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Showing posts from October, 2021

Africanus and Eusebius on Jesus’s two genealogies.

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Eusebius Pamphili was the bishop of Caesarea, Judea, from 314 to 339. He wrote the first full-length Christian history of the church, Historia Ecclesiae / Church History , sometimes called Ecclesiastical History , in part to defend the church as well as give its background. Today’s excerpt is from Church History 1.7, in which he explains why Jesus has two genealogies. Popularly, Christians claim one belongs to his mom, and the other to his adoptive dad. Sometimes they vary about which belongs to whom; frequently Matthew is considered Mary’s, because it appears to have the more legitimate royal claim. (Though I remind you God can anoint anyone king he pleases, as he did Saul, David, Jeroboam, and Jehu; Jesus’s only ancestral “requirement” was he be David’s descendant, and he is in both genealogies.) To help, Eusebius borrows a big long excerpt from fellow Christian historian Sextus Julius Africanus, from his letter to Aristides of Athens, now lost. (Some Christians have tri

Heavens!

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HEAVEN 'hɛ.vən noun . The dwelling place of God, his angels, and debatably good humans after they die. Traditionally depicted as above the sky. 2. A euphemism for God himself. [“Sin displeases heaven.”] 3. The sky, perceived as a vault containing the sun, moon, planets, and stars. 4. A place of bliss. [“This is heaven!”] 5. Short for the kingdom of heaven, i.e. God’s kingdom. 6. The state of being in God’s presence, namely after death. [Heavenly 'hɛv.ən.li adjective .] As you can see, there are multiple definitions of our word “heaven.” But when Christians talk about heaven, we mean the dwelling place of God. Right? Not really. In fact not usually . In my experience, when Christians talk about heaven, we’re actually talking about the kingdom of heaven. In other words, God’s kingdom. Which is meant to happen here on earth . We Christians are supposed to be already living like it’s here—and when Jesus returns, he’ll fully set it up and run it. But too of

God can’t abide sin?

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“God can’t abide sin. It offends him so much, he simply can’t have it in his presence. He’s just that holy.” It’s an idea I’ve heard repeated by many a Christian. Evangelists in particular. It’s particularly popular among people who can’t abide sin. Certain sins offend us so much, we simply can’t have ’em in our presence. We’re just that pure. Well… okay, self-righteous. You can see why Christians have found this concept so easy to adopt, and have been so quick to spread it around. It’s yet another instance of remaking God in our own image, then preaching our remake instead of the real God. Don’t get me wrong. ’Cause Christians do, regularly: I talk about grace, and they think I’m talking about compromise. Or justification. Or nullification. Or compromise. Or liberalism. Whatever reason they can think of to ignore grace, skip forgiveness, disguise revenge as justice, and claim they only have these prejudices and offenses because God has ’em. You claim you practice

The rosary: Meditation… oh, and prayers to Mary.

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Some years ago a reader asked me about rosaries. I gotta admit I don’t have a lot of experience with ’em. Rosaries are a Roman Catholic tradition, and I grew up Fundamentalist —and Fundies are hugely anti-Catholic, so any Catholic traditions are looked at with suspicion and fear. Many Evangelical Protestants are likewise wary of Catholic practices. Very few do rosaries. Evangelicals assume a rosary is a string of prayer beads. Actually it’s not. The rosary is the super-long string of rote prayers you recite, and how you keep track of which prayer you’re on, and how many you have left, is with the beads. Each bead represents one prayer. And most of these prayers are the Ave Maria /“Hail Mary.” It’s prayed from 50 to 150 times. Goes like so. Hail Mary, full of grace; the Lord is with thee. Lk 1.28 Blessed art thou among women, and blessed is the fruit of thy womb, Jesus. Lk 1.42 Holy Mary, mother of God, pray for us sinners, now and at the hour of our death. Amen.

The Five Stupid Teenagers Story.

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Matthew 25.1-13. The Five Stupid Teenagers Story is also called the parable of the virgins, of the maidens, of the bridesmaids; of the wise and foolish virgins, or of the 10 virgins. Usually they’re called virgins ’cause that’s traditionally how people have translated παρθένοις / parthénis : A girl, or unmarried woman, and women back then used to marry mighty young. Like as soon as they attained legal adulthood, so 13 years old. Since they were unmarried, the usual assumption is in that culture they’d be virgins, which is a reasonable assumption. But parthénos was sometimes used in Greek literature to describe young women who weren’t virgins, like in the plays of Sophocles and Aristophanes. Maiden is alternately used to describe them, but maiden historically means the same thing as virgin . And in either case I’m not sure Jesus’s point had anything to do with their virginity nor marital status. More like with their youth. You know how some kids can be wise and clever, and

Shekhinah: Everybody’s favorite non-biblical Hebrew word.

