The opposite of love.

by K.W. Leslie, 15 April

When Christians talk about love, naturally we’re gonna bring up the subject of the opposite of love.

But on this subject, we’re not entirely agreed. The scriptures contrast a lot of things with love. Obviously hate.

Ecclesiastes 3.8 KJV
A time to love, and a time to hate; a time of war, and a time of peace.
Amos 5.15 KJV
Hate the evil, and love the good, and establish judgment in the gate: it may be that the LORD God of hosts will be gracious unto the remnant of Joseph.
Malachi 1.2-3 KJV
2 I have loved you, saith the LORD. Yet ye say, Wherein hast thou loved us? Was not Esau Jacob’s brother? saith the LORD: yet I loved Jacob, 3 and I hated Esau, and laid his mountains and his heritage waste for the dragons of the wilderness.
Matthew 5.43 KJV
Ye have heard that it hath been said, Thou shalt love thy neighbour, and hate thine enemy.
Luke 16.13 KJV
No servant can serve two masters: for either he will hate the one, and love the other; or else he will hold to the one, and despise the other. Ye cannot serve God and mammon.

Here’s where teachers like me are obligated to point out when middle easterners contrast love with hate, they don’t always literally mean hate. Frequently they just mean “don't love as much as the other person or thing.” When the LORD said he loves Jacob but hates Esau, Ro 9.13 no he doesn’t hate-hate Esau, but favors Jacob more. He chose Jacob, and passed over Esau. The LORD still blessed Esau, made a nation out of him, even had close relationships with Edomites like Job; his “hatred” still looks a whole lot like great and gracious love! But the LORD had much greater expectations on Jacob and the Israelites, and offered ’em particular blessings as a result. Plus Jesus was born an Israelite.

Other Christians take note of this particular verse in 1 John

1 John 4.18 NKJV
There is no fear in love; but perfect love casts out fear, because fear involves torment. But he who fears has not been made perfect in love.

—and conclude, not wrongly, that fear and love kinda oppose one another. And no, this idea isn’t only found in only one verse; Paul kinda hinted at it in a letter to Timothy:

2 Timothy 1.7 KJV
For God hath not given us the spirit of fear; but of power, and of love, and of a sound mind.

Hence Christians take this idea and really pound it into the ground. When other Christians state love and hate are opposite, these know-it-alls love to point out, “Actually no; it’s love versus fear.” And sometimes quote the proof text. And sometimes talk about their personal experiences which prove love and fear are opposite.

Yeah, you probably guessed I have an alternative answer. And if you ever studied logic, you already know what it is. The exact opposite of love, is not-love. The absence of love. It’s when love simply isn’t there. We don’t have it.

The absence of love can look like all sorts of things, including hate and fear. And selfishness, callousness, anger, violence; y’might think up a few more. But it doesn’t have to look like anything. If love simply isn’t there, it won’t really look like anything anyway. Pick any inanimate object, like a pencil on your table: Does it love? Only if you imagine really hard that it has a soul, and thoughts, and feelings; that it loves to draw, and hates getting sharpened. Which is all projection, of course.

Likewise a rock doesn’t love. A chair doesn’t love. Statues don’t; dollar bills don’t. Even “smart” objects don’t: Your phone doesn’t love, your car doesn’t love, your Roomba doesn’t love. Even when you program these things to tell you so, or get ’em to do things that our fellow humans do to demonstrate love, we recognize love’s gotta have an intelligence behind it. Artificial intelligence ain’t there yet.

So when a human lacks love, that person’s not necessarily gonna look hostile, negative, or dangerous. At our most benign, humans are gonna look as inert as a pencil. They won’t love you… and won’t hate you either. Won’t anything. You’re not a factor in their considerations. That’s all.

If you want a one-word synonym for not-love, the best I can think of would be apathy. But apathy implies they know about you, yet don’t love you; more often they don’t know about you, or simply haven’t thought of you. Or it hasn’t crossed their mind to love you: Point this out to them, and they might! Point is, not-love is even more nonmalignant than apathy. No harm’s meant. No offense.

But not-love still creates problems.

Yep, not-love is in the bible.

First time I explained to a youth group how the opposite of love is not-love, one of the kids objected, “But love versus fear is in the bible, and your thing isn’t in the bible.” Ah, but it is. People quote it all the time, too:

1 Corinthians 13.1-3 NKJV
1 Though I speak with the tongues of men and of angels, but have not love, I have become sounding brass or a clanging cymbal. 2 And though I have the gift of prophecy, and understand all mysteries and all knowledge, and though I have all faith, so that I could remove mountains, but have not love, I am nothing. 3 And though I bestow all my goods to feed the poor, and though I give my body to be burned, but have not love, it profits me nothing.

When we act without love, even when we supernaturally act without love, we’re irrelevant, we’re useless, we accomplish nothing, and we’re being jerks.

I’ve seen it firsthand aplenty. When people are working in a ministry, but have no love for the people they’re ministering to, they become massive jerks. They exhibit no patience, no kindness; it’s just “Move it along; I’ve got lots of people to serve and you’re holding me up.” It’s not about people; it’s just numbers. It’s not about getting people to appreciate, or get interested in, God’s kingdom; it’s about all the jewels you were told you’d get in your crown at the End. It’s all about racking up good karma for Jesus, not loving your neighbor… and it shows. And it sucks.

To those being “ministered to,” who get herded like cattle instead of helped and loved: They were expecting love. They got brusqueness, impatience, sarcasm, and mockery. Sure felt like hatred.

’Cause when love is absent, everything else, especially all the negative, self-centered, fleshly stuff, is still there. There’s no love to mitigate, nullify, or take the place of those things. People really feel the difference. It’s why Christians are meant to be identified as Christ-followers by, at the very least, our love for one another. Jn 13.35 But we suck at demonstrating that, and people definitely remember Christians who weren’t quite so loving to them.

Doing the opposite of hate and fear doesn’t count.

I’ve heard many a Christian claim they do so love their neighbors… because they certainly don’t hate them. See, if hatred and love are opposites, they figure if they lack hate, by default they gotta have love. And other Christians try the very same thing with fear: They’re not afraid, so it must be love, right?

Back to logic: The opposite of hate is not-hate. The opposite of fear is not-fear. An inanimate object doesn’t hate, doesn’t fear; it’s inert. And while it’s good that we don’t hate and fear others, simply not hating and not fearing makes us just as inert as a boulder on the ground. Once again, we have apathy. Which, I remind you, is just a blank slate… one where our fleshly works are all the more obvious.

Okay, you’re not doing evil! But we still gotta do good. Do something.

And love actually does stuff. Love has patience, behaves kindly; doesn’t act with uncontrolled emotion, point out how great it is, inflate itself, ignore others’ considerations, provoke ill behavior, plot evil, delight in wrongdoing, etcetera. 1Co 13.4-5 The apostles defined love with lots of verbs, describing what it does, and describing what we oughta do. We don’t just love by default when we don’t hate and don’t fear: We gotta do love. Put some effort into it!

Love one another. Love your neighbor. Love your enemies. Love everybody, basically; same as God loves the world. Jn 3.16 It’s a big job, so start small. But get started.

Memorized any good prayers lately?

by K.W. Leslie, 14 April
ROTE PRAYER roʊt pr(eɪ)ər noun. A prayer we’ve memorized.

How’d you learn your phone number?

Assuming you have; lots of us just trust our phones to remember ’em for us. When I first got my phone number, anytime someone asked for it, I had to look it up. Eventually I got what I thought was a good idea: Convert it to letters! If I couldn’t remember 268-3276, I could sure as heck remember ANT-FARM. (Which is not my actual number; I use it as an example.) Problem is, whenever you sign up for the Starbucks app and tell ’em your phone number is ANT-FARM, they object and demand digits, so now you gotta go through the mental process of “Okay, A is 1…” ’cause you forgot no phone numbers start with 1, ’cause in the early days of telephones they saved 1 for long distance numbers. But here I am digressing again.

A blessed few of us have really good memories, and don’t have to resort to silly mental tricks to get phone numbers in our brains. Most of us just go with blunt-force rote memorization: We recite the number over and over and over and OVER till it’s embedded in our memory like a shank in a prison snitch. (Awful simile, but you’ll remember it, won’tcha?)

Okay, so how’d you learn to pray?

Assuming you have; many don’t. As for those Christians who do, many of us resort to rote prayers. We learned ’em when we were kids, or we say them so often in church they just kinda stuck in our minds. We learned them by repeating them till they stuck. And when it comes time to pray, that’s what we pray. Like the Lord’s Prayer: “Our Father who art in heaven…” and so forth. And it’s totally okay to pray such things, ’cause Jesus said so. “When you pray, say this.” Lk 11.2

Lots of us Christians do rote prayer… and lots of us Christians refuse to do rote prayer. ’Cause they got it into their heads rote prayer isn’t authentic prayer. “The only real prayer,” such people insist, “is extemporaneous prayer: Use your own words, speak from your heart, and say it to God. Don’t use somebody else’s words. Those aren’t your words. God wants to hear your words.”

Yes he does. But that’s not why we pray rote prayers.

It’s a submission thing. (Unless you’re not into that.)

The first time I heard somebody rant against rote prayer, she was basically mocking mainline churches. She grew up a mainliner, left ’em to become Fundamentalist, and had become one of those conspiracy-theory Fundies who think every church but hers is devilish. She didn’t wanna legitimize anything they did as worship. Rote prayer especially.

