01 May 2024

Christian stewardship.

STEWARDSHIP 'st(j)u.ərd.ʃɪp noun. The job or duty of supervising or caretaking a person, property, or organization.
2. [adjective] Having to do with the role or condition of supervision or caretaking.
[Steward 'st(j)u.ərd noun; stewarding 'st(j)u.ərd.ɪŋ verb.]

Why on earth have I decided to tag the topic of stewardship with “Mammon”? Because way too often—in fact I would argue most of the time—whenever Christians talk about stewardship, we’re talking about managing our wealth… but we’re pretending we’re managing God’s wealth.

First time I heard about stewardship, I was a kid, learning about Adam and Eve and creation. Adam and Eve had been put in charge of the planet Earth. Says so in the bible.

Genesis 1.27-28 KJV
27 So God created man in his own image, in the image of God created he him; male and female created he them. 28 And God blessed them, and God said unto them, Be fruitful, and multiply, and replenish the earth, and subdue it: and have dominion over the fish of the sea, and over the fowl of the air, and over every living thing that moveth upon the earth.

“Subdue it” (Hebrew כִבְשֻׁ֑הָ/khivsá literally means to tamp it down, but usually has the sense of conquering and subjugating. Humans are meant to take over our world, and make it do as we want.

But, my Sunday school teacher pointed out, not so we could just do as we please with it, and ruin it as if it’s a disposable commodity. Littering is bad! Polluting is bad! I know; your Sunday school teacher may not have ever taught such things. Mine did, and justified it by pointing to something the LORD told the Hebrews in the wilderness about the land he intended to give them.

Leviticus 25.23 KJV
The land shall not be sold for ever: for the land is mine; for ye are strangers and sojourners with me.

It’s God’s land, and God’s world, she pointed out. We humans are just stewards of this world. We take care of it for him. At at some point we have to answer to God for how we did.

Other Evangelicals have profoundly different attitudes about creation care—and many don’t believe we do answer to God for it. Ever. He gave Earth to Adam and Eve; we’re descendants of Adam and Eve; so it’s our planet to do with as we see fit. And after Jesus returns he’s just gonna destroy the world and make New Earth anyway. Rv 21.1 So it’s okay if we trash the world, and make it uninhabitable and poisonous. We’re getting a brand-new one!

Anyway, that’s how I was introduced to the concept of stewardship. I no longer agree with that interpretation of it; I’ll get to that. But between that and Jesus’s parable about the Faithful and Stupid Stewards Lk 12.41-48 —one of whom watched out for his master, and the other who acted as if the master would never return—to my mind, stewardship had to do with responsibly doing as God wants during our time in this world.

Then, as a teenager, I was introduced to stewardship as it has to do with how Christians handle our money. And that’s where I encountered a buttload of Mammonism. Disguised as Christianity of course; disguised as biblical principles which’d make Christians wealthy, and justifications for all our covetous and stingy behavior: “We’re practicing good stewardship of God’s money. We’re doing it for him.”

Yeah right. If doing it for God were truly the case, we’d see way more good fruit in all this “stewardship.” But when it’s not—when it’s all just hypocrisy and Mammonism—we look like greedy, graceless people who have built a lot of Christian corporations and fancy buildings, but haven’t built any of God’s kingdom. Nothing that’ll last after Jesus personally takes over. Because we’ve prioritized money.

30 April 2024

The man at the pool.

John 5.1-9.

There are two back-to-back stories of Jesus curing people in John, but because they’re in two different chapters, Christians tend not to nice they’re right by each other. On purpose. ’Cause they happen some time apart. The first, where Jesus cures a royal’s son, happens in western Galilee right after they got back from Jerusalem. The second, where Jesus cures a weak man at a pool, takes place back in Jerusalem—either at the next festival where they were expected to go to temple, or several festivals later; maybe even years later. We don’t know.

