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

Passover: When God saved the Hebrews.

by K.W. Leslie, 15 April

“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 are in 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.

Passover’s origins.

The bible’s second book, Exodus, is about how the Hebrew descendants of Israel were enslaved by the Egyptians, and how the LORD miraculously and mightily rescued them from slavery. Passover memorializes the LORD’s last plague upon Egypt, which finally convinced their pharaoh to release the Hebrews: God “passed over” the Hebrews’ houses on his way to smite the Egyptians’ firstborn children. I know; that’s an extremely drastic punishment. But thus far the Egyptians had resisted bloody water, frogs, lice, flies, livestock disease, boils, hail, locusts, and darkness. Their stubbornness meant things had to escalate.


Those two things hanging on the black inside of this clay oven (or tannúr) are bread. For Passover you just made ’em without yeast. Biblical Archaeology Society

Passover’s also called the Matzot Feast, or Feast of Unleavened Bread. Ex 23.15, Mk 14.1 Unleavened bread is of course מַצָּה/matzá, which in Yiddish became mátzo, so that’s what we call it in English. (Plural מַצּ֖וֹת/matzót, and you pronounce that final T, ’cause it’s Hebrew, not French.) I should warn you some companies make matzot with yeast, which is why not all matzot is kosher for Passover. Today’s matzot tends to look like giant saltines, but in Moses’s and Jesus’s days it was simply flatbread, baked in a clay oven the same way as you usually made matzo, but without yeast.

During the feast, the Hebrews were to purge all yeast, leavening, and fermenting agents from their houses. Ex 12.15 (Yep, that also means no beer for Passover.) Why? Probably to represent haste, much like cooking a lamb you hadn’t gutted properly. Which is also part of the LORD’s details on how to observe Passover:

Exodus 12.1-20 KWL
1 In Egypt’s territory, the LORD told Moses and Aaron to say,
2 “This is your main month, your first month of the year’s months.
3 Tell the whole Israeli assembly: On the 10th of this month,
every man pick yourself a sheep for your father’s house; one sheep per house.
4 If it’s too small a house for a sheep, take your neighbor’s house,
nearest in number of souls, in mouths to feed. Figure that for the lamb.
5 Pick yourselves a sound male lamb, born this year, from your sheep or goats.
6 Put it under your watch till the 14th of this month.
The whole Israeli assembly, together: Slaughter it between the evenings. 7 Take blood from it.
Put it on the two doorjambs, on the lintel, in the house where you eat it with one another.
8 Eat the meat this night, roasted over fire. Eat it with matzot and bitter herbs.
9 Don’t eat it raw, nor boiled in boiling water,
because its head, its legs, its innards must be roasted over fire.
10 Don’t have leftovers of it in the morning.
Burn the leftovers of it in the morning in the fire.
11 Eat it like this: Your waist belted, your sandals on your feet, your staff in your hand.
Eat it quickly. It’s the LORD’s Passover.
12 “I pass over Egypt’s territory that night.
I smite every birthright in Egypt’s territory, from Adam to the animals.
I enact my judgment upon all Egypt’s gods: I’m the LORD.
13 The blood on the houses where you are is your sign. I see the blood: I pass you over.
No smiting comes to destroy you when I smite Egypt’s territory.
14 This day is your memorial. Celebrate it as a feast to the LORD.
It’s an eternal doctrine for your generations. Celebrate it!
15 Eat matzot only seven days. On the first day stop using leaven in your houses.
If anyone eats leavening, get their souls out of Israel—whether the first or the seventh day.
16 The first day’s a holy assembly, and the seventh day’s a holy assembly.
Don’t do any work on them—other than what all souls need to eat. Only do that.
17 Watch the matzot. For on this day, in power, I brought your armies from Egypt’s territory.
Watch this day! It’s an eternal doctrine for your generations.
18 On the first month, the 14th day, at evening,
eat matzot till the 21st day of the month, at evening.
19 Seven days: No leaven is to be found in your houses.
If anyone eats leavening, get their soul out of Israel’s assembly, whether stranger or national.
20 Don’t eat any leavening in any of your dwellings.
Eat matzot.”

After that first Passover, after the LORD dealt with the Egyptians and the Hebrews were on their way out of Egypt, Moses added these instructions:

Exodus 13.3-10 KWL
3 Moses told the people, “Remember this day! You left Egypt, the slaves’ house!
You went out like this with the strength of the LORD’s hand! Don’t eat leavening!
4 The day you went out is in the month of Aviv.
5 Work this work in this month
once the LORD brings you to the land of Canaanites, Hittites, Amorites, Hivites, and Jebusites,
which he swore to your ancestors he’d give you—a land where milk and honey flow.
6 Eat matzot seven days. Feast to the LORD the seventh day.
7 Eat matzot seven days. Don’t even look at fermentation, at leavening in all your vicinity.
8 Proclaim it to your child on that day.
Say, ‘This action was done for me by the LORD when he took me from Egypt!’
9 It’s a sign on your hand for you. A memorial between your eyes.
It’s so the LORD’s Law would be in your mouth:
With a strong hand, the LORD took you from Egypt!
10 Keep this doctrine on its date in days to come.”

Passover thus became one of the three great festivals of Israel. Further commands were added about it: It had to be observed at temple, Dt 16.2, 5 and the firstfruit offering Lv 23.10-14 and other specific offerings Nu 28.16-24 became part of its observance. And of course the rabbis added the haggadah to ensure the children, like Moses said, were properly instructed as to why Passover is so important.

The last supper.

Yes, Jesus’s last supper was a Passover seder. Mk 14.14, Lk 22.15 In the year 33, Passover began on Sabbath/Saturday, Jn 19.14 but the Law permits a little wiggle room to do it the day before, when you started eating matzot. Dt 16.3 Jesus chose to eat the lamb that day, ’cause he knew he’d be busy getting killed. (Although as you know, some Christians like to nitpick, and insist Passover musta started on Thursday—contrary to what the gospels describe.)

So Jesus’s students had to perform all the ritual sacrifices and offerings Thursday morning in preparation. Mk 14.15-16 Once sundown came—’cause the middle eastern day is figured evening to evening—they got the lamb killed, drained, shaved, and cooked, and Jesus and his students came and ate. Mk 14.17 So we know they had lamb, matzot, wine, and something to dip bread in. Jn 13.26 Which might’ve been a bitter herb sauce, but also could’ve just been oil. We aren’t told.

Christians tend to think of the last supper as a somber reflection of Jesus’s self-sacrifice. True, Jesus was a little agitated, and interrupted everyone else’s calm with it. Jn 13.21-22 But otherwise the mood was just the opposite: Passover was a celebration of how the LORD saved Israel. And now, through Jesus, he was gonna save ’em again—them, and the whole world.

Jesus added one feature to his seder, one we Christians now do all year round, and not just on Good Friday or Easter: Holy communion. Mk 14.22-24 Our ritual meal is done in remembrance of Christ Jesus, and for many Christians it replaces the seder altogether.

Not that God’s deliverance of the Hebrews is irrelevant. Far from it! But for gentiles (Egyptian Christians in particular, y’know), the Exodus isn’t our story. It’s not about our salvation. It’s about the Hebrews’ salvation from Egypt. It provides us a significant historical context for what Paul and the apostles had in mind when they later wrote in their letters about the salvation Jesus brings us. It definitely explains the Lamb of God idea, where Jesus takes away the world’s sin. Jn 1.29 You wanna understand salvation, election, and covenants better, read Exodus.

