By God’s grace, English translations of the Bible are generally of very high quality, far higher than the translations of any other ancient text. More effort is put into securing just the right sense and nuance when translating the Bible than anything else, because so much is at stake. Due to my over-education, I have the rare privilege of reading English translations not only alongside the original Hebrew, but alongside other translations used by the earliest Christians in Greek (the Septuagint), Syriac (the Peshitta), and Latin (the Vulgate). And when I came to Zephaniah 3:1, I noticed something strange: unusually, all the English translations I looked at disagreed with all the early versions. What’s going on here? (more…)
Hell is a problem. It makes compassionate Christians uncomfortable. It makes hateful Christians gleeful. Some people say that hell is unfair. Others say a loving God could never create people to send them to hell. How can hell be reconciled with “God is love” (1 Jn 4:8)?
Let us be careful. Jesus, who revealed God’s love, discussed hell more than any prophet. (more…)
There are a number of places in the Gospels where the words of Jesus or someone else are reported in Hebrew or Aramaic, followed by a gloss in Greek (which is usually translated into English for English-reading audiences). Thus “Immanuel” is glossed “God with us” in Matthew 1:23, and “Eli, Eli, lema sabachthani” as “My God, my God, why have you forsaken me?” in Matthew 27:46. But in one case the supplied translation adds a few words: in Mark 5:41, Jesus says to the dead girl, “Talitha koum!” which is translated as “Little girl, I say to you, get up!” A rudimentary knowledge of Aramaic quickly indicates that talitha is “little girl” and koum (qum) is “get up!” but where did “I say to you” come from? This has long made me scratch my head, but now I have a theory. (Nerd alert!) (more…)
Is the Trinity in the Bible? I have talked with Jews, Muslims, atheists, and even some Christians who say no. Recently I had the privilege of discussing the issue with an ex-Muslim and with a Jehovah’s Witness, who have prompted me to revisit the issue here. Of course I admit that the word “Trinity” nowhere occurs in the inspired text of the Bible. But the lack of a word does not mean the absence of the reality to which that word refers. The word “omnipresent” is also not to be found in Scripture, but the idea of God’s omnipresence is clearly taught there (e.g. 1 Kings 8:27; Psalm 139:7-12). Like God’s omnipresence, we need to explore what the Bible actually teaches about God’s oneness, and then consider what to call it. (more…)
Are there two creation stories in the book of Genesis? This has long been a viewpoint espoused by many Old Testament scholars, but is finding increasing popularity among non-scholars as well. Moreover, it is increasingly believed that the alleged two stories are mutually contradictory, that they cannot both be true. While there are some other parts of the Bible that I cannot explain, I do think the “two creations” interpretation of the beginning of Genesis is clearly false. (more…)
It is often stated that the Old Testament does not present any view of heaven and hell or life after death. This is often coupled with assertions that Hebrew authors did not distinguish between body and soul the way that we do. Now, I do accept the critique that popular American images of heaven as pasty-faced night-robe wearing people on sedatives half-heartedly strumming harps while reclining improbably on clouds owes more to Victorian English book plates than any part of the Bible. I also accept that most Christians today distinguish too sharply between soul and body (a quibble for another post). On the other hand, I think what we find in the Old Testament cannot be reconciled with the common assertion that people three millennia or more ago did not conceive of personal continuity after death (apart from the obvious extra-biblical counter-example in the Gilgamesh epic). Here I wish to focus only on a few verses from Genesis, and in particular on two revealing idioms about death.
A particular idiom is used in Genesis to describe the deaths of Abraham, Ishmael, Isaac, and Jacob: each, when he died, was “gathered to his peoples” (Genesis 25:8; 25:17; 35:29; and 49:33). Most English versions prefer “to his people,” but the noun is curiously yet distinctively plural “peoples.” What does this mean? It cannot be a euphemism substituted for “died,” because in three of the four occurrences “died” shortly precedes this idiom. The verb “died” was clearly not taboo for the author. On the other hand, the idiom does not seem to be a description of burial, given that the act of burying the deceased is indicated separately in three of the four cases. Indeed, the burial of Jacob is narratively separated from his being “gathered to his peoples” by most of a chapter. So it’s not simply a colorful phrase to describe some aspect of the body. What it did mean is difficult to say precisely, except that by death each person joined other people he was associated with. How else might death result in a gathering, unless there is some sense of non-physical reunion after death and independently of the body?
