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Showing posts with the label #Background

The Judean senate.

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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 LORDreally in charge. In practice they ruled as they pleased, same as the patriarchs.Then foreign kings: The Babylonian empero…

Jesus’s crucifixion.

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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 wo…

The legality of Jesus’s trial.

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If you only read the gospel of John, you might get the idea Jesus never even had a trial. ’Cause in that book, first Jesus went to the former head priest Annas’s house, then the current head priest Caiaphas’s house, then the governor Pontius’s fortress, then to Golgotha. No conviction, no sentence; just interviews followed by execution.But John was written to fill the gaps in the other three gospels. They contain the story of the trial. Yes there was one. Jesus was brought before the Judean senate, presided over by Caiaphas, and legitimately found guilty of blasphemy and sedition. Then he was sent to Pontius… who publicly stated he personally didn’t find Jesus guilty of anything, Lk 23.4, Jn 19.4 but he had little problem with sending Jesus to his death all the same.No Jesus wasn’t guilty of blasphemy; he’d only be if he weren’t actually the Son of Man. But of course the senate absolutely refused to believe that’s who he is.And either way, Jesus actually was guilty of sedition. Becaus…

“Suffered under Pontius Pilate.”

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In both the Nicene and Apostles Creed, a Roman governor gets mentioned by name—specifically so the creeds can cement Christ Jesus’s death at a specific point in history: ΣταυρωθέντατεὑπὲρἡμῶνἐπὶΠοντίουΠιλάτου/stavrothénta te ypér epí Pontíu Pilátu, “and he was crucified for us under Pontíus Pilátus.” This was the guy who ruled Jerusalem and Judea on behalf of Rome for a decade, from the years 26 to 36. The way Romans did names was family name (nomen) first, so in English he’d actually be Pilatus Pontius. But English-speakers just tend to call him by his cognomen, his nickname: Pilate.Pontius 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. We know of him from the gospels, from Flavius Josephus, from Philo of Alexandria, and from Publius Cornelius Tacitus.
The Pilate stone, on display in Jerusalem. Wikimedia Plus in 1961 archaeologist Antonio Frova found the Pilate st…

When’d the events of the bible take place?

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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’…

Tithing: Enjoying one’s firstfruits with God.

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TITHEtaɪðnoun One-tenth.2.verb. Set aside a tenth of something, either as savings or as a charitable donation.3.verb. Give [either a tenth, or any variable amount] to our church.Most Christians define tithe as a donation to one’s church. But what we donate is pretty variable. Might be $20 a week, or $100 a month, or two hours of volunteer work (i.e. cleaning the bathrooms, vacuuming the carpets, sterilizing the toys in the nursery… you do sterilize the toys regularly, right? Babies put ’em in their mouths). It’s whatever we regularly donate, although some of us aren’t all that regular about it.But for small churches, what we collectively donate isn’t always enough to cover our church’s expenses. Nor does it allow us to give pastors a stipend, or do much charity work… or pay the utilities or rent. Which is why Christian preachers so often feel they should remind us the word “tithe” comes from the Saxon teóða, “tenth”: It means a tenth of something. And that something would be your inco…

Timekeeping in ancient Israel.

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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 even 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 …

Did Paul write all his letters in the bible?

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Most figure yes. A minority say no. Here’s why.There’s a type of ancient literature called pseudepigraphasu.də'pɪ.ɡrə.fə which means “fake writings.” Basically it’s stuff which claims it’s written by someone, namely someone from the bible… and it’s not; it’s Jewish or Christian fanfiction. It’s like the book of 1 Enoch, which was supposedly written by Enoch ben Methuselah, and obviously wasn’t. (Couldn’t have been. Dude didn’t speak Hebrew!) And yet people knew of the book; Jesus’s brother Jude straight-up quoted it. In the bible. In our bible.Why did people write such things? Well like I said, fanfiction. They wanted to teach their ideas, and figured the best way to do it was with a book supposedly written by an Old Testament or New Testament saint. Sometimes they wanted people to really believe it was written by that saint, so they’d take the book seriously. Sometimes they were okay with people knowing better. Problem is, people would believe that saint wrote that book… and migh…

Who wrote “the books of Moses”?