The situation is this: Jesus is back in Jerusalem, and in Jerusalem there’s a pool. The UBS and NA Greek New Testaments identify it as Βηθζαθά/Vithzathá, although most bibles go with the name given by the Textus Receptus, Βηθεσδά/Vithesdá (KJV “Bethesda”) and other ancient copies of John call it Βηθσαιδά/Vithsedá, Βηδσαιδά/Vidsedá, Βηδσαιδάν/Vidsedán, and Βελζεθά/Velzethá. All of these are attempts to transliterate the Aramaic name בית זיתא/Beit Cheytá, the name of a district in first-century Jerusalem which Josephus calls “the New City.” The district was next to the Roman fortress, Antonia, located on the NNW corner of the temple mount, and the pool was within this district. It was created around the 700s BC as a reservoir for rainwater, and around 200 BC the head priest, Simon bar Onias (also known as Simon 2), had a second pool created just south of it. Scholars figure it was so one pool could hold warm water, and the other cold, so you could bathe in whatever temperature you pleased.

Because it’s by the Sheep Gate, popular legend says the pool was created to wash sheep before their ritual sacrifice. Problem is, the pool is 13 meters deep, which is more appropriate for drowning sheep. So no, it’s likely not for washing animals. (That’s what they used Siloam for.) More likely this pool was mainly used for ritual washing. People had to get ritually clean before they could go to temple, so here’s where they did it.

The Israel Museum’s model of the “Pool of Bethesda” during the first century. Without the water of course. John describes it with five colonnades—the four around the whole complex, and one in the middle over the wall between the pools. [Wikimedia]

After the Romans destroyed Jerusalem, the pool was made part of a pagan temple to Asclepius and Serapis, the Roman and Egyptian gods of healing. When the Roman Empire became Christian, it was turned into the Church of the Sheep, which was destroyed in 614 by the Persians. The Crusaders rebuilt it as a smaller church, the Church of the Paralytic, which fell into disuse after the crusaders built the larger Church of St. Anne nearby. That church was renovated by the French in the 1800s, but the rest remained ruins, later to be excavated by German archaeologist Conrad Schick.

Today, the Sheep Gate is known as the Lion’s Gate (Hebrew שער האריות/shahar ha-Arayót), named for the leopard carvings in the stone above it, which get confused with lions. It’s the entrance to the Muslim quarter. The pool’s still there, as part of the St. Anne’s church complex.

But let’s get back to Jesus’s day. At that time, the pool was a healing pool: Sick people gathered round it, hoping for a miracle.

John 5.1-4 KWL
1 After these events there’s a Judean feast,
and Jesus goes up to Jerusalem.
2 A pool is in Jerusalem, by the Sheep Gate
—in Aramaic it’s called Beit Cheytá—
having five colonnades.
3 Under these colonnades lay a large number
of weak, blind, lame, shriveled people,
{waiting for the water to move.
4 For an angel comes down to the pool at times,
and agitates the water,
so the first who enters after the water is agitated
becomes whole from whatever ailment he has.}

Verses 3B–4 first appeared in fourth-century copies of John, and were of course added to the Textus Receptus. They provide kind of a backstory to why all these people were gathered round the pool: Whenever the water moved, they figured an angel was causing it, and hoped it’d heal them. My only problem with this theory is it sounds a lot like pagan superstition; like something the Greeks would claim. “Look, a lesser god is moving the water! Jump in!” But is that what people believed in the first century? Or what people believed in the fourth century, after a few centuries of Greco-Roman pagans had overseen the pool, and added their own superstitions to the pool’s history?

Now we do know the water was agitated, for that’s what the weak man says. Jn 5.7 But it didn’t have to be roiled up by an angel. It coulda happened whenever the water was replenished. Or when an attendant dumped a bunch of bath salts into it. Or when crowds of people came to town and needed ritual washing. Anything coulda moved the water—and people might figure, “Fresh water” or “Ritual washing” or “Fresh salts” or any of those things might somehow make the water holier, and therefore more likely to cure ’em.