But again: Christians have largely replaced Hebrew-style Passover with Easter and communion. So unless we’re of Jewish descent (or unless we’re legalists), we don’t bother with seders. Go ahead and check out a seder sometime; it’s interesting. But not mandatory for Christians, ’cause we celebrate Passover our own way.

Errors in the bible.

by K.W. Leslie, 16 March

Years ago I was asked whether I believe in biblical inerrancy, the idea the bible contains no errors. Nope, I said. It’s got errors. We learned about ’em in bible college.

He was outraged. I learned about them in bible college? What kind of godless so-called “bible college” did I attend? Well it was an Assemblies of God school, which outraged him all the more because that’s his denomination, and he had presumed Assemblies professors would never, ever teach such a thing. (Actually that particular professor was Presbyterian, but I didn’t tell him that.)

I pointed out, same as my professor pointed out, that if he hadn’t told us about the errors, plenty of nonchristian apologists will gleefully tell us about ’em, just to freak us out. Better we learn about them and deal with them, than never learn about them… then have a massive faith crisis when we stumble across them. (Or when some antichrist forces us to look at them for fun.)

It’s for this same reason I’m writing about them here. They exist. Deal with ’em.

’Cause as you know, plenty of Christians refuse to deal with them. In fact this is part of the reason the New International Version is so popular: Its editors have deliberately edited out most of the errors. I’m not kidding. They straight-up changed the text… and now they can claim the NIV is error-free. And anyone who carries an NIV can claim, “I don’t know what you mean about errors in the bible; my bible doesn’t have any such errors.” Well of course.

How can they defend this behavior? Meh; they don’t even try. They just figure it’s their duty as good Christian inerrantists to delete the discrepancies, lest antichrists use the discrepancies against them. How they did it—yet can claim any degree whatsoever of intellectual honesty—is by moving ’em to the footnotes. When 2 Kings 8.26 says Ahaziah ben Jehoshaphat became king at 22 years old, but 2 Chronicles 22.2 says he was 42, the NIV makes ’em both say 22, and include this footnote in 2 Chronicles:

Some Septuagint manuscripts and Syriac (see also 2 Kings 8:26); Hebrew forty-two

My copy of the Septuagint says he was 20, not 22; so that’s an inconsistency as well.

But to be fair it’s not just the NIV which translated this verse this way. The Amplified Bible (current edition), CSB, ESV, ISV, Message, NASB, NET, NLT, and Voice have decided to ignore the original text, and go with a translation consistent with their personal beliefs. I leave it to you as whether it’s truly inerrantist of them to alter it this way. Because changing the verse to read “22” instead of the original text’s אַרְבָּעִ֨ים וּשְׁתַּ֤יִם/arbayím u-settím, “forty and two,” is actually a clear declaration the original text is wrong—and a clear attempt to hide this fact.

And what’s to say 42 is the wrong number, not 22? Maybe Ahaziah was actually 42 years old. You don’t know.

Read the bible over Lent.

by K.W. Leslie, 03 March

So it’s Lent. And during this time, some of us Christians either

  • do a little fasting or other forms of self-deprivation, and spend some time meditate about what Jesus suffered on our behalf;
  • contemplate nothing, but fast anyway ’cause it’s tradition; or
  • contemplate nothing, fast nothing, feel smug because our religious customs don’t obligate us to do a thing, and mock those who do.

Hopefully you’ve chosen the first thing. And if you’re gonna meditate on something, why not read the bible? The whole bible? ’Cause you can. You can actually read it, in its entirety, within a month. So there’s certainly no reason it can’t be done with 10 extra days. You can easily take the time you’d ordinarily spend watching reality TV shows, and read the scriptures. And have time left over. Easy-peasy.

Even if you don’t plan to give up anything for Lent, (’cause you’re American and self-deprivation isn’t your thing), you can still carve out a bit of time each day to read some bible, and make up for the fact you didn’t read the whole thing back in January. Or maybe you did start, but dropped the ball. Or that you’re doing the six-month or year-long bible track, and dropped the ball on that. Either way, it’s catchup time.

So there’s your Lenten challenge: Read your bible. You know you oughta.

One possible schedule.

If you’re gonna tackle the bible this Lent, here’s one possible schedule you can follow. Gets you through the Old Testament (in roughly the order it was composed), then the New (generally bunching authors together).

Lent has five Sundays, so if you skip a day… you have an entire extra week to catch up.

As I’ve said elsewhere, other reading programs carve the bible into equal portions for the day. If you wanna do that, you can: Get one of those yearly bible-reading programs, and read nine to 10 days’ worth of material each day. That’ll get you finished in 40 days. But ideally I like to read a book all the way through, so I didn’t slice and dice the books when I could avoid it. (Psalms technically consists of five individual books of psalms, so I actually didn’t divide those books when I spread ’em out on the schedule.)

Of course, you don’t have to follow this program. You can use TXAB’s bible-reading plan and read it in whatever order, at whatever speed, and get ’er done in 30 or even 20 days. (Or if you’re just crazy enough, 10 days.) Whatever works for you.

Ready to take the challenge? Let’s get to it.

“The bible says…”

by K.W. Leslie, 13 January

I grew up hearing preachers, pastors, and Sunday school teachers use this phrase: “The bible says…” before directly quoting a verse, loosely quoting an idea, or claiming to refer to an extapolated “biblical principle” as found in the scriptures.

It’s a common phrase among American Christians. I don’t know who coined it. I know evangelist Billy Graham used it constantly; whenever he’d visit the San Francisco Bay Area, local TV stations would broadcast his services, and his sermons would include more “The bible says” in ’em than Raisin Bran has raisins. “Your friends might tell you such-and-so, but the bible says…” and again, sometimes a direct quote, sometimes a general idea, sometimes what he considered a principle.

And sometimes, sometimes, an address. “John 3.16 says for God so loved the world he gave his only begotten son….” But it was rare.

In my experience the reason preachers say “The bible says” is because they don’t know those addresses. Or maybe they do, but it’d take ’em a minute to recall them, and they don’t wanna spend a minute on stage, or at the lectern or podium, trying to remember precisely where in the scriptures Jesus or Paul or Isaiah or David said that pull quote.

Or even whether it was Jesus or Paul or Isaiah or David. Plenty of statements of “The bible says” would be, more accurately, “Jesus says.” In fact wouldn’t it be better to state it’s what Jesus says? You realize there are people out there who don’t care what the bible says, but they do generally approve of Jesus, and if you told ’em Jesus said it, they’d perk up and listen.

And that’s most of the reason I’m writing this piece. Using “the bible says” instead of referring to the author, or to the specific scripture address, is generating a lot of missed opportunities. We now live in a world where most people don’t care what the bible says. (Or at least are willing to confess they don’t care; in previous generations they hypocritically pretended to care, but didn’t really.) But they may care about Jesus. Or the apostles and prophets. What they say holds more weight with people… even though the apostles and prophets did write the bible.

Why you’re not gonna read the bible in a year.

by K.W. Leslie, 30 December

So I wrote yesterday about how people choose to read the enitre bible as one of their new year’s resolutions, and how they really oughta skip the whole bible-in-a-year idea and read it in a month. Because it’s doable, and because you’re more apt to retain and understand it if you don’t stretch it out.

