Showing posts with label #Background. Show all posts
Showing posts with label #Background. Show all posts

19 May 2024


Pentecost is the Christian name for the Feast of Weeks, or שָׁבֻעֹת֙/Šavuót: Seven weeks after Passover, at which time the ancient Hebrews harvested their wheat. Ex 34.22 On 6 Sivan in the Hebrew calendar, the 50th day after Passover, they were expected to come to temple and present a grain offerng to the LORD. Dt 16.9-12 Oh, and tithe a tenth of it to celebrate with—and every third year, put that tithe in the community granary.

Our word comes from the Greek τὴν ἡμέραν τῆς πεντηκοστῆς/tin iméran tis pentikostís, “the 50th day” Ac 2.1 —the Greek term for Šavuót.

Why do Christians celebrate a Hebrew harvest festival? (And have separate “harvest parties” in October?) Well we don’t celebrate it Hebrew-style: We consider it the last day of Easter, and we celebrate it for a whole other reason. In the year 33—the year Jesus died, rose, and was raptured—the Holy Spirit descended upon Jesus’s new church on Pentecost. Happened like so:

Acts 2.1-4 NRSVue
1When the day of Pentecost had come, they were all together in one place. 2And suddenly from heaven there came a sound like the rush of a violent wind, and it filled the entire house where they were sitting. 3Divided tongues, as of fire, appeared among them, and a tongue rested on each of them. 4 All of them were filled with the Holy Spirit and began to speak in other languages, as the Spirit gave them ability.

The speaking-in-tongues part is why the 20th century Christian movement which has a lot of tongues-speaking in it, is called Pentecostalism. Weirdly, a lot of us Pentecostals never bother to keep track of when Pentecost rolls around. I don’t get it. I blame anti-Catholicism a little. Anyway, Luke goes on:

Acts 2.5-13 NRSVue
5Now there were devout Jews from every people under heaven living in Jerusalem. 6And at this sound the crowd gathered and was bewildered, because each one heard them speaking in the native language of each. 7Amazed and astonished, they asked, “Are not all these who are speaking Galileans? 8And how is it that we hear, each of us, in our own native language? 9Parthians, Medes, Elamites, and residents of Mesopotamia, Judea and Cappadocia, Pontus and Asia, 10Phrygia and Pamphylia, Egypt and the parts of Libya belonging to Cyrene, and visitors from Rome, both Jews and proselytes, 11Cretans and Arabs—in our own languages we hear them speaking about God’s deeds of power.” 12All were amazed and perplexed, saying to one another, “What does this mean?” 13But others sneered and said, “They are filled with new wine.”

Christians like to call this “the first Pentecost.” Obviously it wasn’t; the first Pentecost, or Šavuót, or Feast of Weeks, was after the Exodus. It’s when every devout Jew on earth was bringing their grain offerings to temple on that very day, 25 May 33. And suddenly a house full of Galileans broke out in every language they knew—spoken to as if to them personally.

Got their attention.

22 April 2024

Passover: When God saved the Hebrews.

“Why don’t we celebrate Passover?” asked one of my students, when I once taught on the topic.

“We do,” I said. “Christians call it Pascha or Pascua or Páques. But in languages with a lot of German words mixed in, we call it Easter. And obviously we do it way different than you see in the bible.”

So different, English-speaking people routinely assume Easter and Passover are two entirely different holidays. I can’t argue with this assumption. Christians don’t bother to purge our homes of yeast or leavening. Don’t cook lamb—nor do we practice the modern Jewish custom of not having lamb, ’cause there’s no temple in Jerusalem to ritually sacrifice a lamb in. Don’t put out the seder plate. Don’t tell the Exodus story. Don’t have the kids ask the Four Questions. Don’t hide the afikomen and have the kids search for it—although both holidays have eggs, and we do have the kids look for eggs.

Well, some Christians observe Passover as a separate holiday. Some of us even celebrate it Hebrew-style, as spelled out in the scriptures, as in Exodus and Deuteronomy. But more often, Christians do as Messianic Jews recommend—and Messianic Jews borrow their traditions less from the bible and more from the Conservative Judaism movement. (Which, contrary to their name, ain’t all that conservative.) Their haggadah—their order of service—is nearly always adapted from Orthodox or Conservative prayer books, which means it dates from the 10th century or later.

Yes, some Messianic Jewish customs come from the Mishna, so they do date back to the first century. Still, Mishnaic practices weren’t standard practices; not even in the 10th century. Just as Christians celebrate Christmas every which way, Jews then and now got to choose their own customs. Hence families have unique customs, and various synagogues emphasize various things. Medieval Jewish communities in eastern Europe, north Africa, Spain, and the middle east, all came up with their individual haggadahs. (As did Samaritans.)

The point of the haggadah is to teach the Exodus story to children. And remember, Jesus’s students weren’t children. Teenagers certainly, but still legal adults who already knew the Exodus story: If they hadn’t heard it at home, Jesus would’ve taught it to them personally, and they’d have celebrated several Passovers together by the time of his last supper. So, just as some families don’t tell the nativity story every Christmas once the kids get older, don’t be surprised if Jesus skipped the haggadah’s customary Four Questions (what’s with the matzot, why are bitter herbs part of the meal, why roasted meat in particular, and why does the food gets dipped twice) as redundant.

Christians don’t always realize this. Nor do Messianic Jews. So whenever they attend a Passover seder, or ritual dinner, and hear whatever haggadah the leader came up with, they routinely think it’s so profound how Jesus “practiced” and “brought such meaning and fulfillment” to these customs. Even though it’s highly unlikely he practiced any of the present-day customs. It’s pure coincidence his ministry “fulfilled” them. But y’know, not every Christian believes in coincidence.

09 April 2024


To give you a better sense of how ancient Israelis felt about Samaritans, you gotta think about how the average conservative Evangelical in the United States feels… about Muslims.

Yeah, there y’go. Distrust. Uncertainty. Irrational fear. Their common claim is all Muslims believe the same as certain warped terrorists do—that their strict interpretations of the Quran and Hadith authorize them to violently fight and oppress the people they consider pagan. And that they wanna implement their customs (i.e. sharia law) in this country, as if it were even legal. (Nevermind the fact a number of Christian nationalists among them are plotting to do precisely the same thing to Americans with their messed-up interpretations of the Old Testament.)

Samaritans had a similar reputation in ancient Judea. The Judeans figured they were right, and Samaritans wrong. Really wrong. Dangerously wrong. They considered them heretics, pagans, and foreigners who shouldn’t even be in their land; and had nothing to do with them.

And Samaritans believed precisely the same thing right back at Judeans. They considered themselves the actual descendants of Abraham, Isaac, and Jacob; the real successors and keepers of Moses’s commands, the true servants of God. To Samaritans, the Judeans were the heretics and foreigners; a bunch of Babylonians who moved to Jerusalem, built a temple, and started worshiping God weirdly. Pharisees added all these extra books to the bible (the books from Joshua to Chronicles—or if we’re following the Christian book-order of the Old Testament, from Joshua to Malachi), plus a whole bunch of rabbinical loopholes which the Samaritans found hypocritical and offensive. Worse, the Judeans had all this wealth and political might—and heretics with power is frightening innit?

Samaritans still exist, by the way. They never went anywhere. Lots became Christian, but many stayed Samaritan, stayed in the land, and survived the Romans, Rashiduns, Ummayads, Abbasids, Fatimids, Crusaders, Ayyubids, Mamluks, Mongols, Ottomans, Brits, and Israelis. Still think Jews and Christians are heretics.