But the angel story has been in bibles, including the Vulgate, for a mighty long time. And you know how people are with favorite traditions: They’re loath to give ’em up, no matter how wrong and misguided they might be.

Still, it wouldn’t surprise me at all if this was a myth these sick people believed. They wanted to get well, and healthcare didn’t exist back then. Their “physicians” were actually witch doctors, and had no real medical nor scientific training. Their faith healers might be legit—might actually have the Holy Spirit empowering them—but then again might not, or might be frauds. So what other options did you have? Well, there was a rumor if you got in the pool at just the right time, you’d get cured. So here they were.

If it all sounds hopeless to you—and it kinda does to me too—y’notice the people gathered round the pool had to have some small degree of hope, or they wouldn’t be there! (Or, which is just as likely, their family members wouldn’t carry them there, day after day, in the hopes something might happen.) Hey, what else are you gonna do? Who else are you gonna turn to?

So this is the depressing situation Jesus walked into one day… to bring somebody out of it.

29 April 2024

The first time Jesus cured anyone.

John 4.46-54.

While Jesus and his students were staying in Cana (where they didn’t respect him as a prophet, so he didn’t have to deal with people seeking “Jesus the Prophet” all day), a certain royal showed up. Probably specifically to seek him out: Someone did respect Jesus the Prophet.

John 4.46 KWL
46 Jesus goes again to Cana of Galilee,
where he made the water wine.
A certain royal is there,
whose son in Capharnaum is sick.

John calls him a βασιλικὸς/vasilikós, “a royal.” Not a king, but someone in the royal family; debatably a servant in the royal household, but that’s far less likely. Could be someone who might actually become king himself someday, but if that’s so you’d think John woulda named names.

Both John Wycliffe and the Geneva Bible translated vasilikós as “little king.” But for some reason the King James translated it “nobleman,” and that concept has kinda stuck in translators’ heads ever since. You get “royal official” (Amplified, CSB, NASB, NET, NIV, NRSV), “government official” (ISV, GNB, and NLT), plain ’ol “official” (ESV), and of course “nobleman” (NKJV, MEV).

Regardless, he was a big deal—and word leaked to him Jesus might be the sort of person who could do miracles. And when you’re desperate, you’ll jump all over that sort of rumor. So this royal saddled up, rode 30 kilometers across the province, and called upon some obscure Nazarene rabbi.

John 4.47 KWL
Once this royal heard
Jesus comes from Judea to the Galilee,
he goes to Jesus
and asks whether Jesus might come down
and cure his son,
for he’s about to die.

28 April 2024

Prophets get no respect back home.

John 4.43-45.

Right after Jesus spent two days with the Samaritans of Sykhár, sharing the gospel of God’s kingdom with ’em, he needed a break. So he returned to his homeland—the western side of the Roman province of the Galilee. More precisely Cana (today’s Kfar Kanna), 4 kilometers north of Nazareth, where he’d done the water-to-wine thingy.

Time to quote the gospel.

John 4.43-45 KWL
43 After the two days, Jesus comes out of Samaria,
and he goes into the Galilee.
44 For Jesus himself testifies that prophets,
in their own homeland, have no respect.
45 So when Jesus comes to the Galilee,
the Galileans receive him:
They saw everything he did in Jerusalem at the festival,
for they likewise went to the festival.

The part which tends to throw us Christians is Jesus’s comment “that a prophet hath no honour in his own country.” Jn 4.44 KJV Because in the synoptic gospels, Jesus says it like it’s a bad thing—

Mark 6.4 KWL
Jesus tells them this:
“A prophet isn’t really disrespected
till he’s in his homeland,
and with his relatives,
and in his own home.”
Matthew 13.57 KWL
They’re offended by him, and Jesus tells them,
“A prophet isn’t really disrespected
till he’s in his homeland,
and in his own home.”
Luke 4.24 KWL
Jesus says, “Amen! I promise you this:
A prophet never gets approval in his homeland.”

