The Bible That Borrows Part 8: The Global Superpower Bible

I need to talk about a painting.

Have you ever heard anything as ironic as a nationalist politician enlisting a foreign government to win a domestic political battle? Even an autocratic one with a history of meddling in other countries? I sure have.

I’m talking about Francisco Franco, dictator of Spain from 1937 until 1975.

(What? Who were you thinking about?)

From 1936 until 1939, Spain suffered a civil war between Franco’s nationalist party and Spain’s pro-democracy party, and, to win, Franco enlisted the help of the Nazi military.

On April 26, 1937, it was Monday Market Day in the Spanish city of Guernica, a day when more than ten thousand people were out buying and selling in a city that was well known not to be housing soldiers or military equipment.

Despite this, and without any warning, the Nazi Luftwaffe unleashed a blistering aerial bombardment that destroyed virtually all of the city. It was horrific. Barbaric. Unjustifiable. And we now know that the Nazis considered this humanitarian tragedy as nothing more than target practice.

This bombing deeply affected a Spanish man living at the time in Paris. His name was Pablo Picasso (you may have heard of him). Picasso was the pioneer of “cubism”, a modern art style that deconstructs an object and puts it back together in a way that explores meanings below what might appear on the surface. Because cubism isn’t limited by the strictures of visual realism, it expands the expressive choices available to an artist. Because sometimes the best way to express an idea is to make someone’s head . . . an upright phallic symbol?

By 1937, Picasso had already been perfecting his method for three decades, and after the bombing, he took all that passion and genius and poured it into one massive project. He named it simply Guernica.

guernica.jpg

First of all, Guernica is huge. My friend took this picture the Museo Nacional Centro de Arte Reina Sofía. The painting is twenty-five feet from one end to the other.

8CF4D3C6-70A4-4058-A8A8-ECAA90F16801.jpg

Guernica certainly makes bold statements. Clearly depicted are civilians who have been distorted in ways that emphasize their suffering, defenselessness, and agony. Everything these people had invested into their city and into their lives was now gone thanks to a senseless and arbitrary German bombing round. “Didn’t I tell you that everything is meaningless?” you can hear Qohelet saying.

But, for every one statement Guernica might clearly make, it raises many more questions.

First, about the two animals: the horse and the bull. The horse near the center of the canvas appears in agony, but the bull to the left appears calm. In fact, the bull is the only calm-looking thing in the whole picture. Does the bull communicate hope for the Spanish people? Or does he represent the callousness and inhumanity of Franco? Or does he represent Picasso himself, who watched from Paris, but was powerless to do anything for his people? Is the bull the Spanish nation emotionlessly shocked? Does this bull have anything to do with any of the many previous Spanish bulls he had already painted?

(You could say there are a few bulls in Picasso paintings.)

Or is the bull just a bull?

As Picasso himself said (though no one believes him):

“…this bull is a bull and this horse is a horse… If you give a meaning to certain things in my paintings it may be very true, but it is not my idea to give this meaning. What ideas and conclusions you have got I obtained too, but instinctively, unconsciously. I make the painting for the painting. I paint the objects for what they are.”

“For what they are” might strike you as an odd way to describe anything that might appear in a cubist painting. But that’s the point. This is Picasso’s snide way of rejecting the need to paint something with visual accuracy to convey the truth of what the thing is.

(And yes, Picasso was perfectly capable of realism)

Regardless of what was going through Picasso’s head, I can say for certain that he wasn’t interested in telling you what the painting is “about.”

If nothing else, that’s boring.

But more importantly, that’s a claim that rarely stands up to any scrutiny.

The same horse and the same bull and the same eye or sun or whatever it is at the top with a lightbulb in it (the art police just read that and are making an arrest right now) can be hundreds of things. And should be hundreds of things. Even simultaneously. That’s what makes a great work of art great. It inspires many more questions than it does answers. And it allows different people to be impacted in unique ways—ways that allow the piece to explore the depth and breadth of the whole human experience.

(which is why contemporary Christian art and music are so bad)

It’s been nearly a century since Picasso painted Guernica, and we’re still asking questions about it. It still impacts people, though oftentimes in very different ways.

I believe this has something to do with the Bible, and that’s how I want to conclude this series.

Human

You may have gotten the impression that I have a low view of the Bible. You may think I’m just trying to wiggle out of it. That I see no room for the Bible in our postmodern world. That hidden behind this big project is nothing more than a lame and long-winded attempt to do whatever I want. That I want comfortable and safe religion. That all ideas are equally valid.

Without question, that’s certainly where I fit within the theological constructs that billions of dollars have been spent propagating, but the real truth is nothing like that at all.

When I think about the Bible, only the most soaring words come to my mind.

Inspired.

Timeless.

Authoritative

Eternally relevant.

Essential.

Ingenius.

Most Biblical traditionalists probably share in this list, and it’s not here that we differ. We differ on one more word.

Human.

I think the Bible is human. Inspired, yes, but also human. Very human. I want to go back to the words I included earlier of Dr. Peter Enns, who wakes up every morning and asks questions about the Bible that I would never even think to ask:

Supposedly, it is unworthy of God to speak through ancient stories of origins that are neither historical nor scientific. God is the God of Truth. He would never stoop so low. Uh…actually…yes he would. God is all about stooping low—way low. That’s how God rolls—at least the Christian God.

If God became human and dwelt among us—specifically, if the Word took human form—then why is it so surprising that God would also allow his text to take on human form?

A God that allows himself to be written about this way is a God with a high view of humans and their thoughts. A God with a high view of human progression, even when it is less than perfect and has to evolve over thousands and thousands of years.

After all we’ve seen, I don’t find it plausible that God for hundreds of years inspired people  in the amazingly creative ways we’ve seen for weeks—only to end in the first century. I am in love with the text of the Bible, and I try to be faithful to it, but what I see in the text of the Bible is less a command to halt and more one to go. Less of a target and more of a trajectory.

Today, our idea of faithfulness to a text operates a lot like how a person would use an instruction manual to assemble a table. If you and I are faithful to the same instruction manual, your finished table will look the same as mine.

But what I’ve tried to explain over the last two months is this: That tribe whose name means “one who wrestles with God” understood faithfulness to the text to operate how art critics study Guernica. We treat the text like an instruction manual. They treated it like a painting. To the ancient Hebrews, the text was expansive and mysterious. Its meaning could drastically change depending on one’s perspective. Finding its meaning sometimes felt like wrestling. And it certainly could mean multiple and even contradictory things at the same time.

We often talk about the Bible as the place for “the answers”, and I agree.

Do you remember in Part 4 how Jesus would answer questions with more questions?

This is how the Bible answers questions too. It raises questions. Just like a Picasso painting, it raises questions, and that is the point.

That is the answer.

Answers support those at the top. Questions support those at the bottom.

And the Bible is not meant to comfort those at the top. In fact, this is one of the few things in the Bible on which you absolutely can rely.

Empire

If the Bible is unified on anything, from start to finish it denounces empire.

We miss this because we read the Bible from such a different place than did its writers. Brian Zahnd puts it really well.

I have a problem with the Bible. Here’s my problem…

I’m an ancient Egyptian. I’m a comfortable Babylonian. I’m a Roman in his villa.

That’s my problem. See, I’m trying to read the Bible for all it’s worth, but I’m not a Hebrew slave suffering in Egypt. I’m not a conquered Judean deported to Babylon. I’m not a first century Jew living under Roman occupation.

I’m a citizen of a superpower. I was born among the conquerors. I live in the empire. But I want to read the Bible and think it’s talking to me. This is a problem.

One of the most remarkable things about the Bible is that in it we find the narrative told from the perspective of the poor, the oppressed, the enslaved, the conquered, the occupied, the defeated. This is what makes it prophetic. We know that history is written by the winners. This is true — except in the case of the Bible it’s the opposite! This is the subversive genius of the Hebrew prophets. They wrote from a bottom-up perspective.

Imagine a history of colonial America written by Cherokee Indians and African slaves. That would be a different way of telling the story! And that’s what the Bible does. It’s the story of Egypt told by the slaves. The story of Babylon told by the exiles. The story of Rome told by the occupied. What about those brief moments when Israel appeared to be on top? In those cases the prophets told Israel’s story from the perspective of the peasant poor as a critique of the royal elite. Like when Amos denounced the wives of the Israelite aristocracy as “the fat cows of Bashan.”

The Old Testament really does take aim at Babylon and the New Testament really does take aim at Rome. I demonstrated this in Part 6 with Revelation, but you also see it strikingly in the Gospel of Mark. Virtually every word of the Bible was penned under the abuses of some global superpower, and its writers for hundreds of years focused on them like a laser beam.

However, while the Bible is concerned with Empire, the impulse of Empire takes many forms, and the word is much bigger than its most obvious one. The impulse is the same regardless of whether it is big and obvious or small and ordinary. You struggle with it in your own life.

Adam and Eve ate from the tree for power.

Cain killed Abel for power.

Nimrod built the Tower of Babel for power.

Pharaoh enslaved the Hebrews for power.

Goliath challenged David for power.

Solomon married hundreds of women for power.

Solomon built thousands of chariots for power.

Jonah sought vengeance on Nineveh for power.

Nebuchadnezzar built his kingdom for power.

Alexander the Great build his kingdom for power.

And each time the Devil tempted Jesus in the wilderness, he tempted him with power—even empire by name.

When you use other people to further your own purposes, you are participating in Empire. 

One of the consequences of both believing that Jesus is God and that the scriptures are a human creation that borrows heavily from human ideas is that when you get past the noise of Jesus’s indulgences of Judaism, you find an attack on this way of life.

Control.

Manipulation.

Power.

Greed.

Envy.

Abuse.

Posturing.

Dominance.

Exploitation.

Revenge.

Insecurity.

Fear.

The seduction of Empire can be found wherever you find people. It is the worst in ourselves, and it brings out the worst in others. It never tires of destruction. Virtually everything you will ever regret for as long as you live will arise out of the impulse of Empire.

I’m thankful to live in such a time of enlightenment, but this is a mystery that has eluded so many of our great minds. When we lower others and raise ourselves, when we repay hurt with hurt, when we retaliate, when we hide all weakness, when we seek revenge, when we take an “eye for an eye”, when we do the right thing only when it’s safe to do so, when we hoard our resources, when we apologize only when they apologize, when we view people only through the lens of their usefulness to us, when we engage in the never-ending toil of controlling our own world, we perpetuate the cycle of Empire.