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The composition of the first five books of the bible.The first five books of the bible, Genesis, Exodus, Leviticus, Numbers, and Deuteronomy (or as Hebrew-speakers call ’em, Berešít, Šemót, Vayiqrá, Bamidbár, and Devarím) are commonly called the books of Moses. They’re also called תּוֹרָ֣ה/Toráh, meaning “Law,” because the Law’s in them; Greek and English speakers also call them Pentateuch, which comes from πέντετεῦχος/pente téfhos, “five tools.” (I know; people regularly claim “Pentateuch” means “five books”—and they don’t know Greek, so of course they do. The Greek for “book” is βίβλος/vívlos, the word we got “bible” from.) I tend to call these books Torah, as I will throughout this article.They’re called the books of Moses even though Moses isn’t in Genesis at all… but his ancestors were, so there’s that. Largely they tell us the creation of the Hebrew people: How they got into Egypt in the first place, how they became Egyptian slaves, how the LORD saved ’em, how God covenanted with…

The Deuteronomistic history.

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How some of the books of the Old Testament share a theme—and likely an author.When I was growing up, I was a little curious about who wrote the books of the bible. Supposedly Matthew wrote Matthew and John wrote John and the three letters named for him (plus Revelation) …but Timothy didn’t write Timothy, and since Samuel was dead way before the end of 1 Samuel, it stands to reason he didn’t write 2 Samuel. Naturally I wanted to know who did write the books, but none of my Sunday school teachers knew. One of ’em speculated it was Solomon.Fact is, people back then people didn’t put their names on their writings. Even David didn’t put his name on his psalms: Whoever compiled the psalms together, added his name to the psalms which had traditionally been ascribed to him. It’s a safe bet David did write ’em. But the other anonymous books of the bible: We don’t know who put them together. The authors felt the story, and God, was way more important than their own names.Anyway. In 1981, bible …

Who wrote the bible?

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A lot of times, we don’t know. And that’s okay.No, the answer’s not “God.”The bible was written by prophets, people who heard from God and shared what they heard. Out of humility, some of ’em didn’t necessarily describe themselves as prophets, but all the same, that’s what they are: Their God-experiences inspired them to write about him, and thus we have the books and letters which make up our bible.“God wrote it” is the short answer people give when we’ve no clue how God works. We assume God did with his prophets the same as he did with Moses: He stated a bunch of things, and the prophets took dictation like a secretary. Or they assume how the Holy Spirit “inspired” the authors was to work the prophets’ hands like a puppeteer with a marionette, and made them write the bible.Generally they’ve got micromanagerial ideas about how God works, and figure had to take absolute physical control of the circumstances to guarantee we have the bible he wanted… ’cause he didn’t trust his followers…

“Biblical principles” and extrapolating new commands.

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In my early 20s I went to a conference presented by youth pastor turned lifestyle guru Bill Gothard. (He didn’t present ’em in person; we watched videos.)
Bill Gothard. Wikipedia His organization, the Institute in Basic Life Principles (formerly Institute in Basic Youth Conflicts, formerly Campus Teams) goes round the United States to teach young people “basic biblical principles” which would keep them on the straight and narrow. Gothard ran it till 2014, when he stepped down ’cause of molestation accusations. Since the statute of limitations means he’s not getting prosecuted, it looks like he’s quietly slipping back into ministry as the scandal fades from everyone’s memory.Gothard is hugely popular among Fundamentalists, who promoted him ’cause his teachings are right in line with conservative Christian culture. He doesn’t just teach people to memorize bible verses, pray, and go to church. He claims the bible says we should obey our parents no matter what, women should obey their h…

Nefilim: The mythology of fallen people.

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An odd little story in Genesis, and the myths which sprang from it. NAFALnɔ'fɔlverb (Hebrew ‏נָפַל, Strong’s 5307) To fall down, fall prostrate, fall into, be thrown down, be removed.[Nefil nɛ'filnoun, nefilim nɛ.fil'imn.pl.]Every once in a while I get asked about the Nefilim (NIV “Nephilim,” KJV “giants”). And folks, it’s not “a Nefilim,” ’cause it’s a plural noun. One Nefil, many Nefilim. Understandable mistake though; most English speakers can’t get our own plurals right, much less Hebrew nouns.I don’t pry into why people wanna know about Nefilim, although when they explain, it nearly always has to do with some mythological garbage about half-human half-angel beings. They hear about that, then hear, “And it’s in the bible!” so they check out their bible and find this weird little story. It comes right before the flood story in Genesis 6, so you’d think they’d have read it, but you know people don’t read their bibles. But even when people aren’t checking up on weird myt…

Scribes: Ancient Israel’s scholars.