—because in those contexts, it was a bad thing. In each of these gospels, Jesus was teaching in the Nazareth synagogue, Lk 4.16 and his neighbors couldn’t handle the fact these teachings and revelations were coming out of him. Who’s he? What’s the handyman Mk 6.1 (or handyman’s son Mt 13.55) doing announcing God’s kingdom has arrived? In Luke they even tried to push him off a cliff. Lk 4.29

I don’t know whether the incident at the Nazareth synagogue took place before this John passage. It might have, but I don’t think so: One of the Nazarenes’ objections was they wanted Jesus to duplicate the miracles he’d done in Capharnaum, Lk 4.23 and in John he’s not even been to Capharnaum yet, and done no such miracles. Jn 4.54 But by that point it appears he already had made the quip that prophets get no respect back home.

Historically, Christians have interpreted this to mean familiarity breeds contempt. Jesus’s neighbors presumed they knew him—and “knew” he wasn’t anyone important. And took offense at the very idea he might be. Who’d he think he was? What, did he think he was better than them? How dare he.

25 April 2024

“Why are there so many bible translations?”

Probably the most common question I get about bible translations—right after people ask me which one’s the best—is why there are so many.

If you visit Bible Gateway, which is one of the more popular bible websites on the internet—one I myself use frequently—you’ll find they have 63 different English translations. Yep, you read that number correctly. Sixty and three. To be fair, a number of those translations overlap:

  • The King James Version (KJV) and the Authorized King James Version (AKJV) are the same translation, but with slightly different formatting.
  • The New International Version (NIV) and the New International Version - UK (NIVUK) are the same translation, but with some words spelled differently. The same deal exists for the English Standard Version (ESV, ESVUK) and the New Revised Standard (although the previous NRSV was replaced with the updated edition, i.e. the NRSVUE).
  • The Revised Standard Version (RSV) and the Revised Standard Version Catholic Edition (RSVCE) are the same translation, but the Catholic edition uses the Catholic book order and includes the books Protestants tend to skip. Again, same deal with the NRSV (whose Catholic Edition is the NRSVCE).

Still, that’s more than 50 different English translations, and Bible Gateway certainly doesn’t include every English translation. I used to collect bible translations, so I have a few obscure ones which Bible Gateway certainly doesn’t include, and good luck finding bible software which sells them either.

But back to the question: Why are there so many English translations? Especially since there are plenty of people-groups who still lack a bible translation in their language! True, translators are working on that problem; Wycliffe Bible Translators and SIL International are doing what they can. In some cases they gotta create a written version of the language from scratch, just like Sequoyah did, then get the people literate so they can actually read the newly-translated bibles. Still, why aren’t translators working on that instead of creating yet another English translation?

Okay. Simply and bluntly, the reason there are so many English bible translations is because the bible sells big-time. And if you’re a book publisher, and you own the rights to a bible translation, you’re gonna make money. That’s it. Pure and simple.

No, it’s not for altruistic reasons. It’s not because the English-speaking world needs a new and better translation of the bible. We have plenty of perfectly good English translations. If you compare those translations on Bible Gateway—if, fr’instance, you look at all the different ways people have translated John 3.16—you’re not gonna see significant differences! You’re not gonna think, “Wow, there’s some division and controversy about how to translate that verse.” No, there’s really not. And the same is true of pretty much all the English-language bibles.

Yep, the primary reason for all the new bible translations is money. The bible still sells better than every other book. By far. The “best-selling book of 2023” was Colleen Hoover’s It Ends With Us, which sold about 1.29 million copies. But when you look up stats for bible sales, the KJV Giant Print Reference Bible has sold more than 10 million since it dropped in October. And the NKJV Giant Print Reference Bible, released at the same time, has sold more than 5 million. It’s because bestseller lists deliberately skip bibles—because if they included them, their lists would be nothing but bibles.