And it kills everything in sight.

It kills our friendships.

It kills our communities.

It kills our environment.

It kills our joy.

It kills our souls.

It is our burning hellfire and brimstone. Our weeping and gnashing of teeth. Our Gehenna.

Not somewhere distant and outside of this world, but right here.

So, what is the opposite of Empire?

Love.

Love is.

Love drives out all of the worst impulses of Empire.

What I’m about to say is a total cliche, but we’ve really ruined the word “love.” I use it to describe the long shadows in the late afternoon on a golf course. I use it to describe expensive Trappist beers. I use it to describe fancy tacos. Hippies since the 60s have used it to describe a world without responsibility or consequences. Elvis couldn’t help falling into it. It’s a booty call Drake used to get on his cell phone.

But love has nothing to do with any of that. Most people run far away from true love. Love is less seductive than Empire, and, while it might be the best thing, it’s also the hardest thing.

Nazareth got it right that love hurts. Haddaway got it wrong that it will no more.

What is love, but to care for someone else as if they were you? To treat all people as if they are equally important? To sacrifice things for the betterment of people who can never repay you? To forgive people for the worst they’ve done to you as you would hope others would forgive you for the worst you’ve done? To give them the dignity you wish they’d give you?

If there is anything in this world that requires faith, it is love.

In Empire, everyone is is given a rank and is trying to advance. Everyone is always in a kind of war.

But in love, we are all equal.

Love is patient, love is kind. It does not envy, it does not boast, it is not proud. It does not dishonor others, it is not self-seeking, it is not easily angered, it keeps no record of wrongs. Love does not delight in evil but rejoices with the truth. It always protects, always trusts, always hopes, always perseveres.

Love never fails.

I Corinthians c13

What Jesus commands us to do is to love. In so doing, we tear down every last vestige of Empire.

You have heard that it was said, “Love your neighbor and hate your enemy.” But I tell you, love your enemies and pray for those who persecute you, that you may be children of your Father in heaven. He causes his sun to rise on the evil and the good, and sends rain on the righteous and the unrighteous. If you love those who love you, what reward will you get? Are not even the tax collectors doing that? And if you greet only your own people, what are you doing more than others? Do not even pagans do that? Be perfect, therefore, as your heavenly Father is perfect.

When we see all people as equals—that is to say, when we learn to love—we become distinct among a people driven by the desire of Empire.

“My prayer is not for them alone. I pray also for those who will believe in me through their message, that all of them may be one, Father, just as you are in me and I am in you. May they also be in us so that the world may believe that you have sent me. I have given them the glory that you gave me, that they may be one as we are one— I in them and you in me—so that they may be brought to complete unity. Then the world will know that you sent me and have loved them even as you have loved me.

Father, I want those you have given me to be with me where I am, and to see my glory, the glory you have given me because you loved me before the creation of the world.

Righteous Father, though the world does not know you, I know you, and they know that you have sent me. I have made you known to them, and will continue to make you known in order that the love you have for me may be in them and that I myself may be in them.

John c17

Purity Culture

That said, most Christians think of Christianity primarily in terms of cleanliness and purity. Most Christians think of Heaven as somewhere else that requires being pure enough to enter, and that life on Earth is about positioning to be pure enough for Heaven.

No doubt, the literal words to support these ideas are found in the text of the Bible, but we have to decide why they are there. Is purity the thing, and love is just one part among many parts? 

Or is love the thing, and purity is the vocabulary that Jesus’s first disciples knew to talk about it?

Again, I concede that if you want to find purity culture in the Bible, the words are there for you. You’re not going to catch me off guard simply by quoting a Bible verse (as many have tried to do).

But let’s recall what led us to today:

  • The first five books of the Bible (and probably several more) are not historical, but were written to support the temple cult in Jerusalem.
  • We inherited baptism from the Essenes. The way the pesher writers took Old Testament texts way out of context to make new points was how the New Testaments writers also wrote.
  • Jesus indulged many of the ideas of the Pharisees while he taught on the Earth.
  • Jesus’s teachings on Gehenna (Hell) were based on the invention of Jewish rabbis who tried to find Socrates’s ideas in their text.
  • John’s vision in Revelation takes the form of Persian apocalyptic themes and describes Heaven and the battle in Heaven almost exclusively in terms of the propaganda images he had seen throughout the Roman empire.
  • The idea of the Holy Spirit was a theological construct of the Pharisees, who believed that wind was spiritual.

In light of everything we have seen, I don’t think purity culture is what Jesus came down to reinforce.

That he came to talk about new ways to sin.

That what was really needed was the Jewish Day of Atonement (which was already forgiving the sins of the Jewish people) being made permanent.

Here’s a good example of what I’m talking about. Read it carefully, and notice how Jewish ideas from the Torah and from the inter-testamentary period were used to talk about love.

Dear friends, let us love one another, for love comes from God. Everyone who loves has been born of God and knows God. Whoever does not love does not know God, because God is love. This is how God showed his love among us: He sent his one and only Son into the world that we might live through him. This is love: not that we loved God, but that he loved us and sent his Son as an atoning sacrifice for our sins. Dear friends, since God so loved us, we also ought to love one another. No one has ever seen God; but if we love one another, God lives in us and his love is made complete in us.

….

God is love. Whoever lives in love lives in God, and God in them. This is how love is made complete among us so that we will have confidence on the day of judgmentIn this world we are like Jesus. There is no fear in love. But perfect love drives out fear, because fear has to do with punishment. The one who fears is not made perfect in love.

We love because he first loved us. Whoever claims to love God yet hates a brother or sister is a liar. For whoever does not love their brother and sister, whom they have seen, cannot love God, whom they have not seen. And he has given us this command: Anyone who loves God must also love their brother and sister.

For John, it was completely natural to weave the ideas of love and purity together. He could not help but read into Jesus’s teachings on love the Jewish convictions with which he grew up.

But, in light of the many times that Jesus would use Jewish ideas to actually stray from Judaism, I have strongly concluded that we as 21st century Christians are heirs to those to whom purity was the language they knew to talk about what was actually the real thing.

If I have the gift of prophecy and can fathom all mysteries and all knowledge, and if I have a faith that can move mountains, but do not have love, I am nothing.

1 Corinthians c13

Paul’s conception of God was thoroughly grounded in his years of study under Gamaliel. His training was of a depth and sophistication that modern readers can scarcely comprehend. He would have memorized Leviticus by the time he was eight. By the age of fourteen, he would have answered questions using a Jewish technique called a remez, which is the use of an incomplete part of a text, assuming the audience’s knowledge of the whole text would allow them to deduce for themselves the fuller meaning of a statement. Students of the text like Paul were so grounded in the text that they would have entire conversations in remez. People don’t grow up under that kind of system and simply abandon it.

As much as I say my understandings have evolved, I will never completely abandon my upbringing.

Likewise, Jesus was a Jew and the first interpreters of his teachings were Jews. Jesus used the language they knew, and his first advocates filtered his teachings even further. So it shouldn’t surprise us that the first things people wrote down about following Jesus arose out of the language of Judaism. Our heritage is important, but our heritage is not the thing.

On the surface, it would be easy to assume that I read the Bible the traditional way (and that is how most non-believers classify me). I participate in many of the traditional rituals associated with Christianity. I’m part of a church congregation. I was baptized, and agree that we should baptize new believers. I believe in sin. I believe in punishment for sin. I take communion every Sunday. I pray enough to demonstrate that I think there’s something to it. And I even strongly prefer old church songs to new ones.

But I’m careful to avoid making Christianity about any of them. As Jesus once said, “The Sabbath was made for people, not people for the Sabbath.” We were meant to live in community, and “the church” was the counter-narrative to the cult of the Roman Empire. But Jesus Christ did not die and raise so we could replace old rituals with new ones.

Jesus died and rose again to show that the old understanding of power and dominance was going away, and that a new kingdom of equality was rushing in.

Shalom

In the last two months, I’ve done the best I can explain an understanding of the Bible that (1) I think is more true to what it actually is and (2) certainly is different than its traditional understanding. I’ve loved doing this, and I already miss it.

But, if what I’ve written has resonated with you, I want to offer a few parting words of shalom.

First, you are going to encounter resistance. I see a lot of “us-versus-them” in our churches, and, unfortunately, I often get placed into the category belonging to “them.” It is vital that you not become the very thing that you are working against.

It’s not unreasonable to interpret the Bible in the ways I’ve argued against. Don’t assume that people who do so are dishonest or less intelligent than you. The words to denounce what I’ve argued are in the Bible, and when we talk about translating the culture within which the words of the Bible were written, we’re not dealing with an exact science. Everything we do is always our best guess.

Engage with those who find you threatening. For the rest of your life, you can never stop listening. You must always assume that you are wrong about something. For one thing, people won’t listen to you until you’ve listened to them.

But also you are wrong about something!

Second, even if you radically change your idea of the Bible, I think you should consider maintaining the same fellowship you had before. I have, and I don’t regret it.

Of course, when you invest yourself in a congregation that views you as suspicious, a lot more is required of you. You will have to be on guard always. Anything you do wrong will be reduced to “that goes to show how everything he thinks about the Bible has been a sham this whole time.” It means constantly and actively listening to ideas you disagree with. When I listen to other people express their thoughts, I’m constantly converting them in my head so that I can agree with them.

If I’m being honest, this takes enormous amount of energy.

But, we as a society are too polarized. We spend far too little time around people who disagree with us. We’re not good at talking with people with different views. Remember, even when you don’t change an opinion, you frequently change a mind. When you give someone the dignity of listening to them and genuinely seek to understand them, and when you then intelligently and boldly explain your view, you create an impression in the other person’s mind that they should do more listening too. You sow mutual respect.

And, in a small way, you make the world a little better.

Finally, it’s important to remember that everything we do is about people. People will generally do what they believe they should do, and this means that our ideas require a lot of attention. I’m not impressed when people suggest that we should just spend our lives “doing instead of thinking.” But, nevertheless, we don’t live for ideas. Ideas are not the thing. People are the thing.

This means you need to shut up sometimes.

Don’t remain silent because you think your ideas will challenge people. Don’t remain silent because you think people won’t like you if you tell them what you think. Don’t remain silent because people might hurt you.

But some people aren’t in the right place for this whole thing. Sometimes it’s the right time even when it will cause you pain. Sometimes it’s the wrong time even when it will elevate you. It’s not about you, it’s always about them

As Jesus constantly demonstrated to his disciples, Jesus has great faith in your ability to discern how to love. Set your mind to it, and you’ll know what to do.