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Shekhinah sɛ.xi'nɑ American ʃɛ'kaɪ.nə noun. The glory of God’s presence. 2. God’s presence. 3. God’s dwelling place. [Shekhinic ʃɛ'kaɪ.nɪk adjective. ] The Hebrew word שכינה / šekhiná , which English-speakers tend to spell “shekhinah” or “shekinah,” isn’t found in the bible. No, really. It comes from the Mishna. Sanhedrin 6.5, Avot 3.2, 6 It refers to God’s presence. More specifically the weight of God’s presence; not in a literal sense, but more like its importance, substantiveness, reality, the fact the Almighty showed up is a really big deal. The King James Version tends to call it his glory. God’s everywhere, and ordinarily not visible. But sometimes he makes his presence more visible than usual. Like when he allowed Moses to see his glory Ex 33.18 —from the back, anyway; from the front might crush Moses. Or when the Hebrews saw God’s glory in his temple, 2Ch 7.3 or when Stephen had a vision of it. Ac 7.55 None of these folks were talking a

Literally.

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The word literally has two definitions. And they contradict one another. Literally 'lɪd.ər.əl.li or ˈlɪt.rəl.li adjective . In a most basic and exact sense, without metaphor, allegory, exaggeration, nor distortion. 2. Used for emphasis or strong feeling, though not precisely true. I know; plenty of people insist the second definition isn’t the proper definition, and anyone who uses the word this way is wrong. Problem is, words are not absolutes. I know; plenty of people wish they were, and insist they are. (It’s why people still buy the original edition of Noah Webster’s dictionary instead of something up-to-date, with current definitions.) Words aren’t defined by historical precedent, like laws, treaties, or biblical doctrines. They’re defined, and regularly redefined, by popular use. By popular vote, so to speak. Once enough people use a word “wrong,” the wrong definition becomes a second definition. Case in point: Our word “awful.” Used to mean “full of awe.

The four hells.

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C.S. Lewis famously wrote a book called The Four Loves , about four of the five Greek words which tend to be translated “love.” Two, ἀγάπη / agápi and φίλος / fílos , are in the New Testament; two, ἔρος / éros and στοργή / storyí , are in the Septuagint; and Lewis skipped ξενία / xenía , which is also in the Septuagint. Lewis wanted to highlight the first four, talk about the slight differences in meaning, and riff on them about how people love in different ways. People hear of this book and assume, “Wow, Greek is so precise and exact. It’s got four different words for love!” Yeah but so do we . These five words can just as easily be translated charity, friendship, romance, affection, and courtesy . Check out any thesaurus and you’ll find we have way more than five words for love. English is just as precise as we want it be. I say this by way of introduction: There are three ancient Greek words we tend to translate “hell.” Problem is, same as with love, translators

The Dives and Lazarus Story.

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Luke 16.19-31. This story is often called the story of the rich man and Lazarus—or Lazarus and the rich man, depending on who oughta come first, and since it’s not really about Lazarus, stands to reason the rich man should come fist. Traditionally this man’s been called Dives (usually pronounced 'daɪ.viz instead of like the verb) ’cause that’s what he’s called in verse 19 in the Vulgate ; dives is Latin for “rich.” So I’m gonna call him Dives; it saves time. Every once in a while some literalist insists this isn’t actually a parable. This is the only story where Jesus gives someone a name, so they figure it must mean something. So they claim Jesus was straight-up talking about an actual pauper named Lazarus. Some of ’em even claim this Lazarus is Jesus’s friend Lazarus of Bethany, whom Jesus later raised from the dead Jn 11.1-44 —and this is how Lazarus died. It’s a theory which makes no sense, because Lazarus’s family asked Jesus to come cure him; they didn’t just d

The gospel of Thomas.

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There are four gospels in the New Testament. That fact was pretty much established in the first century: The gospels which ancient Christians assumed were written by Matthew, Mark, Luke, and John, are considered the canonical gospels. They’re the valid ones. Others, not so much. For good reason. If you’ve ever read those other gospels, they read like obvious Christian fanfiction. They get Jesus all wrong. He’s less patient, more angry or judgey, more legalistic or more libertarian, or the author puts words in his mouth which are just plain heretic. It’s kinda obvious why the ancient Christians didn’t put ’em in their bibles. The Gospel of Thomas is much less obvious. Yeah, but it’s because we don’t understand them that we can’t just definitively say, “Oh, it’s heretic.” It might be heretic, and some of the ancient Christians, like Eusebius of Caesarea and Origen of Alexandria, were entirely sure it was. There are some sayings in there which are kinda weird, which we don’t

God, the unmovable first mover.

