover, Pentecost, and Sukkot. Probably stayed with family in Bethlehem, and went to Jerusalem during the day.

And of course Jesus went with them. Passover was a family thing. This wasn’t Jesus’s first Passover in Jerusalem. It was his 11th or 12th. (’Cause y’know, he missed that one when Herod Archelaus had gone nuts and killed a bunch of people.) The whole point of this feast, and every feast, was to celebrate what the LORD had done in the past, and pass the history down to your kids.

Deuteronomy 6.21-25 KWL
21 Tell your child, “We were slaves to Pharaoh in Egypt,
and the LORD brought us out of Egypt with a mighty hand.
22 The LORD gave prophetic signs and miracles, mighty—and bad—
to Egypt, Pharaoh, and all his house, right before our eyes.
23 He brought us out of there, because he came to us
to give us the land he promised our ancestors.
24 The LORD ordered us to do these duties, to live like today,
to fear our LORD God, who’s good to us every day.
25 It’s only right of us that we keep doing this command
before our LORD God, like he charged us to.”

22 January 2016

1 John and the gnostics.

Much of the reason this letter was composed, was to oppose heretics.

1 John 1.1-4

On to 1 John. Which, same as John’s other works, doesn’t have much of an introduction. (The introduction to Revelation was tacked on later by someone else.) 1 John just dives right into it—

1 John 1.1-4 KWL
1 He was in the beginning. We heard him, our eyes saw him, we examined and our hands touched—
It’s about the living word, 2 and the life was revealed.
We saw, witness, and proclaim to you the life of the age to come,
who’s from the Father and revealed to us.
3 We’d seen and heard; we proclaim this to you so you could also have a relationship with us.
Our relationship is with the Father and with his son, Christ Jesus.
4 We write you this so our joy would be fulfilled.

—and there ya go. The apostles had seen “the living word,” who’d be Jesus. And this was who they declared to the Christians who read this letter.

True, starting with revelation about Jesus gets our attention. It’s more interesting; more thought-provoking. But it’s not the way people usually began a letter in Roman Empire days. (Yes it is a letter; it was written down and given to others. 1Jn 2.1) Usually they’d begin with the author and recipients, and maybe 1 John originally had those things but it was trimmed off. Problem is, now we have no solid proof John wrote it. I mean, it reads like John’s gospel (which doesn’t have John’s name on it either), and covers a lot of the same topics. But still.

For convenience I’ll just call the author “John.” And if he wrote it, it was written to a first-century church so they’d realize they had life in God’s Son. 1Jn 5.13 Might’ve been John’s home church in Ephesus, which makes sense: 1 John counters a lot of gnostic ideas, and Ephesus had a lot of gnostic religions in it. But gnostic religions were everywhere, so it could’ve been addressed to any church in the Roman Empire. And gnostics are still everywhere, so 1 John comes in handy nowadays.

21 January 2016

God’s names. (And a bunch of his adjectives.)

We call him lots of things. Some of them he even approves of.

New Christians tend to be fascinated by the fact God has a lot of different names in the bible. There’s “God,” there’s “the Lord” (in capital letters or not), there’s “Jehovah” or “Yahweh” or “I Am,” there’s “the Most High” and “the Almighty”…

James Nesbit is selling this poster of God’s names. Without the watermark, I expect.

And I haven’t even got to the titles yet. Like Mighty God, Ancient of Days, Alpha and Omega, Lord of Hosts, and so on. Go to your average Christian bookstore (if it hasn’t closed up shop yet) and they’ve even got a poster covered in these titles.

Bust out some Hebrew to go along with it, and some Christians will get sloppy with excitement. I can write about the attributes of God till my fingers go numb, but there’s just nothing like God’s names. Because, as many Christians teach, there’s power in God’s name. Jr 10.6 Power, power, wonder-working power. Power to break every chain, break every chain, break every chain.

But of all I should point out these many names of God are not necessarily God’s idea. He named himself, and yes I’ll get to what he named himself. But before he gave us his name, humans had to come up with terms to describe him.

Like “God.” In nearly every ancient culture, a god is simply a powerful being. It’s not a human; it’s more powerful. You suck up to it like you do a king: It’s more powerful than you, and could either do things for you, or smite you. It might have expectations on you, or capriciously decide it doesn’t like you. But to the ancients, a god was only the being in charge of a particular thing, like weather or sex. It wasn’t the creator of all things, nor necessarily the Supreme Being, nor even almighty. If you’ve read pagan mythologies, you’ll know most of these gods weren’t even moral beings. (Well, Baldr was good. But of all the gods in pagan mythology, it’s pretty much only him. And they killed him.)