To her mind, the reason people pray rote prayers isn’t to learn from the prayers of Jesus or other Christians; isn’t to learn to pray, isn’t to conform our will to that of others. Rote prayers are entirely so you can pretend to pray. They’re not really prayer; they’re just some holy-sounding words you can recite but not truly mean. Just say your lines, feign prayer, and it’ll count as prayer, and you’ll be holy for going through the motions. It’s pure hypocrisy.

“That,” she’d explain, “is what mainliners do instead of worship.” It’s all dead religion. And it’s not just mainliners; Catholics and Orthodox and Episcopalians and most of the other churches do it too. They’re all hypocrites and going to hell.

Her teaching didn’t set right with me. ’Cause the Lord’s Prayer. It’s a rote prayer, y’know. One we were taught in Sunday school, ’cause Jesus taught it. One we were taught to recite. And taught, correctly, that it’s so we can learn to pray; and when we pray it we need to mean it. And once we apply that instruction to every rote prayer, we realize the whole point of rote prayer.

When we pray rote prayers properly, what we actually do is conform our will to those prayers. Yeah, they’re someone else’s words. But for it to be an authentic prayer, and not hypocrisy, we gotta mean their words. When we pray the Lord’s Prayer, we have to mean Jesus’s words. When we pray one of King David’s prayers out of Psalms, we have to mean his words. When we pray some other Christian’s prayers out of a hymnal or prayer book, we oughta mean their words. When we sing a hymn or worship song in church, we oughta mean those words. It’s all the same practice.

If we can’t say them and mean them, don’t say them! We should at the very least try to mean them; try to wrap our brains around ’em, understand what they mean, and believe what they say. (And ask the Holy Spirit for help when necessary.) Either way, strive for authenticity. Be real with God. Say it and mean it.

If you asked that anti-mainliner what she believed about the Lord’s Prayer, it’s entirely likely she’d say all the same things I just said. All the same things the Sunday school teachers taught. When you recite it, mean it. She wasn’t merely repeating it mindlessly, nor using it to pretend to pray. But good luck convincing her other churches pray it the same way she does. Some people simply can’t see beyond their prejudices.

The power of rote prayers.

When we recite a rote prayer, and mean it (’cause don’t bother to recite it otherwise), they’re extremely powerful.

When Jesus taught us to pray, “Hallowed be thy name” and so forth, Lk 11.2 KJV it’s because that’s his will. That’s God’s will. Jesus told us to pray God would honor his name, make his kingdom come, have his will done, and give us daily bread and forgiveness and grace from testing. And God wants to honor his name, make his kingdom come, have his will done, and give us stuff. We’re conforming and submitting to God’s will. We’re learning to think like God does.

Often we’ll get to the part of “forgive us our debts, as we forgive our debtors,” Mt 6.12 and to be honest forgiveness is a tricky one. Some of us haven’t forgiven our debtors. We still have grudges. We’re still annoyed at fellow Christians. And neighbors, and especially enemies. We know we need to forgive; Jesus told us to; we just aren’t there yet. Some of us are trying to get there, and some aren’t. When we pray it and don’t mean it, we come under conviction: “Oh yeah; Jesus wants me to forgive.” Ideally it spurs us to work on this.

True, some Christians will just recite the words and work on nothing, ’cause to them the Lord’s Prayer is dead religion. The rest of us will submit to them, because to us the Lord’s Prayer is living religion.

Same with other rote prayers: We conform our own will to the words. It’s powerful stuff. When we’re just talking with God, casually or formally, it might never occur to us in mid-prayer, “I forgot this” or “I should do that” or “God wants me to pray for these things.” He might remind us to—if we’re listening to him, and sometimes we’re not. Just like sometimes we aren’t really listening to the rote prayers. But again: When we do, when we conform to what we’re praying, it’s powerful stuff.

It’s why the very last thing we wanna do is recite rote prayers mindlessly. That’s a mockery of faith. But the heartfelt, mindful, meant rote prayer is an act of surrendering our very thoughts and words—our all—to God.

Yeah, we can pray extemporaneously, for all the stuff we wanna talk to God about. Go ahead and do that too. But Jesus doesn’t want us to forget the stuff in his prayer. His prayer reflects God’s heart. Our off-the-cuff prayers reflect our hearts—which need work. If we pray nothing but the extemporaneous stuff, we shouldn’t expect to see a lot of heart-repair done too quickly. On the other hand if we do pray the Lord’s Prayer…

And same with other rote prayers. Most of the more popular prayers are a bunch of bible quotes. Some are wholly taken from the scriptures. So when we pray them, we’re likewise praying for stuff God already wants us to pray. Doesn’t it make sense to pray for things we already know God wants us to have and think?

“But they’re someone else’s words.” Relax; this isn’t plagiarism. God is fully aware we didn’t compose these prayers. But when they express how we feel, or says the very same things we wanna tell God, it’s totally fine with him if that’s what we pray. And totally fine with our fellow Christians: We have a long history of rote prayers. The Psalms are rote prayers, y’know.

Put a few of ’em into your brain and start praying them.

Jesus dies. And takes our sin with him.

by K.W. Leslie, 10 April

Mark 15.33-39, Matthew 27.45-54, Luke 23.44-48, John 19.28-37.

Around noon on 3 April 33, it got dark, and stayed that way till Jesus died. Obviously God was behind it, but we don’t know how. No solar eclipses in that part of the world, that time of year, so that’s out. Volcanoes have been known to darken the sky. So has weather. Regardless of how he pulled it off, God decided he wanted his Son’s death to happen in the dark.

As he was hanging on the cross, various folks were taunting him, and Matthew describes the head priests, scribes, and elders even taunting him with a bit of Psalm 22:

Matthew 27.43 KWL
He follows God? God has to rescue him now, if he wants him—for he said ‘I’m God’s son.’ ”
Psalm 22.8 LXX (KWL)
He hopes for the Lord, who has to release him,
who has to save him because he wants him.

Considering this psalm was so obviously getting fulfilled by Jesus’s death, taunting him with it just showed how far the Judean leaders’ unbelief went. They really didn’t think the psalm applied to Jesus any. It absolutely did.

That is why, round the ninth hour after sunrise (roughly 2:30 PM) Jesus shouted out the first line of that psalm: Elo’í Elo’í, lamá azavtáni/“My God my God, for what reason do you abandon me?” Ps 22.1 I know; it sounds different after the gospels’ authors converted it to Greek characters.

Problem is, by that point the scribes seem to have left, ’cause nobody understood a word he said. Jesus was quoting the original Hebrew, but only scribes knew Hebrew; the Judeans spoke Aramaic, and the Romans spoke Greek. And since Eloí sounded a little like Eliyáhu/“Elijah,” that’s the conclusion they leapt to: He was calling for Elijah. So they added that to their mocking. “Wait; let’s see whether Elijah rescues him.”

In our day Christians have leapt to a different conclusion—a heretic one. They might know Jesus was quoting scripture, but think he quoted it ’cause the Father literally, just then, did abandon him.

Seriously. Here’s the theory. When the lights went out, this was the point when Jesus became the world’s scapegoat: The sins of the entire world were laid on his head, Lv 16.20-22 so that when he died, our sin died too. Which is possible; the scapegoat idea is one of many theories about how atonement works. But the scriptures never indicate when such a transfer was made. The world going dark just feels like a good, dramatic time for such an event to happen.

Here’s when it goes wonky. After the sin-transfer was made to the scapegoat, someone was supposed to turn this goat loose in the wilderness to die. But since Jesus was literally nailed to the spot, he could hardly wander off… so the Father removed himself. Other Christians insist it’s because the Father finds sin so offensive, he couldn’t bear to watch. So he dimmed the lights (as if God can’t see in the dark) and turned his face away from his beloved, but defiled, Son.

Here’s why it’s heresy: God is One. You can’t separate the Son from the Father. They’re one being, not two. The trinity is indivisible.

The rest of us humans are separate beings from the Father—yet Paul stated nothing can separate us from his love. Ro 8.38-39 So if that’s the case, how in creation could anything, even sin, separate God the Son from God the Father?

Nope; not gonna work. There’s no biblical basis for the idea either. Just a lot of Christians who hate sin, who kinda like the idea God hating it so much he’d leave… so don’t you sin, or God’ll quit on you. It’s a great way to scare the dickens out of sinners.

But if it were that easy to drive God away, you’d think the devil’s work would’ve driven God entirely off the planet. Ironically I find a lot of Calvinists, folks fond of insisting nothing’s mightier than God, likewise teaching the idea that the Father turned his face away from his innocent Son—instead of meeting the defeated enemy of sin head-on.

I could rant on, but I’ll step away from the bad theology and quote what the gospels did say happened when the lights went out.