Peace be with you, friends.

New here? How about starting from the beginning?

The Bible That Borrows Part 7: The Inspired Bible

My vacation Bible school was like every other. I listened to sanitized versions of Bible stories that would otherwise be R-rated movies and sang songs that would otherwise be propaganda (“The B-I-B-L-E, yes that’s the book for me!”).

And I distinctly the day remember when my sixty-year-old teacher assigned eight-year-old me what was my first ever memory verse.

I remember this day for two reasons: (1) because to this day I would rather listen to Nickelback on repeat than learn a single damn memory verse, and (2) because—despite my best opposition—this verse became the foundation of my worldview for nearly twenty years. You’ve probably seen it. The NIV translates it like this:

 14 But as for you, continue in what you have learned and have become convinced of, because you know those from whom you learned it, 15 and how from infancy you have known the Holy Scriptures, which are able to make you wise for salvation through faith in Christ Jesus. 16 All Scripture is inspired by God and is useful for teaching, rebuking, correcting and training in righteousness, 17 so that the servant of God may be thoroughly equipped for every good work.

Paul’s 2nd Letter to Timothy c3 v14–17

If you want to picture the scene, imagine there’s bomb about to go off, and you’re on the phone with a physicist who walks you step by step to deactivate it. Do you hear the seriousness in her voice? The urgency? That was the voice of my teacher, who walked us word by word along Paul’s careful and narrow path to salvation.

And I really can’t blame her. If billions of people at the end this life are going to Hell and the Bible is the instructions for not being one of them, it would be cruel not to copy her example.

And, truth be told, I did too for a long time.

Not only did I memorize the life out of those words, but they sunk deep into my bones. More than any other, the words all scripture is inspired by God forged themselves to every motivation, purpose, thought, argument, and guilty feeling that ever entered my young imagination. Had I been asked why I was doing or thinking just about anything I was ever doing or thinking, I could go down a train of thought that at some point would include the words, “all scripture is inspired by God.”

And, like I said, my experience was typical. Churches, vacation Bible schools, and summer camps use this verse to train children in essentially a ten-point line of reasoning, a series of points I’m going to call the “Wall of Assurance”. The Wall is built like this:

  1. When Paul uses the word “scripture”, he is talking about the Bible.
  2. Paul says that scripture is inspired by God.
  3. Therefore, every idea of the Bible can be relied on as a transmission from God (some take this as a word-for-word transmission; others allow for the writers express God’s ideas through their own choices of specific language).
  4. Therefore, since all of the Bible is transmitted from God, the Bible can be treated as a unified whole.
  5. The Bible says that God is perfect.
  6. Therefore, the Bible speaks with a single non-contradictory and inerrant voice.
  7. God is not given to the imperfect human fables and myths that you find in other literature.
  8. Therefore, God would not inspire the Bible’s writers to write fables and myths.
  9. Therefore, sorry Chris, but the Bible does NOT borrow from human ideas (dummy).
  10. And finally, therefore, it does not matter what modern scientists, philosophers, economists, psychologists, medical professionals, sociologists, or blood-sucking lawyers like Chris says if what any of them say contradicts the plain meaning of anything written in the Bible. To the contrary, opposing such contradictory voices demonstrates faithfulness to God’s word.

The Wall of Assurance is a strong wall, and people who call it into question are generally seen as arrogant and under the impression that their judgment is superior to God’s. That they are just trying to be fashionable, politically correct, and not offensive to modern life.

(I’m not imagining these statements; I heard them directed at many other people my whole life, and in just the last month I’ve received each one of them personally)

Before I talk about the foundations of the Wall of Assurance, I want to take a step back and make a few general observations about the effect of such a Wall. What I’m about to say is outside my train of thought, but I think it needs to be said anyway.

Even conservatives would agree that anything holding this much authority can be fashioned into a tool for just about anything. Walls of Assurance are dangerous because the same people who with enthusiasm agree that the Bible is the most influential book in their life, usually have read little of it.

The implication is that manipulating people with the Bible is not dependent on what is in the Bible so much as what people can be made to believe is in the Bible.

But, even for those people who have spent a lot of honest time in the actual text, most have been exposed to few viable and well-explained interpretations of it. Every text must be interpreted, but most people are not aware of the interpretive choices they reject when they make the interpretive choices they accept. Specifically, I was trained to read the Bible in ways that naturally filtered out those voices who argued in favor of anything like what I’ve described in the last seven weeks.

And everything I have said was true even before evangelicalism became the multi-multi-multi-mega-multi-billion-dollar industrial complex it is today.

Before that industry could saturate your television and Facebook newsfeed with a mix of a little scripture and with whatever was the agenda of the day: Why God’s promise to Noah protects us against global warming, why God would not allow children to be born gay, why poor people just need to work harder, and with a host of antediluvian ideas on women.

(Confession: I’ve defend every one of these positions and used scripture to do it)

All this to say, for those of you who grew up the way I did, the Wall of Assurance is probably the biggest barrier between where you are and where I am (and, frankly, between my twenty-year-old self and my thirty-year-old self).

So let’s talk about the Wall of Assurance. How strong is that thing, really?

Borrowing Inspiration

Like I said earlier, much of the appeal the Wall of Assurance arises from the assumption that we need a Bible upon which we can rely because the dominant concern of this life is to not go to Hell. It’s an idea that begins with a questionable assumption and finds a memory verse to support it.

Or an interpretation of a memory verse.

Scholars of ancient Greek  agree that there are basically two logical ways to translate 2nd Timothy c3 v16.

One way requires more addition to the Greek text, flows less well with the previous sentence, and makes less sense in light of everything we’ve seen in the last several weeks. Which all sounds bad, except this is the translation that most Bibles adopt and that I quoted for twenty years.

Unrelated I’m sure, but it’s also the translation that will most naturally sell the most Bibles.

I think (and others have too) that a better way to translate that verse goes like this: “Every God-breathed writing is also useful for teaching, rebuking, correcting and training in righteousness.

If you go back and read the verse in its context (which I provided above), you will probably notice how this translation flows so much better with the function of the prior sentence. This is essentially how the American Standard Version and New English Bible translates it, and the New Revised Standard Version includes it in its footnotes as a possible translation.

Why is this important?

What we today call the “Old Testament” took some time before it reached its final form. Not only was the question of which books to include not settled for centuries, but we know from the Dead Sea Scrolls that the internal composition of many of the Old Testament books themselves was in a state of flux for centuries.

However, by the time of Paul, most of the Old Testament had reached its final form. And we know from rabbinical sources that, by the time of Paul, Jews were already referring to their text as “God breathed”—as inspired by God’s Holy Spirit. In other words, the Pharisees were already referring to the Hebrew Bible the same way Paul did in 2nd Timothy.

In other words, Paul simply borrowing a phrase that was already in use.

Had Paul wrote to Timothy (remember 2nd Timothy is a personal letter), “Hey, Timothy, the scriptures were inspired by God,” Timothy would have written back, “Thanks, Paul, but I already know this. Are you okay, man? Are you starting to lose your memory?”

I have no doubt Paul believed that God was the originator of all the scriptures, but that wasn’t his purpose in writing 2 Timothy c3 v16. His purpose was simply to say that they were still useful. If I could paraphrase Paul, I hear his message to Timothy was simply, “I know that we are moving away from Judaism, but the texts of Judaism should not be abandoned.” Which would have been a relevant and useful message in this weird and confusing time of transition.

And a message with which I totally agree!

Also, keep in mind, there was no “New Testament” at this point. There was no MatthewMarkLuke, or John. There was no Bible. Most people didn’t have access to the scrolls of all the Old Testament works, let alone the ability to read them. What we call the “canon” wouldn’t be agreed upon for centuries after his death.

In light of the history surrounding Paul’s statement, the idea that we can use his words to argue for a unified Bible is an idea I simply don’t find plausible.

Yet.

I can already hear certain people saying that I’m just another soft liberal who makes comfortable generalizations, but ignores hard details. They will quote two passages from 2nd Peter, which I provide below, and claim that they negate my whole understanding of the Bible.

So, let’s talk about the hard details of their hard details. Here’s 2nd Peter:

We also have the prophetic message as something completely reliable, and you will do well to pay attention to it, as to a light shining in a dark place, until the day dawns and the morning star rises in your hearts. Above all, you must understand that no prophecy of Scripture came about by the prophet’s own interpretation of things. For prophecy never had its origin in the human will, but prophets, though human, spoke from God as they were carried along by the Holy Spirit.

….

Our dear brother Paul also wrote you with the wisdom that God gave him. He writes the same way in all his letters, speaking in them of these matters. His letters contain some things that are hard to understand, which ignorant and unstable people distort, as they do the other Scriptures, to their own destruction.

2nd Peter c1 v19–21 and c3 v15–16

On the face of these verses, I concede that my argument is totally undercut. These statements make an undeniable case that (1) the Old Testament did not borrow from human ideas and (2) that Paul’s writings are on par with the rest of scripture. Many people will want to embrace what I’ve said these last weeks, but won’t be able to because of these two passages.

Here’s the problem.

I’m willing for all eternity to bet my soul and the souls of every person who will ever live that Peter didn’t write the book we call 2nd Peter.

You read that correctly.

Peter did not write 2nd Peter. I don’t know who did. But it wasn’t Peter.

The author of 2nd Peter strains the text repeatedly and kind of awkwardly to insist that the author is Peter. Yet,

  • Simon Peter’s name is misspelled in the very first line;
  • The Greek grammar in 1st Peter is very good, but in 2nd Peter it’s distinctly poor;
  • 2nd Peter is dependent on Jude, which was written after Peter’s death (as one example of a few, notice how 2nd Peter c2 v11 only makes sense if you’ve already read Jude 9–10);
  • Not a single 2nd century Christian writer makes reference to 2nd Peter;
  • Several 3rd century Christian writers explicitly did not believe Peter wrote 2nd Peter; and
  • 2nd Peter in the 4th century was accepted into the New Testament canon only reluctantly.

I’m not saying there isn’t anything useful in 2nd Peter. It just wasn’t written by Peter, nor was it written in the first century. It’s the opinion of someone writing probably about a century after Peter’s death at the hand of Emperor Nero.

