The Trinity and Us

Now that I have written five thousand words about why I think the Christian doctrine of the Trinity is a true and biblical description of the One God, someone might wish to ask me, “What difference does it make?”  Sure, traditional Christian orthodoxy (held today by evangelical and conservative Protestants of all denominations, traditional Roman Catholics, and most Eastern and Oriental Orthodox) believes in the Trinity, while Oneness Pentecostals, Jehovah’s Witnesses, Unitarians, liberals (both Protestant and Roman Catholic), and Muslims do not.  But is that just an interesting and incidental detail, along the lines of different traditions of church decoration?  Or is it relevant to how Christians live out their faith in practice?  Does this Trinitarian theology matter?

I think it does matter, and it matters a lot.  Now, I will readily grant up front that it does not seem to matter to many Christians, who live out their lives with scarcely a thought regarding Trinitarian vs. Unitarian doctrine.  But I think it does matter, and ought to matter a great deal to Christian life and faith. (more…)

O Come, O Come, Emmanuel

One of my favorite Christian songs is the Advent hymn, “O Come, O Come, Emmanuel,” and I was delighted some years ago to learn that it was originally in Latin.  Having learned Latin, I am still very fond of the familiar version we sing in church, but that translation (like all translations from verse into verse) necessarily adjusts the meaning to fix the meter.  So for Advent this year, I thought I would provide the hymn’s Latin words with a very literal translation into English prose, not to be sung, but so that the song may be better understood. The Latin text was taken, with minor adjustments of punctuation, from here. (more…)

Dating Jesus’s Prophecy of the Temple’s Destruction

In my last post, I argued that not all prophecies were composed after the events which fulfill them.  But perhaps the argument for dating the Gospels after that date can be nuanced.  Instead of a strict deductive argument, perhaps that dating is still defensible as an inference to the most plausible explanation.  In other words, okay, prophecies can sometimes be written down before the events which fulfill them, and perhaps a few like the Qur’anic example cited in the last post actually were, but which is more likely, that a prophecy was written down before or after the event in “predicts”?  Most people would conclude that it is far easier, and thus more likely, for the prophecy to have been written down after the fact.  Therefore dating true prophecies by presuming that they are ex post facto, composed after the fact, is not always true, but it is a good approximation, in the absence of overwhelming evidence to the contrary.  Like all general principles, this may be generally applicable, but I do not think it applies to the prophecy which the Gospels portray Jesus as uttering about the destruction of the Temple in Jerusalem. (more…)

Ex Post Facto Prophecies and Gospel Dating

The 30th sura of the Qur’an, near its beginning, says, “The Romans have been defeated in the nearest land, but they, after their defeat, will conquer in a few years” (Q 30:2-4).  Late medieval Muslims believed that this prophecy was fulfilled by the Ottoman conquest of Constantinople in 1453, although I could see a case being made for “the nearest land” being Palestine, in which the Romans were defeated in 638.  The Romans’ subsequent victory, in the latter case, could be taken to refer to the Byzantine conquests of the 960s, in which they recaptured Antioch for 120 years.  In any event, we have Qur’an manuscripts which contain these verses from before the 960s.

It amazes me how frequently Bible scholars insist that a prophecy can only have been written down after the events which are alleged to be its fulfillment.  Thus many Old Testament scholars maintain that Daniel must have been written in the Maccabean period, while experts on the Gospels (even many Christians) assert that because Jesus is portrayed as foretelling the destruction of the Temple in Jerusalem (usually dated to 70 CE), therefore the Gospels were first written down at least forty years after the events they claim to record.  But the example of the Qur’an shows that this need not be the case. (more…)

Prayer, Christology, and the Need for Better Exegesis

This is something of a rant.  I have some pet peeves, among which is when people misinterpret the Bible to fit their pet concepts and models.  Even if the larger point they are making is good, good ends do not justify bad means.  I’m reading a book on prayer right now which I think illustrates this perfectly.  I’m not quite halfway through it, and I generally have a high bar for what constitutes good writing on the subject of prayer (and a low tolerance for Christian cliches and platitudes).  On the whole, I think the book is very good, and it has already helped me with certain issues in my prayer life.  But some of what the book says about Jesus is just flat wrong, even if it’s with good intentions.  And much of how the author draws from the Bible is deeply wrong-headed, even if I think the author has understood some important things about prayer.  (Because of this mixed review, I will not name the author or the book in this post.)  So I’m not condemning the book or the author, but I thought I would vent my frustration by using a few examples from the book to show how bad exegesis is a problem, even for a good end. (more…)