Well, we Christians are monotheists: There’s only the One God. We don’t consider any of the “gods” to be legit. When we use the word “god,” we only mean the One God—who also happens to be the Creator, the Almighty, and good.

20 January 2016

TXAB’s bible-reading plan.

Oughta get you through the bible in whatever order works for you.

When I read through the bible, I read each of the books, but in no particular order. Usually I go with whatever book I feel like reading most. Followed by whatever book I feel like reading next. And so on, and so on, till I finish.

Most people read the bible the very same way. Except they don’t keep track of what they read, and what they haven’t. Fr’instance a person (we’ll call her Apolonia) decides she wants to read John, ’cause it’s her favorite. Then she reads James, ’cause her pastor’s preaching a series on it. Then Philippians, ’cause her bible study is going through it. Then she reads Romans, ’cause somebody told her she really oughta. Then Genesis, because she feels she really oughta. Then somebody says something profound from Romans, so she decides to reread that book again. And then Genesis again. She’ll bounce all over the bible, which is fine; but she’ll skip books, which isn’t so good.

Well, here’s how to avoid skipping books: A checklist.

If you click on it, you’ll get a high-resolution version which you can print out. So if Apolonia had this checklist, she could read any chapter of the bible at any time, then check it off and know how much she still has to slog through read.

19 January 2016

The King James Version: Its history and worshipers.

Some of ’em have crossed the line from fandom to idolatry.

Most of the verses I’ve memorized were in the King James Version.

Hey, it’s my upbringing. The hundred English translations of the bible that exist nowadays? Weren’t around back when I was a kid. There were maybe a dozen in the Christian bookstores. But my church used the KJV, so that’s largely what’s in my brain. Even though I later got a Good News Bible, then a New International Version, when it came to memory verses my Sunday school teachers drilled us in KJV.

In adulthood, for a lot of years I memorized verses in NIV. (Which they’ve updated three times since, so sometimes my memory verses don’t match the current NIV.) After I learned biblical languages, I memorized verses in my own translation. Makes it tricky to look up memory verses in my bible software, which is particular about which translation I’m searching. Google isn’t so picky.

Still, I quote KJV a lot, which surprises a lot of people. They assume I’m more “modern” or “postmodern” than that, whatever the mean by those terms. Supposedly a with-it guy like me (who’s not that with-it, admittedly) should think the KJV is old-timey, or out of date, or not reliable, or once I left my Fundamentalism behind I left the KJV as well.

Nope. I still like the King James Version. It’s a good translation.

Not infallible, of course. No such thing as an infallible translation. There are those who believe otherwise—that the KJV is the only reliable bible. No, not the only reliable English bible; the only reliable bible, period. I’ll deal with them in a bit.

But you’ll notice when I write about my translation of the gospels or of the apostles, I tend to compare it to the KJV. For two main reasons: Loads of Christians, especially Evangelicals, still consider it the authoritative translation of the bible, even when they like other translations better. And loads of translations have, when in doubt or whenever possible, deferred to the way the KJV originally put it. (It is, after all, the way most of us remember those verses.)

For better or worse, the KJV is still the English-language standard for bibles. It wasn’t the first English translation, but it’s definitely the most influential.

18 January 2016

And now, a word of prayer.

Christianese which nearly always means, “And now, a really long prayer.”

Word of prayer /wərd ə preɪər/ n. Prayer, usually meant to invoke God before a function.
2. Small sermon, disguised as a prayer. Brace yourself.

From time to time, right before we do something important, like take a meeting, drive someplace, eat lunch, get a really large tattoo on our back, or whatever, Christians will often say, “Before we do that, let’s have a word of prayer.”

Nope, they don’t mean it literally: It won’t be one single word. At all. For darn sure it’s not gonna be short. Words of prayer tend to be awfully wordy.

Why “a word of prayer,” instead of simply “a prayer”? My guess is it originally meant a short prayer. Y’know, like when somebody stops you and says, “Can I have a word—just a word—with you?” They intend for it to be short. Or at least sound short, so you don’t respond, “Too busy,” and keep going. But depending on the person who wants “just a word with you,” the conversation might be mighty long. Some of them have no idea “just a word” means brevity. I once had a boss whose “just a word” could turn into hours-long meetings.

The same is true of a word of prayer. The petitioner might intend to be short, because the food’s getting cold. In the hands of certain people, who couldn’t be brief even if you strapped a time bomb to their genitals, a word of prayer is just gonna take time. Lots of time. Lots and lots of time.

True of most Christians.

17 January 2016

How Jesus became “Jesus the Nazarene.”

Imagine calling him “Jesus the Bethlehemite.” Hmm. Well, we’d have got used to it.