So, that’s my first issue with the Wall of Assurance. It’s an issue that, like I said, is very dry and mechanical. It’s not the way I enjoy talking about the Bible, but, because the details matter, it is necessary. It’s the way I used to talk about the Bible, like it was an instruction manual for a kitchen appliance.

I kind of hated writing it just now.

Especially because this next part is so much more interesting.

Wind

In spite of everything I just said—in spite of all the effort I put in to talk about translations and canons and other boring but essential things—I want to be clear that I absolutely affirm that God inspired scripture. I affirm the breath of God in every page of that library we call the Bible (even 2nd Peter!). But, to say that God inspired scripture raises all kinds of sophisticated questions.

Like, huh? 

And…

What does that mean?

And…

Could the God of all past and future—the God who formed every quark, supernova, and ostrich—not have just written the Bible himself?

And if God wanted humans to write scripture, should that tell us anything?

And if the Bible is inspired, then what is it inspired to do?

And does God inspire people to write or say other things?

We’ve talked about the Bible for seven weeks now. We’ve talked about Babylon, Qumran, the rabbis, Greece, Persia and Rome. I’ve pointed out the pattern of the Bible’s authors taking audacious liberties to creatively and daringly borrow from their culture and tell new and amazing things about God and life and death and what it all means.

And that brings me to a Hebrew word.

Ruah.

(the h makes a guttural sound, which I bet you’re making right now)

The word Ruah means “wind.”

We understand wind to be simply the movement of matter in its gaseous state. But put yourself in a time when people had no way of knowing this. You might have noticed that while people are alive, breath circulates in and out of them. That when people die, their breath leaves them and doesn’t come back. That the same invisible air that gives people life moves all around and causes things to move. You might associate wind with life itself.

You might see the wind as something spiritual.

In Genesis c1, the Ruah of Elohim hovers over the face of the waters and Elohim speaks creation into existence. In Genesis c2, God makes the adam out of the adama and breathes into his nostrils the Ruah of life. In Exodus c31Elohim fills a man named Bezalel with his Ruah so that Bezalel would have the artistic abilities necessary to fashion the Tabernacle.

Ruah is a rich and vibrant word of power, creation, movement, animation, connection with the divine, change, and mystery.

Today, we think of wind as just that—wind.

But, like most ancient people, the ancient Hebrews saw wind as part of something much more, a spiritual thing—a connection with the divine. In fact, the same Hebrew word we translate “wind”, we also translate “spirit”. And the ancients were as creative with this word as the word itself is a dynamic creative force.

Throughout the Hebrew Bible, the ancients saw Ruah as one of God’s tools in controlling human destiny.

God sent his Ruah to recede the waters of the flood.

God sent his Ruah to bring locusts to Egypt.

God sent his Ruah to send those locusts away.

And when God parted the Red Sea, he sent his Ruah.

Elijah—in one of the most profoundly spiritual moments of the entire Bible—went on a mountain where he witnessed a dramatic Ruah, which “tore the mountains apart and shattered the rocks”.

But the writer had to clarify for the reader that God was not in this Ruah.

Ruah is constantly shaping. Constantly breaking. Constantly on the move. In the Old Testament Ruah “fills,” “rests on“, “envelops”, “carries” and “guides“. God even sends an evil Ruah that is said to “torment.”

Later on, the Hebrews became Greek speakers and adopted the word pneuma for each time the Old Testament used the word Ruah. Like, It too means “wind”, “breath”, and “spirit”. They began to conceptualize God’s Holy Ruah, and they attributed their brilliant text to the same wind of God that split seas, crushed rocks, and brought out  humans.

And it is on this background that we get to Paul, who used the word theopneustos (“God-breathed”) to describe this same dynamic, creative, brilliant, driving forward of humanity and the understanding of God that the Jewish sages conceptualized.

The more I go into their ancient world, the more I see the brilliance of these writers. The more I see their brilliance, the more I see and affirm this Ruah at work.

The humans who wrote the Bible weren’t automatons. They wrote in their times as people wrote in their times as people thought in their time to advance new ideas for their times. And the Ruah of God animated them to do that.

The Bible’s Inspired Arguments With Itself

But if the Ruah of God animated people to write, the question is what? Did God push people beyond their mortal limits to write what God could have written for himself? I guess it’s possible, but the Bible itself points to a different conclusion.

I want to introduce you to a grouchy old man named Qohelet, a man in the Bible you’ve long known, though you probably didn’t know it.

Solomon, who wrote Proverbs, is famous for being depicted as the wisest man who ever lived. Proverbs argues that seeking wisdom was the key the good life on this Earth. Here’s an excerpt that is representative of most of Proverbs:

Blessed are those who find wisdom, those who gain understanding, for she is more profitable than silver and yields better returns than gold.

She is more precious than rubies; nothing you desire can compare with her. Long life is in her right hand; in her left hand are riches and honor.

Her ways are pleasant ways, and all her paths are peace.

She is a tree of life to those who take hold of her; those who hold her fast will be blessed.

By wisdom the Lord laid the earth’s foundations, by understanding he set the heavens in place; by his knowledge the watery depths were divided, and the clouds let drop the dew.

Proverbs c3

“Wisdom,” says Solomon, “is the key to everything good.” – McNeal Revised and Extremely Abridged Version.

Of course, life was good in Solomon’s time; Israel was rich and at peace. And, when things go well—as they did in America during the housing bubble—we tend to feel brilliant.

We get in a groove.

We feel insulated from risk.

We credit ourselves for having uncommon wisdom.

With discovering “the formula.”

The “secret sauce.”

It happened in King Solomon’s time, and the hundreds of books authored by people who were in the right place at the right time—we call these people “business gurus” and “self help gurus”—bear me out that it happens today.

Centuries later, however, Israel’s fortunes began fleeting rapidly. Assyria had starved out the Northern Kingdom. Babylon had barreled down Jerusalem’s wall and temple in the Southern Kingdom. The throne that God promised would remain with the line of David forever was now like a disappearing fog.

And man named Qohelet could take it no more.

Havelhavel! Utterly havel! Everything is havel!” he began writing.

Havel is the Hebrew word for fog. We translate it “meaningless.”

If you were raised like me, you were probably taught that Solomon wrote Proverbs and Ecclesiastes, and that Ecclesiastes is the writing of Solomon much later in his life. And your Bible class at some point engaged in the gravity-defying exercise of figuring out what Solomon must have learned over his lifetime.

I have news for you.

Solomon did not write Ecclesiastes.

Qohelet did.

Proverbs begins, “The proverbs of Solomon son of David, king of Israel.” Ecclesiastes begins almost identically, “The words of Qohelet, son of David, king in Jerusalem.” Qohelet wants you to be thinking about Proverbs as you begin reading.

Because he’s about to argue that Solomon’s cute little self-help book was a sham.

“For with much wisdom comes much sorrow; the more knowledge, the more grief.”

“What advantage have the wise over fools? What do the poor gain by knowing how to conduct themselves before others?”

“Now there lived in that city a man poor but wise, and he saved the city by his wisdom. But nobody remembered that poor man.” (haha, my favorite line)

“Do not be too righteous, neither be too wise—why destroy yourself?”

A sampling of Ecclesiastes (which in the Jewish Bible is actually called “Qohelet“) 

Seriously—Do not be too righteous!?!?!?!

The inspired word of God tells you to not be too righteous? You should highlight it. After all, it’s in your Bible.

If you let your Bible simply say what it says, these statements are clear and unmistakeable attacks on Solomon’s. If Ecclesiastes is right, then Proverbs is wrong.

Your Bible’s authors are arguing with themselves.

And they do this a lot.

The second half of Daniel, which was written during the high-water mark of apocalyptic literature during the 2nd century BCE, exemplifies the strain of Judaism that harbored a pessimistic view of foreigners.

But the writer of Jonah depicts literally every foreigner as having a righteous fear of God that Jonah lacks. The heroes in Jonah are the gentiles on the boat and the Assyrians.

And a fish.

You may not think of the book of Ruth as incredibly consequential, aside from being a nice story about a faithful friendship. But Ruth is probably the most dangerous book in the whole Bible.

The book of Ezra unambiguously commands Israelites not to marry foreigners, and Deuteronomy tells us, “No one born of a forbidden marriage nor any of their descendants may enter the assembly of the Lord, not even in the tenth generation. No Ammonite or Moabite or any of their descendants may enter the assembly of the Lord, not even in the tenth generation.”

But something odd happens in the book of Ruth. The hero in Ruth is a Moabite woman, and she marries an Israelite. Despite what is written in Ezra and Deuteronomy, Ruth isn’t depicted as a law-breaker, but fantastically as a woman of noble character. Then, after all the law-breaking, the author of Ruth tells us that it is from her line that came the great King David.

Ruth was written in a time of disagreement about the law, and its author was making a loud statement. He is disagreeing with Ezra.

These books, and others, reflect deep, complex divisions in Jewish thought that developed as reactions to centuries of foreign domination. Yet the sages who assembled the final Hebrew canon saw no reason to hide from the public the arguments that the authors of these books were having with each other. They just left them right out there.

And this is important: It is this literature that Jesus used to point to himself as the incarnate son of God.

If we are listening, God has inspired the Bible’s authors to tell our conflict-averse generation something remarkable.

Disagreement is a good thing.

Differing perspectives are an essential part of the human experience. We were never meant to agree on everything. We were never meant to expect or make it our goal to agree on everything. We were meant to converse. To engage. To argue. To listen. To never have it all figured out. Even to be wrong.

Because when we engage with each other this way, we move the ball forward. We move the needle. We advance the whole world.

The writers of the Bible were creative. They were passionate. They were polemical. They said amazing things. Great things. And horrendous things. They were inspired not to write an inerrant text, but to engage creatively with their time and so push the human race forward as best as they knew how. I find it hard to believe that God would use the Bible’s writers to push so many boundaries and limits, and to engage in so much creativity—only so that God could one day keep us all within an unchanging Wall. paris-1706910_1920

I find it hard to believe that we don’t continue to be inspired. When people push the human race forward, when they honestly and passionately drive themselves to the best of what we can be, you find in those people the breath of God.

God didn’t inspire humans to write the Bible because he was too busy and needed a scribe. The book we carry to church every Sunday is not some my-way-or-the-highway-because-this-is-the-word-of-God thing. It’s not some your-argument-isn’t-with-me-it’s-with-God thing.

It is not a threat to your soul when other people read it differently than you—when people disagree with some of the many voices within the Bible.