Oh, there are parallels aplenty between Judeans and Samaritans back then, and Christians and Muslims today. And let’s not forget the hate crimes: Some Judean would get a little political power, and decide to go into Samaria and slaughter a bunch of Samaritans. Some Samaritan would get vengeful and attack Judeans as they traveled through Samaritan territory. Not for any good reason; solely because of old grudges. By Jesus’s day this behavior had been going on for the past 400 years. Like the Israeli-Palestinian situation, but without explosions.

Gotta remember that animosity, fear, and rage they had towards one another, whenever we read about Jesus visiting Samaria.

05 May 2023

The 13 tribes of Israel. (Yes, 13. I didn’t miscount.)

The Old Testament tends to focus on the history of Israel, by which it means the descendants of Jacob ben Isaac, whom a man—probably an angel—renamed Israel after their wrestling match. Ge 32.28 Jacob’s descendants are regularly called בְּנֵ֣י יִשְׂרָאֵ֔ל/benéi Yišraél, “children of Israel” (KJV “sons of Israel”). Ex 1.1

Jacob had 12 sons through four different women, and all the “children of Israel” are descended from these sons. These sons are also known as “the 12 tribes of Israel,” each tribe named for each son. In English, the sons are

  • Sons of Leah: Reuben, Simeon, Levi, Judah, Issachar, Zebulun. Ge 35.23
  • Sons of Rachel: Joseph, Benjamin. Ge 35.24
  • Sons of Bilhah: Dan, Naphtali. Ge 35.25
  • Sons of Zilpah: Gad, Asher. Ge 35.26

They’re listed in various orders, but Reuben, the firstborn, tends to come first. However, Israel reassigned the birthright—the patriarchal obligations of the eldest son to care for the family after his father died, represented by a double portion of inheritance—to his favorite son, Rachel’s eldest son, Joseph.

Because of Joseph’s double portion, he’s represented by two tribes, named for Joseph’s sons Manasseh and Ephraim. They’re the tribes of Joseph. And you’ll notice Joseph is seldom called a tribe… unless you count that one time in Revelation, Rv 7.8 in which “Joseph” probably stands in for Ephraim, ’cause Manasseh got listed two verses before. Rv 7.6 Anyway. Manasseh is sometimes called a “half tribe,” Js 13.29 not because Manasseh is half of Joseph, but because half of Manasseh’s land was east of the Jordan river, and half west. And since Israel put Joseph’s younger son Ephraim first, Ge 48.17-20 precedence passed to that tribe. The Prophets regularly refer to northern Israel as “Ephraim” for this reason. Is 7.9, 11.13, Jr 31.20, Ho 5.3, 7.8, Zc 9.13

Twelve sons, but one of them is represented by two tribes, actually produces 13 tribes. Which I’ll list alphabetically:

  1. Asher.
  2. Benjamin.
  3. Dan.
  4. Ephraim.
  5. Gad.
  6. Issachar.
  7. Judah.
  8. Levi.
  9. Manasseh.
  10. Naphtali.
  11. Reuben.
  12. Simeon.
  13. Zebulun.

So why aren’t they called 13 tribes? Two reasons.

First and foremost: The writers of the bible, and probably God too, really like the number 12. The ancient Sumerians divided the year into 12 months, marked ’em with the zodiac (whatever constellation is highest in the sky at night), and throughout middle eastern culture 12 became the number of completeness, fulfillment, unity, and perfection. Thirteen? Not so much. Not that it’s unlucky; that superstition came from the Romans. But middle easterners liked 12 way better than 13 or 11.

Plus the LORD turned the entire tribe of Levi into a special priestly caste. He gave them “no inheritance”—that is, no land apart from 48 cities. Js 21 Instead of land, Moses explained, the LORD was their inheritance, Js 13.33 meaning whenever people brought food and animals to the LORD as offerings and ritual sacrifices, the Levites, in their capacity as the LORD’s priests, got to eat ’em. Dt 18.1 So they shouldn’t actually need any land for farming and ranching.

So geographically, there are only 12 tribes. Thirteen tracts of land (remember, Manasseh had land on either side of the river—yep, there’s a 13 again), designated for the 12 people-groups descended from Israel. The Levite cities were scattered all over these tribes, and really anybody could live in the cities, not just Levites. Particularly in the larger cities, like Hebron, Shechem, or Ramoth-Gilead.

03 April 2023

The legality of Jesus’s trial.

When you read the gospel of John, but skip the other three gospels—the synoptics—y’might get the idea Jesus never even had a trial. In John:

  • Jesus gets arrested.
  • He’s taken right to the former head priest Annas’s house for an unofficial trial.
  • From there, to Joseph Caiaphas’s house.
  • Then to Pontius Pilate’s fortress.
  • Then to Golgotha.

No conviction, no sentence; just interviews followed by execution. Same as would be done in any country with no formal judicial system: They catch you, they interrogate you, they free or shoot you.

But both Judea and Rome did have a formal system. John doesn’t show it because the other gospels do. John was written to fill in the gaps in the other gospels’ stories—which include Jesus’s formal trials. There were two: The one before the Judean senate, and the other before the Roman prefect. The senate, presided over by head priest Caiaphas, found Jesus guilty of blasphemy and sedition. In contrast Pontius publicly stated he didn’t find Jesus guilty of anything—but he didn’t care enough to free him, and sent Jesus to his death all the same.

Was Jesus guilty of blasphemy? Only if he weren’t actually the Son of Man. But of course the senate absolutely refused to believe that’s who he is.

Either way, Jesus actually was guilty of sedition. I know, I know: Christians wanna insist Jesus is absolutely innocent. He never sinned y’know. But this “sedition” has nothing to do with sin. Jesus is the legitimate Messiah, the king of Israel and Judea, anointed by God to rule that nation and the world. He’s Lord. But that’s a threat to everyone who figures they’re lord—particularly the lords of Israel at that time. To Caiaphas, Herod, and Caesar, “Jesus is Lord” is sedition.

To leadership today it still is. Many of them don’t realize this, ’cause they don’t think of Jesus as any real threat to their power. Especially after they neuter him, by convincing his supporters he’d totally vote for them and their party—and his so-called followers buy it, and follow their parties instead of Jesus. So it stands to reason our leadership isn’t worried about Jesus. Yet.

But in the year 33, Jesus was tangibly standing on the earth, in a real position to upend the status quo, and was therefore a real threat to the lords of Israel at the time. Whether we’re talking emperors, prefects, tetrarchs, senators, synagogue presidents, or scribes who were used to everyone following their spins on the scriptures. To all these folks, Jesus was competition. And needed to be crushed.

Following Jesus instead of these other lords: Sedition. Still is. But not against God’s Law. It’s only against human customs, so Jesus isn’t guilty of sin in God’s eyes; stil totally sinless. Relax.

Thing is, Christians don’t wanna think of Jesus as guilty of anything. We wanna defend him against everything. We don’t wanna think of his conviction and trials as valid. We don’t wanna imagine his execution was a function of a corrupt system; worse, that perhaps our own existing systems are just as corrupt, and if his first coming had taken place today, we’d’ve killed him too. Nor do we wanna recognize sentencing him to death is in any way parallel to the way we depose him as the master of our lives, and prioritize other things over him. We don’t wanna think of his trial as a simple miscarriage of justice; we’d rather imagine it as illegal.

This is why, every Easter, you’re gonna hear various Christians claim Jesus’s trial wasn’t legal. That the Judeans had broken all their own laws in order to arrest him and hold his trial at night, get him to testify against himself, and get him killed before anyone might find out what they were up to. It certainly feels illegal: If you ever heard tell of a suspect arrested at midnight, tried and convicted at 2AM, and executed at noon, doesn’t the whole thing smell mighty fishy?

14 March 2023

The Pharisees: Those in the first century who 𝘧𝘰𝘭𝘭𝘰𝘸𝘦𝘥 God.