23 April 2024

Does Jesus ever call himself Messiah?

Short answer: Yes.

Way longer answer: He does, but he never states the specific words ἐγώ μεσσίας/égo messías, “I’m Messiah”; nor the words ἐγώ Χριστός/égo hristós, “I’m Christ,” in the bible. And doesn’t have to. This passage, fr’instance, shows he clearly identifies himself as Messiah.

John 4.25-26, 28-29 GNT
25 The woman said to him, “I know that the Messiah will come, and when he comes, he will tell us everything.”
26 Jesus answered, “I am he, I who am talking with you.”
28 Then the woman left her water jar, went back to the town, and said to the people there, 29 “Come and see the man who told me everything I have ever done. Could he be the Messiah?”

Jesus’s statement can either be translated “I’m the one talking to you” or “I am; the one talking to you.” But either way he clearly means he’s the Messiah of whom the Samaritan at the well was speaking. She expects Messiah to make things clear; well here he is, trying to do just that, if she’d listen.

Likewise when Jesus’s best student Simon Peter also identified him as Messiah:

Matthew 16.13-17, 20 GNT
13 Jesus went to the territory near the town of Caesarea Philippi, where he asked his disciples, “Who do people say the Son of Man is?”
14 “Some say John the Baptist,” they answered. “Others say Elijah, while others say Jeremiah or some other prophet.”
15 “What about you?” he asked them. “Who do you say I am?”
16 Simon Peter answered, “You are the Messiah, the Son of the living God.”
17 “Good for you, Simon son of John!” answered Jesus. “For this truth did not come to you from any human being, but it was given to you directly by my Father in heaven.”
20 Then Jesus ordered his disciples not to tell anyone that he was the Messiah.

Again, Jesus doesn’t straight-up call himself Messiah, and doesn’t need to: Peter did. And Jesus praised him, and told him he got this knowledge from the Father; it’s true. He never tells his students Peter was wrong; in fact why would he say laudatory things about Peter if he were wrong?

But: Shut up about it. We’re keeping this info private for now.

But it certainly was no secret. Plenty of other people recognized Jesus is Messiah, and used all the usual biblical euphemisms for Messiah there was.

Messiah (Heb. מָשׁיִחַ/mašiyakh) literally means “anointed,” usually someone who’d had a liter of oil dumped over his head to signify the Holy Spirit had put them in a position of leadership. They did this to ancient Israeli kings; therefore all the kings were messiahs. Yep, even Saul ben Kish, which is why David regularly refused to harm him. Didn’t matter how messed-up Saul behaved; he’s the LORD’s messiah. 1Sa 24.6, 26.11, 2Sa 1.16 And it doesn’t matter what “messiah” literally means; it means king.

So Israelis would call Jesus “king.” Lk 19.38, Jn 1.49 And “son of David” Mt 22.42, Mk 12.35 —not because they actually knew Jesus’s ancestry, but because people widely understood the Messiah-like-David would be David’s successor, and therefore David’s descendant.

People also called Jesus “son of God.” Mt 26.63, Jn 20.31 Since we Christians know Jesus is the literal son of God, we regularly—and wrongly—miss what ancient Judeans meant by this: “Son of God” is also one of Messiah’s titles. Comes from Psalm 2, which declares:

Psalm 2.7-9 GNT
7 “I will announce,” says the king, “what the Lord has declared.
He said to me: ‘You are my son;
today I have become your father.
8 Ask, and I will give you all the nations;
the whole earth will be yours.
9 You will break them with an iron rod;
you will shatter them in pieces like a clay pot.’ ”

Once you learn Messiah means king, and learn to recognize all this Messianic language, when you read the gospels you’ll see it everywhere. Doesn’t matter how much Jesus tried to keep it quiet.

22 April 2024

Passover: When God saved the Hebrews.

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

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

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

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

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

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

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