This is why we shouldn’t strain so hard to keep the Bible from disagreeing with itself. When we see the Bible disagree with itself, we learn what God wants for us. We learn that disagreement is good. Engagement is good. Debate is good. Diversity is good.

What I learn from our holy Bible is that disagreement is holy.

Which should be no surprise given how much destruction has come in the name of conformity.

The Bible was written by humans who were inspired by God’s Ruah Ha-kadesh (the Holy Spirit). It represents the best of people at any given time who, over time, wrestled with God, life, death, and with each other. It is an on-going conversation, and the conversation continues today.

God inspired humans to write the Bible because God values human diversity, creativity, and engagement with each other’s differences.

When I affirm that God inspired the writers of the Bible, this is what I affirm.

Part 1 Part 8

The Bible That Borrows Part 6: The Roman Bible

Last week I told you what I think the New Testament phrase, “the Good News,” is not. Over the final installments of this series, I’m going to tell you what I think it is.

But first I need to tell you about three sentences I read in a newspaper.

Few people subscribe to these things anymore. If you are one of those few who actually pay money so that professional journalists can keep our most powerful people and institutions accountable to you, then hats off. That said, among the few people who read newspapers, even fewer take the time to contribute to them.

But, on February 13, 2015, Boyd Thomas left this world behind and took the Letters to the Editor of the Arkansas Democrat Gazette up multiple levels.

10268657_10100385990249951_5105338316363541258_n.jpg

Boyd Thomas not only apparently reads the paper, not only did he take the time to submit a letter to the editor, but the man noticed an error and submitted a correction.

We are not worthy of Boyd Thomas.

And I can’t blame him for his passion. If the book of Revelation was about President Barack Obama, that would be news I would want to know.

But here’s the thing.

To this day I feel so bad for him.

Boyd Thomas was off.

Like, deep space levels of off.

And it was not his fault. There is an enormous amount of material in books, on the internet, and in sermons that connects the book of Revelation to people and events of the last century.

I decided that morning, February 13, 2015, that I needed to figure out how to talk about the Bible, and that’s roughly what I spent the next year doing. What you are reading today is Part 6 of an idea that started mostly because of Boyd.

Today’s discussion is about John’s really weird final book of the Bible called Revelation.

No literary creation has been the subject of more empty, wasted, and toxic speculation. But I find that even people who are skeptical of readings like Mr. Thomas’s struggle to articulate viable alternatives.

To understand Revelation, you have to understand that it is one big league, colossal borrower. It is by a country mile the borrowingest (yes, borrowingest) book of the Bible. In the last five weeks, I’ve shown you all kinds of ways that the Bible borrows. Revelation is a great big stew of all of the Bible’s borrowing.

The Gospel of Augustus, the Son of God

If your Bible-reading mind hasn’t been trained to read the Bible as a thing that borrows from and speaks principally to its ancient settings, you will miss John’s message and plunge into the abyss of fire, brimstone, weeping, and gnashing of teeth where people for eternity are consigned to debate whether Barack Obama is the antichrist or the dragon or the beast of the Earth or the Beast of the Sea or Wormwood or Apollyon or  . . . or the seventh king after the Antichrist.

You will miss the fact that all the weirdness of Revelation is actually a powerful and heroic story about real people in the Roman Empire.

I’m going to spend a lot of time on Rome’s starring role in Revelation, but first I need to take a step back. Even as Jesus instructed his disciples to submit to the emperor, the whole New Testament was a kind of direct assault on the Roman Empire. To explain how, I have to introduce you to an important cast of characters.

We begin in the year 49 BCE.

In this year, Rome is a Republic. Julius Caesar is the general of an army on the edge of the Roman Republic in Gaul. His military campaign has been successful, and the Roman Senate has ordered him to disband his army and return to Rome. The Roman people—perhaps with a mind to the failed democracy in Greece—instinctively fear their republic descending into dictatorship, and thus it is illegal for a general on campaign to enter Italy at the head of an army.

49 BCE was the fateful year when Julius did just that. In that year, he “crossed the Rubicon” with his army and started a civil war. A war he won. The Roman Republic ended, the Roman Empire began, and Julius Caesar installed himself as “dictator for life” (today, that is a pejorative thing to say, but that was his literal title).

Only, Julius didn’t live very long: 44 BCE was the year that Brutus and the rest of the recently emasculated Roman Senate collectively stabbed him to death. A new civil war broke out, this time with three warring factions:

  • The first faction included those who wished to bring back the Roman Republic and be governed by the Senate. This included Brutus and the rest of the Roman Senate.
  • The second faction was that of Marc Antony, who was loyal to Julius Caesar, and who sought to rule as successor emperor. He is portrayed brilliantly in the 1953 rendition of Shakespeare’s “Julius Caesar” (seriously, if you haven’t watched his funeral speech, fix that right now).
  • The third faction was that of Julius’s adopted son, Octavian (later called “Augustus”), who also sought to rule as successor emperor.

In the end, Marc Antony and Cleopatra committed suicide as a Roman army surrounded them in Alexandria, Egypt, and Augustus won the civil war.

Augustus’s victory came in no small part from a propaganda campaign he used to drum up support for his side. Coinciding with Julius Caesar’s assassination was an unusually bright comet, which remained in the sky for a week. Augustus seized on this and systematically propagated the idea that the comet was in fact his father ascending as a god to join the gods in Heaven.

In the days before politicians had Twitter accounts, they had to be more creative.

Augustus’s method was kind of genius: coins. In addition to the fact that coins, by their very nature, spread so quickly, the emperor has a monopoly on their production, design, and message.

320px-S0484.4.jpg

This coin minted by Augustus is one example. The front depicts Augustus. The back depicts Julius Caesar ascending as a comet into the heavens. Thanks to that comet, Augustus could (and frequently did) call himself “the son of god”.

Heard that phrase?

Augustus also minted and popularized the phrase, “I saw the son of God ascend to the right hand of god the father.”

Heard that?

But Stephen, full of the Holy Spirit, looked up to heaven and saw the glory of God, and Jesus standing at the right hand of God. “Look,” he said, “I see heaven open and the Son of Man standing at the right hand of God.” Acts c7

Augustus also minted and popularized the phrase, “There is no name, except Augustus, by which men can be saved.” What about that?

There is no other name under heaven given to mankind by which we must be saved. Acts c4

You can see that, as Augustus employed this propaganda campaign as a weapon in his scorched-earth battle for the throne of Rome, the New Testament authors freely employed his propaganda devices to describe a different kind of throne. Where have you heard me say that before?

But there’s more.

Each time Augustus conquered some new territory, he sent a proclamation throughout the cities of the empire announcing his new conquest. Each official announcement that his military had made a new conquest was called a “euengelion” (ἐυαγγέλιον), the word from which we get “evangelical” or “good news”.

The followers of the first-century Jesus movement took this phrase—a phrase that had been used to announce military conquest—to announce a new kind of power that was forcing its way into the world. A power that had no need for a military.

But there’s more.

If the governing authorities of a city in the Roman Empire confessed “Caesar is Lord”, that city would officially be designated an “ecclesia” (ἐκκλησία).

This is the word we translate “church.”

“Jesus is Lord.”

“Evangelical.”

“Good news.”

“Church.”

These words and phrases, which have been in the Christian lexicon for two thousand years, didn’t come out of nowhere. We have Augustus to thank for letting us borrow them (actually, he didn’t let us borrow them, but he’s dead, and I’m betting he can’t stop us now).

Domitian, the Beast

It’s important to see how the New Testament borrowed from Augustus because, long after Augustus, the New Testament continued to borrow from the Roman Empire. To show you how, I need to fast forward about half a century and introduce you to a few more characters.

After Emperor Nero (more on him later) committed suicide, a competent general named Vespasian assumed the Roman throne. Vespasian had two sons, Titus and Domitian, and he seems to have considered Titus superior to Domitian both intellectually and morally. As such, he favored Titus for government offices with actual responsibilities, and—perhaps not to offend his other son—bestowed on Domitian various honors that carried with them little authority or responsibility.

Vespasian appointed Titus as commander of an army that would absolutely demolish the city of Jerusalem when Israel revolted against Rome in 66 CE. And when Vespasian died, Titus assumed the throne as emperor.

Meanwhile, Domitian grew up on the sidelines—jealous, insecure, and vindictive.

If you’ve seen the movie Gladiator, you have a picture of what the relationship between Vespasian, Titus, and Domitian probably looked like. Even though that movie is a fictionalized story of Marcus Aurelius and his son, Commodus, the family dynamics you saw in the movie probably looked about the same.

So, when Titus (mysteriously!) died and Domitian assumed the throne, you could be certain that Domitian wouldn’t manifest any symptoms of long-held, deep insecurity.

(haha, right)

Domitian made his wife refer to him as “My Lord and Master.” He issued an imperial edict that all statues of him be made of solid gold. His letters began “Our Lord and Our God commands you.” When Lucius Saturninus staged a small rebellion on the edge of the empire in Germania superior, Domitian quickly put down the rebellion and paraded the head of Saturninus around Rome.

Thank goodness this man never have a Twitter account.

Pay attention to what I’m about to say next, because understanding Domitian’s official displays of power is the first of two keys to understanding the whole book of Revelation.

So let’s talk about them.

Domitian’s hallmark was his arena games. In 86 CE he founded the Capitoline Games, a kind of Olympic contest comprising athletic displays, chariot racing, and competitions for oratory, music, and acting. Everybody who went to them was required to wear white togas.

The games would begin with twenty-four priests who would take off their crowns, bow down before Domitian and recite, “Great are you, our lord and God. Worthy are you to receive honor and power and glory. Worthy are you, lord of the Earth, to inherit the Kingdom. Lord of Lords, highest of the high. Lord of the earth, God of all things. Lord God and Savior for eternity.” Actually, these same twenty-four singers generally followed Domitian everywhere while reciting the words, “Our Lord and our God, you are worthy to receive honor, glory, and power.” At the games, these priests would lead the whole white-robed crowd in a singing worship service and a waiving of palm branches.

After the priests finished leading the crowd in worship, Domitian would summon the leaders of each of the provinces of the Empire. In front of the thousands of spectators, he would tell them what things he approved of and what things they needed to change—lest he march his great big army into their province and wipe them out. Once these public displays of power were complete, the games would begin.

domitian-scroll.jpgWe’ll get back to the games shortly, but there were other displays of power that are important for our purposes.