Mark 15.33-39 KWL
33 When the sixth hour since sunrise—noon—came,
darkness came over all the land till the ninth hour.
34 At the ninth hour Jesus cried out with a loud voice, Elahí Elahí, lamaná šavaqtáni?
which is translated, “My God my God, for what reason have you left me behind?” Ps 22.1
35 Some of the bystanders who heard it said, “Look: He calls Elijah.”
36 One of the runners, filling a sponge of vinegar, putting it on a reed, gave Jesus a drink,
saying, “Let’s see if Elijah comes to take him.”
37 Jesus, giving out a loud cry, expired.
38 The temple veil split in two, from top down.
39 The centurion standing across from Jesus, seeing how he expired,
said, “Truly this person is God’s son.”
Matthew 27.45-54 KWL
45 From the sixth hour since sunrise—noon—
darkness came over all the land until the ninth hour.
46 Around the ninth hour Jesus cried out with a loud voice, saying, Elí Elí, lamáh azavettáni?
That is, “My God my God, why did you leave me behind?” Ps 22.1
47 Some of the bystanders who heard it said this: “This man calls Elijah.”
48 One runner quickly left them: Taking a sponge full of vinegar, putting it on a reed, he gave Jesus a drink.
49 The others said, “Let’s see if Elijah comes, and will save him.”
50 Jesus, again calling out in a loud cry, gave up his spirit.
51 Look, the temple veil split from top down in two. The earth shook. The rocks split.
52 Tombs opened, and many bodies of “sleeping” saints were raised.
53 Coming out of the tombs after Jesus’s rising, they went into the holy city.
They were seen by many.
54 The centurion and those guarding Jesus with him, seeing the earthquake and what happened,
greatly feared, saying, “Truly this person is God’s son.”
Luke 23.44-48 KWL
44 Now it was about the sixth hour after sunrise, and it became dark over the whole land till the ninth hour.
45 The sun failed to appear. The temple veil split in the middle.
46 Jesus, calling in a loud voice, said, “Father, I set my spirit into your hands.”
Saying this, he expired.
47 The centurion, seeing what happened, glorified God, saying, “This person is indeed righteous.”
48 All the assembled crowd, at this sight, seeing what happened, went back beating their chests.
John 19.28-37 KWL
28 After this Jesus, knowing everything was now finished,
said to fulfill the scripture, “I thirst.”
29 A full jar of vinegar was sitting there.
So a sponge full of vinegar, with hyssop put on it, was brought to Jesus’s mouth.
30 When he tasted the vinegar, Jesus said, “It’s finished.”
He bent his head and handed over his spirit.
31 So the Judeans, since it’s Preparation Friday, lest bodies stay on the cross on Sabbath
(for this Sabbath was a great day), asked Pilate
so their legs might be broken, and they taken away.
32 So the soldiers came and broke the legs of the first man, and the other crucified with him.
33 Coming over to Jesus, they saw he’d died already. They didn’t break his legs.
34 Instead one soldier stabbed Jesus’s side with his spear.
Blood and water quickly came out.
35 The one who witnessed it testifies: It’s a true testimony.
This man knows he tells the truth, so you can also believe.
36 For this happened so the scripture might be fulfilled: “They won’t break his bones.”
37 Again, another scripture says, “They’ll see to whom they stabbed.”

I dealt with the vinegar elsewhere.

Aftershocks from his death.

Depending on the gospel, various things happen as a product of Jesus’s death.

Temple veil bisected. Mk 15.38 Mt 27.51 Lk 23.45
Earthquake, rocks split. Mt 27.51
Dead coming out of their graves. Mt 27.52-53
Centurion impressed. Mk 15.39 Mt 27.54 Lk 23.47
Soldiers didn’t break his legs, but speared him. Jn 19.31-37

The temple veil separated the Holy Place from the Holiest Place, the back room of the temple where the Ark of the Covenant would be kept if it were still around. Christians like to point out it was a mighty thick curtain, and therefore impossible for some random person to rip. True. But it was centuries old, and a strong earthquake might snap its curtain-rod and tear it top-to-bottom, just as the gospels describe. Regardless of how God did it, its point—all barriers between God and us have been removed through Jesus’s death—is entirely valid.

There are a few apocryphal New Testament gospels which claim after Jesus died, a few of the zombies revived saints testified to the Judean senate that they’d seen Jesus break into hell, step on the devil’s neck, and release a bunch of Old Testament saints. Entertaining stories, but way too many historical and scriptural inaccuracies for them to be anything but Christian fanfiction.

Apparently a centurion (if not his entire century) was supervising the crosses, and his response to how Jesus died was either “He sure seemed a good guy,” or “Holy crap, it’s the son of God!” We have no idea what this centurion’s religion was, and if he was your typical Greco-Roman pagan, he believed the gods had lots of sons. (The Roman senate had even declared Caesar Augustus one of them.) So his “son of God” comment might’ve meant the very same thing Luke describes him saying: Jesus seemed a good guy. Then again, who knows?—all sorts of unexpected people turn out to be listening to the Holy Spirit.

In John the aftermath is a lot less miraculous. The Pharisees couldn’t abide crucifixion victims striving to breathe on Sabbath; it counts as work. So they petitioned the Romans to “humanely” dispatch them, with enough time so they could stick ’em in a tomb, then go get baptized, before Sabbath began at nightfall. (On 3 April, that’d be 6PM.) Hence the Romans “humanely” broke their shins, making it impossible for them to hoist themselves up to breathe. Suffocation happened in minutes.

Since Jesus was already dead, a soldier poked him with a spear, and out came blood and water. I’ve heard Christians claim this proves Jesus died, not of suffocation, but a ruptured—make that “broken”—heart. It comes from Dr. William Stroud’s 1847 book, A Treatise on the Physical Cause of the Death of Christ. The idea of a broken heart sure sounds impressive, but more recent physicians prefer the idea of cardiovascular collapse: That’d most likely produce the clear pericardial fluid (“water”) the spear brought forth.

Though not as miraculous, it did fulfill two verses. One about not breaking the bones of a Passover lamb Ex 12.46, Nu 9.12 —that, or about the LORD protecting the bones of the righteous. Ps 34.20 That, and something the LORD said through Zechariah where they’ll “look at me”—speaking of himself—“whom they pierced; and mourn for him like one mourns for an only son.” Zc 12.10 Odd phrasing, but sure fits Jesus’s circumstances.

And, in the next station, Joseph and Nicodemus took Jesus off his cross and put him in Joseph’s sepulcher—expecting, a year later, to go back in, gather his bones, and stick ’em in a casket. Not expecting, two days later, for Jesus to come out on his own. But to be fair, nobody else expected that either.

The crowd shouts for Barabbas.

by K.W. Leslie, 08 April

Mark 15.6-11, Matthew 27.15-21, Luke 23.17-25, John 18.39-40.

We actually have nothing in the Roman records about this custom the Roman governors had of releasing a prisoner every Passover. Doesn’t mean they didn’t do it; just means they kept it off the books. Which is understandable. Fleshly people tend to think of mercy and forgiveness as weakness, not strength; of compassion and generosity as something that other people will take advantage of, not benevolence. “If you give a mouse a cookie” and all that.

Anyway we have four historical records which indicate the Romans totally did free a prisoner every Passover: The gospels. Apparently Pontius Pilate had on hand an guy named Jesus bar Avvá, who’d been arrested during “the riot.” We don’t know which riot, and Christians like to speculate it was one of the more famous ones, but it had to have been fairly recent: Romans didn’t keep people in prison for long. They either held them for trial, flogged and released them, or crucified them.

Pontius wanted to free Jesus. But, probably ’cause Jesus is totally guilty of calling himself Messiah, Pontius didn’t wanna free him on his own authority. It might get back to Caesar Tiberius that he freed a self-proclaimed king. So he wanted an excuse, or to pass the buck to Herod. Likely that’s why he went with the whole free-a-convict-for-Passover thing: “Hey, why not Jesus?”

Well because they didn’t want Jesus; or at least that was the sentiment of the crowd the head priests brought in. Pontius gave them the option of Jesus the Nazarene, or Jesus bar Avvá. They went with bar-Avvá.

Mark 15.6-11 KWL
6 During the feast Pilatus would release one prisoner to them; whomever they asked.
7 There was one called bar-Avvá among the insurrectionists, imprisoned during the riot for committing murder.
8 Rising up, the crowd began to ask, as usual, for Pilatus to do for them.
9 In reply Pilatus told them, “You want me to free for you ‘the Judean king’?”
10 —knowing the head priests turned Jesus in out of envy.
11 The head priests incited the crowd to instead ask that bar-Avvá might be released to them.
Matthew 27.15-21 KWL
15 During the feast the prefect was accustomed to release one prisoner to them; whomever they wanted.
16 He then had a famous prisoner, called Jesus bar Avvá.
17 So Pilatus told the people who’d gathered for him, “Whom do you want me to release to you?—Jesus bar Avvá, or Jesus called Messiah?”
18 —knowing the head priests turned Jesus in out of envy.
19 (As he was sitting on the dais, his wife sent him a message:
“Keep away from that righteous man, for I saw many things in a dream about him.”)
20 The head priests and elders convinced the crowd to ask for bar-Avvá, and for Jesus’s destruction.
21 In reply the prefect told them, “Whom of the two do you want me to release to you?” They said, “Bar-Avvá.”
Luke 23.17-25 KWL
17 [He had to release one prisoner to them during the feast.]
18 The Judeans shouted out together, “Take this man away and release bar-Avvá to us!”
19 Bar-Avvá was thrown into prison because of a certain riot in the city, and murder.
20 Pilatus addressed them again, wanting to release Jesus,
21 and the crowd shouted back, saying, “Crucify! Crucify him!”
22 Pilatus told them thrice, “Why? Did this man do evil?
Nothing worth death was done by him. So I will punish and release him.”
23 The crowd insisted with loud voices, calling for Jesus to be crucified, and their voices prevailed.
24 Pilatus sentenced Jesus to have done as the crowd requested.
25 He released the one they requested, who was thrown into prison for riot and murder,
and Jesus was surrendered to the people’s will.
John 18.39-40 KWL
39 It’s your custom that one prisoner might be released to you on Passover,
so do you want me to release to you ‘the Judean king’?”
40 So they shouted again, saying, “Not him, but bar-Avvá!” (Bar-Avvá was a looter.)