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It wasn’t just that they knew how to write. SCRIBE /skraɪb/ n. One who writes [for a living].2. In ancient Israel, a bible scholar; one with expertise in the Law and theology.In our culture, we strive for universal literacy: We want everybody to be able to read. ’Cause in a democracy, if the people are gonna run the country, they need to be educated to that level. (Of course, if nobody but private-school kids get such an education, only the wealthy will really run the country… which is a whole other rant, and one I don’t care to go into today.)But just as democracy has only recently been widespread in human history, universal literacy is also a relatively new idea. Bounce back in time to the Roman Empire, and maybe 15 to 25 percent of the people could read. The rest could not.Not because they were dumb. Humans are just as smart now as they were then. It’s because they didn’t have access to an education. Only those who could afford literate slaves who’d teach their kids, or those who c…

Slavery: How God mitigated and abolished it.

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Being in the bible is not the same as endorsement, y’know. Back in bible times, people had slaves. Slavery was legal.This is a weird and troubling idea for a lot of Christians. In the United States, slavery is illegal, and we consider it immoral. So it’s troubling to read about slavery in the bible as if it’s normal or okay.Especially considering our history with slavery. We fought a whole war over it, y’know. Many southerners are in denial about that, and claim the War Between the States was really about states’ rights and local sovereignty… but history doesn’t bear ’em out at all. Confederate politicians and generals proudly declared they were fighting to retain their peculiar institution of slavery—because unlike southerners today, they didn’t consider slavery to be immoral. Hey, it’s in the bible!Thing is, American slavery wasn’t at all like biblical slavery. What Americans practiced was chattel slavery, in which slaves were considered cattle—a word which evolved from chattel. Wha…

Sadducees: The secular power of religion.

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How an ancient Hebrew harvest celebration got turned into giving a tenth of our income to our churches.SADDUCEE'sæd.ʒə.sinoun. An ancient denomination of the Hebrew religion which upheld the written Law alone, and denied the supernatural and the afterlife.[Sadducean .sæd.ʒə'si.ənadjective.]Protestants seldom know this history, so let me fill you in.John bar Simon was the head priest and king of Judea from 134BC to 104BC. He was a member of the Hasmonean family; his dad was Simon Maccabee, one of the Maccabees who freed Judea from the Syrian Greeks (the “Seleucid Empire”) in 167BC. His dad had become the first head priest after the temple was restored, and since he was functionally the head of state, he was also recognized as Judea’s king. The Hasmoneans ruled Judea till the Romans deposed them in 41BC and gave the throne to Herod bar Antipater.John’s also known as John Hyrcanus. He got his nickname Hurqanós/“from Hyrkania” after defeating the Syrian general Cendebeus, and sinc…

Adultery, concubines, and marriage, in the Old Testament.

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Adultery has a whole different definition in the Old Testament.Years ago one of my eighth-grade students asked me what a concubine was. ’Cause he wasn’t familiar with the word, and it was in his bible. It’s in everybody’s bibles: Pylegéš/“concubine,” which Strong’s dictionary defines as “concubine; paramour.” I just went with the 21st-century term for paramour: “It’s a girlfriend,” I told him.Later that day his mother called me to complain. She heard the story, spoke with her pastor, and he assured her a concubine is a wife. Not a girlfriend. What sort of morality was I attempting to teach her son?Um… it wasn’t a morality lesson. It’s a definition. The morality lesson comes from whether you think the bible’s references to concubines is prescriptive or descriptive: Whether because the patriarchs did it, we can; or whether the patriarchs simply did it, but Jesus calls us to be better than they. (I’ll save you the guessing game: It’s nearly always the second one.)The patriarchs had concu…

Passover: When God saved the Hebrews.

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And how Christians observe it. Or don’t. Or do, but medieval-style.“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 that 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, and emphasizing it ’cause there’s currently no temple to 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 P…