Matthew 2.19-23

As we know from Luke, both Mary and Joseph were originally from Nazareth, but had to go to Bethlehem for survey reasons, and Jesus was born while they were there. But Matthew never told that part of the story; only that Jesus was born in Bethlehem. Mt 2.1 If all you had was that gospel, you’d think that’s where they lived already. And maybe that’s what the author of Matthew believed.

’Cause what happened was after Joseph took the family to Egypt to escape Herod’s mad little bout of infanticide, God finally lets him know it’s safe to return… and in returning Joseph “came to settle in a city called Nazareth,” Mt 2.23 KWL which implies he hadn’t already settled in Nazareth, and just hadn’t been home in a while.

Well. Assuming, as most of us do, that Jesus was born around the year 7BC; that he was about two-ish when Herod came a-killing (round 5BC), and that the reason they needed to hightail it to Egypt was because Herod wasn’t gonna die for a while (which he did in late March 4BC), that’s roughly the time we’re talking about.

Matthew 2.19-22 KWL
19 On Herod’s passing, look: The Lord’s angel appeared in a dream to Joseph in Egypt,
20 saying, “Get up. Take the child and his mother.
Go to Israel’s land: Those who sought the child’s life are dead.”
21 Getting up, Joseph took the child and his mother and went to Israel’s land.
22 Hearing Archelaus was made king of Judea after his father Herod, he feared to go there.
After negotiating in a dream, he went back to a part of the Galilee.

But as you can see, once Joseph got back to Israel, he realized Judea was in no way a safe place to raise Jesus. ’Cause the Herod family was still in charge, and the crazy side of the Herod family was still in power.

15 January 2016

Listening to our God, not our gut.

Loving God and one another requires us to follow the Spirit’s lead. Not our instincts.

Jude 1.19-25

Years ago, I had to deal with an unteachable co-worker. We’ll call him Ulises. Nice guy, but nobody could tell him a thing: He knew what he already knew, and figured he already knew best. The attitude eventually got him fired. Our boss discovered repeated warnings just weren’t working, and sent him home.

Ulises followed his gut. Most people do. They encourage us to. We’re supposed to listen to that deep inner voice which tells us what we really want, what we really oughta do, what’s really best for us. The inner voice knows all. Don’t starve it.

Believe it or not, this isn’t a new idea, based on pop psychology. It’s been around forever. In the last century, even by people who didn’t believe in psychology, it was called “following your instincts,” or your hunches, or your gut. Somewhere deep at the center of our being, we knew the difference between right and wrong, true and false, wisdom and [cowflop]. It was pre-programmed into us, possibly by God. Follow the inner voice.

The ancient Greeks called it the pnéfma psychikón/“psychic spirit.” It’s the essence of life. First God creates the life-giving air, and we breathe it. In our lungs it’s turned into pnéfma zotikón/“vital spirit,” and once it works its way into our brains it becomes psychic spirit. This psychic spirit travels down our nerves and moves our limbs and makes us alive. Oh, and as a handy side effect it also imparts divine wisdom.

Your average person who follows their inner voice, likely doesn’t believe any of that crap. But Plato, Erasistratus, Galen, and plenty of Greeks sure did—and of course some of those beliefs trickled into the church, and warped a few teachers. Jude wrote about ’em.

Jude 1.19-20 KWL
19 They’re the ones making distinctions based on a “psychic spirit” they don’t have.
20 You, beloved: Build each other up in your most holy faith. Pray by the Holy Spirit.

We don’t follow any psychic spirit. Or the inner voice, the id, our instincts, our inner child. I like to joke my “inner child” is an inner brat, because he’s whiny and selfish, and needs to be put in “time out” forever. Brats need discipline.

In contrast, Jude told his readers to pray by the Holy Spirit. We’re not following our guts; we’re following our Lord.

14 January 2016

What passes for love among Christians.

Christians know better than to pass off certain things as love… but we often overlook this thing.

So yesterday I mentioned a fifth Greek word for love which C.S. Lewis overlooked for his 1960 book The Four Loves. I only discovered it ’cause I was poking through my bible software’s Greek dictionary. It tends to be translated as other things, which is why most people, Lewis included, might not translate it as “love.”