But some of you won’t. I know; I’ve heard the feedback. Many of you got it in your heads a month is impossible. Or unreasonable. Or that you need the extra time to process what you read. (And okay, I’ll take your word for it you actually do meditate on what you read, and aren’t just pretending to practice a real spiritual discipline just so you can weasel out of the challenge. ’Cause I know some of you legitimately do. The rest of you, I have my doubts… but fine; you meditate.)

Likewise I know plenty of Christians with plenty of self-control, but reading is a struggle. It’s never been something they enjoy, nor do for fun. For all we know, they have undiagnosed learning disbilities. (Some of ’em have been diagnosed.) So, for the life of ’em, they can’t manage to get through the bible. It really frustrates them because they know they really should read it, but, y’know, reading.

I should point out new believers regularly claim the bible has proven a giant exception to their reading difficulties. Zealous new believers will pick up a bible, find they can’t put it down, whip right through it… and soon after, seek something else to read. Reading the bible turned them into readers! But that’s not everyone, so let’s be fair.

For those folks who don’t struggle to read, I still point out the way bible-reading plans are commonly structured, they are poison to reading comprehension. To reading retention. To natural pacing. To context. To enjoyment! They turn what should be informative and inspiring, into a chore. And people hate chores, and are happy to find excuses to get out of ’em. “Whoops, missed two readings. Oh well; guess I’ll start over again next January.” Then they don’t.

Chopping the bible into 365 segments (or 366 in leap years, or 313 if they let you take Saturdays off) is a design feature of the yearlong reading plan. This is the very thing which makes the plans terrible.

Read the bible in a month. Yes, seriously. A month.

by K.W. Leslie, 29 December

January’s coming; you’re making resolutions, and one of ’em is to read the bible. As you should! It’s gonna make you more familiar with God. Some people unrealistically expect a new, profound God-experience every day as the Holy Spirit shows ’em stuff, but hopefully you’re more realistic about it. Hopefully you’re realistic about all your resolutions. Not everyone is.

So you need to read through through the entire bible, Genesis to maps. (That’s an old Evangelical joke. ’Cause a lot of study bibles include maps in the back. Okay, it’s less amusing once I explain it.) Every year Christians get on some kind of bible-reading plan to make sure they methodically go through every book, chapter, and verse. ’Cause when we don’t, we wind up only reading the familiar bits, over and over and over again—and miss a lot of the parts we should read. The reason so many Christians misinterpret the New Testament is because they know so very little of its Old Testament context. Every time I quote just a little bit of the Law to explain Jesus’s teachings, way too many people respond, “I’ve never heard that before.” Sadly, I know exactly what they’re talking about.

But part of the reason they “never heard that before” is because they totally forgot they did hear it. Because their bible-in-a-year reading plan had ’em read the Law back in February… and when they finally got to the gospels in September, they’ve clean forgot what they read in February. And by next February when they’re reading the Law again, they’ve clean forgot what they read in September.

So why take a year to read the bible? ’Cause everybody else is doing the bible in a year.

Seriously. It’s a big market. Publishers sell one-year bibles, which chop the scriptures into short daily readings. Sometimes really short daily readings, ’cause they’ll give you three readings: A chapter of the Old Testament, half a chapter of the New Testament, and half a psalm or some other poetry for dessert. If you don’t buy their specially sliced-up bible, there are websites which do it for you, or modules to add to your bible software, or you can just get a list of somebody’s bible-in-a-year plan and follow it yourself. Stick to it and in a year—a year!—you’ll have read the bible.

Yes the bible is a big thick book collection. But come on. It’s not so thick it takes a year to go through.

The year-long program makes the bible sound like this huge, insurmountable mountain to climb. It’s no such thing. Why, you can read it in a month. And no, I’m not kidding. A month. I’ve read it several Januarys in a row. Takes me three weeks.

Yes, there are bible-reading programs which read the bible in three months. That’s a little more reasonable. In fact if you wanna really get familiar with your bible, and quickly, it’s a great idea to do this three-month plan and read the bible four times in a year. (Ideally in four different translations.) Read it every time the seasons change—in December, March, June, and September. Get a bible-in-three-months plan and go with their schedule, or get a bible-in-a-year plan and read four times as much.

If you struggle with reading, or reading comprehension, fine; there are six-month bible-reading plans. But when we’re talking a whole year to read the bible, this pace has serious drawbacks. And not just ’cause it makes the bible sound impossibly massive.

Imagine reading any other book a page a day.

Bible chapters are short. ’Cause when the ancients wrote books, their chapters were short! A chapter is what we’d consider a section of a chapter nowadays. They’re like four or five paragraphs. If you’ve ever read Les Miserables the chapters are even shorter. The sections in these TXAB articles I write are just as long. And bible chapters are often longer than the average chapter in ancient literature.

So imagine reading a “big thick volume” of a book in only a chapter a day. Like Les Miserables, or War and Peace, or The Lord of the Rings, or Harry Potter and the Deathly Hallows, over the course of a year. You’d never think to chop them up into 365 daily readings. But let’s say you did.

You’re gonna have the following troubles:

  • A narrative is gonna get sliced up. Several times. In several awkward places. Can you remember, day to day, where you are in the story? Hope so.
  • How well are you gonna remember a concept in one of the early chapters, when the concept comes up again three months later? And eight months later? And 11 months later?
  • When you can’t follow the storyline, you’re gonna get frustrated. Frustrated readers don’t usually go back and reread things in order to sort things out. They tend to stop reading altogether.

These are some of the many reasons why a year is much too slow. Three months is better. But if you want a serious overview of the bible with a fresh memory, read it in two months. And as I keep saying, you can read it in one. The entire bible, front to back, within the month of January. (Book order up to you, of course.)

Sixteen years ago I was listening to one of my audio bibles and noticed it was about 92 hours long. That’s listening to it at the relatively slow pace that a voice actor goes. I read much faster than that. I realized I could easily read it in half that time—which means it’s theoretically possible to read the bible in a week if motivated. You know, like zealous brand-new Christians tend to be. How often have you heard baby Christians claim they started reading their bibles and couldn’t put it down, and got through the whole volume in quicktime?

So in order to prove the bible-in-a-month deal was doable, I put the following limitations on myself. I think they’re reasonable and doable. I still follow ’em.

  • An hour (or so) per day. If I go over an hour, it’s only because I’m so close to finishing a book, it’d be nuts to stop with a chapter or two to go. Most days the reading takes less than an hour: Most of the bible’s books are short.
  • Only six days a week. I skip Saturdays—unless I miss some other day of the week; then I catch up Saturday. Still, only six days.
  • An unfamiliar bible translation, which oughta make me less likely to skim the verses I’m familiar with.

I read fast, which is why I’m usually done in three weeks. So you can totally do it in four.

Or listen to an entire audio bible.

Maybe you’re not much of a reader. Which is odd, considering you read TXAB and I write very few short pieces.

If that’s you, that’s fine. An audio bible might be more your speed. Get one. I have a page full of links. You can download one for free, or visit one of the many sites which stream the bible, like Bible Gateway. Or get an app (yes, Bible Gateway has one) and stick it on your phone. There are many available translations.

Like I said, one of my audio bibles takes 92 hours to listen to in its entirety. Divided into 24 days, I’d have to listen to about 3 hours 12 minutes a day. For some of us, the daily commute to work and back is longer than 3 hours (which is kinda nuts, but that’s life) and what d’you usually do in that time? Listen to other stuff? Curse at the other drivers? Load up on audio bible instead.