Who’s bar-Avvá?

The gospels don’t give us much on who bar-Avvá is, mainly because they don’t really care.

The word in our bibles is Βαραββᾶς/Varavvás (KJV “Barabbas”), which is a transliteration of the Aramaic בַּר אַבה/bar Avvá, “son of Avvá.” Yes, Avvá was a proper Hebrew name back then, but loads of Christians like to make much of the fact the word also means “father,” and therefore “bar-Avvá” literally means “son of a father.” And hey, isn’t Jesus’s dad our heavenly Father? What an interesting contrast! But nah, it’s not all that interesting.

In some copies of Matthew, bar-Avvá’s given name is Jesus. Mt 16.18 NIV True, “Jesus” isn’t in the earliest copies of Matthew, and the earliest reference is the Codex Vaticanus, written in the early 300s. The reason it was probably dropped from those early copies is because the New Testament copyists tried to avoid referring to anybody other than Christ Jesus as “Jesus.” But tradition preserved bar-Avvá’s given name—and again there’s that interesting contrast between the two Jesuses. One’s a murderer; the other offers to save everyone from death. Jn 3.16

Bar-Avvá was arrested during a recent riot, for murder Mk 15.7 and looting. Jn 18.40 He was imprisoned among the insurrectionists, and that’s led various people to jump to the conclusion he was an insurrectionist; possibly one of the nativists who called themselves “Canaanites,” Mk 3.18, Mt 10.4 KJV or in Greek ζηλωτής/zilotís, “Zealots,” Lk 6.15, Ac 1.13 who wanted the Romans gone, and were willing to kill to get it. Bar-Avvá did commit murder after all; maybe he murdered a Roman.

But likely not. Pontius wouldn’t have suggested his name, or even considered him a possibility, if bar-Avvá murdered a Roman. He’d have been crucified the same day. More likely bar-Avvá took advantage of a riot and confusion to murder someone, and probably someone prominent, which is why he was now famous. Or maybe he was already prominent—a celebrity’s kid, or otherwise had prominent connections, which might explain why the Romans hadn’t yet crucified him.

Of course the Jesus movies like to depict him as a hardened criminal, a highwayman and bandit, a tough guy who was thrilled the crowd was shouting for him instead of that pacifist Nazarene sissy. Or maybe he took a look at Jesus and was magically struck with conviction—“why, this man is clearly innocent, even though I’ve never met him before and someone beat the tar out of him and all my cultural biases should be telling me the universe is punishing him”—or however the screenwriters like to play with the character. Me, I’m more interested in historical accuracy. Human nature dictates bar-Avvá really didn’t wanna get crucified, and didn’t care who took his place so long that he got to live. Beyond this story, we never hear of him again.

Jesus’s suffering.

Now of course Jesus didn’t wanna get crucified either. But he had accepted his coming death as an inevitability. The chance he might be pardoned, only existed in Pontius’s mind—and in the worries of the senators who wanted Jesus dead. Didn’t exist in Jesus’s. So really all this free-a-convict-for-Passover thingy did was delay the inevitable.

But you know Satan would’ve used it as a temptation: “Look, there’s a chance you might get freed! You won’t have to go through crucifixion! You’ll only get off with a flogging; shouldn’t that be enough?” Assuming the devil understood Jesus was trying to achieve atonement though his death; I don’t know what it knew or didn’t know, but it’s a good bet the devil wanted to frustrate anything Jesus was up to, or at least prolong the misery. If Jesus was determined to die, may as well dangle the possibility he might not.

And no, it’s not fun to hear a crowd reject you in favor of a really undeserving, truly bad guy. No matter the situation.

The crowd shouts for crucifixion.

by K.W. Leslie, 07 April

Mark 15.8-14, Matthew 27.20-23, Luke 23.18-25, John 18.38-40.

When Jesus stood trial before Pontius Pilate, the Roman prefect quickly realized Jesus was no insurrectionist. Jesus’s claim of being Judea’s king was no political threat to the Roman senate and emperor. Case dismissed.

Except it wasn’t, because the Judean senators had somehow got a crowd together which was calling for Jesus’s death. And the easiest way to get Romans in a murdery mood is to disturb their peace. That’s the one thing Romans valued most: Social stability. Not actual peace, like Jesus gives us; just the appearance of peace, where nobody grumbles too loud, would do for them. And if they didn’t get it, they’d crucify everybody till they did.

The head priests knew this, so of course they got a crowd together, and made sure they were good and noisy.

Mark 15.8-14 KWL
8 Rising up, the crowd began to ask, as usual, for Pilatus to do for them.
9 In reply Pilatus told them, “You want me to free for you ‘the Judean king’?”
10 —knowing the head priests turned Jesus in out of spite.
11 The head priests incited the crowd to instead ask that bar-Avvá might be released to them.
12 In reply Pilatus again told them, “So what ought I do with the one called ‘the Judean king’?
13 The crowd shouted again, “Crucify him.”
14 Pilatus told them, “Why? Did he do evil?” But they shouted “Crucify him” all the more.
Matthew 27.20-23 KWL
20 The head priests and elders convinced the crowd to ask for bar-Avvá, and for Jesus’s destruction.
21 In reply the prefect told them, “Whom of the two do you want me to release to you?” They said, “Bar-Avvá.”
22 Pilatus told them, “So what will I do with Jesus called Messiah?” All said, “Crucify.”
23 Pilatus said, “Why? Did he do evil?” But they shouted “Crucify!” all the more.
Luke 23.18-25 KWL
18 The Judeans shouted out together, “Take this man away and release bar-Avvá to us!”
19 Bar-Avvá was thrown into prison because of a certain riot in the city, and murder.
20 Pilatus addressed them again, wanting to release Jesus,
21 and the crowd shouted back, saying, “Crucify! Crucify him!”
22 Pilatus told them thrice, “Why? Did this man do evil?
Nothing worth death was done by him. So I will punish and release him.”
23 The crowd insisted with loud voices, calling for Jesus to be crucified, and their voices prevailed.
24 Pilatus sentenced Jesus to have done as the crowd requested.
25 He released the one they requested, who was thrown into prison for riot and murder,
and Jesus was surrendered to the people’s will.
John 18.38-40 KWL
38 Pilatus told Jesus, “What’s ‘truth’?”
This said, he went out again to the Judeans and told them, “I find nothing in him of cause.
39 It’s your custom that one prisoner might be released to you on Passover,
so do you want me to release to you ‘the Judean king’?”
40 So they shouted again, saying, “Not him, but bar-Avvá!” (Bar-Avvá was a looter.)
41 So then Pilatus took Jesus and flogged him.

More about bar-Avvá another time.

The crowd’s constitution.

Preachers are mighty fond of claiming the crowd which asked for bar-Avvá to be freed, and for Jesus to be crucified, was the very same crowd which hailed Jesus on Palm Sunday. We have no evidence of that whatsoever, but these preachers love the idea of the crowd turning on Jesus; praising him one day, rejecting him the next, much like the students who rejected him after he told them to eat him. Denouncing hypocrites is fun, so this old claim manages to worm its way into every Holy Week message. But it’s likely rubbish.

Ancient Jerusalem was a big city. Ordinarily 40,000 people lived there, which means you could put together a dozen massive Jesus-denying crowds with entirely different people in ’em, same as such a population nowadays can easily host a dozen Jesus-affirming churches. But y’might remember Passover was going on, which every adult male Israelite was commanded to attend. Ex 23.17 During the Jewish War, which started during one of the mandatory festivals, Josephus stated the city physically held more than 125,000 people. Granted some people might’ve been in both crowds, but certainly not all. And if the head priests gathered this crowd, these definitely wouldn’t be Jesus fans.

Also bear in mind the Romans’ fort, Antonia, couldn’t hold a crowd of thousands. The temple, which Antonia overlooked, could; but no matter how much the head priests wanted Jesus dead, it’s extremely unlikely they’d have used the temple courts to host a crowd shouting “Crucify him!” So the size of this crowd wasn’t as vast as the Jesus movies make it look; we’re only talking 300 people at the very most. Even without shouting they’d make a lot of noise, but they only needed to be just noisy enough to sway Pontius. Which they did.

The other consideration is this was Friday, 3 April 33, the day before Passover and the day before Sabbath, and therefore a day you were super busy getting ready. You had to get your lamb killed and skinned and roasted; you had to go to temple for your ritual sacrifices (and get in line, ’cause there were tons of other Israelite families with Passover sacrifices, but only so many priests, and just the one altar); and if you had to go to temple it meant you had to get ritually clean the day before, and stay ritually clean till you got to temple, and couldn’t risk becoming ritually unclean by gathering in a crowded Roman fortress where there’d be a bunch of uncircumcised pork-eating soldiers who touched dead things and blood and didn’t wash their hands. So the crowd had to consist of people who finished their temple rituals first thing in the morning… and who wouldn’t mind getting ritually unclean for a little while, and do the head priests a favor.