ξενία (xenía) /zɛ'ni.ɑ/ fem. n. Welcoming attitude towards a guest; receptiveness, hospitality, love for strangers.
2. A guestroom. Ac 28.23, Pm 1.22

Ever heard the myth of Philemon and Baucis? (You oughta; it explains exactly why the Lystrans started worshiping Barnabas and Paul. Ac 14.8-18) They were a old married couple, and one day two strangers visited their farm; they showed them such hospitality, the strangers rewarded them for it by rescuing them from a flood. Turned out the strangers were the gods Zeus and Hermes. The Greeks loved to tell this story as an example of how we need to be hospitable to everyone—for you might be entertaining gods unawares. Or as the author of Hebrews reworded it, angels. He 13.2 KJV

The reason why xenía/“hospitality” isn’t straight-up agápi/“charity,” the sort of love we oughta be practicing, Ga 5.22 is because of the motive for hospitality: Reciprocity. (Or karma, as people call it.) Be hospitable, and people will be hospitable back. Maybe out of gratitude they’ll even give us some extra reward. Maybe not, but at least they should say thank you. Regardless we should expect something in return, otherwise those people we were loving to, were jerks who didn’t deserve anything from us.

Y’see, hospitality isn’t unconditional love. It’s entirely conditional.

13 January 2016


I had to resist the temptation to title this after one of many, many musical clichés.

My pastor likes to sing Foreigner’s 1984 song, “I Want to Know What Love Is.” He thinks it’s a good example of how the wider American culture really doesn’t know what love is. He’s not wrong. When we hear people speaking of love—in movies, in songs, on talk shows, analyzed in books—it usually falls under one of eight categories.

Seriously, eight. A lot of Christians know about C.S. Lewis’s 1960 book The Four Loves. Haven’t read it, but they sure do know about it, which is why a lot of them are mighty surprised when I bring up eight loves. “Thought there were only four.” Nope. In The Four Loves Lewis went through four ancient Greek words—storgí, fílos, éros, and agápi— which we translate “love,” then analyzed those concepts from the point of view of—I’m gonna be blunt now—a rather bookish introvert who’s read more poetry than gone on dates. I expect this book would’ve been way different after Lewis’s marriage.

There’s actually a fifth ancient Greek word, xenía, which Lewis overlooked. It’s kind of an important concept, and I included it in the list below, as #5. But Lewis’s four first.

  1. Affection (storgí), the “natural love” we feel towards familiar people—how parents feel towards their kids, childhood friends feel towards one another, people feel towards friendly neighbors, owners feel towards pets.
  2. Friendship (fílos), the “love” we feel for people who share our interests—we like doing certain things with them, and like them because of it.
  3. Romance (éros), “being in love”—the intense pleasure taken in another person. Ranges from harmless crushes, to the extreme cases of lust and obsession—which see #8.
  4. Charity (agápi), unconditional, benevolent, self-sacrificing, gracious love. The sort of love God is, 1Jn 4.8, 16 the sort of love the Spirit grows in us, Ga 5.22 the love Paul describes. 1Co 13.4-8 “Biblical love.”
  5. Hospitality (xenía), conditional love, or as I like to call it, fake love. Looks exactly like charity. But it expects to be compensated—with gratitude at the least, profit at the most.
  6. Favoritism, the love we have for favorite things: Beloved foods, clothes, TV shows, cities we visit, sports, songs, musicians, politicians, etc.
  7. Narcissism, the love we have for ourselves, which comes from our self-preservation instinct. Can be used as a gauge of how we oughta love others, Lv 19.18 but more often than not turns into pure selfishness.
  8. Infatuation, lust or obsessive love. Whenever any of the above escalates into the jealous desire to possess the one they love. By this point outsiders, disturbed by how it looks, try to call this anything but love, but the infatuated person still calls it love.

Your own dictionary and thesaurus will likely list more than eight definitions. You may even look at my categories and figure I could’ve lumped them together even more. (Or less.) That’s fair. Some do overlap. Debate it all you like. My point is to show you the many things we English-speakers mean by “love.”

12 January 2016

Can God’s word “return void”?

Depends. Are we really talking God’s word, or our excuse to preach at hardened people?

Isaiah 55.11

So one night I and my friend Jason (not his real name, and you’ll see why) were walking from the car to the coffeehouse. Enroute some vagrant asked us for spare change. Jason got it into his head this was a “divine opportunity”: It’s time to proclaim the gospel to this person! It’s time to get him saved.

That’s how we wasted the next 15 minutes. Yes, wasted. Because the vagrant was: Either he was drunk, or had some condition which made him incoherent. Jason’d ask him questions to determine whether he understood the gospel, and the guy would start rambling about how he believed men and women should be together. In which context I don’t know. (Hey, this article is about context; I had to bring it up at some point.)

Jason kinda had the poor guy cornered in a doorway, pressuring him for some sorta confession of faith, and after he extracted something he considered satisfactory, we went and got that coffee. And debated whether that interaction did the poor vagrant any good.

“He’s not gonna remember any of that in the morning,” I commented.

“He will so!” Jason insisted. “That’s the word of God in him now. It won’t return void.”