For those folks who live their lives with headphones on, you can listen to way more than three hours a day. Might finish the bible in two weeks, like one of those on-fire Christians who can’t put their bible down. Remember when you were like that? (Oh, you never were? Well, don’t worry. Statistically less than a third of us came to Jesus like that.)

Though the bible’s a big thick book collection, going through the whole of it in January is far from impossible.

“But I don’t wanna read it so fast.”

Ever since I first pitched this idea, a lot of people have been eager to tackle it for themselves. Bible in a month, baby! They drop everything else they’re reading, all the TV programs they’re usually watching, suspend their Netflix account, and cram bible for the month. And to their own great surprise, do it.

I get just as many people who really don’t wanna take the bible-in-the-month challenge. Which is fine. Nobody made this mandatory, y’know. I sure don’t. I just think it’s a good idea: Why take the snail’s-pace approach when you could be done already in January? Worse, lose track and drop the ball by mid-March, just like your gym membership?

For certain people, it’s not enough to say, “No thank you; not for me.” They gotta defend themselves. (Again, they really don’t.) And how do immature people defend themselves? By not just opting out: By slamming the practice, and condemning the person who promotes the practice. It’s not just “not for me,” but somehow evil. Reading the bible so quickly isn’t just a road not chosen; it’s a sin. Or so they tell me.

Here are the usual objections I get.

“IT’S DISRESPECTFUL TO MAKE A MARATHON OF READING THE BIBLE.” Disrespectful to whom? God? Did God decree we should only read his word in a slow, solemn pace, so that it takes a year? Or is he much more pleased when people are hungry for his word, and wanna read lots of it?

Slowness is neither respect nor reverence. It’s just slowness. True, some people are slow because they wanna be careful and methodical, and that’s good. But people are also slow because they’re lazy: If they’re slow about it, they don’t have to work too hard. Or they’re procrastinating: Put off the parts of the bible they don’t like, then whip through those passages quickly. When slowness is just an excuse to avoid reading the bible, it’s pure hypocrisy to claim speed is disrespect.

True, if we read the bible so fast we comprehend little to nothing, all so we can brag “I read it in one week; top that!”—yeah, it’s stupid. Too many people run marathons just so they can brag they ran marathons. So there are definitely people who speed-read bible so they can brag they sped-read bible. Don’t be one of those. If you’re struggling with reading comprehension ’cause a month is just too quick for you, take two or three, or however long it truly takes you. But 12 months, I still maintain, is impractically long. And foolish.

“THIS IS JUST A STUNT.” And so what if it is?

Most of the things our churches do in January are stunts. My church used to do a yearly 21-day diet fast. My neighbor’s church does a back-to-church deal so they can collect all the folks who resolved to do more church in the new year. Exactly what’s wrong with these stunts? Just because it’s wild and out of the ordinary, doesn’t mean you can’t profit by it.

If the bible-in-January stunt gets people to read their bibles for once, you should be all for it.

“HOW MUCH CAN YOU RETAIN FROM READING SO FAST?” Me? Quite a lot. I have a better-than-average ability at reading comprehension. You? I dunno. But it’ll be way more than you retain from reading so slow.

This is probably the most regular excuse I’ve heard for reading through the bible slowly: “We need the time to chew our spiritual food, and meditate on it better.” It’d be nice if that’s actually what people do with their daily bible readings, but let’s get real: They do no such thing. They only read ’em, maybe post a few bible memes on Instagram, then move on with their day. The whole “I need time to meditate” excuse? Yep, more hypocrisy.

The point of reading the entire bible isn’t actually retention, although some retention will happen. It’s to remind us what’s in the scriptures. Retention’s more likely when we read it more often, so when you do this bible-in-a-month thing every year, you’re really likely to retain stuff. But even if you just do it this once: There are parts we haven’t read in the longest time, and we need to be reminded they’re there. We need a refresher. Familiarity is something a lot of us Christians lack with the bible.

How much are we gonna retain? More than someone who never reads it. And while everyone on the three-month plan is a third of the way through, we even have time to go through the bible again. Twice.

“IT DOESN’T MAKE YOU A BETTER OR SUPERIOR CHRISTIAN.” Yeah it does. In a month I’ve read 12 times as much bible as those Christians on the yearly installment plan. That’s clearly superior.

Oh you mean morally superior? Well no; of course not. Not unless I actually follow God’s instructions in what I’ve read.

But like I said, I’ll have read 12 times as much bible. I got all God’s instructions down by the end of January, whereas the folks on the yearly plan won’t be half done till July. I have it fresh in my memory, and know where I need to go back and review; they don’t. Depending on how their plan is structured, they can go most of the year making the same mistakes, committing the same sins, because they haven’t yet been corrected—or because it’s been far too long since they read those corrections, and they forgot ’em already. I have a serious advantage over them.

No, I haven’t earned special heavenly Brownie points from God by reading the bible in a month. No, I’m not more righteous, more saved, more mature, more anything, unless I put what I read into practice. But I did get that bible read, and have a several-month jump on other Christians. That ain’t nothing.

“I CAN’T SPARE AN HOUR A DAY.” Fair enough. Many can’t. Some of us have crazy busy lives, and simply can’t take a free hour for ourselves and our spiritual lives. That’s a much bigger issue than reading the bible in a month. If you can only snatch a few minutes for yourself at a time, please spend it on prayer. When you get more time, then concentrate on bible study and mediation. If you want to plow through a bible within a month, you may have to resort to audio bibles.

But lots of people absolutely do have a spare hour. That is, after we part with some other leisure activity, like TV, video games, Facebook, or something they really don’t wanna put on hold.

“I’M NOT SURE I COULD BE THAT DISCIPLINED.” Also fair enough. But God’s calling you to be. Self-control is a fruit of the Spirit. When we lack self-control, it’s not because God hasn’t granted us the ability; it’s because we’ve not bothered to put this Spirit-granted ability into practice, and don’t exercise it. Compared to other forms of self-control—diets, quitting tobacco, going to the gym regularly, cutting back on luxuries—reading the bible in a month is rather easy. Unless we’re suffering from an addiction or medical condition, our lack of discipline isn’t a valid excuse.

Maybe you need an incentive: Once you finish the bible, reward yourself. Or read the bible with a partner, and if you finish the bible your partner can reward you, and vice-versa. Do it in a group and egg one another on. Ban all other reading material, all other forms of entertainment, from your life till you get that bible completely read. If you’re not disciplined, use this opportunity to grow your self-control.

One possible schedule.

Here’s one possible schedule you can follow. Gets you through the Old Testament (I listed it in roughly the order it was composed), then the New (generally bunching authors together).

January has 31 days, so there are plenty of extra days available.

And no, you don’t have to start on 1 January! Start anywhere. Start in mid-January and finish in mid-February. Start in February. Start on Wedesday instead of Sunday, and take your breaks on Sundays instead of Saturdays. Who says you have to sync up with any calendar?

I’ve seen other reading programs which divide the bible up into roughly equal amounts of reading each day. It means you gotta quit reading partway through a book. Ideally I like to read a book (any book, not just bible books) all the way through. So you’ll notice I didn’t bisect the books if I could help it. Psalms is an exception, ’cause Psalms is huge—and technically Psalms consists of five books of psalms, and I didn’t divide those five books.

If you wanna rearrange things for your own convenience—maybe you wanna read an Old Testament book, then a New Testament book, then the Old Testament again, and so on—go right ahead. Whatever gets you through the bible.

