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11 March 2019

Holy communion: Regularly eating and drinking Jesus.

An introduction to Christianity’s most frequent ritual.

Holy communion, or “communion” for short, refers to the Christian ritual where we repeat what Jesus did during his last Passover with his students:

Mark 14.22-25 KWL
22 As they ate, Jesus took bread; blessed, broke, and gave it to the students,
and said, “Take it. This is my body.”
23 Taking a cup, giving a blessing, Jesus gave it to the students, and all drank from it.
24 Jesus told them, “This is the blood of my relationship, poured out for many.
25 Amen! I promise you I might never drink the product of the vineyard again
—till that day I drink it new in God’s kingdom.”

Roughly we do the same thing. There’s bread, wafers, matzo, saltines, oyster crackers, or those little Chiclet-size pills of flour you can buy by the case; there’s wine, non-alcoholic wine, grape juice, grape-flavored juice (made with 10 percent juice, which I like to call “10 percent Jesus”), or grape drink; Christians ritually eat it ’cause it represents Jesus’s self-sacrificial death. And we’re to do it till he officially comes back. 1Co 11.26

Holy communion is more of a Protestant term. Orthodox and Catholic Christians call it eucharist, from the Greek εὐχαριστέω/evharistéo, “to bless” or “to give thanks,” like Jesus did when he blessed the bread and wine. Christians also call it “the Lord’s supper,” “the Lord’s table,” “the divine service,” “the breaking of bread,” and for a lot of Catholics just “the sacrament”—the one they do all the time, as opposed to the other sacraments.

But communion emphasizes the fact we’re connected to Jesus. And to one another, through our relationship with him. For a lot of Christians, that’s why we do holy communion: It’s a reminder we’re Christ’s body, 1Co 12.27 which is why we just ate a little bit of him.

Well, not literally ate him.

Well… some Christians are entirely sure we do literally eat him. ’Cause they take the bible literally, so when Jesus said, “This is my body,” they figure he’s not kidding: It is his body. He turned it into his body. He still turns it into his body; as soon as the bread gets blessed for holy communion, hocus pocus (or in the original Latin, hoc est enim corpus meum, “this is my body,”) and now it’s Jesus. All the bread’s atoms got swapped with Jesus’s atoms.

The rest of us are pretty sure Jesus was using a metaphor, although Christians vary as to how far the metaphor goes. Martin Luther figured Jesus is spiritually (maybe sorta physically too?—but it’s debatable) with the bread and wine, but of course they don’t literally change into Jesus. But for most Protestants they’re just symbols which represent Jesus.

I gotta say, though: If your church is using stale bread and cheap juice to represent Jesus, you’re doing a pathetic job of representing him. Put some effort into it, Christians! Yeesh.

08 March 2019

Gentiles.

Ancestry doesn’t matter in Christ. Way too often, it does to everyone else.

GENTILE 'dʒɛn.taɪl adjective. Not Jewish.
2. Not of our religious community.

Years ago a Mormon friend used the word “gentile” to describe non-Mormons. You know, like I use the word “pagan” to describe nonchristians. If you’re used to defining the word another way, it’s a little odd to hear it like that; and of course I had to ask him if he considered non-Mormon Jews to be “gentiles.” Apparently he does. That oughta be super weird for any Jews who hear that.

’Cause “gentile” originates from Jews trying to describe anyone who’s not a Jew. The Hebrew word is גּוֹי/goy, “people-group” or “nation”; and they translated this by the Greek word ἔθνος/éthnos, “ethnic.” It can refer to any people-group, including Israel. Ex 19.6 When St. Jerome translated it, he used the Latin word gentilis, “people-group,” and of course this evolved into the English “gentile.” (The Yiddish word, góyim, comes from the Hebrew plural for goy.)

In the context of the scriptures, it refers to foreigners. In the New Testament it’s frequently interchangeable with Ἕλληνές/Éllenes, “Greeks,” by which Jews meant Greek-speaking foreigners of any sort; anyone who lived outside their particular relationship with God. It wasn’t used as a slur—unlike βάρβαρος/várvaros, “barbarian,” or ἀκροβυστία/akrovystía, “foreskin” (KJV “uncircumcised”). It’s only meant to indicate a non-Jew.