A Taste of George Herbert

Good poetry is hard to find, because it’s even harder to write.  These days most verse is trite and sentimental doggerel, and much of the more creative stuff is emotionally self-destructive.  Yet there is good poetry out there, which can bring us closer to God.

George Herbert is one of the best poets in the English language, and one of the most famous of the Metaphysical Poets of the 17th C.  Here is one of his more famous poems (taken from (more…)

Discomfort and Redemption

A year ago my wife and I moved to a cheap apartment in the next town over.  We did a lot of research, and had a number of distinct requirements.  Among them we were concerned about pests (we’ve had bad experiences before) and cigarette smoke (my wife is allergic).  We settled on one apartment, and then its current occupants decided not to move out, so we found two other options in the same building.  They had the same floor plan, but one faced the parking lot and the other a golf course.  Since we love green, we settled on the one overlooking the golf course.  I asked about pests and was assured there was no history of pest-related service requests.  Then when I brought my wife for the sniff test (her nose is much keener than mine), we smelled cigarette smoke. (more…)

Christ’s Donkey

Jesus entered Jerusalem riding on a donkey (Matt 21:1-11), and most commentators have interpreted this as a sign of humility, the contrast between the warhorse of the conqueror Messiah expected by some and the spiritual conqueror that the real Messiah was.  This view is authorized by Zechariah 9:9, which describes the coming Messiah’s humility linked with the choice of a donkey for a steed.  I accept this interpretation, but I wonder whether there might be another dimension.

In particular, when David’s son Adonijah presumed he was the heir apparent and hosted a banquet to announce his kingship, the prophet Nathan and Solomon’s mother Bath Sheba asked David to appoint Solomon his heir instead.  And the way that he was appointed heir was to ride the king’s mule down to the Gihon spring outside the city and back (1 Kings 1:33, 38).  Now, a mule (Hebrew pirdah) is not a donkey (Hebrew ḥamor), but they’re related, and both event required riding into Jerusalem on a non-horse (although Solomon’s also required riding out of the city first).  So I wonder whether, in addition to the humility meaning, there is also a link to Davidic kingship in the Lord’s triumphal entry into Jerusalem on a donkey.

Where are the Whirled Peas?

This afternoon, over lunch, I was asked by a friend who is neither Christian nor Jewish how I might respond to the contention that Jesus could not be the Messiah because he did not usher in an era of world peace.  (For an online Jewish website presenting this objection, see here.)  Honestly, it’s not a topic which exercises me greatly, but I thought I’d present my answer here for future correction.

Basically, I have two answers.  The first looks at what Jesus taught about the Messiah, and the second at what the Hebrew scriptures themselves say about the Messiah.

(Prolegomena: the words “Christ” and “Messiah” are distinct in English, but refer back to the same thing.  Hebrew haMoshiah was Aramaicized as meshiha, which was occasionally (e.g. John 1:41 and 4:25) transcribed into Greek as messias, thence to Latin messia, thence to English messiah.  On the other hand, already in the Septuagint Greek translation of Leviticus (date debated, but before 100 BCE likely), the Greek adjective khristos was used to translate the Hebrew haMoshiah, and it was similarly used in the two passages of the Gospel of John cited above.  It was used as a substantive adjective, i.e. an adjective-turned-noun, in the Septuagint translation of Psalm 2:2, and thus became the common way of referring to the Messiah in Greek.  Greek khristos was transcribed into Latin usually as christus, and thence to English as Christ.  I will not distinguish between the nuances in English between Messiah and Christ, because they have a shared pedigree.)