And if you wanna read equal amounts of bible each day, here’s the easiest way to do it: Go get one of those yearly bible-reading programs, and read 13 days’ worth of material each day. That’ll get you finished in 28 days.

Ready to take the challenge? Let’s start reading.

Read your bible!

by K.W. Leslie, 24 November

Just about every Christian teacher—myself included—tell Christians we gotta read our bibles.

’Cause we gotta. We live in a biblically-illiterate culture, folks. Heck, it’s darn near illiterate in general, because Americans simply don’t read. They read snippets; they read social media posts, or paragraphs, or really short articles, or devotionals whose daily reading intentionally takes up less than a page. Give them a long article to read, and about six paragraphs in, they’ll complain, “How long is this thing?” and quit. They’re not gonna read a novel, much less bible.

So the bits they do know of bible are entirely out of context. They’re individual verses, quoted to prove a point in a sermon, or turned into a meme and posted on social media. They’re the memory verses we use to defend ourselves: “No I don’t give to beggars, because if you don’t work you shouldn’t eat. That’s biblical.” It is, but again, context.

The bible references people know, are often a lot like that old children’s game of “telephone”: One kid whispers a message to another kid, who whispers it to a second, who whispers it to a third, and so on round the room… till it gets back to the first kid, who discovers the message changed an awful lot in transmission. Our culture has done the very same thing with bible quotes.

  • “The love of money is the root of all sorts of evil” 1Ti 6.10 got turned into Money is the root of all evil,” and is used to bash the wealthy, the ambitious, capitalism, and pretty much everyone who has more than us.
  • “Judge not, that ye be not judged” Mt 7.1-3 got shortened to “Judge not,” and now we dismiss all sorts of behavior we’re supposed to critique, permit unrepentant sinners to take positions of authority… and miss Jesus’s real lesson, about inconsistent behavior. (Yep, Jesus said this. You’d be surprised how often people quote bible but don’t realize they’re directly quoting Jesus. You could be saying “Jesus says” instead of “The bible says”… although it’d have more impact if you knew what Jesus means.)
  • “The lion will lie down with the lamb” comes up from time to time when people talk about peace. But it’s a poorly-quoted bit of bible. In Isaiah 11.6 it speaks of a wolf and lamb, leopard and goat, and lion and calf respectively. Wild animals, and the domestic animals they usually attack.
  • “Pride goeth before a fall” is also a bit of bible that’s been abbreviated: “Pride [goeth] before destruction, and an haughty spirit before a fall.” Pr 16.18 These are parallel ideas, so at least it wasn’t bent into the wrong idea. For once.
  • “The eyes are the windows to the soul” resembles Jesus’s saying that the eye is the lamp of the body, Mt 6.22, Lk 11.34 but Jesus is talking about a Hebrew idiom, “evil eye,” which meant greedy. If a good eye means light gets into your body, an evil eye means your body is dark. There’s nothing in the teaching about souls… and not every Christian is entirely sure what a soul is anyway.
  • “Spare the rod, spoil the child” isn’t even in the bible. Not that it stops many a parent from quoting it in order to justify beating their kids. Yes, corporal punishment is found in the scriptures, Pr 13.24, 22.15, 23.13-14, 29.15 but so is the warning that if we don’t spare the rod, we’ll frustrate our kids by our lack of compassion. Cl 3.21 We’re meant to be merciful like our Father Lk 6.36 —something that’d sink in if we weren’t just cherry-picking scriptures to justify ourselves.

Literally.

by K.W. Leslie, 20 October

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.” Doesn’t anymore; it means terrible. Once the new definition is used far more often than the original definition—and sometimes exclusively; nobody uses the original definition anymore!—the new definition becomes the main definition, and the original definition becomes wrong. “God makes me feel awful,” unless you’re trying to say he struck you with the plague, is wrong.

Yep, this is why we need to keep re-translating the bible. And why, whenever we read the King James Version, we can’t assume it’s using the same definitions for its words that we are. ’Cause too often, and when we least expect it, it’s not.

Anyway. The reason I bring up the evolution of language, is because plenty of Christians insist they interpret the bible “literally.” By which they think they mean the first definition: In its most basic sense.

In reality they mean the second definition: They interpret it seriously. They take it seriously. The bible is full metaphor, allegory, exaggeration, and distortion, and they know this. They’re not such fools as to ignore the bible’s different genres, and insist no, we gotta take metaphorical genres (like, say, the visions in Revelation) as if that’s precisely what has to happen. Well, most of ’em aren’t such fools.

You know there are parts of the bible we don’t interpret literally. Like poetry. Similes. Apocalyptic visions. Prophetic visions. Parables. Teachings where Jesus says, “I’m the good shepherd,” Jn 10.11 and no he doesn’t mean when the students aren’t watching, he runs out to the fields near town and herds sheep. Nor is he literally a sheep gate, Jn 10.7 light, Jn 9.1 bread, Jn 6.35 resurrection, Jn 11.25 nor a grapevine. Jn 15.1 We should know better than to figure Jesus is literally various inanimate objects, plants, or a man with alternate vocations.

And yet… about a billion Christians think Jesus actually transforms the molecules of his body into communion bread and wine every time they gather for worship.

Yeah, literalism regularly comes up in Christianity. So let’s sort out the definition, recognize whether we’re meant to take something literally or seriously, and either way stick to a serious understanding of what the scriptures mean—and how we’re to follow them. Okay?

“I don’t care what the bible says.”

by K.W. Leslie, 24 February

Lemme start by saying I do so care what the authors of the bible have written. Particularly about what Jesus teaches. But y’notice the title of this article is in quotes… because I’m referring to when other people don’t care about the bible. Because sometimes they don’t.

Back when I was 7 or 8 years old or so, my Sunday school class was doing some activity, and one of the other kids was interacting badly. Picking fights or swearing or some other less-than-Christian behavior, and our Sunday school teacher decided to correct him by quoting bible at him. “You know, Joonas, you ought not do that, because the bible says…”

“I don’t care what the bible says,” announced little Joonas.

And the rest of us backed away before the lightning struck him down. Except it didn’t, because we follow Jesus, not Zeus.

But the teacher was likewise taken aback: How, how could he not care what the bible says? Everybody cares. Or should.

Now yeah, when you’re a kid, especially when you’re sheltered kid, it’s entirely possible to grow up with no idea other people don’t respect bible. I was no such kid. I have an atheist dad, and obviously he doesn’t respect bible. I could tell him, “Because the bible says” till my tongue goes numb—I actually used to try this line of reasoning on him!—and it made no difference, because he thinks it’s poorly-written fiction which only children and retards believe. He preferred to believe Rush Limbaugh.

So that inoculated me from the idea everybody believes as I do. Other Christians don’t grow up that way at all. In the Bible Belt in particular, you can have absolutely everything in your culture suggest everybody, absolutely everybody, believes and respects and follows bible. Only ignorant heathens don’t; only depraved psychos won’t. And certainly there are none of those people in their communities… and if they can just ban immigration altogether, especially when it comes to Catholics and Muslims, they can guarantee there never will be. (Yep, that’s why they have those politics. It’s not racism so much as religious bigotry. Although often it’s also racism.)

I don’t live in the Bible Belt, but I do live in the United States, and even in non-Bible Belt states we have certain towns, certain communities, certain pods which share the very same Bible Belt mentality. Everyone they know, respects bible. (Or appears to; naturally there are hypocrites among ’em.) Nobody they know, doesn’t.