PHARISEE 'fɛr.ə.si noun. Adherent of a first-century denomination of the Hebrew religion, which emphasized the widespread teaching of the Law, and evolved into today’s Judaism.
2. A hypocrite. [Thanks to Jesus’s regular condemnation of hypocrites among the Pharisees.]
[Pharisaic fɛr.ə'seɪ.ɪk adjective, Pharisaism fɛr.ə'seɪ.ɪz.əm noun.]

People nowadays don’t really know much about the Pharisees—other than they opposed Jesus an awful lot, and he called ’em hypocrites right back. Mt 23.13, 15, 23, 25, 27, 29 So there’s a lot of false information floating around about ’em. Stuff like this:

  • “BUT THEY WERE HYPOCRITES.” Yeah, some definitely were. Otherwise Jesus wouldn’t’ve had to denounce their hypocrisy. But be fair: A lot of us Christians are hypocrites. A lot of us humans are hypocrites. Hypocrisy is universal. Singling out the Pharisees just means we’re gonna ignore our own tendencies towards phony behavior.
  • “THEY WERE LEGALIST.” Pharisees were all about teaching the Law, so as a result Christians assume they were all about rules. All about precisely, exactly, nitpickingly following God’s commands to every last detail. Pure legalism. And works righteousness Supposedly Pharisees believed God saved them because they perfectly followed the Law. Thing is, if that were true, John the Baptist wouldn’t have to shout at them to stop sinning, and stop taking their salvation for granted just because they were Abraham’s descendants. Mt 3.7-10 Because—same as us Christians—some were legalists… and some were libertines, who figured God forgives all, so do as you please.
  • “IT’S A POLITICAL PARTY, NOT A DENOMINATION.” Which they claim ’cause Flavius Josephus called ’em a political party—and he was Pharisee, so he oughta know. And it’s easy to see why: There was no separation of temple and state back then. When that’s the case, denominations are political parties. That’s what they turn into, ’cause they pursue power exactly the same way parties do, whether it’s Calvinists and Anabaptists in medieval Geneva, Puritans and Traditionalists in early modern England, Catholics and Protestants in northern Ireland, or Pharisees and Sadducees in ancient Israel. They were both.
  • “THEY UNIVERSALLY HATED JESUS.” They did not. We all know exceptions from the bible, like Nicodemus. We also forget: Every synagogue Jesus taught in was a Pharisee synagogue. His title rabbí, meaning “[school]master,” was a Pharisee title. His apostle Paul, who wrote a big chunk of the New Testament, continued to call himself Pharisee long after he became Christian. Ac 23.6 The Pharisees whom Jesus tangled with in the gospels certainly didn’t care for him—but we certainly can’t say all.

Okey, let’s get to facts about Pharisees.

21 December 2022

The magi show up.

Matthew 2.1-3.

A fact too many Christians forget is our words Messiah and Christ both mean king. We tend to translate these words literally—as “anointed [one]”—and forget what Jesus was anointed to do, and presume he was only anointed to save us from sin. He did that too, but he didn’t need any anointing for that. Anybody can do great things. But Hebrew and Christian custom is to anoint people to lead.

Because Messiah means king, you couldn’t just wander ancient Israel and call yourself Messiah. It’s a loaded title. It means you’re king. It also heavily implies the person who currently holds that job (unless he’s your dad and he arranged for your anointing, like King David ben Jesse did with his son Solomon 1Ki 1.32-40) is not king. Not the legitimate king, anyway. He’ll have to be overthrown.

In 5BC the king of Judea was Herod bar Antipater, and a lot of people were entirely sure he wasn’t the legitimate king. For the past century and a half the head priests had taken over the role of king, but 32 years before, the Romans made Herod king. He was neither a priest nor related to King David; he was an Idumean (i.e. Edomite) whose people had been grafted into Judea, and whose father worked for the Romans. God didn’t anoint him king; Marc Antony had.

And Herod was super paranoid about anyone who might try to overthrow him. ’Cause many had tried, and failed. Herod’s own family members, including his own kids, tried and failed. He knew the Judeans didn’t want him there. It’s why all his palaces were fortresses, in case he had to defend himself from his own countrymen; it’s why most of his bodyguard were Europeans, not fellow middle easterners. So you don’t wanna get on Herod’s bad side. Caesar Augustus used to joke he’d rather be Herod’s pig than his son. (Herod executed three of his sons, and since Judeans 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 a bit. It begins with some people whom the KJV calls “wise men.” Contrary to the Christmas carols, these weren’t kings.

Matthew 2.1-3 KWL
1 At the time Jesus is born in Bethlehem, Judea,
in the days of King Herod,
look: Magi from the east come to Jerusalem,
2 saying, “Where’s the newborn king of the Judeans?
For we see his star in the east,
and we come to worship him.”
3 Hearing this agitated King Herod,
and all Jerusalem with him.

Triggering Herod was dangerous, but the magi didn’t know any better. More about Herod later, though if you want his backstory I already wrote about it.

These wise men are magi (Greek μάγοι/máyë) whom our nativity crêches tend to depict them as two white guys and a black guy, wearing either turbans or European-style gold crowns. Matthew states they came from the east, so they were Asian, not European and African. (“But they could’ve been Europeans and Africans who went east study with the magi!” Yeah, unlikely.) There’s also a common western assumption they were kings, but there’s no evidence of this.

20 December 2022

King Herod the Worst.

When Jesus was born, Judea was ruled by “Herod the Great,” as he’s commonly called. I don’t know who first gave him the title “the Great,” and loads of people—myself included—have pointed out the man was far from a great human being; he was a murderous tyrant. As achievements go, he did get way more done than the subsequent members of the Herod family. But in terms of character he’s the worst. Hence the title of this piece.

Lemme backtrack through history by way of introduction. So Isaac ben Abraham had two sons, Esau and Jacob. Jacob’s descendants became Israel, and Esau’s descendants became אֱדוֹם/Edom, a nation located just southeast of Judah, which likewise spoke Hebrew and likewise did a rotten job of worshiping the LORD. And yes, they did know and worship the LORD; one of Edom’s more devout examples was Job. Yes, that Job. The guy with the book about him. (No he didn’t live before Abraham’s day; that’s just a weird young-earth creationist belief. All the names in his book are Edomite, and his book was written in sixth-century Hebrew.) Edom had a really long history of being subservient to Israel: First it was conquered by King David ben Jesse, 2Sa 8.14 and made a tributary state to Israel. When Israel split into Ephraim in the north and Judah in the south, sometimes Edom was ruled by one, sometimes the other; either way they weren’t big fans of Israelis. They rejoiced when Babylon conquered Judah in the early 500s BC, and were annoyed when the Babylonian Jews returned to found Judea in the 400s.

In the 300s BC, the Edomites themselves were exiled from their land—shoved out by the conquering Nabatean Empire. They were forced to resettle west of their old land, in southern Judea. This land became Ἰδουμαία/Iduméa—which is simply the Greek word for Edom. In 110BC, king and head priest John Hyrcanus 1 of Judea decided to take the land back, conquered Idumea, and told the Idumeans—who are ethnically the same as Judeans, y’know—they could stay there only if they followed the Law. Historians like to describe it as forcibly assimilating them, but the Idumeans could’ve fled to Egypt you know. But they didn’t; they stayed. By Jesus’s day they had largely assimilated into the rest of Judea. They’re Jews now.

(Yeah, there are various Christians who claim Jordanians are descendants of the Edomites. They’re not. They are descendants of Abraham; just not through Esau.)

Anyway 37 years after the Judean conquest, an Edomite named ܗܶܪܳܘܕ݂ܶܣ/Horódos was born to a former governor of Idumea, Antipater bar Antipas, in 73BC. Herod (Greek Ἡρῴδης/Iródis, Latin Herodes) was Antipater’s second son. His mother was Kyprós, a Nabatean noblewoman related to King Aretas 3 of Nabatea. Historians sometimes call Herod an Arab because they confuse Edomites with Arabs, or speculate the Idumeans weren’t really Edomites, but only claimed to be so they could relocate in Judea. Conspiracy theories regardless, Herod was a descendant of Abraham on both sides.

