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…)
The philosophy professor whom I mentioned in my last post made a fascinating argument against using religious experiences to draw theological conclusions. I partly agree with it, and partly disagree with it, so I thought I would post it here and take it apart.
His basic argument was that people of many logically incompatible religions have strong religious experiences, on the basis of which they conclude that their respective religions are correct. But since they cannot all be correct (since they contradict each other), religious experience seems not to be a reliable method for inferring which is the true religion. Instead, he suggested, people who grow up in a religion typically develop positive emotions for the places, people, and objects associated with that religion, and these emotions then lead to experiences of God’s love, for example, or of the truthfulness of one’s own religion, experiences which may reflect nothing more than a lifetime of developing positive associations.
He described a discussion he had with two Mormons, in which he invited them to make the case for why he should come to believe in Mormonism. With a caveat that it might sound crazy, they described the burning in their bosom which confirmed to them that the Book of Mormon was true. The philosopher, far from being surprised, expressed that these sorts of experiences are exactly what he would expect for someone in their positions. Instead, and I’m sure much to the consternation of this pair of Mormon missionaries, he denied that such an experience lends support to the truth of their religion. People of other religions equally experience feelings which in their view confirm their beliefs, and those experiences are neither more nor less genuine, and neither more nor less confirmatory, than the burning in the bosom of the Mormons. (more…)
(I haven’t written for a few weeks, partly because of starting my new job, and partly because the situation in northern Iraq was driving me to write in other venues…)
I did not grow up in a church, and so I am always a little curious what going to church is like for children. I particularly appreciate this gem, from a puppet re-telling of the Christmas story in Luke 2:
- Shepherds: AAAAAAAAAAAAAAAAAAAAAAAAAA!
- Angel: Fear not!
- Shepherds: AAAAAAAAAAAAAAAAAAAAAAAAAA!
- Angel: What part of “fear not” didn’t you understand?
- Shepherds: AAAAAAAAAAAAAAAAAAAAAAAAAA!
- Angel: Never mind. I bring you good news…
It always strikes me how fearful many Christians remain, even though Christ has already given us all that we need for godly lives. To hear some Christians talk (or blog), they are afraid of Islam, atheism, homosexuality, church shrinkage, cultural de-Christianization, loss of constitutional rights, President Obama, censorship, contraception, courts, and the news media. This is clearly a very heterogeneous bucket o’ fear. (more…)
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…)
One doctrinal formula which Calvinists bandy about and non-Calvinists like to mock is “once saved, always saved.” Like almost all doctrinal formulas, this one is shorthand for a longer assertion. It’s easy to expand it to “once a person has been saved, that person cannot lose his or her salvation.” But that formulation still presumes that we know what we’re talking about when we say someone “is saved.” Although this language is often used, especially among American evangelicals since the 19th C, I don’t think “saved” can meaningfully be used as an adjective as it always is, or even as an absolute verb (i.e. a verb without additional specification of the predicate). Now, some folks who know their Bibles really well will immediately point out that the apostles used the word “saved” in various contexts without adding additional specification (Eph 2:5 and 8 come to mind). But we must always ask, in every context, “What is the subject of the sentence saved from?”
Since the notion of “once saved, always saved” has come up recently in a few places, I thought I would re-post here an (edited) email I wrote back in 2010 in answer to a question from a friend. First, his question:
What does it mean to be “saved”? Is it a once-and-for-all thing, or a lifelong process, or what? A fellow who grows up a believer and manifests all the signs of a Christian and then in, say, his late teens turns away from the faith: is he saved?
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.