If you’re not familiar with Christianese you may not understand the “return void“ bit. I once had a pastor try to explain it this way: “It’s like you send someone a check, but they don’t cash it and send it back to you with ‘void’ written on the front of it.” Why anyone would do that to a check they sent back, I don’t know. But no, that’s not what it means.

The saying comes from this verse:

Isaiah 55.11 KJV
So shall my word be that goeth forth out of my mouth: it shall not return unto me void, but it shall accomplish that which I please, and it shall prosper in the thing whereto I sent it.

Here’s what Jason, and plenty of Christians like him, believes: Say we’re sharing Jesus with someone, and the someone won’t believe what we tell them, no matter what. Well, take comfort in the fact God’s word—which is what we shared with them, ’cause it’s either based on bible, or contains a whole lot of bible quotes—doesn’t return void. It works on them. Even when it doesn’t appear to, for years, it does. It just does.

Why’s this? ’Cause it’s been infused with supernatural divine power.

11 January 2016

Praying like “St. Francis” did.

When you don’t know what to pray, here’s a useful prayer.

You know how when you’re praying in a group, and the prayer leader says something really profound which you wholly agree with, and you can definitely say amen to that? Rote prayers are the same way. Some of them just nail it: It’s exactly what you wanna tell God. So go ahead and borrow their words. They don’t mind. God doesn’t either.

One of the more popular rote prayers floating around out there is “the peace prayer of St. Francis.” Which, let’s be honest, was never written by Giovanni Francesco di Bernardone of Assisi (1181-1226), the Catholic layman-evangelist who founded the Franciscan order. True, those of us who know about Francis’s life can certainly imagine him saying stuff like this, but just like a whole lot of popular internet quotes, ’twasn’t him. The Italians call this la preghiera semplice/“the simple prayer.” I don’t find it all that simple, but it’s a good one to pray.

I prefer translating these things myself, so I took this from the original French. That’s right, French, not vulgar Latin or Italian like Francis spoke. The prayer was anonymously submitted to the magazine La Clochette and published December 1912.

Lord, make me an instrument of your peace.
Where there’s hatred I’ll place love.
Where there’s offense I’ll place forgiveness.
Where there’s discord I’ll place union.
Where there’s error I’ll place truth.
Where there’s doubt I’ll place faith.
Where there’s despair I’ll place hope.
Where there’s darkness I’ll place your light.
Where there’s sadness I’ll place joy.
Oh Master, I don’t seek to be comforted as much as to comfort,
To be understood as much as to understand,
To be loved as much as to love.
For it’s in giving that we receive.
It’s in forgetting that one is found.
It’s in pardoning that we’re pardoned.
It’s in dying that we’re raised to eternal life.

10 January 2016

Does Jesus call himself Messiah?

’Cause some skeptics claim he hasn’t—or that the apostles, namely Paul, put those words in his mouth.

As I pointed out in my piece on Historical Jesus, a number of skeptics claim Jesus didn’t say and do everything we read in the gospels. Or anything. Once they’re done revising him, turns out Jesus did no miracles, wasn’t resurrected, taught nothing, wasn’t even born. He was entirely fabricated by overzealous apostles.

Hogwash, but popular hogwash. ’Cause if Jesus isn’t anything, they don’t have to follow him. And they really don’t wanna, so it’s quite fortuitous for them he turns out to not be anything. It’s almost as if they loaded the dice, innit?

Anyway. The reason I bring ’em up is because every so often, one of the Historical Jesus revisionists’ claims winds up worming its way into Christendom. This is not necessarily a bad thing. The revisionists do like to point out baby Jesus wasn’t really visited by magi while he was still in the manger, and it turns out they’re right; it was years later. Skeptics can be mighty useful when they poke holes in popular culture’s myths and help us get to the real Jesus. They have their uses.

But sometimes one of their false claims gets into Christians’ heads, and we gotta help correct our fellow Christians.

The most common one I bump into is this idea Jesus never called himself Messiah. He never did, skeptics insist; go check your bible. So Christians do—and lo and behold, Jesus never does use those precise words, “I’m Messiah.” Not in English, nor in Aramaic nor Greek. Didn’t say ’em. It’s always others who call him Messiah. And since he didn’t say it… maybe he wasn’t.

Okay, time to clear things up.

08 January 2016

When Christians have no respect for leadership.

While at the same time, inconsistently coveting all their followers.

Jude 1.14-18

I previously explained how Jude referred to the mythology of his day, and how this doesn’t necessarily mean Jude considered these books authoritative.

I bring this up again ’cause Jude quoted 1 Enoch, a fictional firsthand account of heaven as shown to Noah’s great-grandfather Enoch, who went there y’know. Ge 5.24 No it’s not real; it was written in Aramaic, a language which didn’t exist in whatever century Enoch lived in. But it was well-known. Paul even took the idea of the “third heaven” from it, 2Co 12.2 ’cause the third heaven is where paradise is. A copy was even found among the Dead Sea scrolls.