That’s Domitian depicted with a scroll in his hand. The scrolls in the hand of Roman emperors were another display of their power. They were said to contain all the authority of the emperor. A popular saying of the time was that only the emperor was “worthy to open the scroll.” So, not surprisingly, scrolls show up in many statues of Roman emperors.

Sometime between 77 and 81 CE, Domitian’s infant son died. Domitian, never one to miss an opportunity to buttress his power from the heavens, fashioned the legacy of his deceased son into a god. And, like Augustus, he used coins for this purpose. These coins portrayed his son as sitting on the earth and holding seven stars in his hands. Also, like Augustus, Domitian got some mileage out of the “son of god” idea—only this time he was the father and his son was the “son of god.”aureusglobestarsbabydomitia.jpg

Domitian established the city of Ephesus as his “Neokoros”, or worshipping center. Again, Domitian desired to be worshipped as god, literally as Jupiter. As you would enter the port of Ephesus, you would be greeted by a massive twenty-five foot statue of Domitian. Next, you would see a massive temple with each of the columns depicting the gods of the Roman pantheon. Of course, on top of those columns was a statue of, who else, but Domitian. Below is a depiction of the temple in Ephesus.Screen Shot 2016-07-30 at 3.50.43 PM.png

Next to the temple was the “agora”, a marketplace where people in various trades—seamstresses, stone masons, metalworkers, traders of silks, spices, and produce—made their living and depended on for their survival. Domitian understood their dependence on the agora, and so exploited that dependence to set up yet another display of power. Domitian declared that any person wanting to do any kind of business in the agora first had to acknowledge Domitian as god and then make an incense offering to him.

Once you had made an acceptable display of worship, you would receive a mark—probably some kind of ink stain—and only then could you sell your goods in the agora.

In spite of all these displays of power, Domitian had one distinct problem. A small and relatively poor group in the shadows of the Empire refused to make the offering.

And it is with this group that Domitian went to war.

The Apocalypse of John

As I said earlier, this is where John’s Revelation comes in.

Around 90 CE, John was a pastor of the church of Ephesus—that neokoros and pride of Domitian—when Domitian exiled him to the island of Patmos.

To explain why John wrote Revelation, I need you to see how so much in John’s Revelation  so strikingly looks like Domitian’s trademarked displays of power.

Remember Domitian’s twenty-four priests who would lay their crowns before Domitian?

Whenever the living creatures give glory, honor and thanks to him who sits on the throne and who lives for ever and ever, the twenty-four elders fall down before him who sits on the throne and worship him who lives for ever and ever. They lay their crowns before the throne and say:

You are worthy, our Lord and God,
to receive glory and honor and power.

Revelation c4 v9–11

Remember Domitian’s deceased son who was depicted on coins with seven stars in his hands?

And when I turned I saw seven golden lampstands, and among the lampstands was someone like a son of man, dressed in a robe reaching down to his feet and with a golden sash around his chest. The hair on his head was white like wool, as white as snow, and his eyes were like blazing fire. His feet were like bronze glowing in a furnace, and his voice was like the sound of rushing waters. In his right hand he held seven stars, and coming out of his mouth was a sharp, double-edged sword. His face was like the sun shining in all its brilliance.

Revelation c1 v16

Remember how Domitian would summon the leaders of the various provinces and publicly evaluate their service to the empire?

“To the angel of the church in Ephesus write:

These are the words of him who holds the seven stars in his right hand and walks among the seven golden lampstands. I know your deeds, your hard work and your perseverance. I know that you cannot tolerate wicked people, that you have tested those who claim to be apostles but are not, and have found them false. You have persevered and have endured hardships for my name, and have not grown weary.

Yet I hold this against you: You have forsaken the love you had at first. Consider how far you have fallen! Repent and do the things you did at first. If you do not repent, I will come to you and remove your lampstand from its place. But you have this in your favor: You hate the practices of the Nicolaitans, which I also hate.

Whoever has ears, let them hear what the Spirit says to the churches. To the one who is victorious, I will give the right to eat from the tree of life, which is in the paradise of God.

Revelation c2 v1–7

Remember the saying that only the emperor was worthy to open the scroll?

Then I saw in the right hand of him who sat on the throne a scroll with writing on both sides and sealed with seven seals. And I saw a mighty angel proclaiming in a loud voice, “Who is worthy to break the seals and open the scroll?” But no one in heaven or on earth or under the earth could open the scroll or even look inside it. I wept and wept because no one was found who was worthy to open the scroll or look inside. Then one of the elders said to me, “Do not weep! See, the Lion of the tribe of Judah, the Root of David, has triumphed. He is able to open the scroll and its seven seals.

Then I saw a Lamb, looking as if it had been slain, standing at the center of the throne, encircled by the four living creatures and the elders. The Lamb had seven horns and seven eyes, which are the seven spirits of God sent out into all the earth.  He went and took the scroll from the right hand of him who sat on the throne. And when he had taken it, the four living creatures and the twenty-four elders fell down before the Lamb. Each one had a harp and they were holding golden bowls full of incense, which are the prayers of God’s people. And they sang a new song, saying:

You are worthy to take the scroll
and to open its seals,
because you were slain,
and with your blood you purchased for God
persons from every tribe and language and people and nation.
You have made them to be a kingdom and priests to serve our God,
and they will reign on the earth.”

Revelation c5 v1–10

Remember how everyone at Domitian’s games were required to wear white robes?

After this I looked, and there before me was a great multitude that no one could count, from every nation, tribe, people and language, standing before the throne and before the Lamb. They were wearing white robes and were holding palm branches in their hands. And they cried out in a loud voice:

“Salvation belongs to our God,
who sits on the throne,
and to the Lamb.”

Then one of the elders asked me, “These in white robes—who are they, and where did they come from?”

I answered, “Sir, you know.”

And he said, “These are they who have come out of the great tribulation; they have washed their robes and made them white in the blood of the Lamb. Therefore,

“they are before the throne of God
and serve him day and night in his temple;
and he who sits on the throne
will shelter them with his presence.
‘Never again will they hunger;
never again will they thirst.
The sun will not beat down on them,’
nor any scorching heat.
For the Lamb at the center of the throne
will be their shepherd;
‘he will lead them to springs of living water.’
‘And God will wipe away every tear from their eyes.'”

Revelation c7 9–17 (note: this “elder” is quoting Isaiah 49)

Remember from Part 3 when I showed you how the Qumran community insisted that Habakuk’s references to Babylon were really about Rome? John also treats Babylon as if it were Rome.

A second angel followed and said, “‘Fallen! Fallen is Babylon the Great,’ which made all the nations drink the maddening wine of her adulteries.”

Revelation c14 v8

With a mighty voice he shouted: “‘Fallen! Fallen is Babylon the Great!’ She has become a dwelling for demons and a haunt for every impure spirit.”

Revelation c18 v2

Terrified at her torment, they will stand far off and cry: “Woe! Woe to you, great city, you mighty city of Babylon! In one hour your doom has come!”

Revelation c18 v10

I often hear people describe what Heaven and Hell will be like by reading Revelation. As I think you are probably beginning to see, that’s probably misguided—unless God needed ideas for designing Heaven and decided to model it after Domitian’s empire.

And speaking of “misguided”, it’s time we talk about one of history’s biggest head scratchers.

666

Revelation is famous for the “number of the beast”, 666, and people have wasted more brain cells on this enigmatic number. You, however, will no longer be one of these people because you now know how the Bible borrows.

Read the text below. I emphasize the parts you really need to not miss.

The dragon gave the beast his power and his throne and great authority. One of the heads of the beast seemed to have had a fatal wound, but the fatal wound had been healed.

Then I saw a second beast, coming out of the earth. It had two horns like a lamb, but it spoke like a dragon. It exercised all the authority of the first beast on its behalf, and made the earth and its inhabitants worship the first beast, whose fatal wound had been healed. And it performed great signs, even causing fire to come down from heaven to the earth in full view of the people. Because of the signs it was given power to perform on behalf of the first beast, it deceived the inhabitants of the earth. It ordered them to set up an image in honor of the beast who was wounded by the sword and yet livedThe second beast was given power to give breath to the image of the first beast, so that the image could speak and cause all who refused to worship the image to be killed. It also forced all people, great and small, rich and poor, free and slave, to receive a mark on their right hands or on their foreheads, so that they could not buy or sell unless they had the mark, which is the name of the beast or the number of its name.

This calls for wisdom. Let the person who has insight calculate the number of the beast, for it is the number of a man. That number is 666.

Revelation c13 v2–3, 11–18

Most people agree that when John refers to the “dragon”, he was referring to Satan. I think that’s correct.

So what about the “beasts”?

I mentioned Nero earlier, an emperor who crucified Christians and lit them on fire to give light to his outdoor dinner parties. Nero killed himself by having his servant stab him in the head with a sword. Nero is John’s “first beast.”

The “second beast” is the one who made people worship him in the agora before they could engage in commerce. This is obviously Domitian.

So, we have the “first beast” and the “second beast”, but who is “the beast”? The one whose number is 666?

666 is brilliant. If I may, it is a wickedly smart number.

The beast is not Hitler. Not Stalin. Not Barack Obama (in the time I spent writing that sentence, I feel like I aged multiple years).

The text tells us it is a person, and you have to add up some numbers to identify his name.

The Hebrews used their alphabet to add just as the Romans used their alphabet. 666 is both (1) the number you get when you add up the Hebrew numerical values of Nero’s imperial name and (2) is the number you get when you add up the Hebrew numerical values to the standard abbreviation of Domitian’s name.

The fact that the letters of Nero and Domitian can add up to 666 has caused scholars for centuries to debate which of them to which John was referring.

So, which is it?

Remember, there are two beasts, but John doesn’t specifically tell you the one to which “666” applies.

And that’s because it’s both of them.

John is telling his readers—those residents of Asia minor who had already lived through Nero’s reign of terror and who still proclaimed “Jesus is Lord”—that Nero got his power from Satan, that the spirit of Nero is back, and his spirit is now living within Domitian. From the perspective of those helpless followers of Jesus Christ who had survived Nero’s reign of terror, and whose trades were dependent on access to the agora, Nero’s “fatal head wound” was healed.

Nero was back, and his name was Domitian.

This is brilliant, inspired writing.

But also heartbreaking and terrifying writing.

When people heard the Apocalypse of John read aloud for the first time, they didn’t wonder if his letter could be adapted into some crappy novels.