10 October 2022

Covenant: How God makes our relationship official.

COVENANT 'kəv.ən.ənt noun. Agreement.
2. [Law] A contract drawn up by deed, or a clause in a contract.
3. [Theology] An agreement which creates a committed relationship between God and his people—such as the covenants between the LORD and Abraham, Moses, and David, or between Jesus and Christians.
4. [verb] Agree by lease, deed, or other legal contract.
[Covenantal kəv.ən'ənt.əl adjective.]

In our culture, “covenant” is a fancier, or more formal, way of saying “contract.”

Because that’s what our English word means. It comes from the Latin word convenire, “go together,” which evolved into the French word, then our English word. Early bible translators used it for the Hebrew word בְּרִית/berít, “treaty, alliance, constitution, ordinance, pledge,” and the word the Septuagint used to translate it, διαθήκην/diathíkin, “will, testament, agreement, arrangement.” Y’notice the Hebrew word has more of a sense of loyalty and diplomacy, and the Greek word has more of a sense of carrying out one’s wishes. Whereas the way we tend to use our English word “covenant” nowadays is either to talk about how sacred and binding marriage oughta be… or about the restrictions a neighborhood puts on the homeowners who live in it, and usually the penalties for violating those restrictions.

Not sure whether any of these concepts describe what God actually does with his covenants in the bible.

And when you ask your average Christian what a covenant is, most of the time we lean hard towards the idea it’s an agreement… and it’s binding. I’ve heard more than one preacher claim covenant means “a contract which cannot be broken.” Which certainly isn’t the way we use the word nowadays. Marriage covenants are dissolved all the time. Neighborhood covenants get changed whenever new leaders get elected; heck, most of those people run for office specifically to either make the covenants stricter or looser! In fact those people who claim a covenant is an unbreakable contract: Many of ’em claim God did away with the Law and replaced it with Jesus’s new covenant… so how’s it an unbreakable contract if God considers it null and void? (Isn’t the Law part of God’s word?—and isn’t it true God’s word never returns void?)

Frankly, the reason our English dictionaries say covenant means an agreement—that it’s nothing more than a verbal or written contract between interested parties—is because that’s how we use the word. A covenant is a contract; a contract is a covenant; they’re synonyms. “Covenant” sounds harder to get out of, but it’s really not. Ask any divorced Nevadan.

So if we wanna understand what covenants in the bible are all about, we need to put aside our English word and our culture’s ideas about covenant, and look at how God set up a berít or two with humanity.

27 July 2022

Altars, and how God expects us to use them.

ALTAR 'ɔl.tər noun. A table or block used as the focus for a religious ritual, particularly offerings or ritual sacrifices to a deity.
2. In Christianity, the table used to hold the elements for holy communion.
3. In some churches, the stage, the steps to the stage, or the space in front of the stage, where people go as a sign of commitment.

Whenever humans ritually worship God, we usually need a table to put stuff on.

Might be the stuff we need for our rituals. Might be something we’re gonna give to God, or sacrifice for God. If there’s nothing else around—we just kinda did this on the spur of the moment—often humans will use the table itself as the ritual: “Hey God, I built you an altar!” and then we pray at the altar. Which is exactly what we Christians do whenever we use our churches’ various tables or raised platforms (or, y’know, actual altars for holy communion) as makeshift altars for our “altar calls.”

Humanity instinctively just finds something profound about using a raised platform for God-stuff. It’s not solely practical.

When spur-of-the-moment altars get built, it’s usually because we wanna worship God so bad, we can’t wait to get to an existing altar. Or we figure we’re gonna worship God at that place, and frequently, so we may as well have a regular altar around. Sometimes it’s a memorial altar: God did something at that location, so let’s mark it with an altar, and people can use it to continue to worship him.

Among the ancients Hebrews, any flat-surfaced rock would do. But typically they did stuff to make the altar more obviously an altar, and not just some flat rock. Ancient middle eastern custom was simply to stand a rock upright: A rock lying flat on the ground was obviously a product of nature, but a rock standing upright for no good reason probably had some good reason: Somebody propped it up that way as a memorial or an altar. That was the idea when the Hebrews left 12 rocks near the place they first crossed the Jordan River into Palestine:

Joshua 4.8 KJV
And the children of Israel did so as Joshua commanded, and took up twelve stones out of the midst of Jordan, as the LORD spake unto Joshua, according to the number of the tribes of the children of Israel, and carried them over with them unto the place where they lodged, and laid them down there.

Iron Age massebót, or standing stones, found in the middle east. Biblical Archaeology Review

“And laid them down” (Hebrew וַיַּנִּח֖וּם/vey-yannikhúm, “and placed them”) implies they put ’em flat on the ground, or in a pile, or even in a tower. That wasn’t the middle eastern custom. They stood up. It needed to be obvious humans had placed them there for good reason. These were a memorial; these were for worship; sometimes these were altars. They weren’t random rocks in a weird formation.

Y’might notice lots of ancient cultures put up “standing stones” for exactly the same reason. Like the obelisks and steles of ancient Egypt, or the megaliths and menhirs and stone circles found all over the Celtic regions. Heck, I’ve known kids who like to stand rocks upright for fun, so it’s no surprise you’ll find ’em everywhere. But for the really big stones which take effort to put in place, we’re talking important reasons for it: Memorials and worship.

04 May 2022

Levites: A tribe of priests.

If you’ve heard of “the 12 tribes of Israel,” I remind you ancient Israel had 13 tribes, not 12. Yet the bible regularly, consistently refers to the 12 tribes, because it’s referring to the tribes which had land, which had territory we could see on a map, designating their borders and landmass. One of the tribes had no such territory. Just cities—which were located without the boundaries of the other tribes. The tribe wasn’t on the map, so it wasn’t listed with the 12.

This tribe would be Levi, the descendants of Levi ben Israel, Jacob and Leah’s third son. He’s notorious for plotting with his elder brother Simeon to kill a Canaanite who raped their sister… and while they were at it, kill every last man in the rapist’s city. Ge 34 Jacob greatly disapproved of his homicidal sons, and as patriarch he could’ve totally punished them for it, but it seems he did nothing. The only thing he did was “bless” them by prophesying Simeon and Levi (really, their tribes) would be scattered.

Genesis 49.5-7 NKJV
5 “Simeon and Levi are brothers;
Instruments of cruelty are in their dwelling place.
6 Let not my soul enter their council;
Let not my honor be united to their assembly;
For in their anger they slew a man,
And in their self-will they hamstrung an ox.
7 Cursed be their anger, for it is fierce;
And their wrath, for it is cruel!
I will divide them in Jacob
And scatter them in Israel.”

Bible doesn’t say anything about them hamstringing an ox, so I can’t speak to that. Maybe it was something they did while murdering Canaanites; maybe it was some sick ’n twisted fun they had as kids—some kids get off on torturing animals, and it’s no surprise when they grow up to be mass murderers. But that’s pure speculation.

In any event Simeon’s descendants, or tribe, were granted a territory which was wholly surrounded by Judah—and the Simeonites were eventually absorbed into that tribe. As for Levi’s descendants, the Levites (Hebrew לֵוִיִּי/Levyíy, or לֵוִי/Leví for short), they were granted cities, not territory.

Seems rather harsh to curse Levi’s descendants for their murdery ancestor. But in fact this wasn‘t a curse. The LORD did this to designate Levi’s tribe—yep, the entire tribe—as his priests.