Jude quoted this bit:

Jude 1.14-15 KWL
14 Enoch, the seventh from Adam, prophesied about them,
saying “Look, the Lord comes with myriads of his saints,
15 making judgment upon all, examining every life
against all their irreverent work, irreverently done;
concerning every harsh thing the irreverent sinners said against him.”

…which comes from this passage. (I’m quoting a Greek translation found in the Codex Panopolitanus.)

…that he comes with his myriads and his saints, making judgment upon all. He will destroy all the irreverent, and examine all flesh against all their irreverent work, irreverently done; and harsh words which the irreverent said, and everything which the irreverent sinners said together about him. 1 Enoch 1.9 KWL

Obviously not an exact quote. Jude may have been quoting it from memory. But it’s as if I were preaching on the Day of the LORD, on Jesus’s second coming, and I quoted the Larry Norman song instead of the bible:

There’s no time to change your mind;
The Son has come and you’ve been left behind.

Norman was hardly an infallible prophet, but hey, he rhymes. And like we learned from The Lego Movie, that ain’t nothing. Some people will believe anything put to poetry.

Why do people quote other people? Usually it’s to criticize, but most of the time it’s to prove we’re hardly the only people who believe as we do. Jude was far from the only apostle to teach Jesus is returning and’ll judge the wicked. As we know from the other apostles—but back when Jude wrote his letter, he didn’t yet have their writings to quote from. So he quoted what he did have, off the top of his head: 1 Enoch. It’s not bible, but it’s something. Something his audience knew.

07 January 2016

The bible, in chronological order. More or less.

Because your obsessive-compulsive disorder demanded it.

Some of TXAB’s readers intend to read the bible in a month—or in four weeks, anyway—and have expressed curiosity about reading the bible in chronological order. It’s not enough that the beginning of the world comes first in Genesis, and the end of the world last in Revelation: They want everything sorted out by date.

Okay, fine.

But I will point out this order is debatable. ’Cause of course it is. Since when aren’t Christians gonna debate about who came first, Job or Abraham? Or which letter did Paul write first 1 Thessalonians or Galatians? (My money’s on Galatians. But still.)

So here, for your convenience, is the bible in chronological order. Print it out and check ’em off as you read ’em.

06 January 2016

When churches go very, very wrong.

Sometimes churches are wrong. And sometimes they wander into cult territory.

Cult. /kəlt/ n. A religion directed towards one particular individual or figurehead.
2. A group (usually small) whose religious beliefs and practices are outside the norm: Too controlling, too strange, too devilish.
3. A misplaced devotion to a particular person or thing.
4. A heretic Christian church.

I’ve been throwing this word “cult” around a bit, so I thought I’d better define it. I don’t necessarily mean what your average Christian does by it. Usually they mean definition #4. I mean definition #2.

And sociologists, anthropologists, and other folks whose job descriptions end in -ists, tend to use definition #1. Technically a cult is any religion which has a guru in charge of it. Even Christianity falls under that definition, ’cause Christ Jesus. But in popular culture, “cult” has come to mean a creepy religion. If it weirds ’em out, they call it a cult.

Christians sorta do that too. Didn’t help when Christian academics started using the term to describe heretic churches. Charles S. Braden used it in his 1949 book These Also Believe: A Study of Modern American Cults and Minority Religious Movements to mean

any religious group which differs significantly in one or more respects as to belief or practice from those religious groups which are regarded as the normative expressions of religion in our total culture. Braden xii

To Braden, “cult” meant heretic. And that’s the definition Walter R. Martin went with in his popular book The Kingdom of the Cults. (It’s a book I oughta plug, since it explains just why certain denominations are heretic.) But that’s also the definition you’ll commonly find Evangelical Christians use: Any group which isn’t orthodox is a cult. Jehovah’s Witnesses don’t believe in the trinity; cult. Latter-Day Saints say Jesus is a created being; cult. Christian Scientists teach death is an illusion, thus Jesus didn’t literally die; cult. Doesn’t matter to most Evangelicals whether these groups even consider themselves Christian: The Muslims believe Jesus isn’t God; cult. The Buddhist do too; cult. And so on.

Depending on how Fundamentalist these Evangelicals get—by which I mean how narrow their view of orthodoxy is—everything can become a cult. I grew up in those churches: If they strongly believe women shouldn’t wear makeup, yet your church let ’em do so, they’ll call you a cult. Because to them, makeup is orthodoxy, and you’re not orthodox. Today it’s makeup; tomorrow you’re denouncing God and kissing Satan with tongue.