The independence from the disposition of the body is seen in another phrase which was not as common as the preceding. When God foretold to Abraham his death, he said, “As for you, you shall go to your fathers in peace; you will be buried at a good old age” (Genesis 15:15). Jacob mentioned his own upcoming death similarly: “when I lie down with my fathers” (Genesis 47:30). Since Jacob is asking to be buried with Abraham and Isaac, one might think his use of the phrase simply reflects the practice of dynastic burial. But in fact, his grammar indicates that the act of “lying down with his fathers” occurs in Egypt, before the burial: “when I lie down with my fathers, you shall carry me out of Egypt and bury me in their burial place.” Abraham was not buried with his ancestors, but in Canaan after having left his father’s house according to the Lord’s command (Genesis 12:1). Indeed, the phrase was also used of Moses (Deuteronomy 31:16), whose burial place was unknown (Deuteronomy 34:6). This phrase, like the preceding idiom, suggests a hazy concept of reunion with predecessors and other people, independently of the body, after death. The fact that these are idiomatic phrases further emphasizes that the presupposed views were not idiosyncratic to the author, but were widely held.
Am I saying that the author of Genesis and the people described therein held to the same views of the afterlife that we do? No, nor need I. Even Christians today hold all sorts of theories in practice. Am I saying that they fully understood the notion of spiritual reunion after death? No, and I suspect we do not fully understand it either. Views on what happens after we die have certainly changed over time. My goal in this discussion is simply to suggest that the widespread assertion that the Old Testament authors had no notion of personal continuation after death is demonstrably false. What notions they did have, and how those notions developed over time, is a more complex question. But notions of heaven and hell, of personal continuation after death, did not suddenly spring into Judaism during the exilic period from Zoroastrian influence, as one of my textbooks last semester baldly (and ignorantly) asserted.
Requiescat avia mea in pace cum Christo Salvatore suo.
It is often claimed that one insuperable difference between Protestants and Catholics is that Protestants, since Luther, believe in the priesthood of all believers, while Catholics believe Christians need a priest to bring them to God. Today this is usually a Protestant accusation against Catholics, although in the sixteenth century Luther’s notion of the priesthood of all believers, including illiterate and semi-literate peasants, did come in for a certain amount of ridicule from some of the more educated members of the clergy. Some of the wilder branches of Protestantism have gone further than Luther, even rejecting, on the claimed basis of the “priesthood of all believers,” any ordained clergy whatsoever (this includes the Plymouth Brethren and the Quakers), while many “Bible-believing” Protestants draw a sharp distinction between Roman Catholic priests and their own pastors or elders. As with so many things, however, the disagreement between the denominations over the scope of the priesthood is based more on an argument over words than over the substance of what the Bible says. There are substantive disagreements in Roman Catholic and various Protestant understandings of priesthood(s), but the “argument” over the priesthood or not of all believers can safely be put down to a deficiency of northern European languages like English, which have one word where Greek has two, and a desire on both sides of the argument to affirm the superiority of their group over those who disagree with them.
Biblical scholars like something to argue about, because they are academics, and academics make their living by making arguments. (I know; I am one.) And since what is at stake in biblical scholars’ arguments is almost always the question whether the Bible can be trusted, for skeptics who wish not to believe as much as for believers who wish to do so, biblical scholars’ arguments often degenerate into battle lines. Often, I feel, a little more careful attention to the text may shed some useful light on the subject.
One debate which has intrigued me in the past is the question of the (non-)relation between the Hebrew word “Hebrew” (ʿibri) and the word “Habiru” and its variants in Akkadian and Egyptian. It seems that some conservatives have argued that Habiru = Hebrews = Israelites, and thus the Ancient Near Eastern texts which mention the Habiru corroborate the biblical accounts of the Israelites. Against this, some skeptics have argued that the term Habiru is used in contexts where the biblical Hebrews cannot possibly be intended, and sometimes carry non-Semitic names, which these scholars take to indicate that the Habiru were a mixture of Semitic and non-Semitic.
Now, I am not an expert in the Ancient Near East, nor do I read Sumerian, Akkadian, Egyptian hieroglyphics, or any of the other languages, so I can only approach this question from the Hebrew side. But it seems to me that what the Bible says about Hebrews is not what most people have presumed, and may open the door to a different solution to the relationship between the Hebrews and the Habiru. (more…)
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.