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When Christian apologists try to argue in favor of God’s existence, one of the more popular arguments is the “first cause” idea. If you’re not familiar with that name, it’s because all sorts of people refer to it by all sorts of terms. “Prime mover,” “unmoved mover,” “unmovable mover,” or “first mover”; “first cause,” “final cause,” “uncaused cause,” “universal cause,” or “universal causation”; “causal argument,” “argument from motion,” or “cosmological argument”; or simply “nothing comes from nothing.” Formally it’s the cosmological argument. Sometimes it’s called “the Kalam,” which is short for “the kalam cosmological argument.” Which is a lousy abbreviation for the idea: Kalam is short for عِلْم الكَلام / ‘ilm al-kalām , “the science of words,” i.e. Muslim apologetics. The kalam cosmological argument is simply the way Muslims phrase the first cause idea. It’s grown popular because apologist William Lane Craig likes to use it. Hey, truth is truth, whether we get it from Mus

God’s existence. In case you don’t consider it a given.

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The existence of God, and proving it, isn’t really a theology subject. It’s a Christian apologetics subject. Theology is the study of God—and it takes God’s existence as a given. Of course he exists. Duh. Otherwise what’s there to study? The bible likewise takes God’s existence as a given. Genesis 1.1 KJV In the beginning God created the heaven and the earth.   John 1.1 KJV In the beginning was the Word, and the Word was with God, and the Word was God. The authors of the scriptures had to explain Jesus’s existence, but they never do explain God’s. Because he’s just there. Existing. Creating. Not battling the universe, nor Titans and other gods, so he could reign over them and control the elements: He created the universe. Humans and devils might stand against him from time to time, but it’s no contest as to who’s right, and who’s gonna win. So we don’t have to argue God’s existence to fellow Christians. Should have to, either. If a Christian doesn’t believe in

You realize other religions have their own apologetics, right?

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About three years ago, on a Friday, I was walking to work when I was stopped by a street preacher. He wanted to say hi, strike up a conversation, find out a little about me… and invite me to synagogue that night. Yeah, synagogue . He’s Jewish. I was just walking past his synagogue. He’s hardly the first evangelist from another religion I’ve encountered. I meet Mormons all the time; I walk a lot, and they bike past me, and sometimes they stop and chat. When I lived in Sacramento, the Muslims were mighty active in my neighborhood, and the Jehovah’s Witnesses came calling every Saturday morning. I had a Buddhist roommate for a few years, and picked his brain about Buddhism. (Then led him to Jesus, ’cause I do that.) I have a Buddhist coworker and pick his brain now. I’ve had Wiccan coworkers; same deal. I would’ve had a long interesting discussion with the Jew, but I hate to be late to work, so maybe some other time. I realize certain Christians are gonna be outraged I dared l

The Shrewd Butler Story. And mammon.

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Luke 16.1-9. As you know, Jesus said you can’t be a slave to both God and Mammon, Mt 6.24 and as a result people tend to think of Mammon as a person. It’s not really. Whenever Jesus and the Pharisees spoke about mammon, they meant money, and they were speaking of it negatively. Exactly like we do whenever we describe money as “lucre.” Nobody ever talks about clean lucre; it’s always filthy lucre; it’s always money used wrong, used for evil. Same deal with mammon, which is why I translated τῷ ἀδίκῳ μαμωνᾷ / to adíko mamoná ( KJV “the unrighteous mammon”) as “filthy lucre.” You come across lucre in this story, it means mammon . Got it? Good. Jesus tells this story right after the Prodigal Son Story, Lk 15.11-32 if that context helps: A man squandered all his money, and when he came home his father threw him an expensive party; and his brother objected to the wastefulness (or to use old-timey English, the prodigality ) of both the wasteful man and his extravaga

The Didache: How’d the earliest Christians behave?

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In the first century, Christian leaders wrote a “teaching” for their newbies: Stuff they felt new Christians oughta know and believe. Over time it’s become known as the didache , from its first line, Didahí Kyríu diá ton dódeka apostólon toís éthesin , “The Master’s teaching to the gentiles, from the 12 apostles.” Medieval western Christians lost their copies of it sometime in the 800s, and assumed it was gone forever, but Ethiopian Christians kept a version of it among their sacred literature, and an 11th-cenutry copy in the Codex Hierosolymitanus was rediscovered by Philotheos Bryennios in 1873. Historians notice a lot of similarities between the Didache and what the Qumran community taught in the Dead Sea Scrolls. It’s considered a Jewish-Christian catechism , a lesson to be memorized, and eventually practiced. Whether it’s precisely as the Twelve taught, we’ve no idea. But it’s safe to say it’s what a lot of early Christians taught. In fact, many early Christians felt the

“If you don’t work, you don’t eat.”