Likewise people who didn’t have a problem getting one of their fellow Israelites crucified by the Romans. Who didn’t really have a problem with the Roman occupation period; who might’ve even profited off it. Who didn’t just reject the idea of Jesus as Messiah, but may not have even believed any Messiah was coming, like Sadducees. And since the head priests were Sadducees themselves, maybe they handpicked a crowd of fellow Sadducees. The gospels don’t say… but if the entire crowd would Sadducee, they absolutely wouldn’t have among the crowd cheering Jesus at Palm Sunday, ’cause shouting Hosanna to an incoming Messiah is way more of a Pharisee thing.

Jesus represents a total overhaul of the status quo. (Including our own.) If the crowd had more to lose by such changes, they’d shout all the more for Jesus’s destruction. And so it appears they did.

Jesus’s suffering.

In these stations of the cross articles we’re looking particularly at how Jesus suffered. And of course he suffered in hearing the crowds call for his death. He didn’t wanna die. Definitely didn’t wanna be crucified. But this was the sort of death he knew was coming; it was part of the Father’s plan, and the Father’s plan is his plan too.

And he came to save this crowd too. He wants everybody to be saved, 1Ti 2.4 even the ones who wanted him dead, even the people today who want him and Christianity gone, and would crucify him again if they could get their hands on him. It’s a pity they resisted his grace; it’s a pity people still resist it. It just goes to demonstrate how messed up humanity is. Obviously we need a savior—who isn’t gonna let us, killing him, stop him from saving us regardless.

Skipping the Church of the Holy Sepulcher.

by K.W. Leslie, 03 April
I had most of this piece published in the September 2014 issue of Oremus Press. So to my Catholic sisters and brothers who followed the link here: Hi there! God bless.

Another essay I’ve been asked to repost is my bit on the Church of the Holy Sepulcher. And no, I’m not gonna spell it Sepulchre, like the British and Canadians do. I’m an American. Our spelling makes more sense. Well, slightly more.

The Church of the Holy Sepulcher: The massive church building which contains both Golgatha and Jesus’s tomb. Wikimedia

What prompted my original post in 2010 was my brother and sister-in-law going to Israel. It was with some folks in their church, and was the basic pilgrim’s package: You get Jerusalem of course, and a few of the more popular sites from the bible. Provided there’s no open warfare in those areas; the last thing either Israelis or Palestinians want are shot-up tourists. Both sides profit from tourism.

When I went to Israel in 1998, I wanted to see Hebron, ’cause Abraham is buried there. But nothing doing: It was off-limits to tourists at the time. So I had to settle for Beersheba, one of the many places where Abraham camped. Or Tel Dan, where the ancient city of Laish, which Abraham once visited, was being excavated. Or the Dome of the Rock, where Abraham tried sacrificing one son or the other (the Torah says Isaac, the Quran says Ishmael, and the Book of Mormon probably says he did it in North America. Nah, kidding.) Probably these sites were more interesting than Hebron. I suppose I’ll never know.

So before going, the pilgrims at my brother’s church met regularly to discuss the sites they’d see. This way they could look them up in advance. Or, which is more likely, not. And once they finally got to Israel, they wouldn’t need to listen to any spiel from the tour guide. They could just stand there and bask in the awesomeness of where they were… assuming they knew where they were. I know the bible fairly well, but every once in a while, during my own trip to Israel, I’d go, “Where?” Y’see, some of the places today have unfamiliar Arabic names, and other locations are so minor (’cause most of the action takes place in Jerusalem, Samaria, Capernaum, and sometimes Bethlehem) so you can be excused for not knowing every little place where Jesus stopped for a bathroom break and a falafel. But now that you were there, you could stand there and think, “Wow, Jesus stood here.” Then take photos and video. And later that evening, upload it to Facebook.

Me, I’d rather pick the tour guide’s brain. The Israeli guides tend to know way more about the sites than many of the books out there. The Israeli Antiquities Authority educates them well. Yeah, some of it is telling the tourists just what they wanna hear: If they’re dealing with Catholic tourists, they’re instructed to never ever point out the Virgin Mary’s tomb. ’Cause everybody knows Mary ascended to heaven. Except non-Catholics, who don’t care whether she did or not; we figure she’ll be in heaven either way.

But when I saw one of their first itineraries, I noticed they were lacking a trip to the Naos tis Anastaseos—that’d be Greek for the Sanctum Sepulchrum, which is Latin for the Church of the Holy Sepulcher. It wasn’t there. They were going to the Garden Tomb, though.

“Well, what’s the big deal?” most Protestants are likely thinking. “They were going to the Garden Tomb. Why’d they need to go to that Catholic site anyway?”

Because “that Catholic site” is where Jesus was resurrected. He was never laid to rest in the Garden Tomb.

The Garden Tomb.

In the early days of archaeology, archaeologists didn’t know what the hell they were doing. You’ve seen the Indiana Jones movies.

The first archaeologists were people who were knocking around ancient lands. French soldiers in Egypt, or British soldiers in Palestine. Some of ’em realized, “Hey, this ancient stuff might actually tell us something about history. And when you dig around a bit, you find more of it.”

Most folks knew when you dig around the earth enough—at least in places where humans have settled for longer than 500 years, i.e. not most of America—you’ll find remnants of those previous settlers. Usually junk. A building would fall apart, and someone would finally knock it down, level out the ground (more or less), and build on top of the rubble. After 10 centuries of this sort of behavior you actually wind up with a hill, and archaeologists call such manmade hills a tel. The tel consists of layer after layer of previous civilizations’ junk. In the hands of a knowledgeable anthropologist, you can learn all sorts of things about civilizations by their junk.

But in the 19th century, they weren’t interested in learning all sorts of things. Just the main things. The cool things. Like whether they accidentally threw out any gold. Or whether you might find a slab or papyrus which mentioned someone famous, like that Rosetta Stone which mentioned one of the Ptolemies and one of the Cleopatras. Who knows?—in Israel you might find something ancient which mentions David or Abraham or somebody from the bible. Wouldn’t that be a kick in the nads?

Once they realized this, they started digging around willy-nilly. Not bothering to think there oughta be some method to the process. Like paying attention to all the “junk” one finds which isn’t a major discovery. Like destroying evidence which could indicate the timeframe one’s artifact came from. Of course carbon-dating wasn’t invented yet.

So a lot of the early archaeologists worked pretty much the same way Indiana Jones did: Find treasures and stick them in a museum; destroy everything else along the way. Remember Indiana Jones and the Last Crusade? There’s a bit where Jones discovered a medieval knight’s grave in Italy. And desecrated it like crazy. Just so he could get to the Holy Grail all the faster. Archaeologists didn’t bother dusting sites with paintbrushes and toothbrushes. They’d use a backhoe and dynamite if it got ’em results quickly enough. Fr’instance Jericho: They made a royal mess of it. The site today is considered unreliable for serious research because of how badly those early archaeologists dug through it like a kid digging through a box of Lucky Charms for the marshmallows.

This being the case, when the archaeologists wanted to take a crack at the Church of the Holy Sepulcher, d’you think the churches who run the place wanted these barbarians anywhere near it? It was bad enough the pilgrims would take a pickax to these places for souvenir rock samples. No I’m not kidding. Mark Twain wrote about the practice in The Innocents Abroad and I thought he was only exaggerating—but on my own pilgrimage, some of my fellow pilgrims actually tried knocking bits off a Roman aqueduct. I personally saw ’em do it. Archaeologists used to be way worse. So I totally understand the bishops saying no thank you; go away; find another spot to ruin.

Most of the reasons why Protestants say the Church of the Holy Sepulcher isn’t where Jesus was laid to rest have to do with anti-Catholicism and sour grapes. Deny ’em access, and suddenly they “discovered” all sorts of reasons why it can’t be the real site:

  • It wasn’t outside the walls of ancient Jerusalem, and of course Jesus was crucified and buried outside the walls. (It actually was, but 19th-century archaeologists didn’t know how to accurately date any of the existing walls or their ruins. They just assumed the city hadn’t expanded any during the Crusades or the Ottoman occupation.)
  • It fit a little too well into Roman city planning for it to be a totally natural location. (Again, it’s not that the 19th-century archaeologists understood how the city adapted, over the previous centuries, to suit the church’s location.)
  • It wasn’t on the east side of Jerusalem, where Jews typically buried their dead. (As if the Romans cared where they crucified anyone.)
  • It used to have a temple of Aphrodite on it. The Roman Christians likely claimed it was Jesus’s tomb because they were trying to replace Aphrodite-worship with Jesus-worship. (They didn’t buy “the Catholics’ ” story about antichrists trying to replace Jesus-worship with Aphrodite-worship by sticking their own temple atop a known Christian worship site. More plausible to them was the idea it’d been totally lost… despite unbroken generations of local Christians.)
  • It’s too Catholic. And it doesn’t look like a hill anymore. Nor a skull.