The Messiah According to Jesus

1. Jesus claimed to be the Messiah.  He asked the disciples, “Who do you say that I am?” and when Peter said, “The Christ,” which Jesus approved (Matt 16:13-20), and when asked under oath by the High Priest if he was the Christ, Jesus answered in the affirmative (Mark 14:61).  When a Samaritan woman expresses hope that the coming Messiah will sort out religious questions for them, Jesus claims to be the answer (John 4:25-26).  Thus it is not surprising that the earliest Christian texts use the title for Jesus unreservedly.

2. Jesus disclaimed inaugurating an age of peace.  For example, Jesus said, “Do not think that I came to bring peace; I did not come to bring peace, but a sword” (Matt 10:34).  The sword that he speaks of is not the sword of conquest, but division within a family in the first instance (Matt 10:35), and the promise that his followers would be killed for following him (Matt 10:38-39, remembering that a cross at that time was a mode of execution, not a bothersome difficulty).

3. Jesus spoke of God’s Reign (more often translated “Kingdom of God,” but a phenomenon rather than a place) as something both present and to come.  Thus he taught his disciples to pray, “may your kingdom come” (Matt 6:10), even while he was announcing, “God’s reign has come” (Matt 4:17; the verb sometimes translated “at hand” is more literally “has come close”).  He even said, “God’s kingdom is within you” (Luke 17:21).

4. The immediate Kingdom of God  will include Christians suffering a lot of violence (e.g. Matt 10:23; John 16:2), but also a kind of peace given by Christ (Mark 5:34; more generally, John 14:27 and 16:33).  Jesus does not say much of anything about the notion of future world peace, although he likens it in a parable to “entering into the joy of [one’s] master” (Matt 25:21,23), and elsewhere he likens it to a feast (Matt 8:11).  He also uses the traditional language of Daniel 7:13-14 to describe a future coming of the Messiah (Matt 24:30-31).  At that time, the “Son of Man” (i.e. the Messiah) will condemn all injustice and wickedness (the chief obstacles to peace) and bring the righteous to “the kingdom prepared for you” (Matt 25:34).

Thus, it appears from the teaching of Jesus that there is a distinction between the first coming of the Messiah, to “bring the kingdom near” despite ongoing violence and suffering, and a second coming of the same, to bring an end to all evil and inaugurate the fullness of the kingdom.  This is called “inaugurated eschatology,” “partially realized eschatology,” or “the ‘already’ and the ‘not yet.'”

But critics may say that the Messianic prophecies of the Hebrew scriptures do not support such a bifurcated Messianic mission.  So that is the second piece of my response to the question.

The Messiah According to Isaiah

(Yes, I know there were other prophets than Isaiah, and the arguments I make for Isaiah could be generalized to other prophets.  But in the interest of writing a blog post rather than a book on the subject, I’ll limit my discussion to Isaiah.)

Isaiah certainly foretold world peace.  Most obviously, “And they will hammer their swords into plowshares and their spears into pruning hooks.  / Nation will not lift up sword against nation, / And never again will they learn war.” (Isaiah 2:4)  When will this come about?  Isaiah tells us: “In the last days” (Isaiah 2:2), when the Lord “will judge between the nations and will render decisions for many peoples” (Isaiah 2:4).

But what does Isaiah say of the Messiah?  This is where things get a little more tricky.  Isaiah refers to Cyrus of Persia as the Lord’s “anointed” (45:1), but leaving that aside for now, more to the point are various prophecies which do not necessary use the term “Messiah” but were understood by an ancient Jewish audience to refer to the prophesied Davidic ruler.  The only one to use the term “anointed” is Isaiah 61:1-2:

The Spirit of the Lord God is upon me,
Because the Lord has anointed me
To bring good news to the afflicted;
He has sent me to bind up the brokenhearted,
To proclaim liberty to captives
And freedom to prisoners;
To proclaim the favorable year of the Lord
And the day of vengeance of our God.

(This passage was quoted by Jesus in Luke 4:18-19, and pronounced fulfilled.)  This passage does not say anything about world peace, as it turns out, but presumes that people have been afflicted, brokenhearted, taken captive, and made prisoner.