Of course, with churches that strict and controlling, the cult is sorta on the other foot. (To mix metaphors.)

05 January 2016

Getting drenched in the Holy Spirit.

Spirit baptism is a controversial topic. ’Cause it involves power, and people either covet power, or fear it.

Luke 3.16-17 KWL
16 In reply John told everyone, “Indeed I baptize you in water.
And one stronger than me comes. I’m not able to loose his sandal strap.
He’ll baptize you in the Holy Spirit and fire.
17 The winnowing-shovel is in his hand to thoroughly clean his threshing-floor.
He’ll gather together the grain in his silo.
He’ll burn up the straw with endless fire.”

Getting baptized, ritually washed, in water was not a new idea for John the Baptist’s listeners. Any time they wanted to be clean for worship, they baptized themselves and waited till sundown. John’s baptism, for those who were repentant of their sins, was a little different. But Jesus’s baptism would be way different. It involved the Holy Spirit. And fire.

Before Jesus ascended to heaven, he told his students to wait in Jerusalem for that baptism, Ac 1.4-5 and 10 days later this happened:

Acts 2.1-4 KWL
1 When the 50th day after Passover drew near, all were together in one place.
2 Suddenly a roar came from heaven, like a mighty wind sounds,
and it filled the whole house where they were sitting.
3 Tongues, like fire, were seen distributed to them,
and sat on each one of them, 4 and all were filled with the Holy Spirit.
They began to speak in other tongues,
in whatever way the Spirit gave them the ability.

This, we recognize, is the baptism of the Holy Spirit and fire which both John and Jesus spoke of.

A number of Christians believe this was a one-time deal. The brand-new church, needing a kick in the pants from God to go out and do everything Jesus commanded them to, had God the Holy Spirit specially appear to them, prove he was among them, empower them, and from there they could go out and do the work of mighty Christians. Wouldn’t need to do it twice.

A larger number of Christians believe this so wasn’t a one-time deal. ’Cause it happened again. And again. And again and again and again. Happened to us. Still happens.

04 January 2016

When the sinner’s prayer doesn’t work.

Wait, it doesn’t work? Well, sometimes we do it wrong.

Imagine you shared Jesus with someone. (Hope you are sharing Jesus with people. But anyway.)

Imagine they responded well: They expressed an interest in this Jesus whom you speak of. They believed you when you told ’em Jesus could save them. They wanted to become a Christian right there and then. So you said the sinner’s prayer with them. They recited all the words right after you. They felt happy about it. You felt happy about it. And there was much rejoicing. Yea!

Now imagine it’s a year later and you meet up with that person again. And you find their life hasn’t changed. At all.

They aren’t going to church; they don’t see the point. They aren’t reading the bible; they don’t see the point. They don’t pray; no more than usual, which is the occasional “God, get me out of this and I promise I’ll [offering they never intend to follow through on],” and nothing more. Not even religious feelings, which I admit are usually self-manufactured, but they don’t even have that.

No fruit of the Spirit. They’re not any happier, any more joyful. They’re as impatient as ever, as unkind as ever, and don’t know the difference between love and romance or passion or covetousness. Nothing.

Sinner’s prayer didn’t take.

When Christians haven’t had this experience before, it horrifies them. This person said the sinner’s prayer! It was supposed to work! They called upon Jesus to become their Lord, and take control of their lives! Why didn’t he? I mean, if I were the Holy Spirit, I’d have stepped right in there and unilaterally changed a whole lot of stuff about ’em. Reprogrammed their brain so they’d be happier and more obedient, knocked all the temptations out of their paths, shouted at ’em nice and loud whenever they were about to sin, “DONT.” Wouldn’t that be loving of me?

Well, mighty Calvinist of you. But not all that loving. Love is patient; 1Co 13.4 love doesn’t seek its own way; 1Co 13.5 and God is love. 1Jn 4.16 God might transform a person who has no interest in transformation, but usually he doesn’t care to. He prefers to reward those who earnestly seek him, He 11.6 not those who only turned to Jesus to escape hell, but have no interest in becoming any different than before.

On such people, the sinner’s prayer doesn’t work. It’s a prayer of surrender, and they didn’t surrender.

03 January 2016

The magi and the monstrous king.

How Jesus’s birth got the attention of the powerful… and the infamous.

Matthew 2.1-18

Both Mešíakh/“Messiah” and Hrístos/“Christ” mean king.

It’s a fact most Christians forget. Either we translate these words literally and assume they only mean anointed, or we mix ’em up with the meaning of “Jesus” and figure they mean savior. We treat Christ like Jesus’s surname, and forget it’s his title.