From Gordon’s Calvary, taken round 1934. That look like a skull to you? Me either. Library of Congress

So the 19th century archaeologists went looking for an alternate site, and found one. It’s called “Gordon’s Calvary” after British war hero Charles George Gordon, although he didn’t personally discover it. He just promoted it in his 1883 book Reflections in Palestine. The archaeologists guessed Calvary/Golgotha, where Jesus was killed, was so called because it physically looked like a skull. They found a rock face which looked remotely skull-like. True, it was north of ancient Jerusalem instead of east… but location is only an argument used against the Church of the Holy Sepulcher.

View of Gordon’s Calvary, which you can observe from a little platform at the Garden Tomb site. (’Cause the city buses block the view.) Wikimedia

First time I saw Gordon’s Calvary was a photo in my Thompson Chain-Reference Bible. It didn’t look at all like a skull to me. You have to look at it at just the right angle. Even then it’s iffy.

When you go there, the Garden Tomb docents have kindly put up a photo, taken in 1880, which shows you just the right angle of the rock face. It’s the very same photo as in my bible. It might resemble a really elongated skull, like the Neanderthal skulls they show in science textbooks. But I’m pretty sure 19th-century Christians weren’t subtly trying to promote evolution with their alternate crucifixion site. (Gordon himself believed in reincarnation, but that’s another issue.)

Two reasons they have to include the photo. The Garden Tomb folks bought the land with the tomb on it, but not the land with “Calvary” on it. There’s a bus station there now. The lower part of the “skull” now has a bit of asphalt in the way. So when you go to the Garden Tomb, you don’t get to see “Calvary” up close; you have to go to this platform which allows you to see over the buses. Not very inspiring, but like I said, it doesn’t look as much like a skull as you’d want it to.

The other reason is erosion. For the most part Jerusalem’s rocks are limestone, a sedimentary rock—really, superdensely packed sand—and over time, and not a lot of it, it turns back into sand. Yeah, there’s granite here and there, but even granite erodes, as any of the folks who work on preserving Mt. Rushmore will tell you. When you look at the 1880 photo you can see just how much “Calvary” eroded over the past 136 years. Now, add another 1,847 years of erosion, and tell me how much this hill looked like a skull in Jesus’s day.

Well, it’s possible it did. Then again, if you look at any other rocky hill in the area from just the right angle, it might look just as skull-like. But if you remember your bible, the Hebrews were in the habit of naming places after what happened there. Not after what they looked like. You didn’t name a hill Golgotha because it looked like a skull. You named it that because, regardless of what it looked like, skulls were involved. The skulls of a thousand crucified Judeans perhaps; in one of the many previous Roman over-reactions to a Judean revolt.

Anyway. After the archaeologists found this new “Calvary,” they found a bunch of “tombs” partly concealed by a garbage dump. Included in the garbage was an ancient winepress and cistern. From this, archaeologists concluded there used to be a garden here. And hey, Jesus’s tomb was in a garden! How fortuitous.

The Garden Tomb. With lots of plants around so it looks more gardeny. Wikimedia

One of the “tombs” has a groove in front of it—big enough for, say, a large round stone to be rolled in front of it. Thus the archaeologists concluded this must be Jesus’s tomb, ’cause his tomb had a stone in front of it which needed rolling.

Problem is, this “tomb” didn’t look so much like a tomb as a big gaping space in the side of a hill. With sort of a shelf to sit upon, and a trough in front of it for (they assumed) rolling a stone. So they built a wall to close up the gap. It’s why part of the Garden Tomb looks like a wall: It is a wall. Otherwise it wouldn’t look like a tomb. It’d look like a bench, for people who are waiting for a bus.

More recent archaeologists have looked the Garden Tomb over and found it lacking. Yes, it was a tomb once. But a tomb from Isaiah’s day, back when they put bodies in it and left them there. Not Jesus’s, when they’d put bodies in a tomb, let ’em rot, and collect the remains later to be put in ossuaries. Since Jesus’s tomb is described as newly carved, this can’t be it. Apparently the Crusaders had discovered it during the middle ages, and turned it into a stable. The cistern, which dated from that time, was only 600 years old.

The groove in front of the Garden Tomb. Impractical for rolling stones, but great for watering donkeys. Holyland Christian Souvenirs

The groove in front of the tomb was shaped inappropriately to roll a stone in front of the door—if it ever had a door. Notice the diagonal slant on its lip, in the photo. It wouldn’t hold up any stone; the stone would just fall over. More likely it was a water trough for donkeys.

The Garden Tomb trustees know all this. And they’ll freely admit it. When I visited, they were very quick to point out that no, this isn’t actually the place where Jesus was laid.

“It’s not?” said one of the surprised pilgrims in our group.

“No,” they said. “But it looks like a tomb that Jesus would’ve been laid in. The Church of the Holy Sepulcher doesn’t. So that’s why we have it: It’s so you can see what a first-century tomb would look like.”

More or less. It’s what 21st-century Christians think a first-century tomb would look like. That is, after you doctor up a 8th-century-BC tomb which had been altered a bit by 11th-century Christians. But if you don’t know any better, and most Protestants don’t, it looks “real.” Which is good enough for them.

Our pilgrim was a little bothered about visiting a fraudulent tomb. She wanted the real tomb. Which we got, later, at the Church of the Holy Sepulcher. The docents will point you there, as will every other local. They know better.

The Church of the Holy Sepulcher.

The Church of the Holy Sepulcher was built in the year 326 by St. Helena, the mother of Emperor Constantine. The emperor had this idea in mind to build himself a nice impressive church in the Roman Empire’s new capital of New Rome (today’s Istanbul, Turkey). He wanted to inter all 12 apostles in it, plus some actual biblical artifacts on display, so he sent his mom to the Holy Land for souvenirs. Helena quite reasonably left it to her local Jerusalem guides to point out where everything was, and they did. Despite Roman persecution, the Christians had never left—during the destruction of Jerusalem, they did as Jesus instructed and ran for the hills—and after the Romans were finished crucifying everybody, they came back down.

The Christians pointed out how Aphrodite’s temple was built atop Jesus’s tomb. It was deliberately put there by Emperor Hadrian around 135 to piss off the Christians. But it definitely marked the spot. And it was still the direction Christians faced when they prayed. Every Christian church in the area has the front of its building pointing toward the Holy Sepulcher.

So Helena excavated it. While she was at it, she had her building crew hack down the entire hill which surrounded the tomb, and then they built a little sanctuary on top of it. So it doesn’t look at all natural.

The Kuvuklion. Photo taken with a wide-open aperture, ’cause it’s a bit darker in real life. Note the covered Copt section on the left of the building. That’s where Jesus’s head rested. Wikimedia

Today, Greeks call this mini-sanctuary the Kuvuklion, and Catholics the Edicule: It’s a church building, and they built a rotunda of the bigger church building over it. You go into the smaller building, and there’s the slab of limestone where they laid Jesus. Or at least we’re told the slab’s there: It’s underneath another slab, of marble, put there in the 12th century to cover up the massive erosion of hundreds of thousands of Christians kissing it. So you don’t get to actually see the slab itself.

Now, if you wanna see the part of the slab where Jesus’s head rested, you have to go round back of the Kuvuklion to a chapel run by the Copts. I glanced back there, but no one was on duty and it was all locked up. No way to see it. If the Copts are wise, they don’t let anyone touch it either.

That’s the biggest problem with the Church of the Holy Sepulcher. It doesn’t look like Jesus’s tomb. Or any tomb, really. The hillside of Jesus’s burial cave? Gone. The hill of Golgotha? Gilded. The ancient Romans weren’t interested in preserving the environment. Preservation—keeping things as they are without coating everything in gold and gaudy decoration—is a 20th century idea. But in the fourth, and for 15 centuries thereafter, the natural environment wasn’t considered esthetically worthy enough for God. So it was lovingly, beautifully paved over.

It’s been completely covered and decorated, then fought over by six different churches. To this day they’ll start throwing punches at one another if anyone messes with anything. Seriously, anything. Somebody left a ladder outside in the 1750s, before the then-current don’t-mess-with-anything treaty went into effect. It’s still freaking there. (Although some Protestant jerk took off with it for a few weeks in 1997 as a prank.)

The decorations are starting to crumble around them. The Kuvuklion needs repairs, and everyone agrees it does, and wants to repair it. But they don’t want anyone else to repair it. So it doesn’t get repaired. If anyone dared, it’d trigger a war. I’m not kidding. Heads would get caved in. If spiritual climate says anything about which site is the real site, it’s sad to say, but the possessiveness of the Christians who run the Church of the Holy Sepulcher make it obviously the correct site.

But we needn’t look at their bad example as evidence. Historically and archaeologically, and according to the testimony of the locals, the Church of the Holy Sepulcher is the correct resting place of Jesus.

The stuff we wanna believe.

But tell that to Protestants and they won’t believe you.

“That’s amazing!” a former boss told me, after I told him I’d gone to Israel. He hadn’t been there himself. “So didja go to the Garden Tomb? Didja see where Jesus was buried?”

“Yes and yes,” I said. “You know they’re not the same place.”

He didn’t. I tried to explain.

He objected. ’Cause he’d seen some video.

There are always videos. And books, and magazine articles, and newsletters, and blogs slapped together by cranks like me, who can claim any dumb thing with no evidence to back it up. Just so happened he had one of those videos which stated, quite clearly, that Gordon’s Calvary is the real Golgotha, and the Garden Tomb the real tomb.