Other prophecies from Isaiah are debated as to whether they pertain to the Messiah or not.  Most notable are the “Servant Songs” (Isaiah 42:1-4; 49:1-6; 50:4-9; and 52:13-53:12), which speak of the Lord’s Servant.  The most common Jewish interpretation is probably that these songs refer to the Jewish people collectively, while Christians have traditionally interpreted them with respect to the Messiah.  What do they tell us?

In Isaiah 42:1-4, the Lord speaks of choosing his servant and putting his Spirit upon him, in similar language to Isaiah 61:1 though without the word to anoint, and that this servant will bring justice to the world.  In Isaiah 49:1-6, the servant speaks, claiming to be hidden in God’s hand and quiver (49:2).  While he is addressed by God, “You are my servant, Israel” in 49:3, he is also given the mission “To bring Jacob back to Him, so that Israel might be gathered to Him” (49:5).  This implies some identification between the servant and Israel, but also a distinction: the servant is to bring Israel back to God.  And not only Israel: the Lord says to his servant,

It is too small a thing that You should be My Servant
To raise up the tribes of Jacob and to restore the preserved ones of Israel;
I will also make You a light of the nations
So that My salvation may reach to the end of the earth. (49:6)

So the Lord’s servant is chosen by the Lord, anointed by the Spirit, and given a mission of restoration of God’s people and salvation to all the peoples.  If the servant is simply the people of Israel, as some suggest, I do not see how the people of Israel can restore themselves.  One might propose that the righteous people of Israel would bring back those who have strayed, but even “the preserved ones of Israel” need restoration.  And this passage’s double reference to God choosing the servant from the womb (49:1,5) sounds more like the Lord’s call of Jeremiah (Jer 1:5), referring to an individual.  The reference to the servant’s law in 42:4 may then imply that the Lord’s servant is a king, and these passages are likely among the Messianic prophecies of Isaiah.  And they do foretell a Messianic restoration of all things.

In Isaiah 50:4-9, the servant speaks again, indicating his obedience to the Lord, and yet his suffering of beating, beard-plucking, and being spat upon (50:6).  Although he protests that the Lord will help him and he will outlast his opponents (50:9), there is nothing in this passage about world peace or even victory, just confidence in a courtroom.  Instead, it mentions his suffering and endurance.

The final Servant Song is even more direct, and it is small wonder that it is so frequently quoted in the New Testament.  This is the passage in which the servant is described as “a man of sorrows” and “surely our griefs he himself bore, and our sorrows he carried.”  It describes how the servant is killed unjustly (53:7-8) among criminals (53:9,12), though in fact buried by a rich man (53:9), and yet his suffering was to take away the sins of the people (53:5-6).  Nevertheless, “If he gives himself as a sacrifice for guilt, he will see offspring, he will prolong his days, and the Lord’s pleasure will prosper through him” (53:10).  How someone who gives himself as a sacrifice can live longer is a puzzle in this passage, simply unanswered here.

But the prophecies of Isaiah speak on the one hand of world peace, and on the other of the suffering servant of the Lord.  Both are speaking of the Messiah.  This Messiah is Jesus, who as the Lord’s suffering servant has indeed dealt with our sins, “and by his wounds, we are healed.”  The fact that the Messiah’s sufferings would not immediately usher in a period of world peace was understood and clearly articulated by Jesus, and implicit in Isaiah’s various prophecies regarding the suffering servant.

The question how can the Messiah suffer rather than ushering in an age of prosperity is not new.  Jesus faced the question himself (John 12:34).  But the fact of the matter is that the current brokenness of the world, which is very broken indeed, and the incomprehension of the crowds are no surprise to him and no ultimate obstacle to his redemptive plan.

Were you there?

A well-known African American spiritual asks, “Were you there when they crucified my Lord?”  By a series of questions focusing on aspects of the crucifixion, it highlights the horrible suffering that Christ endured, for those who witnessed it and for those who reflect on it even long after the fact.

Of course, the straightforward answer to the question is “no.”  This is not mere flippancy; I don’t know that I would have been there, had I been living in Jerusalem at the time, though the disciples ought to have been there.  If I had been there, it wouldn’t have been as John or Mary; there were others there, too, who expressed their mockery and scorn for Jesus.  On the other hand, I’m always a little uneasy around crowds, so perhaps I wouldn’t have been there.