But of course people can turn any term into a slur. If it’s seen as a negative that you’re not a Jew, “gentile” becomes negative. If being gentile implies you’re irreligious or unclean, as it clearly did to Pharisees, using “gentile” to mean such things turns it into an insult: “Wash your hands! What are you, a gentile?”

But whether “gentile” is meant as an insult or not, has to be deduced from context. Ordinarily it’s no slur. Paul certainly didn’t mean it as one when he wrote how God’s new covenant includes gentiles. As was always his plan: He’s not the god of only one nation, but every. Ro 3.29 He always intended to save Jews and gentiles alike, Ga 3.8 though the LORD’s special relationship with Israel can understandably lead Jews to believe he’s particularly their god.

07 March 2019

Wisdom: Use your head!

It’s not something you’re born with. It’s something you develop.

WISDOM 'wɪz.dəm noun. Having experience, knowledge, and good judgment. Being wise.
2. The biblical genre which explains and teaches how to think and practice good judgment.

In the Old Testament, חָכְמָה/khokhmáh, “wisdom,” basically means the ability to think. To have a working brain. To use the sense God gave us, instead of passively letting stuff happen to us, and then blaming all the bad stuff on the government or the Republicans or the devil.

You know all those Christian ninnies whose lives are an utter mess, who complain all the time about Satan trying to steal their victory, and try to ward it off with incantations by claiming their blessings? Yeah, that’s not the devil; that’s them. Their own lack of wisdom will create all that chaos just fine without Satan lifting a finger.

Khokhmáh is the ability to understand cause and effect: When you do this, it produces that; when you don’t do this, it produces something else. You’ll notice a lot of biblical proverbs follow that format.

Proverbs 10.4-5 KWL
4 You create poverty with slack hands. Diligent hands create wealth.
5 The wise child gathers in summer. The embarrassing child sleeps through harvest.

The authors were trying to teach good sense: Human psychology, ethical behavior, clever planning, and all the stuff our culture typically associates with wise people. Actions have consequences, and all things being equal, these are the consequences, so bear them in mind. (And, because wisdom covers its bases, Ecclesiastes points out sometimes all things aren’t equal, and there are exceptions to these rules. Because life isn’t fair. Not that we should therefore be a dick about it and refuse to be fair either.)

Various bible commentators figure khokhmáh doesn’t just refer to good sense, but smarts of all sorts. For their proof text they point to when the LORD singled out Bechalel ben Uri and Oholiav ben Akhisamakh as the craftsmen who’d design all the stuff for his tabernacle. He told Moses he filled the both of ’em with khokhmáh, with wisdom. Ex 31.1-6 So these commentators figure, “Oh, wisdom also means skills and talents.” Nah. Wisdom is still wisdom. God gave Bechalel and Oholiav ability, but they needed the wisdom to use their ability well.

  • They needed time management. Israel needed these things built as soon as possible.
  • They needed people skills: They had to work with other artists, who built other things. And they’d have to deal with nitpicking people who thought they knew better what the tabernacle might need.
  • They needed the good sense to not obsess about getting their stuff “perfect”—as people do when they have a really important client to impress, and who’s more important than God?
  • Conversely they needed to not be so fixated on what they were doing, they forgot their work was meant to facilitate worship. Unlike certain music pastors… but let’s not go there today.
  • They needed to be appropriate: “Come on guys, don’t put penises on the cherubs!”

Artistry itself isn’t wisdom. But artists definitely need wisdom! Same as everyone.

However. There are plenty of folks, Christians included, who don’t care to be wise. Usually it’s because we figure we already know everything we need to know, and needn’t add any “useless trivia” to it. We figure we know best. Or that the laws of cause and effect don’t apply to us, ’cause “I claimed my victory.” Or we don’t like what someone’s saying, and figure it therefore can’t be true—as if truth is only gonna be what we like. (I run into this attitude all the time. Occasionally people claim it’s a recent trend, but it’s really not. Wishful thinking has always been hardwired into humanity.)