Or whether his letter had anything to do with Ronald Reagan or Barack Obama.

The first hearers of his letter got to contemplate the fact that many of them were either going to worship Domitian in the agora or die.

I think they wept.

The Battle in Heaven

I mentioned that there are two keys to understanding Revelation. Let’s talk about the second key.

In Part 2, I introduced some of the Babylonian literature with which the conquered Israelites came into contact. In Part 5, I introduced Greek literature. But between the rule of the Babylonians and the Greeks were the Persians. In this time, Israel would have come in contact with a Persian literary genre called apocalyptic. Several features distinguish virtually all apocalyptic literature:

  • A revealing of either (a) what is happening in the Heaven now or (b) what will happen on Earth in the future;
  • A dream or vision guided by some heavenly being, such as an angel;
  • Pseudonymity (that is, the author claims to be some well-known ancient person, but is actually someone in the present who merely uses their voice for authority);
  • Wild and highly symbolic imagery;
  • A dualism in which everything in the present and in all of history of the world falls into good or evil, and the two are locked in a cosmic battle;
  • Pessimism that evil in the present age cannot and will not improve until an age to come;
  • Some great deity that in the future will to intervene in history and overthrow the forces of evil; and
  • An imminent transition to the coming new age.

Here’s a short, but representative excerpt from Persian apocalyptic literature if you still don’t want to just take my word for all this.

“O Ormazd, I ask you concerning the present and future
How shall the righteous be dealt with,
And how shall the wicked be dealt with,
At the last judgement?”

Ormazd, the Wise Lord answers: “There will be three saviors sent to earth by the Wise Lord before the final, inevitable battle that will result in the ultimate triumph of good over evil, the Last Judgement, and the resurrection of the dead. First will come a period called the Period of Iron, in which demons will attack the earth relentlessly, sparing no one. They will be more interested in causing the faithful to suffer than in killing them. the darkness will be so pervasive that the light of even the sun and moon will be dimmed. At that time a shower of stars will occur to herald the birth of the first saviour, the champion of the faithful, named Anshedar.”

It is Saoshyant who will preside over the last judgment. The wicked humans and Ahriman, the Evil One, will be consigned to hell forever, even as the Wise Lord rules uncontested over the universe. All death, disease, and suffering shall cease forever. The earth will be re-created and the blessed will enjoy immortality in new Paradise.

Can you see each of the features I identified? And are you seeing the points of contact with John’s Revelation?

Remember, all of the concerns found in the Torah have to do with this life. The Torah is optimistic about Yahweh’s creation. But as time went on, the Jews looked around and if things were ever good, they weren’t anymore. For several centuries, their land—which itself is an integral part of ancient Jewish theology—had been the subject of a kind of hot potato game among the world’s great empires. For a short time, Israel got back its land and independence, but its religious institutions increasingly were seen as corrupted by gentile influence.

To the Jews, the present world had become irredeemable, and a new world was what was needed. And, if you can believe it, the Jews got to the result they wanted by borrowing from Persian literature like that which I just showed you.

The second century BCE and onward was a hotbed of Jewish apocalyptic literature.

The following are just some examples of apocalyptic literature that was produced in this time; in each of these works, some author of the then-present time would purport to speak as some ancient character.

  • The Book of Enoch
  • Apocalypse of Abraham
  • Apocalypse of Adam
  • Apocalypse of Baruch
  • Apocalypse of Daniel
  • Apocalypse of Elijah
  • Apocalypse of Ezra
  • Gabriel’s Revelation
  • Apocalypse of Lamech
  • Apocalypse of Metatron
  • Apocalypse of Moses
  • Apocalypse of Sedrach
  • Apocalypse of Zephaniah
  • Apocalypse of Zerubbabel

A great example from the Qumran community I mentioned in Part 3 was its so-called War Scroll. The Qumran community and John the Baptist unsurprisingly were distinctly apocalyptic.

The book of Daniel, especially its second half, is the most prominent apocalyptic in the Old Testament. Conservatives—whose flat way of reading the Bible I’ve been combatting for the last six weeks—generally claim that Daniel was written in the 6th century BCE and presents a future prophecy of Greece conquering Persia. But Daniel is so much like the rest of the long list of apocalyptic literature that most scholars have concluded that it too was probably written in the 2nd century BCE. At least with respect to the apocalyptic second half of Daniel, that’s my view as well.

There is a good if not great chance that John the apostle was intimately familiar with this genre of literature. He probably grew up with and had the book of Daniel memorized by the time he was thirteen. He was almost certainly familiar with the War Scroll, with the Book of Enoch, and with the rest of the apocalyptic library I referenced above.

And when Domitian imprisoned him on the island of Patmos, he wanted to write a message of encouragement to those Christians in Ephesus and the rest of Asia minor whom Domitian was presently slaughtering or about to slaughter. It was a seemingly hopeless time when good and evil, light and darkness, righteousness and wickedness were uniquely discernible.

So he borrowed.

He wrote an apocalypse.

He borrowed from Judaism, he borrowed from Babylon, he borrowed from Persia, he borrowed from Greece, he borrowed from Rome.

He wrote of the Great Babylon, a global military super power that was ruled by a mighty beast. He wrote of a vulnerable, white-robed people who would face impossible odds. He used Domitian’s displays of power to describe a new and better kingdom, a kingdom not of force and aggression, but of mercy, equality, love, and compassion. He wrote about a war between the armies of both kingdoms. He wrote of the throne of the universe and loudly proclaimed that Domitian and his military might did not sit on that throne.

As Brian Zahnd was inspired to write just hours before this installment posted:

Instead of an insecure power hoarder, on the throne of the universe sat a slaughtered lamb. And, instead of the power-granting, mysterious tree of knowledge of good and evil from the mythological Genesis, at the end of empire was its opposite—the tree of life.

And this is what happened.

Within one generation of John’s apocalypse, Ephesus had become almost entirely Christian.

For all the borrowing that can be found in Genesis, it was prophetic after all.

Domitian lost.

Part 1 Part 7

The Bible That Borrows Part 5: The Greek Bible

For more than a thousand years, God promised the Israelites safe and plentiful lives in a fertile land of olive trees and grape vines off of the Mediterranean Sea, as long as they faithfully carried out the law of Moses. Their land was the basis of both their law and relationship with God. When people died, they just died.

And apparently this was unbearable. Because when Jesus came to Earth, he gave us the Good News.

And here it is: Almost every person who will ever have lived will burn in Hell forever, except a small group of people who will be saved.

[cricket sounds]

Okay.

Can I be honest?

That’s not very good news. Really, if you asked me to think of the single worst news I could think of, this “Good News” would roughly be it.

In fact, *whispers quietly* I’m honestly a bit fond of the old system.

If you’re one of the many people I suspect who struggle to find anything good in this, I don’t think you should be made to be afraid to say so. And while for centuries we have constructed an increasingly sophisticated religion dedicated to being among those who will not go to Hell, I don’t think you should be made to be afraid to rethink it.

I know the words of damnation are right there in the Bible, but I have dared to say that I actually think something else is happening.

Your Bible is borrowing.

Today, we’re going to talk about the Greeks. If Socrates, Plato, and Alexander the Great had never been born, your Bible would be unrecognizable.

A Five-Minute History of Greek-Israeli Relations

We’ve talked a lot about the Old Testament over the last four weeks. The Old Testament ends with Persia in charge of the known world, but when the reader turns to the first book of the New Testament, the Persians are gone and the Romans are in charge.

On the surface, the Bible appears to skip Greece, and that’s a problem for readers of the New Testament.

Persian rule of Asia gave way to Alexander the Great of Greece when Alexander won three important military battles and Persia’s King Darius was assassinated. The decisive year was 333 BCE. This year also marked the traditional end of Old Testament biblical history. Among the things I’ll show you today is why that traditional view isn’t at all true.

Greece is right there in the Bible, but to show you what to look for, I have to talk about Greece and its philosophers, whom I will get to shortly.

The Greek empire was characterized not just by its rule, but by the spread of its culture. Prior to the establishment of the Greek empire, its culture had been developing for more than a century. The spreading of its culture is what your high school world history teacher was talking about when he or she mentioned “Hellenization”—and you and I dosed off. In addition to the spreading of art, music, mathematics, and science, gymnasia, theaters, amphitheaters, and hippodromes were erected throughout the near east during this time. Also, much of the Greek world adopted the Greek language, and some places took on a near complete Greek identity.

Others, however, had a more complicated relationship with Greece.

Looking at you, Israel.

Israel’s two-century relationship with Greece moved back and forth along a spectrum. On one end were times when Israel’s rulers welcomed Greek thought and institutions with open arms. On the other end were times when Israel resisted Greek thought, even to the point of all-out war. In fact, we have the resisters to thank for the fact that the Jewish canon does not include any Jewish texts that were officially recognized as having been written during Greek rule (I say “officially”, because scholars are virtually certain that the second half of Daniel and I and II Chronicles were written during Greek rule, so they weren’t completely successful).

Alexander the Great didn’t live a long time to enjoy his conquests. And after his death, a Greek civil war broke out, the result of which being that the Greek empire was split among the competing factions. Again, the history here is complicated, but the short story is that, for two centuries, Israel was tossed around between the Ptolemy faction and the Seleucid faction. That’s an overgeneralization, but, again, that covers it for my purposes.

During this time, the Greek king of Ptolemy commissioned the version of the Old Testament that every New Testament writer ever quoted, the Septuagint. We often say that the Old Testament is written in Hebrew, but for every one of the New Testament writers, the Old Testament was written in Greek.

During the Seleucid rule of Judea, the Greeks understood the Jews to be primarily a religious community with no king. As such, the high priest—subject to the approval of the ruler of Ptolemy or Seleucid—was seen as the de facto leader of the Jewish people. After Antiochus IV took the throne in 175 BCE, two priests—Jason and Menelaus—vied for the high priesthood. Both were passionate Hellenizers who wanted to modernize Judaism and make Israel look more like a Greek polis.

Also, both would do anything to assume the high priest.

Including bribing Antiochus IV.

Menelaus outbid Jason, and, if you can believe it, Antiochus IV chose him to be the next high priest. This corruption was compounded by the fact that Menelaus was not a Levite, and the Torah has something to say about priests coming from the tribe of Levi.

(For example, it says priests are to come only from the tribe of Levi.)