Around Good Friday, I have sometimes sought to imagine what the experiences of Holy Week would have felt like for those involved.  This year, I thought to wonder where I, or rather my counterpart in that society, might have been.  And in that vein I offer a fictional historical autobiography:

[NB: the anti-semitic attitudes expressed in the following work of fiction accurately represent the hateful views of the Roman oppressors of the Jews; they are in no way my own!]

For a Jew, the guy called Jesus has achieved a certain degree of fame, and some people, when they hear that I lived in Jerusalem under Pontius Pilate, will ask me what really happened then.  It was a bad affair, really, as Pilate found out to his dismay, and I did not wish to get too involved.  I was a newly purchased steward in the household of a centurion, so I was well placed to observe, however.  I remember that it was a busy week.

The thing about Jerusalem, before the pacification by Emperor Titus, was that its population would balloon out shortly before any festival, and this was one such time.  I have no use for such rabble, but Jewish peasants would come from all around Judaea, and some from further afield, even from Rome itself, for their arbitrary festivals.  Every errand took longer, since the streets were clogged with the Jews from all over, and some items could no longer be obtained from the market, I suppose because the visitors had consumed them all.  Festival times were always a test of one’s patience.

They were also a time of high alert for the army, as so many Jews in one place could pose a security risk for the state.  So my lord had more to do, which made him less pleasant to be around.

I had heard of this man named Jesus before the events leading to his death.  He had been to Jerusalem a number of times, and made something of a sensation among the Jews, and even some of us who should have taken no interest in their superstitions were intrigued by the man.  I had seen him from afar, though never heard him, and he seemed a docile enough workman.  I did not expect much trouble from him.

So I was surprised when, while the Jews were converging upon Jerusalem for their festival, this Jesus did a fool stunt and had himself acclaimed king.  I couldn’t really understand what they were saying, as I have never made a study of their Hebrew dialect, but the palm branches and riding over garments in the street were clear enough.  I avoided the commotion, of course, since I am not moved by the force of the mindless crowds, but I heard of it from the other slaves.  This Jesus was playing with fire; perhaps the poor rustic did not know how such a move would appear to our enlightened Emperor, were he to hear of it.  Even so, the whole excitement seemed to fizzle out; Jesus came in, spent some time in their temple (for the Jews had only a single temple, before it was necessary to destroy it), and left the city.  Over the next few days, I am told, he entered and exited the city repeatedly, but he was just debating with the Jewish leaders, which is of no interest, because no threat, to Roman sovereignty.

The next I heard of this Jewish pseudo-king was his trial.  Evidently he had been arrested overnight, and the Jewish authorities were asking for his death.  I was with my lord the centurion at the trial, as it turned out, when Pilate was arguing with the Jewish priests.  He was accused of all kinds of strange things, but they were no concern of anyone other than those Jews.  Curiously, he refused to defend himself, but perhaps he didn’t understand what was being said.  Pilate tried to reach an agreement with the Jewish leaders, to secure the peace, and thus offered torture or scourging rather than an execution.  I said to myself, “the poor blighter,” affecting the imperial accent as well as I could.  But when the crowd started demanding his crucifixion, and the Jewish priests threatened to report to the Emperor that this Jesus claimed to be a king, Pilate found himself in a corner.  Some have called Pilate an incompetent coward, and I am under no compulsion to defend him, but even apart from his incompetence I saw then that this was a bad business from first to last.

Crucifixion is an ugly way to die, and I had no desire to see another.  I am a cultured man, not one of these common barbarians who enjoy mocking the unfortunate.  So from the trial I made my way back to my master’s house and returned to the frustrating work of trying to secure the supplies that were necessary to run the household.  Fortunately the feared revolt did not, then, materialize, and it was not for another generation before it became necessary to enforce the pax romana more completely upon the fractious province of Judaea.

May the Lord have mercy on all of us who, in our busyness, our elitism, and our cowardice, have looked upon the Lord of life with contempt.