The writers of the scriptures have a lot of choice words for such people.

  • אֱוִיל/evýl, “silly” or “twisted.”
  • כָּסַל/kasál, “dense.” Literally “fat,” in reference to one’s heart (which they imagined we thought with), which they figured was too surrounded by fatty tissue for anyone to get through to.
  • נָבָל/navál, “empty.” Like a wineskin, deflated ’cause there’s nothing in it. Or like an empty brain, which is why Hebrew-speakers used it to indicate a moron.

Translators kindly render these words as “foolish” and “folly.” But let’s not sugar-coat things: The proper term for this thinking is stupid.

05 March 2019

Shrovetide, Lenten fasting, and naysayers.

Getting ready for Lent… assuming you do Lent.

LENT lɛnt noun. A time before Easter for Christians to fast, abstain, and practice self-control. Usually 40 days, like Christ in the wilderness, starting Ash Wednesday.
[Lenten 'lɛnt.(ə)n adjective.]
SHROVETIDE 'ʃroʊv.taɪd noun. The Sunday to Tuesday before Ash Wednesday, when Christians customarily confess sins (or “shrive”) before Lent.
[Shrove ʃroʊv verb tense. Shrive ʃraɪv verb.]

I didn’t grow up with Lent. I grew up Fundamentalist, and Fundies consider Lent a Catholic thing and dead religion. And popular culture’s irreligious shrovetide activities seem to confirm all their suspicions.

In the United States we’ve got Mardi Gras. The term is French for “gross Tuesday,” a translation I like way better than the usual “fat Tuesday,” because while there’s a lot of awesome jazz, there’s also a lot of shameful behavior going on in these festivals. I’ve been to the New Orleans festival once, as a kid. All I remember were floats, beads, and coins which annoyingly wouldn’t work in vending machines. I vaguely remember drunken revelers, but Mom definitely remembers that part of it, and found it so horrifying she sought us refuge in a church building.

In other parts of the world they celebrate Carnaval, Latin for—I kid you not—“flesh party.” The general idea of these parties is you indulge your flesh and get all your vices out of your system. ’Cause during Lent you’re meant to practice self-control… so do your drinking and fighting and fornicating now, while you still can. As if we weren’t supposed to put away that stuff once we started following Jesus. Ga 5.16

See, this behavior is what makes me suspect these festivals were never created by true Christians. More like lapsed Catholics who wanted to have some ironic fun at the expense of the devout. ’Cause you notice who actually goes to these functions: Pagans and irreligious Christians. The devout stay home… unless they’re actually trying to evangelize the revelers, as my brother tried to do one year. (Hey, Jesus loves ’em too.)

Enough about what they’re up to. My point is Fundies, and other Christians who really don’t wanna practice any more self-control than they already do (assuming they practice any at all), use the revelry as their excuse to abstain from abstaining. You think I didn’t catch their underlying bad attitudes? “Look at those people. They sin their brains out, then go to confession. As if that wipes their slate clean.” And yeah, if you’re a bad Catholic that’s how you think: Sin Tuesday, repent Wednesday; cheap grace cures all. But that’s like assuming every drunken Christmas party is a Protestant thing, or shopping mall riots are how we thank God for his blessings every Thanksgiving.

Don’t confuse the secular madness with any actual religious observance. Got that?

…No? You don’t believe me and you’re gonna skip Lent regardless? Well, there’s no convincing some people.

I’ll just say this and be done with it: Most Fundies forego Lent not because it’s Catholic. They’ve no problem with plenty of other customs which originated among the Catholics. Like hymns, sermons, and nativity crêches. It’s because when it comes to fasting, they deprive themselves nothing, then use the excuse, “It’s not explicitly in the bible, so I needn’t do it.” Thus they justify their lives of excess. They presume they’re righteous because they trust God, not tradition; that their doctrines are orthodox. But in truth they sin just as much as any Mardi Gras reveler—just in quieter ways. And rant over.