So when they find an exception, they freak out a little. Triggers the fight-or-flight instinct. Although for some of us it takes a few seconds to kick in… much like a deer surprised by an oncoming car, who hesitates, and dies. But freaking out is definitely the fight instinct.

And y’know, if we Christians are working on our self-control as we should, we shouldn’t run on instinct; we should be wise. Okay, we just discovered someone who doesn’t respect bible. So… do they know Jesus? If not, share! If so, find out why they don’t respect bible, and see whether you can steer them in a direction which does.

The guy who tried to delete the Old Testament.

by K.W. Leslie, 23 February

I’ve touched upon Marcion briefly before. Thought I’d discuss him in more detail today.

Marcion (Greek Μαρκίων/Markíon, though English-speakers keep pronouncing his name 'mɑr.ʃ(i.)ən) was born round the year 85 in Sinope, Pontus, a city south of the Black Sea which is today’s Sinop, Turkey. Back then Pontus was a Roman province, and Marcion’s dad was the bishop of its Christian church. Marcion himself was a shipbuilder and sailor, and we don’t know much about his Christian life till he got into his fifties.

At that point, in the late 130s, we hear of him trying to join the church of Rome, and offering them a big donation of 50,000 denarii. (Roughly $120,000 American.) And of course they take it; you can help a lot of needy people with that money! But within five years, they booted him from their church and gave him back his money, ’cause they concluded he was a dangerous heretic. He insisted Jesus only appeared to be human; he wasn’t really. Theologians call this docetism, and yep it’s heresy: Jesus isn’t faking his humanity. Really born, really died—and really rose again.

Rejected in Rome, Marcion went back to Sinope and taught his heretic ideas there. And managed to get a bit of a following. Some historians call him gnostic ’cause his whole “matter bad, spirit good” ideas are similar to what Greco-Roman pagans believed, and gnostics taught. But properly, gnostics are big on secret knowledge—and of course charging lots of money to give up the secrets they know. Marcion shared his wonky ideas with anyone and everyone.

The big one—the idea which wound up getting called Marcionism and still gets taught by various Christians from time to time—is that the God of Abraham, Isaac, and Jacob, the God who handed down the Law to Moses, the God of the Old Testament, the LORD… is not the same god as Jesus’s heavenly Father. Different god. Lesser god. A demiurge, meaning a god who creates stuff—but not, Marcion insisted, the highest God, the Almighty. The Father is the Almighty. The LORD is some other guy.

Marcion went through the entire Old Testament, listing all the ways he figured the LORD was unlike God, and published his findings in a book called Antitheses. We no longer have a copy of it, but Tertullian of Carthage wrote a critique of it, and Marcionism in general, in his five-book series Against Marcion. In general Marcion figured the LORD is an evil god, or at least not worthy of our worship.

Where’d he get such a cockamamie idea? From reading the Old Testament literally—or so Marcion claimed. In Genesis, you read of the LORD physically walking around Eden, calling to Adam and wondering where he’s wandered off too. Ge 4.8-9 Well that’s clearly a material god; not a powerful Spirit who’s unlimited by spacetime. How’s this LORD who can’t find Adam, the same as the Father who sees everything we do in private? Mt 6.6

Yeah, you might be throwing up your hands in exasperation: We’re not meant to read the creation stories with this level of literalism! (Although you try telling that to young-earth creationists. But I digress.) But bear in mind Marcion was deliberately looking for inconsistencies. He already had an axe to grind: He didn’t believe in a material Jesus, didn’t care to believe material creation is good, and didn’t want to think of the Almighty as its creator. The cosmos had some other creator; some agent of the Almighty who made it for him. Some demiurge.

Doesn’t John point-blank state Jesus is the creator? Jn 1.3 Well yes, but Marcion either didn’t have a copy of John, or didn’t consider it bible. And yeah, let’s finally get to what Marcion did consider bible.

Which bible translation’s the best?

by K.W. Leslie, 21 January
HE. “So lemme ask: Which version of the bible do you use? Which one’s the best?”
ME. “None of ’em. Learn Hebrew and Greek.”

As soon as someone finds out I know the bible’s original languages, that’s nearly always the question they ask me. Sometimes because they earnestly wanna know, and figure I’m more an expert than they are. Sometimes because they already have a favorite, and want some affirmation. Sometimes because they already think their favorite is best, so they’re testing me.

Well, this question has a long answer. It’s the rest of this article! But I found when you being with the long answer, their eyes roll back in their heads; they don’t wanna deal with the complexities of bible translations. They only wanted a quick ’n dirty answer. Tell ’em the best bible version, so they can go get that version and use it forevermore. Or judge you. Whatever.

So I start with my joke answer: “None. Learn original languages.”

Sometimes, but rarely, they realize I’m kidding. The rest of the time, a look of horror and despair comes upon their faces: “What, learn ancient languages? That’ll take years!

Yes it will. It took me years. But that’s the scary alternative. Now for my much nicer—though admittedly long—response.

As for which version of the bible I use, it depends on why I need it.

  • BIBLE STUDY. I go with the original languages. Always. I have Accordance on all my devices, ’cause it’s inconvenient to carry around a print copy of the original-language bibles. I got the Biblia Hebraica for the Old Testament, the 28th edition of the Nestle-Aland Greek New Testament (and the United Bible Societies’ GNT, the Tyndale House GNT, the Textus Receptus, and the Codex Sinaiticus for comparison).
  • TEACHING. When I work with new believers and kids, New Living Translation; it’s easy to understand. When adults—as y’might notice from reading this blog—my own translation, frequently with the King James Version for comparison, although if they have a favorite translation, I don’t mind switching over for their convenience. Having a bible app makes this easy.
  • AUDIO BIBLES. I have several. Including original-language audio bibles. (Yes they exist.) On my iPhone is my fave, The Bible Experience in the now-defunct Today’s NIV.
  • CASUAL READING. English is my first language after all, and Accordance comes with English translations, like the ESV and KJV. Either I read one of them, or another translation from Bible Gateway, or I have an ESV pocket-sized bible which I bought about 20 years ago at a now-defunct Christian bookstore. (The cover’s thrashed, so I re-covered it in black duct tape. Hey, it works.)

And of course my bookshelf has lots of other “analog bibles” (y’know, books which don’t require charging). Some are what I call big-ass bibles; others were the result of the years before I went digital, when I collected bible translations. Yeah, they get dusty: I read my phone, Kindle, tablet, and computer.

But lemme go back to the NLT: I encourage people to read that one because it’s easy to understand. That’s the most valuable asset of any bible translation. When any bible is hard to understand, it means the translators did a poor job, and their number one job is to remove the language barrier. Too many translators forget to do that.

  • They’re trying too hard to follow the original text “literally” and word-by-word.
  • Or it’s not even about translation; they were commissioned to update another popular translation, like when the NIV comes out with another edition. They’re expected to fix it, but not change it too much.
  • Or (as with many a bible paraphrase) they’re trying too hard to be clever, and make it sound different from all the other versions… and there’s nothing wrong with the way the other versions translated it.

Basically if your interpretation needs an interpretation, you suck as an interpreter.

Now, which one’s the best translation? Um… whichever one gets you to read your bible.

Do you know your bible quotes?

by K.W. Leslie, 20 January

Generally if you’re gonna call yourself biblically literate, you oughta at least know these quotes from the bible. Probably already do; you just didn’t realize they were from the bible.