He lent it to me. It was produced by these two crackpots who were clearly treasure hunters. They weren’t connected with any university or government, and they had actually attempted to dig a tunnel without the permission of the Israeli government. In Israel, of all places, where any excavation—even for landscaping—has to check in with the government, lest you uncover something of archaeological significance. ’Cause people have been living in the land for the past 50 centuries. There’s so much history there, you can take ancient pottery shards home for free. (Well, maybe not legally, but I know a few folks who took advantage of all those shards just lying around in Beersheba.)

Anyway, Israel had caught ’em burrowing away, and rightly kicked them out of the country. But not, they claimed, before they captured some really blurry snapshots of what they claim is the Ark of the Covenant… buried directly under Gordon’s Calvary. Apparently the Israelis nabbed ’em before they could turn on the autofocus.

So their dubious claim is Jesus, when crucified on Gordon’s Calvary, his blood seeped through a crack in the ground, and dripped all the way down into a secret chamber beneath the earth, and dripped directly onto the atonement seat of the Ark of the Covenant.

Now, before you get chills down your spine like every other gullible person who bought this video: If they’re correct, so did the blood of a thousand other Jews whom the Romans crucified on this particular hill. Jesus wasn’t their only victim, remember? The Ark would’ve been caked in blood. Eww. (Unless it was doing that Raiders of the Lost Ark thing where it burned stuff off. And hummed. And when you opened it up it melted you. And if you took photos of it melting people, and included it in your cheesy video, it’d melt your viewers.)

Obviously I have my doubts. There are too many looneys in Christendom, and you can usually tell ’em by the fact they go digging illegal tunnels through a place where the entire city is an archaeological treasure trove. God knows how many sites they’ve wrecked on their way to raid the Lost Ark.

But again, your average Christian doesn’t know the difference between historicity, science, or proper archaeological provenance. Doesn’t care, either. Back in 2002 there was a major flap about the so-called James Ossuary, the box which used to contain the remains of Jesus’s brother James. (Some fool dumped or swiped the remains long ago.) Or so it appears, ’cause the box was labeled Yaakov bar Yosef akhui di Yeshua/“James bar Joseph, brother of Jesus,” and might date to the first century. People were so jazzed about its existence—hey, evidence which supports the New Testament!—they didn’t care it’d been stolen by a treasure hunter, hidden by a relic collector, and no specialist had even examined it yet. They didn’t bother to withhold judgment till scholars could take a serious look. They figured if it supports the bible, it must be true.

This is how Christians have been scammed throughout the centuries into buying slivers of Jesus’s cross, relics from Jesus’s followers, pottery fragments and rocks and sand and other “archaeological” items from Israel, and so forth. The lack of spiritual discernment we see among Christians becomes ridiculously obvious when it comes to history. There, we’ll believe anything we’re told. Unless it came from the “wrong” church.

Imagination over reality.

My brother and sister-in-law’s tour wasn’t the first I’ve seen which gave the Church of the Holy Sepulcher a miss. My mom used to work for a Protestant prayer ministry in Jerusalem, and they’d offer weeklong tour packages to their guests—which only went to the Garden Tomb. ’Cause they know their audience. Protestants would say, “The Church of the Holy Sepulcher? No no. I wanna see the Garden Tomb. That’s on the itinerary, innit?” They’d pitch a fit if it wasn’t. Like so many in the church, we prefer what looks real. Actual reality is disappointing and messy.

Well, my brother had been to Israel before, and knows better. The pilgrims on his trip actually did make it to the Church of the Holy Sepulcher. Would’ve been a shame otherwise. I mean, if you go all the way to Israel to see Jesus stuff, and don’t go to the actual place Jesus died and was raised, you’ve wasted your money.

Yeah, go to the Garden Tomb and see the facsimile. It looks neat. For that matter, you can go to the Holy Land Experience in Florida, see their facsimile, and an actor playing Jesus will even pop out of the tomb once a day, see his shadow, and we’ll have 10 more weeks with no Second Coming. (What, you didn’t know that was why?…)

Or you can wait till Easter, when we build papier-mâché facsimiles for our church productions. The only differences between the mockups and the Garden Tomb: The Garden Tomb is older, more popular, and made of stone.


Oh, and they sell belts outside the entrance to the Garden Tomb.

Any tourist trap has official souvenir booths, where they sell pretty much the same stuff: Same postcards, same videos, same books, same everything. Priced in sheqels, which at the time were worth an American quarter, so it was easy to calculate the exchange rate. But so many Americans visit Israel, some shops price things in U.S. dollars. It was disappointing: You’d think you found a huge bargain, and it turns out they wanted four times as much. In any event, everybody took American money, and most cash registers converted everything to dollars. I know there were pilgrims from other countries—I ran into a group from Mexico at Gethsemane—but I never saw anyone accept pesos.

The pilgrims’ joke was everything was “two dollars.” It seemed to be the price most often quoted. Photo postcards were $2. Bottled water was $2. Maps of Israel were $2. Other things, like film (it was the 1990s), cost more. But the two dollars would hook you in.

Then there are the unofficial souvenir booths, which are less-conveniently placed, and the vendors have to make noise if they want to make sales. They’d be out at the parking lot. All the tour guides were connected with both the Israeli government and the official souvenir booths, so they wouldn’t give you a lot of time to find the unofficial booths and buy stuff from them. But I found, while they’d have some things the official booths didn’t, the prices were the same. Well, on their face: You could haggle the prices down, if you had the time. We didn’t. Our tour guide was a pro.

On our way out of the Garden Tomb, we walked past an unofficial booth. This shopkeeper’s specialty was belts. Big gaudy leather belts. Almost wrestler-size. As far as I could see, they was leather. They were on display; they were worked over with a relief image of Jerusalem, with “Jerusalem” in English along the sides. I could picture some of my Texan friends wearing such a thing. Not me.

“Belts!” the shopkeeper shouted, ’cause he knew you wouldn’t find them anywhere else. Not that you’d look. “Belts! Twenty dollars!”

“Belts, two dollars,” joked one of the Americans. Probably one of our pilgrims; I wouldn’t be surprised. The shopkeeper ignored this. He’d likely heard it before.

Since I had briefly described these belts to you, you probably guessed I looked at them. If you know anything about middle eastern social conventions, you’ll immediately recognize this as a faux pas: You never casually look at a shopkeeper’s wares. Only look when you intend to buy. They don’t abide people who walk in, browse around, then leave. That’s teasing them.

It’s been said, “Since they encounter Americans so often, you’d think they’d be used to how we behave.” Yeah, maybe. But Israeli and Palestinian shopkeepers are far more used to how their fellow citizens are. They deal with far more locals than they do tourists. And why should they change for us? We’re in their country, after all. We didn’t change for them; we still insist on shoving our American nickels into their vending machines, and beating the machine silly because it won’t accept money which is supposed to be good everywhere.

Tangent over: I’d looked at his booth, so he singled me out, ’cause he figured I telegraphed to him I wanted a belt. I most certainly did not. If I was gonna buy any leather in that country, it would’ve been tefillin [prayer straps], although good luck finding tefillin for less than $200. (And half the shopkeepers would’ve wondered what on earth a gentile wanted with teffilin. Though they would have sold it to me anyway, ’cause money is money.)

“Twenty dollars!” he said, as I kept walking by. “For you, 18 dollars! … Sixteen!”

“No thank you,” I said.

“Fifteen!” he kept going.

So did I.

“You want me to give it to you for free?” he said, giving up.

For a second—but not more—I thought of turning round and telling him, “Sold!” But again, I couldn’t imagine wearing any of those belts. Even if they were free. And of course he’d withdraw the offer, and we’d wind up haggling until we hit a price closer to $12. And afterward, I’d find out the quality of leather would make ’em worth more like $5 or less. It’d be like gift/award bible leather: The thinnest layer of leather, pasted on top of nylon.

Here’s the twisted thing. If, instead of working images of Jerusalem into belts, the leather manufacturer instead chose to make authentic Roman-style whips, just like the ones they beat Jesus with, you know plenty of demented Christians would totally buy them. “For sermon illustrations,” might be their excuse, but the real urge would come from wanting to own a weapon. Still, they’d sell far better than belts. And he’d get way more than $20 for them.

You say “faith,” but you mean religion.

by K.W. Leslie, 02 April
FAITH feɪθ noun. Complete trust or confidence in someone/something.
2. Religion: A system of beliefs and practices about God.
3. A strongly-held belief or theory, maintained despite a lack of proof.
4. A name Christians like to give their daughters. My niece, fr’instance.
[Faithful 'feɪθ.fəl adjective.]

I bring up the definition of faith because today I’m addressing the second definition: A system of beliefs. A religion.

A lot of Evangelicals in the United States have this idea that religion is a bad thing. It’s because they mixed up religion with dead religion, and they don’t practice that. They don’t go practice rituals they don’t believe in; they’re not just going through the motions. They have a real relationship with God. Which is why they’re so quick to tell everyone, “I have a relationship, not a religion.”

Since they really don’t wanna use the word “religion” except to rebuke and mock it… how are they gonna describe their system of beliefs and practices? Simple: They’re gonna call it the faith. Or their faith. They’re not religious people; they’re “people of faith.” They’re “the faithful”—by which they don’t actually mean they’re dependable and committed, ’cause they’re often not; just that they firmly believe in that system of beliefs and practices.

Nope, they have no religion; just the faith.