Okay, let’s set aside the smokescreens and distractions and ask the question: Should we practice Lent? And if so, how?

04 March 2019

The Textus Receptus: The first popular western Greek NT.

The Greek New Testament of renaissance Christians… and conspiracy theorists.

TEXTUS RECEPTUS 'tɛks.təs rə'sɛp.təs, properly 'teɪk.stus reɪ'seɪp.tus, noun. The medieval western Greek New Testament, edited and first published by Desiderus Erasmus in 1516. (Latin for “received text.”)
2. Any of the Greek NTs published by Erasmus’s successors before 1831; most often Stephanus’s 1550 edition.

We don’t have the original Greek-language copies of the New Testament anymore. Wish we did; it’d be nice if Christians had preserved them. Then again Christians would wind up worshiping the books… about as much as we already do.

But ancient Christians, like most ancient peoples, figured if you made copies and spread ’em around, that was just as good. And that’s what they did. They made copies, didn’t worry about the originals, and when the originals wore to pieces, no problem—they had lots and lots of backups! There are still thousands of ancient copies of the NT; it wasn’t just a best-seller in the present day. Copies of individual books, copies of the whole NT, and let’s not forget all the bible quotes in ancient Christian writings. In fact if all the ancient bibles were to vanish, we could piece them back together with the ancient Christians’ bible quotes.

And so the originals wore out. The first-generation copies wore out. The second-generation copies wore out. The third-generation copies wore out. And so on, and so on. The New Testaments we see in Greek-speaking churches are commonly copies of copies of copies—times a hundred. Or more.

Meanwhile, in Latin-speaking western Europe, they stopped using Greek bibles. Once the Vulgate was translated, they now had the bible in a language they understood, and that became “the bible” to them. There were still Greek bibles around, ’cause libraries might get one from eastern Christians and stick it in their collections, but like most people, they gave more attention on the translations they understood: Latin bibles, and the occasional local-language bible.

And like the Greek-speaking churches, they didn’t keep St. Jerome’s originals of the Vulgate. They likewise made copies. Then copies of the copies. Then copies of the copies of copies. And so on.

As you can guess, this process of copying the bible is gonna introduce errors into the copies. Humans make mistakes, y’know. Textual variants creep in. And if you’re a serious bible scholar, you don’t want variants to lead you, nor any other Christian, astray. Nor would you want any omissions—any missing words, missing verses—to do so either.

Textual criticism is the science of trying to determine what the original text is. It’s done by looking at the very oldest copies of any text we have. If they all match up, it’s pretty likely this was what the original had in it. If they don’t—

  • One copy says “he.”
  • Another, “Christ.”
  • Another, “Jesus.”
  • Another puts the two variants together: “Christ Jesus.”
  • Another flips ’em: “Jesus Christ.”
  • And yet another has, “Larry.”

—you gotta reasonably determine which of these variants was what the apostles actually, originally wrote. Based on the oldest evidence, historical support, grammatical context, and commonsense. And just to keep your decision-making process transparent, you need to include all the variants in your apparatus, which is a fancy way of saying “extremely important footnotes of all the variants.”

Thing is, Christians didn’t invent this science for quite a few centuries. They did what your typical uneducated Christian does with English-language translations: They pick the variant they like best. The one which most supports what they wanna teach. Or the one which sounds like the way they have it memorized… regardless of how they memorized it. If one of their favorite Christian songs uses that verse as a lyric, and the song goes “Christ Jesus,” that’s the variant they pick. Doesn’t matter that this variant didn’t show up in any ancient bibles at all, and doesn’t appear till the 1980s: If you leave it up to them, they’ll “fix” the bible till it matches all their favorite songs.

That’s kinda what the Textus Receptus is. It’s the first attempt by a western bible scholar to put together a Greek New Testament for popular use. Problem is, it’s pre-scientific. And the other problem… is Christians who don’t believe in science. To these people the Textus is the original Greek New Testament, period. Any other Greek NT produced in the last 150 years—especially one which states their favorite verses are textual variants!—must be part of some devilish plot to undermine the bible.