Israel was God’s chosen people. Levites became the chosen of the chosen. They weren’t to become farmers (well, other than farming their own gardens), nor merchants, nor builders. Instead they were to worship God, maintain the worship sites, carry out God’s rituals, and otherwise help their fellow Israelis follow God. Priesthood, not land, was to be their birthright.

So whenever we find the word “Levite” in the bible, it’s considered a synonym for priest.

And of course Christianity has a parallel. Every Christian is likewise a priest.

11 April 2022

“Suffered under Pontius Pilate.”

In both the Nicene and Apostles Creed, a certain Roman official gets mentioned by name—specifically so the creeds can cement Christ Jesus’s death at a specific point in history: Σταυρωθέντα τε ὑπὲρ ἡμῶν ἐπὶ Ποντίου Πιλάτου/stavrothénta te ypér epí Pontíu Pilátu, “and he was crucified for us under Pontíus Pilátus.”

The KJV renders this name Pontius Pilate, which Americans usually pronounce 'pɑn.tʃəs 'paɪ.lət, and since the bible tends to call him Pilate, we presume that’s his family name. Other way round: Romans did their names the same way eastern Asians do. Pontius poʊn' is the family name, his nomen; and Pilátus pi'læ is the personal name. The bible’s authors tended to go with personal names, y’notice.

Pontius ruled Jerusalem and Judea on behalf of Rome for a decade, from the years 26 to 36. He was the fifth governor of Judea. The reason we know so much more about him than his predecessors or successors, is obviously ’cause Jesus was executed under his rule, so he has our attention. We know of him from the gospels, from historians Flavius Josephus and Publius Cornelius Tacitus, and from contemporary philosopher Philo of Alexandria.
The Pilate stone, on display in Jerusalem. Wikimedia
Plus in 1961 archaeologist Antonio Frova found the Pilate stone, a limestone block with “Pilatus” on it, dating from Pontius’s term, whch confirms he’s not fiction.

Unfortunately after Jesus’s death and resurrection, a lot of Christians made up a lot of fanfiction about him. It means Pontius’s history beyond these first-century sources isn’t all that reliable. But I’ll briefly go over what we have.

Pontius was a member of the Pontii family, a plebeian-caste family from south central Italy. A number of Pontii held high positions in the Roman government, including consul; a few later became leaders in the ancient Christian church, and are considered saints. Pilatus means “skilled with a javelin,” so either he (or one of his ancestors, whom Pontius was named for) got named that because of military skill. And Pontius did have to serve in the Roman cavalry before he could hold office. He was married, Mt 27.19 and later Christian tradition named his wife Prókla (Latin, Prócula) and made a saint of her. Even later traditions named her Claudia, and claimed she was related to the Caesars… although probably just to write dramatic fiction.

Pontius took office in 26. That’s the same year Caesar Tiberius retired to Capri and left his job largely to his Praetorian prefect, Lucius Aelius Sejanus. So there’s some question whether Lucius appointed Pontius instead of Caesar. But after Caesar had Lucius executed for treason in 31, he didn’t prosecute or fire Pontius, so clearly he didn’t consider Pontius to be mixed up in Lucius’s business.

09 September 2021

Timekeeping in ancient Israel.

The calendar most of the planet uses, called either the western calendar or the Gregorian calendar, originated in 1582 when Pope Gregory 13 introduced it as an update of the Roman calendar adopted by Julius Caesar in 45BC. Since Gregory introduced it right after the Protestant split, it took a while before all Protestant countries adopted it. Various Orthodox churches still haven’t adopted it, preferring to stick with Caesar’s calendar, ’cause it’s not Catholic. Meanwhile nations which aren’t even predominantly Christian—’cause of western influences or trade—do use it. As well as their own local calendars. Japan, fr’instance.

Israel likewise uses the western calendar. And its local calendar, the one which predates the western calendar by centuries: The Hebrew calendar.

That’s the calendar we find in the bible. It’s what we call a lunisolar calendar: It’s lunar, in that months start on the new moon. But it’s adjusted to sync up with solar years, so that the year always begins in spring, round the time of the vernal equinox, and doesn’t drift too far away from it.

The Hebrew calendar actually predates the Hebrews. It was used all over the ancient middle east, including by the Assyrians and Babylonians who conquered Israel. The Hebrew calendar’s months all have Assyrian names—although a few of the original Canaanite names slipped into the bible:

  1. אָבִיב/Avív (“green”), the first month. Ex 12.2, 13.4 Tel Aviv (KJV “Telabib”) in Babylon Ek 3.15 was named for it; Tel Aviv in Israel is named for that.
  2. זִֽו/Ziv (“bright”), the second month. 1Ki 6.1
  3. אֵיתָניִם/Eytaním (“strong ones”), the seventh month. 1Ki 8.2
  4. בּוּל/Bul (“produce”), the eighth month. 1Ki 6.38

Otherwise the scriptures simply called the months “third month,” “fifth month,” and so forth. (Like September/seventh month, October/eighth month, and so on… and yeah they aren’t the seventh and eighth month, but blame Gregory for that.) We don’t know what the ancient Canaanite names were. No doubt many months were named for pagan gods, just like the Roman calendar, so the Hebrews didn’t care to use or record them.

In any event here are the current names.

Mid-March to mid-April
Mid-April to mid-May
30Late spring:
Mid-May to mid-June
Shavuót (Pentecost)
Mid-June to mid-July
Mid-July to mid-August
29Late summer:
Mid-August to mid-September
Mid-September to mid-October
Yom Kippur, Sukkot
Mid-October to mid-November
29/30Late fall:
Mid-November to mid-December
Mid-December to mid-January
Mid-January to mid-February
29/30Late winter:
Mid-February to mid-March

19 May 2021

Messianic prophecies.

Messianic prophecies are the scriptures in the Old Testament which are about messiah.

And by messiah (Hebrew מָשׁיִחַ/mešíyakh, “anointed [one]”) the scriptures mean somebody who’s put in a high authoritative position. Like head priests Ex 40.15 or the king. 1Sa 9.16 But over time messiah simply came to mean king—the guy the LORD chose to lead Israel, or at least Jerusalem and Judea. And when he became king, there’d be a ritual ceremony where someone dumped a hornful of oil (maybe about a liter) all over the new king, representing the LORD pouring out his Spirit upon the king… assuming the king bothered to listen to the LORD any. Most didn’t.

So since messiah means king, every king of ancient Samaria and Jerusalem—yes, even the rotten ones like Ahab ben Omri, Jeroboam ben Nabat, and Saul ben Kish—was a messiah. Seriously. In fact every time David ben Jesse was given the chance to kill Saul, or have him killed, he’d refuse—because Saul was messiah.

1 Samuel 26.9-11 KJV
9 And David said to Abishai, Destroy him not: for who can stretch forth his hand against the LORD’s anointed, and be guiltless? 10 David said furthermore, As the LORD liveth, the LORD shall smite him; or his day shall come to die; or he shall descend into battle, and perish. 11 The LORD forbid that I should stretch forth mine hand against the LORD’s anointed: but, I pray thee, take thou now the spear that is at his bolster, and the cruse of water, and let us go.

“The LORD’s anointed” translates בִּמְשִׁ֣יחַ יְהוָ֑ה/be-mešíyakh YHWH, “the LORD’s messiah.” Love or hate him, Saul was selected as Israel’s king by God himself, and David knew better than to overthrow God’s will. Besides, David himself was anointed king, 1Sa 16.12-13 and knew it wouldn’t set the best precedent.

So that’s the Old Testament understanding of messiah, but of course Christians have a different one. By messiah we mean the Messiah, the final and best of all messiahs: Jesus the Nazarene. Our word Christ (Greek χριστός/hristós) likewise means “anointed [one],” same as messiah; it’s Jesus’s proper title as the rightful king of Israel, and conquering king of the world.