ALL HAVE SINNED AND FALL SHORT OF THE GLORY OF GOD. Or “come short” in the KJV. Comes from Romans 3.23; means nobody measures up to God’s standard of perfection, but God graciously forgives us and grants eternal life. Ro 6.23

ALL THINGS TO ALL PEOPLE. Or “all men” (KJV): Paul’s claim he adapted his circumstances so he can find common ground with everyone, and share Christ with them. 1Co 9.22 Y’know, “when in Rome.” Certain Christians are quick to point out Paul didn’t compromise his beliefs or behavior in so doing.

ALL THINGS WORK TOGETHER FOR GOOD. In context, “to them that love God, to them who are called according to his purpose.” Ro 8.28 Various Christians pull it out of context and claim everything always turns out for the best. I remind ’em to read Ecclesiastes sometime.

ALL WE, LIKE SHEEP, HAVE GONE ASTRAY. Isaiah’s warning to his people: They turned away from God, like sheep who disregard their shepherd. Is 53.6

AM I MY BROTHER’S KEEPER? Cain’s excuse to God for not knowing where Abel was, Ge 4.9 though in fact he just murdered him. The phrase gets used to claim we’re not responsible for one other. In reality we often are.

ASK AND IT’LL BE GIVEN YOU. Jesus’s teaching that the Father wants to give good gifts to his kids. Mt 7.7

BE FRUITFUL AND MULTIPLY. God’s directives to his animals after creating them. Ge 1.22 Including to the humans. Ge 1.28

BE SURE YOUR SIN WILL FIND YOU OUT. Moses’s warning to two tribes who promised they’d fight with the other ten; that if they broke their promise they’d get caught. Nu 32.23 Christians sometimes use this verse to claim every sin eventually gets found out. And many do… but some don’t.

BEAT THEIR SWORDS INTO PLOWSHARES. A prophecy about future peace—or not—found in multiple books of the prophets. Is 2.4, Mc 4.3, Jl 3.10

The bible, in chronological order. (More or less.)

by K.W. Leslie, 19 January

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

Okay, fine.

But I will point out this order is debatable. ’Cause of course it is. Since when aren’t Christians gonna debate about who came first, Job or Abraham? (It’s Abraham. Job’s an Edomite; Edom/Esau is Abraham’s grandson.) Or which letter did Paul write first 1 Thessalonians or Galatians? (My money’s on Galatians.) Other chronological-order lists are gonna have a slightly different order, although Genesis is usually first and Revelation last.

Here, for your convenience, is the bible in chronological order. Not always the order it was written, but the order of the events which took place in the books. Print it out and check ’em off as you read ’em.

TXAB’s bible-reading plan.

by K.W. Leslie, 28 December

Whenever the new year approaches, Christians resolve to read the bible. The entire bible, not just the parts we like best: Genesis to maps, as the old joke goes. (See, when you buy a bible in print, most of them have maps of Israel and the Roman Empire in the back. Yes, explaining the joke makes it less funny. Yes, deliberately making the joke less funny is ironically funny. Yes, this is metahumor. I’ll stop now.)

Christians tend to pick up a bible-reading plan of some sort, and most of the time it goes through the scriptures in a year. Which, I insist, is far too long. I prefer you do it in a month. Yes it’s totally possible; the bible’s a big fat inspired book anthology, but it doesn’t take an entire year to read. What book do you take an entire year to read?—unless you chop it into bite-size bits so small you’re spiritually starving. No wonder so many Christians lose track and lose interest.

Now if a month seems too extreme for you (especially if you don’t read), y’know what you could do: Read the bible at your own speed. Read it till you’re done. However long it takes you to get it done. Might be three months. Maybe two. Then again you might surprise yourself and finish it in one.

That’s where TXAB’s bible-reading plan comes in. It’ll help you read it at whatever speed you’re going.

On trusting the bible—but first trusting God.

by K.W. Leslie, 03 August

Whenever Christian apologists write a book on their favorite subject, they either begin by explaining how they know God exists, or why the bible is absolutely trustworthy. It kinda depends on which of the two they consider the higher authority: God, because he inspired the bible; or bible, because it informs us about God.

Custom dictates God should come first, so he does come first in most apologetics books. But not all of ’em, ’cause not every apologist hews to custom. And to be blunt, a number of apologists are total bibliolaters, so they insist it’s vital we establish the bible as an absolute before we can even quote it as an authority.

Thing is, how do we prove the bible’s absolutely trustworthy? Well, here are the answers one apologist offers.

  • Look how many ancient copies of the bible there are! Way more than other books, or contemporary books. That’s gotta mean something.
  • Lookit all the statements the scriptures say about themselves, or other scriptures.
  • Lookit all the contemporary ancient accounts which jibe with the bible. Or all the archeological discoveries which also jibe with the bible. That makes it historical, doesn’t it?
  • Lookit the precise, careful processes the Masoretic Jews and Christian monk copyists used to make sure our copies of the bible are precise duplicates.
  • Lookit how closely the first-century Dead Sea Scrolls line up with the medieval Masoretic texts: Man those Masoretes did a good job of bible preservation.
  • Lookit all the ancient Christians who quote bible—proving not just that there were bibles back then, but since their quotes match the copies of the bible we have, it’s clearly survived down to us intact.

But in these “proofs,” apologists kinda miss the forest for the trees.

Why do skeptics doubt bible? Because they doubt Christians. They doubt Christianity. They doubt our form of Christianity. They doubt God. They doubt all the things which point to bible; stands to reason they’re gonna doubt bible too. Especially since they’ve largely never even read the bible, haven’t a clue what it says, and don’t care enough to bother finding out.

So while apologists are busy trying to explain how the Masoretes invented checksums so they could make sure they precisely copied bible line-for-line, skeptics are busy not caring. So the Old Testament isn’t full of scribal errors. Big whoop. They still think the Old Testament is irrelevant, because they don’t believe the God it describes is even real.

Get it? So, first things first. Before you start discussing the bible’s trustworthiness with anyone, make sure you’re not boring someone who already has their mind made up in the opposite direction.

Which ranks higher: Bible or God?

Like I said, Christian apologists are gonna base a lot of their arguments on bible. Specifically proof texts which defend their points. It’s gonna be the foundation for a lot of their reasoning—so when you build on a foundation, you’d better confirm the foundation is stable. There’d better be some rebar in that concrete, or it’s gonna crack a lot, and pretty much turn into gravel.

But honestly, I don’t focus on the foundation. I focus on the retaining wall. As architects will tell you, the way you make a building earthquake-proof is to not put all your trust in a foundation, ’cause an earthquake’s gonna shake it. You put it in your building’s framework. In smaller buildings like a house, you put a lot of it in the one wall which supports all the other walls. In masonry, you usually put it in your cornerstone.

Not for nothing did the scriptures allude to Jesus as “the head stone of the corner,” Ps 118.22 KJV “the head of the corner,” Mk 12.10 KJV or as Paul put it,

Ephesians 2.19-22 KJV
19 Now therefore ye are no more strangers and foreigners, but fellowcitizens with the saints, and of the household of God; 20 And are built upon the foundation of the apostles and prophets, Jesus Christ himself being the chief corner stone; 21 In whom all the building fitly framed together groweth unto an holy temple in the Lord: 22 In whom ye also are builded together for an habitation of God through the Spirit.

Yeah the apostles and prophets who wrote the bible are our foundation, but Jesus himself keeps the building up.