Which creates all sorts of confusion when we’re talking about one of the other definitions of faith, but they mean religion.

For skeptics and many pagans, “faith” means the ability to deny reality, and believe the impossible and ridiculous. So if you “have faith,” you’ve chosen to believe something despite no evidence it’s so, just like people who believe space aliens built the pyramids, or people who claim coronavirus is no deadlier than flu. As an Evangelical is talking about their faith with reverence and awe, a skeptic will think, “What, are you taking pleasure in the fact you turn your brain off? Man are you messed up.” Yep, they’re talking right past one another.

And because so many Christians have totally buggered the proper interpretation of this verse—

Ephesians 2.8-9 KJV
8 For by grace are ye saved through faith; and that not of yourselves: it is the gift of God: 9 Not of works, lest any man should boast.

—they claim it teaches we’re saved by faith. Not by grace, like it literally says; by faith. Not through faith; by faith. And when they say faith they don’t mean putting our trust in Jesus; they mean what they usually mean by “faith”; they mean religion. You’re saved by religion. The very opposite of what Paul taught in Acts, wrote in Romans and Galatians and Ephesians; the very reason Jesus kept objecting to the Pharisees’ legalism and loopholes. Because that’s what faith righteousness, this belief we’re saved by having perfect orthodox beliefs, devolves into.

Those are big problems, and I wrote a bunch more about ’em elsewhere; click the links. But the solution to these problems is really simple: We need to stop talking past one another and specify what we mean by “faith.” Which definition are we using? Trust in God? Religion? Wishful thinking? Or women named Faith?

Which definition did the bible’s authors have in mind when they wrote πίστις/pístis?

faith, belief, firm persuasion; 2Co 5.7, He 11.1 assurance, firm conviction; Ro 14.23 ground of belief, guarantee, assurance; Ac 17.31 good faith, honesty, integrity; Mt 23.23, Ga 5.22, Tt 2.10 faithfulness, truthfulness; Ro 3.3 in NT faith in God and Christ; Mt 8.10, Ac 3.16, etc. ἡ πίστις/i pístis, the matter of Gospel faith Ac 6.7, Ju 1.3

William D. Mounce, Greek Dictionary

With few exceptions pístis generally means trust in God. No, not even the verses where we think we can overlay the religion idea on top of it. It primarily means religion in our culture.

Faith meant trusting God—to Jesus, to the apostles, and the folks who came before. When Abraham believed the LORD, and was considered righteous for it, Ge 15.6 this wasn’t at all Abraham’s embrace of religious doctrine. It was a personal trust in a personal God, with whom Abraham held a personal relationship.

In using the word “faith” to mean religion, Christians regularly mix up the definitions in our own minds, and imagine them to all be one and the same thing. When we say we have faith, yeah we mean we trust God, but we also mean we have religious faith: We believe the proper doctrines. We have foundational, fundamental beliefs we base our Christianity upon. Hopefully it’s orthodox—or at least we’ve convinced ourselves it is.

The result will be all sorts of interesting heresies.

Saved by faith?

The most common such heresy, the one I touched upon already, is the belief we Christians are saved by faith.

Yes of course it’s heresy; Jesus saves us, not our beliefs. God, in his generous, forgiving attitude towards his kids, does the entire work of saving us. We don’t save ourselves. We couldn’t possibly acquire enough good karma to make our salvation a possibility, much less a reality. Only God can do it, and only God does it.

But like I said, people quote Ephesians, jumble up the prepositions, and claim we’re saved by faith instead of grace. We’re saved through faith, Ep 2.8 and no that’s not the same thing. If I’m rescued by the Coast Guard ’cause they threw me a rope, what’s doing the rescuing? The rope? Me ’cause I grabbed the rope? Or the Coasties? It’s by the Coasties, through the rope, through me grabbing it: If I don’t have a Coast Guard boat or helicopter at the end of that rope, fat lot of good grabbing it will do me.

Same with our salvation. It’s by God’s grace, and through the faith he grants us, through this same faith we respond in. Don’t get the idea this faith alone saves anyone.

Yeah, Christians’ll easily dig up a proof text to defend the idea:

Luke 7.50 KJV
And he said to the woman, Thy faith hath saved thee; go in peace.

Usually ’cause they’re ignoring context. This is where Jesus cured a bleeder. He’s talking about getting cured, not saved; σέσωκέν/sésoken can be translated both “saved” and “cured,” and that’s what Jesus means. He’s hardly talking about eternal salvation, nor even temporal salvation: This hemorrhage wasn’t a fatal disease! But it made the woman miserable, and in an act of desperate faith she touched Jesus, and the Holy Spirit rewarded her faith by curing her. If we’re gonna leap to the conclusion salvation works the same way… well, you we need much better proof than the word sésoken misinterpreted in a miracle story.

The deal is this. Faith is a vital component of God’s kingdom. Can’t be our king when we don’t trust him! And when he offers us salvation, we gotta trust he’ll follow through on his offer, and bring us into his kingdom. Which is why we really gotta live like he’s brought us into the kingdom already: If it’s valid faith, our lives must reflect it. When they don’t, it implies we don’t trust him and aren’t saved. But regardless: Our faith is not the cause, and salvation the effect. Faith is the byproduct. The fruit.

When Christians believe we’re saved by our fruit, and not grace, we’ve gone right back to believing we’re saved by good karma.

Saved by grace. Not orthodoxy.

Religion, the practices which further our relationship with God, is work. Good work, but still work.

We believe certain things about God because we recognize he revealed them to us. We sought out the truth, he helped us find it, and we embraced it. That too is a good work. But still work. We had to realize we’re wrong. Had to go through the process of changing our minds, abandoning well-loved but heavily flawed beliefs, and accepting God’s truth. For some it was light work: We didn’t really believe the old crap anyway. For others it was hardly light. These were deeply-ingrained beliefs. Sometimes they still bubble up when we least expect ’em; they do me! But whether we’re on one extreme or the other, religious orthodoxy is still work. Religious “faith” is work.

So are we saved by work? Nope. Only God’s grace. He doesn’t save people ’cause we’re good, or worthy, or have amazing potential. (The only reason we’d ever have potential, is God anyway.) He saves people entirely out of love. He makes that clear. Dt 7.6-8

But in the hands of a Christian who believes we’re saved by faith, it gets clear as mud. They admit yeah, we’re saved by grace… but it’s through faith, and all their emphasis is thrown upon faith. “It is of faith, that it might be by grace,” they’ll misquote. Ro 4.16 KJV The reason we’re saved by grace is because we first acted in faith. Grace requires faith. But we’re really saved by faith alone. Sola fide, remember?

Once they establish we gotta have faith before we can earn grace (yes I know that’s an oxymoron), they’ll remind us our faith is an orthodox faith: It’s the stuff they consider fundamental truths. Stuff the apostles believed, and all the real Christians throughout history—real like them. It’s the faith of our fathers, our forefathers, and our forefathers’ fathers. Once we embrace each and every one of these beliefs, it unlocks the safe to God’s grace, and gets us saved.

And orthodoxy can’t be work, ’cause faith and work are two different things. Paul said so. Ga 2.16 Even James, who insisted the two were carefully linked, said so. Jm 2.14 So if orthodoxy is faith, it’s not work. How much work is it to hold a belief, anyway? It’s real easy. Shut off your brain and just mynah-bird that belief. That’ll do.

This is why these folks go absolutely bonkers when they encounter people they consider heretic. After all, if the only way to be saved is to have all the correct beliefs, any wrong belief will disqualify us from grace, and plunge us into fiery hell. Grace doesn’t make up for our deficiencies; we’re not permitted any deficiencies.

Yeah, I know: This doesn’t sound like grace at all. ’Cause it’s not. We don’t earn it, and we don’t lose it by making mistakes about God. True, if we really are following the Holy Spirit, he’s gonna redirect us away from the false beliefs, and point us to truth. Orthodoxy is, once again, fruit. It’s one of the good works which should stem from an authentic relationship with God. So, work—and therefore it’s not truly faith.

Real faith trusts God to save us. Fake faith insists we gotta earn it through right belief. And in all our striving to get the right beliefs, we nudge ourselves further and further away from the grace that actually does save us. Yikes.

Push away the false definition of faith.

Like I said, this incorrect definition of faith is everywhere. The best way to combat it is to stop using it. Repeat after me: “I don’t have ‘a faith.’ I have a religion. One based on faith in God.”

When people try to talk about “our shared faith,” I like to challenge that statement: “Our shared faith in what?” Usually they get the answer right: It’s in Christ Jesus. It’s in God. Unless they’re pagans, in which case they usually go on about our shared ability to believe nonsense. Or unless they think we’re saved by faith, in which case they talk about shared beliefs.

But faith isn’t about shared beliefs, nor shared abilities. It’s trust. In God. That’s the only definition I care to use.

If you’re using it to describe religion, I’d rather you say “religion.” I don’t care if Evangelicals have a hangup about the word. We need to get over that. Religion is a fine word, and when it’s living religion, an excellent practice.

If you’re using it to describe blind optimism, or a belief in the ridiculous and stupid, or any other form of false faith, I’m gonna object. Those definitions are only meant to malign the real thing, mock Christianity, and make people hesitant to trust God.

And if you’re using the slogan sola fide to describe salvation: That’s sola gratia/“grace alone.” Grace, not faith. Don’t mix your solas.