Jesus is the fulfillment of everything the title messiah carries. He was anointed by God, and has the Holy Spirit without measure. Jn 3.34 He has no successor; doesn’t need one, for he lives forever. He’s been Messiah way longer than any of the previous kings of Israel. And while David is considered the best of the Israeli messiahs, Jesus is even better. He rules righteously and infallibly.

Because of Jesus’s preeminence above all other messiahs, we Christians really can’t help but read him into every single messianic prophecy in the bible. Even though many of them are clearly about the other messiahs—about Messiah David, Messiah Josiah, Messiah Hezekiah, or even the filthy idolatrous Messiah Ahab. But Christians presume every last one of these messianic prophecies gets fulfilled by, or has its original meaning entirely overwhelmed by the similar actions of, Messiah Jesus.

30 December 2020

“Silent years”: Did God once turn off his miracles?

It’s usually round Christmas when preachers start talking about “the silent years,” or “the 400 silent years,” and how the annunciations of John the Baptist and Christ Jesus mark the end of that era.

As it’s taught, for roughly four centuries between the writing of Malachi, “the closing of the Old Testament canon,” and Gabriel’s appearance to John’s dad, the Holy Spirit was silent. He stopped talking to prophets, and had none. ’Cause if he did, these prophets would’ve written a book, right? But no prophets wrote a book, ergo no prophets.

And during these “silent years,” it’s claimed the Spirit likewise stopped doing miracles. ’Cause if he had, again, someone would’ve written a book about it. But nobody wrote one, so nothing miraculous musta happened. If those 400 years weren’t silent, we’d have more books of the bible.

(Um… what about the books of prophets, and of the Spirit’s activity, in the apocrypha? You realize they were written during that 400-year period. But the preachers who claim there were silent years either know nothing at all about the apocrypha, or dismiss ’em as Catholic mythology—or worse, claim they’re devilish. Either way they don’t count.)

Okay, lemme first clear up a minor mistake: The actual last book written of the Old Testament was 2 Chronicles, not Malachi. It’s what we find in the Hebrew book order. There are three groupings, Law, Prophets, and Writings, which were written in that order. Malachi is among the Prophets; Chronicles is the last of the Writings. Some scholars figure they were written round the same time; some don’t.

Now the major mistake: The entire idea of “silent years” contradicts the scriptures. You knew I was gonna get to that, didn’tcha?

10 November 2020

Pseudepigrapha: Influential ancient Jewish fanfiction.

PSEUDEPIGRAPHUM su.də'pɪ.ɡrə.fəm noun. A document definitely not written by the author it claims, nor in the time it claims. Sometimes fraud; sometimes fanfiction.
2. A Jewish writing ascribed to one of the patriarchs or prophets of bible times, but actually written after 200BC.
[Plural, pseudepigrapha su.də'pɪ.ɡrə.fə noun; pseudepigraphicɪ'ɡræ.fɪk adjective.]

The bible isn’t the only ancient Israeli book in history. Same as today—though certainly not in the same volume as today—tons of books were written, distributed, and became popular. And same as today, many were about God. Were they as Spirit-inspired as the bible? Nah. That’s why they’re not included.

For some, like the apocrypha, for a while they were included in the bible. Ancient Christians certainly thought they were bible, ’cause they were in the Septuagint and in the Vulgate, i.e. their bibles. In the article on the apocrypha, I went over why Protestants don’t include ’em in our bibles. It doesn’t mean they’re not still good ancient books about God; they’re just not on the same level as bible.

And then there are the ancient books about God which aren’t good.

Whenever I write about Jewish mythology, these books are where these myths come from. They were popular in ancient Judea. Popular even in Jesus’s day. Jesus’s followers grew up hearing about ’em, even reading them. There are even references to them in the bible. We have a full-on quote from one of ’em in Jude.

Jude 1.14-15 NRSV
14 It was also about these that Enoch, in the seventh generation from Adam, prophesied, saying, “See, the Lord is coming with ten thousands of his holy ones, 15 to execute judgment on all, and to convict everyone of all the deeds of ungodliness that they have committed in such an ungodly way, and of all the harsh things that ungodly sinners have spoken against him.”

Jude wasn’t quoting the Old Testament, ’cause the OT has absolutely no Enoch quotes whatsoever. And no, Jude didn’t have any special revelation from God about what Enoch did or didn’t say. Jude was quoting a popular book, 1 Enoch, specifically chapter 1 verse 9. Which claimed it was written by Enoch.

Wait, Enoch wrote a book? No.

25 August 2020


So I wrote about how human government in the bible started with patriarchy. So where’d kings come from? Simple: One powerful patriarch got all the other families in the area to acknowledge his rule and his family’s rule. Maybe by bullying and conquering them. Maybe by doing them massive favors, like rescuing them from raiders, helping them survive famine, Ge 47.13-26 building a walled city and letting ’em live in it, being the priest of the local god; stuff like that. Hence we see kings all over the bible.

Properly defined, a king is simply a hereditary ruler. Nothing more. ’Cause every so often I hear some preacher claim the Hebrew word מֶ֑לֶךְ/melékh, “king,” means something more different or profound than Eurasian or African or Pacific kings. Sometimes ’cause they notice it’s a similar word to מַלְאָךְ/malákh, “angel,” and think there’s a connection there. There’s not. There is no deeper meaning to melékh; it means “king” whether it’s describing Israeli kings, Canaanite city-state kings, Moabite and Edomite client kings or puppet kings, Egyptian pharaohs, Babylonian empire-builders, or even the LORD himself. It’s a hereditary ruler. The only differences between one king or another are any constitutions which limit their power, the size of their kingdoms, and their own character and attitude about governance.

Other than the first king in the family, kings didn’t earn their position, didn’t merit it… or, bluntly, steal it through conquest or coups. They inherited it, ’cause their dads were the previous kings, designated them as successor, and the kingdom became their birthright. They could be utterly unfit to govern others… as is usually true throughout human history. Designated successors (or as we nowadays call them, crown princes) had the awful habit of not thinking of the kingdom and its people as their duty, and their leadership as service, but as possessions and slaves. It’s 180 degrees different from God’s attitude in his kingdom.

23 March 2020

The Judean senate.

The Judean senate.

Something Americans need to be reminded of, from time to time: Ancient Israel was never a democracy.

  • Originally it was a patriarchy, run by the male heads of the Hebrew families: Abraham, Isaac, Jacob, Joseph, and their descendants. That is, till the Egyptians took over and enslaved ’em.
  • Then the LORD rescued Israel’s descendants from Egypt. So Israel became a theocracy, where God and his commands ruled Israel… with Moses and the judges serving as the LORD’s deputies.
  • Of course, since the judges weren’t proper kings, Israelis fell back on patriarchy, ruled as they pleased, didn’t obey God, and triggered the cycle time and again. Read Judges. It’s a mess.
  • Then monarchy, the rule of kings. The people wanted the stability of human kings (such as it is), so the LORD gave ’em kings. In theory these kings were to function the same as judges, with the LORD really in charge. In practice they ruled as they pleased, same as the patriarchs.
  • Then foreign kings: The Babylonian emperors, Persian emperors, Greek emperors, Egyptian kings, Seleucid kings. Each of ’em put governors, like Zerubbabel and Nehemiah, over Judea, Samaria, and the Galilee.
  • Back to local kings: The Maccabees (who were head priests) overthrew the Seleucids and took charge. They accepted the title “king” and ruled till Herod 1 toppled them.
  • And back to foreign kings: Augustus Caesar took over from the Herods, and the Romans ruled till the caliphs conquered Jerusalem in 638. And so we move into the middle ages and Crusades.

So in Jesus’s day, the Caesars were Israel’s kings. First Augustus Caesar, then Tiberius.