So when I talk to skeptics, I base as many propositions as I can upon my personal experiences with the living God. On what I’ve seen with my eyes, what I’ve heard with my ears and heart, what my hands have handled. 1Jn 1.1 Y’know, like the apostles did. I use the scriptures to confirm these experiences are valid, same as the ancient Christians did… but I still keep referring to my God-experiences.

Other apologists do it the other way round. They were taught to trust bible more than their God-experiences. Problem is, prioritizing bible over personal experience makes no sense to pagans. They think it means we’re denying reality. And to a degree, they’re not wrong. When we reject God-experiences because we think the bible tells us otherwise, you do realize we’re not following God anymore. We’ve gone another way. The wrong way.

Once I started pointing to my God-experiences, I found certain skeptics really grow irritated with me. Y’see, antichrists have learned all these tactics for debunking the bible, specifically so they can win debates with Christians. We Christians foolishly assume we’re better-prepared than they, walk right into their traps, and instead of sharing Jesus we spend the next three hours defending bible. Whereas in sharing my God-experiences instead, I don’t spring any of their traps. It utterly confounds them; it’s like I’m not playing their game properly. Well I’m not. I’m not here to debate abstractions; I’m here to testify.

Proving the bible is reliable helps convince us Christians to trust it more. That’s why we learn why the bible’s reliable. That’s the only reason why. Learning this stuff so we can convince naysayers it’s reliable? Waste of time. Even if you convince them the bible is well-copied and ancient and historically accurate, they’ll only believe it’s a reliable myth.

Like Homer’s poetry. Ever read the Iliad and Odyssey? Now let’s say these epics were reliably copied, and historically accurate—there really was an Achilles and Odysseus and Hector and Priam, and Troy did get destroyed, and Odysseus did take years to get home. You gonna believe in Zeus now, and worship him? Heck no. Same with pagans who doubt the bible: Its reliability doesn’t do what you’re hoping it will.

So first things first. Show ’em God is real. Show ’em Christ Jesus is the only true way to God. Then they might acknowledge bible.

So the bible has a lot of ancient copies.

Christian apologists love to point out how many ancient manuscripts there are of the bible. ’Cause there are tens of thousands. The New Testament is the most-copied book in antiquity. There are way more ancient copies of the NT than any other ancient book; way more by far. Josh McDowell loves to point out less than 700 ancient copies of the Iliad exist, compared with 24,000 ancient copies of the NT. Evidence That Demands a Verdict vol. 1, c. 4

How does this prove the bible’s reliable? It doesn’t really.

It does prove the bible was popular. As it would be, with Christians. There were a lot of us, and any Christian who could afford to get the bible copied, did. After all, it’s foundational to our religion. Whereas the Iliad is an old pagan poem about a religion which, for centuries, competed with Christianity for followers and power… so it stands to reason Christians wouldn’t be so keen on preserving it. Wasn’t till Greco-Roman paganism was extinct that Christians finally felt the Iliad was safe to read, and wouldn’t convert anyone to Zeusism.

Likewise the billions of bibles published today, in every language we can find, only proves the bible’s popular. Not reliable.

Yet I’ve heard apologists claim this volume implies reliability—and that’s a logical fallacy, an argument which sounds profound but really isn’t. Don’t we keep trying to teach our teenagers that popular doesn’t mean true?

So the bible has very few textual variants.

Christian apologists also love to point out how few textual variants we find in the ancient manuscripts of both Old and New Testaments. Certainly fewer than most ancient books… considering how few copies of ancient books there are.

Certainly fewer than even more recent books. The three earliest copies of William Shakespeare’s Hamlet are extremely different from one another. There’s the First Quarto (published 1603), the Second Quarto (1604), and the First Folio (1623), and they line up for the most part… but they also have some really big differences between them. You may not know this, ’cause if you’ve ever read Hamlet or seen it performed, what you read or saw was a version of the play edited together by textual scholars. Sometimes the scholars were trying to figure out what Shakespeare originally had in the play… and just as often, like the Textus Receptus, they just wanted to make sure all the variants got included. Especially their favorites.

Textual scholars are way more responsible when it comes to today’s original-language editions of the bible. But the most ancient bibles aren’t anywhere near as different from one another as the earliest copies of Hamlet. Take the two oldest copies of the bible there are and compare them: You’ll find very little difference between them. Heck, take copies from the Middle Ages—the result of centuries of making copies of copies of copies of copies of copies—and you’ll find less than 15 percent difference between them. That’s better than the two quartos of Hamlet, both of which were published during Shakespeare’s lifetime.

For that, the Masoretes and monks deserve a lot of credit for making sure so very few errors crept into their copies. (And we Christians will also give the Holy Spirit a lot of credit for getting ’em to preserve his bible.)

But here’s the thing: Of course there were very few variants in ancient bibles. They were made by devout Jews and Christians, who considered these texts the very word of God, and put supreme importance on making sure these were exact copies. Hence they went to so much trouble to make sure no mistakes slipped in. As opposed to someone who was just reprinting Hamlet, which—though a brilliant play—ain’t holy scripture.

Despite how few textual variants there were, any textual variant makes people doubt the bible’s reliability. And no, we can’t just pretend they don’t exist, like KJV-worshipers will. We know better. Antichrists definitely know better. So even though the bible is remarkably well-preserved, how do we know which verses oughta be in there, and which verses oughta be tucked into the footnotes?

Real simple: Look at the oldest ancient manuscripts.

  • If words or verses are missing in all those copies, they weren’t in the originals; they don’t belong in the bible.
  • If they’re missing in most of those copies, put ’em in brackets or the footnotes.
  • If they’re missing in few of those copies, put ’em in the text, but include a footnote saying they’re not in every ancient copy.
  • And if they’re not missing anywhere, it’s all good.

Again: This doesn’t prove the bible’s the authentic word of God. It only makes reasonably sure our original-language bibles are as close to the original texts as possible. Textual criticism isn’t that difficult a science. It only seems impressive and hard ’cause the scholars are dealing with ancient manuscripts and languages. But relax; they know what they’re doing.

So historians and scholars like it.

Christian apologists also love to point out how historians and scholars consider the bible to be a valid, authoritative, useful historical document. After all, it does contain the history of the ancient Hebrews and Christians, and is confirmed many times over by archaeology.

But there’s two problems with making a fuss over this. Yes, historians and scholars consider the bible historical. Now, does it mean they’ve taken its claims about God seriously, and became Christians? For a number of ’em no. They’re still pagans and skeptics. (Or devout Jews and Muslims.) They may take the bible’s history seriously, and use the bible to find archeological sites. But if they don’t wanna believe in Jesus, they’re not gonna. They’re gonna consider the God parts mythology, and the rest useful. Same as we do the Iliad.

Secondly, “Well historians and scholars consider it valid” doesn’t work on skeptical pagans. They don’t care what historians, scholars, scientists, linguists, researchers, and theologians think. They don’t believe in it; that’s all they care about.

Y’notice I keep coming back to the same conclusion: The bible’s a really impressive, very unique book. It has a long, interesting history. Does this prove it true and reliable? No. Does this convince pagans to trust it? No. When they say, “I don’t even believe in the bible,” we’re not gonna win them over by pointing to how neat it is. We gotta introduce them to Jesus. Only then will the bible become anything relevant to them.

Save the stats for us bible nerds who already like the bible.

The Judean senate.

by K.W. Leslie, 23 March
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.)