And we forget you couldn’t just wander around ancient Israel and call yourself Messiah or Christ. There were other people who laid claim to that title. Powerful people. Homicidal people. Like Herod the Great, who was only “great” because of all his building projects; as a human being Herod was a monster. Emperor Augustus used to joke he’d rather be Herod’s pig than his son. Herod did execute two of his sons, and since Edomites didn’t eat pork, Augustus’s comment was quite apt.

How’d baby Jesus get on Herod’s bad side? Well, you might know parts of the story, and if you don’t I’m gonna analyze the story in some degree. It begins with some mágoi/“Zoroastrians.” Or as the KJV calls them, “wise men.” Contrary to the Christmas carols, these weren’t kings.

Matthew 2.1-3 KWL
1 When Jesus was born in Bethlehem, Judea, in the days of King Herod,
look: Zoroastrians came to Jerusalem from the east, 2 saying, “Where’s the newborn king of Judea?
For we saw his star in the east, and came to bow before him.”
3 Hearing it, King Herod was agitated, and all Judea with him.

Mágos is Greek for maguš, the old Persian term for Zoroastrian, a follower of the 11th century BC Avestan prophet Zarathustra (Greek Zoroaster). In English this became magus, plural magi.

Problem is, when people look up magi, they have to navigate through ancient Greek beliefs about Zoroastrians… and the Greeks didn’t know squat. Yeah, they had books about Zarathustra and his followers and what they believed and taught. But all of it was based on rumor and conjecture. Zo- in Greek means “life,” and astír means “star,” so they leapt to the conclusion Zoroastrians worshiped stars, and were Babylonian (not Persian) astrologers and magicians. Even the early Christian Fathers repeated these myths. Hence our own word magic comes from magi.

Like Christians and Jews, Zoroastrians are monotheists. They worship Ahura/“Supreme Being,” and he’s mazda/“wise.” They seek wisdom, so “wise men” isn’t a bad description for ’em. Ahura Mazda created the universe and truth. He’s opposed by the Angra Mainyu/“the destructive principle” which produces the chaos and lies in the universe. (Some folks assume this is another, equally powerful god to Ahura Mazda, but he’s not Ahura’s equal.) Ahura’s Spenta Mainyu/“generous principle,” sort of a holy spirit through whom he interacts with the universe, fights the Angra Mainyu. At the End, Ahura Mazda will send a savior, the Sayoshyant, born of a virgin; the dead will be resurrected, and Angra Mainyu will be destroyed.

Notice a few similarities between Zoroastrianism and Christianity? Some pretty significant differences too—so no, they’re not Christians who are just using Avestan words for everything.

01 January 2016

The Statement of Faith. (And what the heck; mine too.)

Ever tried to write your own creeds? Your churches probably have.

Statement of faith /'steɪt.mənt əv 'feɪθ/ n. Or faith statement. A creed: The official theological positions of a religious organization.

Not every church, Christian charity, or not-for-profit-(but really pushing the limits of that law)-religious-organization, holds to the ancient Christian creeds. Unofficially they might; they’re totally orthodox, and believe the same as every other Christian. But they don’t point to the old creeds; they write their own. Which nowadays we call a “statement of faith.”

They do it for various reasons.

  • Their denomination has an official statement of faith, so they figure they’ll just use that one, and sync up with their organization.
  • They wanna write their own. And include all the things they wish the creeds included, like the bible, or how to baptize, or whether it’s okay to swap juice for wine in communion, or whether women can teach. (Or leave out a few of the creeds’ ideas which they don’t like.)
  • They’re bigoted against anything which sounds “too Catholic,” and aren’t aware the creeds predate the Catholics. (Nor care. To them, everything which came before their denomination is automatically Catholic. Except Jesus and the bible. Usually.)
  • They deal with a lot of the aforementioned bigots, or worry they might. So in order to preemptively placate them, they rewrite the Apostles’ Creed, throw in a few Protestant-friendly ideas, and there ya go.
  • They’re legalists, and want to preemptively make sure people know they take many things very, very seriously.

Sometimes these faith statements get ridiculously specific. Sometimes it’s because there was a debate over that issue in the past, so the leadership figured they had to get just that specific. The rest of the time, the leaders are control freaks.

I once applied for a job whose faith statement insisted the millennial reign of Christ Jesus is a literal thousand years, and all prospective employees must believe that. Now, this was a soup kitchen: Exactly why do you need to be a biblical literalist if all you’re gonna do is make sandwiches? Well, the leaders used their particular view of the End Times to scare the needy into turning to Jesus, and if I wound up speaking to one of those folks and telling them any alternate view of the End (namely, the one I hold), I’d undo all their hard work. Y’see? It’s why we gotta check out people’s statements of faith. Sometimes they’re big red warning flags relevant.