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2 Thessalonians 3.10. Can’t tell you how many times I’ve heard this verse quoted by people who don’t wanna give to the needy: 2 Thessalonians 3.10 KJV For even when we were with you, this we commanded you, that if any would not work, neither should he eat. Years ago, beggars used to sit at the entrance to every grocery store parking lot, with a sign saying “Help me” or “Looking for work” or some sad story which might get people to give ’em their spare change. That’s not hyperbole: Every grocery store parking lot. They were everywhere. So the city council passed an ordinance: Can’t beg within 40 feet of a driveway or intersection. Not every beggar knows this, of course. A few weeks ago I walked past a woman begging at the edge of a driveway. I tried to warn her what she was doing was illegal, but she didn’t listen. Pretty sure she listened to the cops which later came by and ticketed her. I’ve seen ’em do it to other beggars. I don’t know how much they get from sitting

Ask prophets follow-up questions.

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Hypothetical situation here. Let’s say you’re having lunch with a friend, and the friend gets a phone call mid-lunch, and has to take it; it’s someone important. So you eat while your friend gabs on the phone a bit. Then your friend hangs up. “Sorry about that,” she says. “By the way he says hi, and wanted to tell you something.” “Okay,” you say, “let’s hear it.” “He says he knows you have a presentation coming up, and it’s gonna go really well, but he wants you to make sure you don’t wear something that’ll offend the client.” “Like what?” you say. You already know better than to wear your “It’s not drinking alone if your dog is with you” T-shirt to such meetings. “I dunno. Something offensive, I guess.” “Can you call or text him back and get specifics?” Now let’s change this story ever so slightly. ’Cause duh, it’s a parable. The friend is a prophet, and the important guy on the phone is the Holy Spirit. (You’re still you.) Unlike a phone, you never hang up; the Spir

When you know Jesus, you know God.

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At the beginning of John’s gospel we read, John 1.18 KJV No man hath seen God at any time; the only begotten Son, which is in the bosom of the Father, he hath declared him . God, being spirit, Jn 4.24 is invisible to us material creatures. So in order for the folks in the Old Testament to see him, he had to show them a visible representation of himself. It’s not literally himself; it can’t be, because he himself is invisible. So the Old Testament folks got to see a burning bush, a column of cloud, or a pillar of fire, which represented the L ORD ’s presence. (And notice how he kept deliberately choosing representations which had no solid form. Hope you can recognize why.) But in Jesus the Nazarene, God presents something which is exactly himself. Visible, so we can see him. Easy to hear and understand—when we’re really listening. A fully accurate depiction of who God is. You wanna know God? Get to know Jesus. John 14.8-11 KJV 8 Philip saith unto him, Lord, shew us

The Bigger Barns Story.

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Luke 12.13-21. People wanna be rich. Which I get. I’ve never been rich. My parents are retired and comfortable, but that’s only because their investments paid off: They didn’t have that kind of money while I was growing up. So I experienced food stamps, school lunch subsidies, thrift stores, buses, and free-clinic healthcare. I’ve been poor as an adult too. Not homeless; I nearly got that far. But I definitely learned how to get by on $5 a month. If that. Poverty sucks. And not just because, in a thousand little ways, American society is no help at getting people out of poverty. Really, you can only save money when you have money—when you can afford to buy in bulk, or get the higher-level plan which happens to offer deep discounts, or afford the $100 shoes which last two years instead of the $10 shoes which last a month. (Well, three months with duct tape.) Our culture’s popular myth is “Pull yourself up by your own bootstraps,” but y’notice most of the people who say tha

Tongues build up the individual.

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1 Corinthians 14.1-4. Most of the time when Christians quote this particular passage about speaking in tongues, they quote verse 4 thisaway. 1 Corinthians 14.4 NIV Anyone who speaks in a tongue edifies themselves, but the one who prophesies edifies the church. Yeah, tongues are okay, but . But but but. Except the word but isn’t in the original text of this verse. The word which gets translated but in nearly every English-language bible, is δέ / de . It’s a conjunction which indicates the speaker just started a new sentence, and the new sentence is logically connected to the old sentence. You can, as bibles do most of the time, just leave it untranslated. Or, if you really, really wanna connect it to the previous sentence ’cause they fit together just so well, a semicolon will work. Thing is, whenever translators think there’s a contrast between the two sentences, they can’t just translate de as a new sentence, a semicolon, or even “and.” They gotta turn it into a