The Caesars appointed governors—military prefects like Pontius Pilatus, puppet kings like the Herods, and procurators. These guys represented Rome’s interests, and made sure the locals didn’t do anything which’d interfere with taxes and “peace”—as the Romans defined peace. Everything else was left in the hands of the upper-class locals: The head priests, the leaders of the older and wealthier families, the “elders” of Israel.

In Latin, “elder” is senex, and that’s where they got the word for their council of elders, senatus. Unlike our senates, it wasn’t an elected body. It consisted of Roman nobles; those who had the most to lose if the fortunes of Rome changed. The Roman Republic was an oligarchy, run by the upper class. And when the emperors took over, and commandeered many of the senate’s powers, they still sought the senate’s advice and consent.

Judea had a similar senate. After the Persians permitted Jewish exiles to return and rebuild Jerusalem, Persian governors organized the elders into a governing council, loosely based on the 70 elders of Israel in Moses’s day. Ex 24.1 By the first century this συνέδριον/synédrion (Greek for “seated together,” which the Mishnah translated סנהדריןsanhédrin) consisted of 71 people: Seventy elders of Judea, supposedly representing the great Judean families; and the head priest, its נָשִׂיא/naši, “chief,” nowadays translated “president.”

This is the group which ran Judea in the New Testament… under the suspicious eye of the Romans.

A “judicial body.” (No, not really.)

Roman governors didn’t care about the day-to-day lives of the people. But the senate did. The governors had the power to overrule its decisions, and only they could legally put people to death. Jn 18.31 (Yes, Stephen was stoned to death by what look like senators, Ac 7.57-60 but the Romans would’ve considered that illegal. Hey, nobody’s saying the system wasn’t broken.) But that’s largely all the Romans did: Kill insurgents, collect taxes, and enforce Roman peace. The senate ran everything else.

Today’s senates are legislatures. The Roman senate likewise wrote and passed laws. But the Judean senate didn’t do that. Technically couldn’t: The Law had been handed down to Moses by the LORD, and they were forbidden from adding to it or subtracting from it. Dt 12.32 Law-making was absolutely off the table.

Well… officially off the table, but unofficially what the senate did was issue binding rulings on how the Law was to be interpreted: Here’s what they figured the LORD meant about this command or that, and here’s how they were gonna enforce it.

Sometimes, as Christ Jesus objected, their interpretations bent and broke the Law. Mk 7.13 But this was how they got round Deuteronomy’s prohibition against any new commands. They weren’t writing laws; they were interpreting the Law. Much as the United States Supreme Court does… and arguably goes too far in some of its interpretations.

In any event Christian historians tend to refer to the senate as a court, not a legislature. But as Judea’s only branch of government, the senate also recorded its rulings like a legislature, and commanded police like an executive. All power, unless the Romans overruled them, was in the senate’s hands. And they considered their rulings binding over not just the land and people of Judea: All Israel, All Jews, arguably into the Galilee Mk 3.22 and Damascus. Ac 9.1-2

Whenever people needed an executive decision, or a definitive opinion on the Law, they typically sought out an elder who was in the senate, i.e. a senator. If it had to be an official ruling, the Mishnah indicates it required the agreement of three or five senators. If it involved the death penalty, 23 senators. And if they were to censure a whole tribe or city, deal with a false prophet or head priests, go to war, expand Jerusalem or the temple, or establish a lesser council for a Jewish community, it had to be a unanimous 71. Mishnah, Sanhedrin 1.5

The Mishnah includes a lot of details about how the senate was to run. But bear in mind the Mishnah wasn’t written in the first century, by people who saw the senate in action. It was compiled centuries later by Pharisees, and described how third-century Pharisees ran their senates. It’s why the Mishnah contradicts the New Testament in some parts. (It’s also why various Christian commentators insist Jesus’s trial was illegal—because it violated the Mishnah’s procedures. But that’s like claiming Abraham broke the Ten Commandments—which weren’t handed down till 6 centuries after Abraham died.)

Political parties.

In Jesus’s day, Pharisees didn’t run the senate. That’d be the other major Jewish party, the Sadduccees. The head priest and his family were all Sadducee.

Technically Pharisees and Sadducees were denominations of the Hebrew religion. But back then there was no such thing as separation of church and state, so in senate they functioned as political parties. Yep, with all the corruption and politicking you’ll find in today’s parties.

Most devout Judeans were Pharisees, and Pharisees dominated the senate till the second century BC. Then John Hyrcanus (ruled 135–05BC), king and head priest, grew sick and tired of the Pharisees treating him like their lapdog. He quit the Pharisees, joined the Sadducees, and kicked the Pharisees out of the senate. His daughter-in-law, Queen Alexandria (ruled 76–67BC) let ’em back in, but the head priest’s family remained Sadducee from then on, and that faction dominated the senate.

Well, probably dominated the senate. Y’see, the Romans wiped out the Sadducees in the year 70. So our history was written by the survivors… the Pharisees. Arguably re-written. Pharisees retroactively inserted a ton of Pharisees into earlier senate history. According to Pharisee rabbis, the head priest didn’t lead the senate; the naší was a Pharisee, and apparently had been Pharisee ever since the senate gave King Onias bar Simon a vote of no confidence in 191BC.

But rabbinic history contradicts both the gospels and Flavius Josephus. Those records describe the head priests, not some imaginary Pharisee naší, running the senate. Mt 62.3-4, Mk 14.60-64, Jn 11.47-53 Plus it contradicts commonsense: Why would the smaller religious party get to hold the senate presidency?—and overrule the head priest?

Most likely the rabbis’ list of senate presidents, from 191BC onward, were just leaders of the Pharisee opposition. Pharisees rewrote history to make themselves look more prominent. As people do.

There was no third party. Other denominations, like Essenes, the Qumran sect, Samaritans, and Zealots, were shut out. They held no senate seats, and did their own thing; the Samaritans even had their own senate. For the most part, these other denominations figured the Judean senate and priests were corrupt “sons of darkness” whom God and his Messiah would someday overthrow.

Senate leadership.

Like I said, the head priest was the senate president. Once Herod 1 took power—and as an Idumean, not a Jew, couldn’t become head priest—he claimed power to appoint the head priest, and switched up head priests many times. So did the Roman governors who followed him.

In Jesus’s day, the head priests came from the family of the former head priest Annas bar Sethi (ruled 7–15CE). His five sons, and son-in-law Joseph Kahiáfa (KJV “Caiaphas”), succeeded him. Joseph was officially head priest at the time Jesus was executed, but Judeans arguably considered Annas the real head priest, Ac 4.6 regardless of whom the Romans appointed.

Other officers of the senate were the סָגָן/sagán, “ruler,” the head priest’s second-in-command, a job which was considered a prerequisite for head priest; and treasurers and secretaries. Pharisee traditions also include an av beth din/“father of a house of judgment,” the most senior senator. Typically he’s described as the Pharisee everyone listened to, like when Gamaliel got up to speak at the apostles’ trial. Ac 5.34 (The writers of the Mishnah tended to claim these guys were president, as they did with Gamaliel.)

Both Pharisees and Sadducees had among them scribes (KJV “lawyers”) who were bible experts who knew the Law backwards and forwards. The scribes were the folks you consulted whenever you needed proof texts for your decisions. Although some scribes played really fast and loose with the text—as Jesus was known to complain.

After the New Testament.

After Jerusalem was destroyed, the Pharisees reconvened the senate in Yavneh, and moved to the Galilee in the year 80. Since there was no more head priest, the most venerable Pharisee became president. The Pharisees rewrote the rules to suit their traditions, and that’s what we have in the Mishnah. It continued to exist until emperor Theodosius 1 outlawed it around the year 358.

Since then there’ve been several attempts to start another senate. Problem is, just like Christians, there are way too many denominations of Jews—and not all of ’em are gonna recognize the authority of any “Sanhedrin” where they lack power.

The current group, which was founded in October 2004, wants to become the State of Israel’s senate, with the Knesset as its lower house. They also wanna become Israel’s supreme court on all things biblical—including the power to veto any of the Knesset’s laws which they consider unbiblical.

Understandably, this bothers a lot of people who don’t trust these guys’ interpretations of the scriptures. Particularly Israelis who want their nation to be more secular, and separate synagogue from state—lest, as usual, the politics of the state corrupt the teachings of the synagogue. (Something we Americans also need to bear in mind.)

16 March 2020

Jesus’s crucifixion.

Ever bang your funny bone? That’s the ulnar nerve. The equivalent in the leg is the tibial nerve.

About 26 to 24 centuries ago, humans in the middle east figured out the most painful way to kill someone: Take four nails. Put one through each of these nerves. Then hang a victim, by these nails, from whatever—a wall, a tree, a pole, a cross.

If you stretch out their limbs, it’ll squeeze their lungs. They’ll find it extremely hard to breathe. Can’t inhale unless they actually push themselves up by their pierced ankles, and pull themselves up by their pierced wrists. And each pull feels like they’ve taken these nerves and crushed them with a hammer, all over again.

Leave ’em like that, to die slowly, by asphyxiation. It might take all day. Multiple days, if the person has a strong enough will to live. But they’ll die eventually, in agony. There’s no real way to stop the constant pain. It’s so intense, Latin-speakers had invented a new word to describe it: Excruciare, from which we get our word excruciating.

Crucifixion (Распятие), by Nikolai Ge, 1892. Note the victims on either side of the center guy, pulling themselves up to breathe. Pretty nasty. Gallerix

The earliest records we have of crucifixion, Persians were doing it. Haman in Esther, fr’instance: He built a 50-cubit עֵץ֮/ech, “wood” or “tree,” probably a pole, to crucify Mordecai upon. Es 7.9 The KJV calls it a gallows, but that’s ’cause its translators thought crucifixion was a Roman thing. Nope. In fact crucifixion probably predates even the Persians.

But Romans were definitely known for crucifixion. Not just because of Jesus: The Romans made crucifixion their thing. It’s so nasty, Romans forbade it to be used on their own citizens—but exactly like Americans’ attitudes about torture, the Romans figured foreigners were fair game: Mess with the Roman Empire and you’ll suffer the very worst form of death possible. But as usual, terrifying people doesn’t actually deter insurrection and crime, ’cause insurgents and criminals never expect to get caught. All crucifixion actually did was horrify the law-abiding subjects under Roman rule—“What kind of sick animals do this kind of thing to other people?”—and make ’em hate Romans all the more. (Americans, pay attention.)

Christian art has stylized and toned down crucifixion a lot. The average crucifix isn’t historically accurate at all, and not just ’cause Jesus isn’t white. Because present-day people have never seen an actual Roman-style crucifixion; they’ve seen Jesus movies and passion plays. (Maybe they’ve seen terrorists on the news crucify Christians, but the terrorists do it wrong too.) So Jesus is depicted with nails through the palms of his hands, with one nail spiking through the top of both feet, usually into a little platform.

“But wait, isn’t that how Luke describes Jesus—with nail-scars in his hands and feet?” Lk 24.39-40 Yeah, when you interpret Luke too literally. Jesus’s χεῖράς/heirás, “hands,” and πόδας/pódas, “feet,” refer to the general areas of his hands and feet, which include his wrists and ankles.

Because had they nailed Jesus by his hands and feet, the nails wouldn’t have held up a body. The weight of the body would rip right through his hands and feet. That’s why so many Jesus movies add ropes; the thinking is the ropes held him up while the nails were there for extra torment. Sometimes the thieves crucified with Jesus are depicted as only tied by ropes—no nails for them—so Jesus suffers worse than they. But ropes would defeat the purpose of crucifixion: Now the victim’s weight would rest on the ropes, not the nails, and they’d suffer less, and wouldn’t struggle to breathe. Archaeology doesn’t match the ropes idea either.

Likewise Christian art tends to put Jesus in a loincloth, for modesty’s sake. But loincloths were impractical: Victims would soil themselves quickly. Crucifixion hurts so bad, you don’t care about other bodily functions. Even if you did, they weren’t taking you down for bathroom breaks. So for practical reasons, victims were crucified buck naked. Not to humiliate them; Romans, and most pagans, didn’t mind nudity. You’ve seen their statues.

A horrible way to go.

Since God has ultimate control of history—including the place, time, and death of the Son—you gotta wonder why he was willing to involve crucifixion. Of all the ways to go, it’s the worst we humans have ever invented. Why was Jesus willing to die that way?

Most of us Christians figure God chose crucifixion because it’s so awful. Sin and death needed to be destroyed, and deserved to be destroyed in the worst way possible. Well, that’d be crucifixion.

It also makes a big statement of how much grace God offers the world. We killed Jesus in the nastiest way, yet he forgives us. If God’s grace can overcome such an unjust, horrible death, surely it can overcome anything.

More than that: Because Jesus died by crucifixion, it spurred us humans to finally stop crucifying one another. (Well, not finally. Antichrists, when they wanna terrorize Christians, find it amusing to crucify us. But other than making sick statements against our religion, other societies don’t use it.) We finally saw how terrible it is, by virtue of our Lord, his apostles, and many of his followers dying that way. We realized we mustn’t do that to one another, no matter how much a person might deserve death.

And loads of us have also applied that to the death penalty in general. Many Christian countries got rid of it altogether (though it sure took ’em long enough). In countries which still permit it, like the United States, we try to make our executions humane, as painless as possible. Despite all the vengeance-minded folks outside who’d love to watch the convicts suffer, and who wouldn’t mind at all if we brought crucifixion back.

Lastly, in dying a slow death, Jesus had time to demonstrate for us how to die as a martyr. Not passively: Jesus actively refused the nasty stuff they offered him to drink. (Mark calls it wine and myrrh, meant to be medicinal; Matthew wine and bile, meant to make you puke; Luke and John wine vinegar, or really old wine.) But the gospels describe him speaking to various people from the cross, to offer them grace, forgiveness, and comfort. Not wrath, not cursing and damning his killers and persecutors, threatening them with destruction as soon as he was back from the dead, or took possession of his kingdom. We’d do that. Jesus wouldn’t, and didn’t.

Regardless of the circumstances, regardless of the torture, Jesus bore it with as much peace and self-control as he could muster. His was a noble death. And if we must ever go through anything like it—’cause you never know—may we be Christlike.

19 September 2019

When’d the events of the bible take place?

Humanity largely uses the Gregorian calendar, Pope Gregory’s 1582 update of the Julian calendar, which was Julius Caesar’s 46BC update of the old Roman calendar, which according to legend was an update of Romulus’s 10-month 360-day calendar. So, y’know, it’s clearly not the calendar Moses used.

Add to this the fact the bible’s authors didn’t really tie their events to specific dates. They rarely said, “On the , such-and-so gave this prophecy….” Didn’t occur to them to be this kind of exact. That’s a western priority, and one a lot of today’s middle easterners share. But it’s not an ancient middle eastern one. Doesn’t make a story more true, or feel more real and less mythological or fairy-taleish, when you can begin with an exact date instead of “Once upon a time.”

This lack of dates makes westerners bonkers: We wanna know when these events happened! What year did the Exodus take place? What year did Abraham die? When’d Noah’s flood happen? We want details, dangit. But honestly, we don’t have those details. We have estimates, based on the few clues the bible provides.

So this article isn’t gonna give you any peace of mind about these dates. All I have are best guesses; namely the guesses of various Christians who don’t always know what they’re doing.