Importantly, the factions of Jason and Menelaus continued to squabble, and it got to a point that Antiochus couldn’t take anymore. He sought the total Hellenization of Judea (Menelaus actually assisted him in this), and he imposed some new rules:

  • Jewish modes of worship were forbidden,
  • observing the Sabbath was forbidden,
  • circumcision was forbidden, and
  • Antiochus forced the Jews to sacrifice pigs—Judaism’s most famously unclean animal—to Greek gods in the temple in Jerusalem.

This started a war.

The Maccabean Revolt was the very first war in recorded history for religious freedom.

And, against great odds, Israel won.

The Catholic Bible includes 1st and 2nd Maccabees, and it is from these books that we learn about the Maccabean Revolt. Further, it is from the books of Maccabees that Jews trace the holiday of Hanukkah, also called the Festival of Dedication.

If you don’t think this inter testamentary period was important, consider that Jesus observed Hanukkah—the celebration of Israeli independence and the rededication of the purity of the temple in Jerusalem.

But, as I mentioned earlier, Israel frequently swung from one end of the Greek spectrum to the other: within a century of victory over the abuses of Antiochus IV, the kings of Israel were once again openly trying to become Greek. So . . .

¯\_(ツ)_/¯

When Greece replaced Persia as the world’s hegemon, it brought to each of its subordinate locales a century’s worth of philosophical tradition, much of which permeated even into the well-developed world of Jewish philosophical tradition.

Even Jews who resisted the Greeks were profoundly influenced by their ideas.

If you would endure just a little more Greek history, today we’re going to get into the meat of that, and it will totally be worth it.

A Five-Minute Explainer on Greek Philosophy

Greek philosophy starts with Socrates, one of the great men of mystery in world history. Socrates, who lived in the 5th century BCE, never wrote anything down that we know of. We have the surviving text of a play written by Aristophanes, a contemporary of Socrates, whose play made an unflattering depiction about him. The Socrates character is made to be an odd fellow who spent much of his time just wandering around, observing whatever he could, and asking people questions.

Socrates had many pupils, but two of them—Critias and Alcibiades—turned out to be particularly bad apples. Socrates was not a fan of democracy. He felt that only those who were trained in philosophy should be able to vote. But certainly, Critias and Alcibiades represented the worst among the forces that worked against the democracy in Athens. Further, Critias was the leader of an anti-democratic reign of terror in 404 BCE. In 403 BCE, a democratic reign of terror replaced the oligarchic one, and Socrates was shortly thereafter put on a black list.

In 399 BCE, Socrates was put on trial (1) for “impiety” to the gods of Athens and (2) for “corrupting the young.”

Depending on your perspective, his defense to the jury in Athens came across as either principled or arrogant. He portrayed himself as a hero and as one who was smarter than anyone else in all of Athens. Never mind that that may have been true, but unfortunately for Socrates, when the 500 juror ballots were counted—yes, 500 jurors!—280 jurors had voted to find Socrates guilty and 220 for acquittal.

This infuriated Socrates’s most famous student, Plato, and the works that arose out of his anger are virtually our only gateway into the mind of Socrates. His writings are recollections of back-and-forth discussions Socrates had with all sorts of people during his life. Socrates and Plato had a lot to say about a lot of things, but you can boil down their interest—if not obsession—to one question.

What is everything’s ideal version?

Socrates and Plato argued that we live in a world of visible matter and that, for all the visible organized matter in the world you can see, somewhere there is yet to be discovered an invisible and completely perfect version of that visible thing. The way they talked about these cosmic idealized versions of everything in the world was the same way metal workers talk about a cast or the way concrete workers talk about forms. If you’ve ever seen one of these things, you can visualize their thought process. We live in a world of matter (the concrete) that to some degree or another has been shaped or partially shaped by the Form.

To Socrates and Plato, there was an ideal version of everything you could think of—shoes, love, justice, horse carriages, politics, swords, beauty, poetry, sex, and the list could go on.

Socrates and Plato called these ideal versions of things their “Forms“.

Forms are impossible to completely know, but the things in our world Socrates and Plato would say are “shadows“, “copies“, “imitations“, and “imprints” of the Forms. They would say that just as shadows exist only because of the light of a fire, our world exists as, “the offspring of the good”.

Socrates and Plato believed that the function of humans in this world of shadows is therefore to imitate the ideal world as much as possible. This meant giving considerable thought to the Forms and trying to conduct oneself as close to them as possible.

Which brings us to the role of the philosopher.

In Plato’s Allegory of the Cave, Socrates states that people live their whole lives in a kind of cave. Inside the cave, they can see shadows on the walls that are cast from things outside the cave, but they can never see the actual things that are outside the cave. To Socrates and Plato, the philosopher is like one who has been outside the cave and has come back to tell everyone what is on the outside.

Logos

If you were to combine all of Socrates’s Forms—in other words the Form of the Forms—you would get what Socrates and Plato call the Logos. This is the Greek word for . . . “word.” The concept of the logos can be thought of as the theory behind everything, the sum of all knowledge, the doctoral thesis of the universe.

Again, the Jews were far from immune to the influence of Greek philosophy, but one Jew who lived during the time of Jesus Christ took this influence to a special level.

Philo was a Jew who lived in Alexandria, Egypt and was born about twenty years before the birth of Jesus Christ. His writings demonstrate that he was thoroughly trained in Greek philosophical classics, and he used this influence the same way I have shown time and time again that ancient Jews used their influences to make new statements.

Because he was so thoroughly trained in Greek philosophy, he opened up his Hebrew Bible and found Greek philosophy there.

To this end, Philo was a prolific writer. The pivotal and the most developed doctrine in Philo’s writings—really the doctrine on which hinged his entire philosophical system—is his doctrine of the Logos. Again, to the Greeks the Logos was the sum total of all the Forms. Philo interpreted the Logos as the mind of Yahweh, the shadow of God that was used as an instrument and a pattern of all creation (his words, not mine). He, like Socrates and Plato, believed that Forms, though beyond our comprehension, leave an impression and a copy and procure qualities and shapes to shapeless things and unorganized matter. The Logos converted unqualified, unshaped preexistent matter, which Philo described as “destitute of arrangement, of quality, of animation, of distinctive character and full of disorder and confusion.” According to Philo, Genesis anticipated Plato by teaching that water, darkness, and chaos existed before the world came into being. The Logos, an indestructible Form of wisdom, arranged this matter.

Philo believed that the “Image of God” from Genesis 1 is the invisible divine Logos.

Which takes me to the Gospel of John. 

If Philo could borrow the Logos from Socrates to describe the mind of God, John could borrow from Philo to describe Jesus Christ.

In the beginning was the Logos, and the Logos was with God, and the Logos was God. He was with God in the beginning. Through him all things were made; without him nothing was made that has been made. In him was life, and that life was the light of all mankind. The light shines in the darkness, and the darkness has not overcome it.

There was a man sent from God whose name was John. He came as a witness to testify concerning that light, so that through him all might believe. He himself was not the light; he came only as a witness to the light.

The true light that gives light to everyone was coming into the world. He was in the world, and though the world was made through him, the world did not recognize him. He came to that which was his own, but his own did not receive him. Yet to all who did receive him, to those who believed in his name, he gave the right to become children of God—children born not of natural descent, nor of human decision or a husband’s will, but born of God.

The Logos became flesh and pitched his tent among us. We have seen his glory, the glory of the one and only Son, who came from the Father, full of grace and truth.

(John testified concerning him. He cried out, saying, “This is the one I spoke about when I said, ‘He who comes after me has surpassed me because he was before me.’”) Out of his fullness we have all received grace in place of grace already given. For the law was given through Moses; grace and truth came through Jesus Christ. No one has ever seen God, but the one and only Son, who is himself God and is in closest relationship with the Father, has made him known.

Notice how John interweaves the ideas of the Essenes with the ideas of Socrates, Plato, and Philo. In this short passage, John deftly portrays Jesus as the Greek Logos and the John the Baptist as the philosopher in Plato’s Allegory of the Cave who has come to talk about the forms.

I think it’s fair to say we would not have John c1 if Socrates wasn’t born.

Shadows

As I said earlier, even though Greek thought profoundly influenced the Pharisees, they would have denied it until they were blue in the face. Individuals who grew up in the Pharisaic tradition wrote most of the New Testament. This includes Paul of Tarsus.

Paul was a pupil of Gamaliel, a Pharisaic doctor of Jewish law and leading authority of Jewish Sanhedrin of the 1st century CE. Gamaliel was also the grandson of Hillel the Elder, possibly the most influential Pharisee of all time.

Notice how Paul writes about Jesus and his relationship to the Old Testament (and he writes this way a lot).

Do not let anyone judge you by what you eat or drink, or with regard to a religious festival, a New Moon celebration or a Sabbath day. These are a shadow of the things that were to come; the reality, however, is found in Christ.

Now that you see how much Socrates influenced the Pharisees, are you beginning to hear his voice in Paul’s letter? Paul is convinced that the world as we see it is matter and that out there somewhere is a Form. As a Jewish Pharisee, he grew up to believe that God gave the law to serve as a shadow of a Form that is inaccessible to humans. Now as a Christian, he is convinced that the Form he heard Gamaliel talk about all those years is Jesus Christ.

This reminds me of how Paul also thought Jesus was a watering, rolling rock in the Sinai desert.

And it’s not just Paul. Whoever wrote Hebrews was also probably a Pharisee.

Now the main point of what we are saying is this: We do have such a high priest, who sat down at the right hand of the throne of the Majesty in heaven, and who serves in the sanctuary, the true tabernacle set up by the Lord, not by a mere human being.

Every high priest is appointed to offer both gifts and sacrifices, and so it was necessary for this one also to have something to offer. If he were on earth, he would not be a priest, for there are already priests who offer the gifts prescribed by the law. They serve at a sanctuary that is a copy and shadow of what is in heaven. This is why Moses was warned when he was about to build the tabernacle: “See to it that you make everything according to the pattern shown you on the mountain.” But in fact the ministry Jesus has received is as superior to theirs as the covenant of which he is mediator is superior to the old one, since the new covenant is established on better promises.

….

The law is only a shadow of the good things that are coming—not the realities themselves.

It’s almost as if whatever was true, whatever was noble, whatever was right, whatever was pure, whatever was lovely, whatever was admirable—whatever that thing was, it was Christ. Perhaps this is what Paul meant when he said, “All things are yours.”

Eternal Life

Plato’s book, Phaedo, is a dialogue between Socrates and his friends on the day of his execution by drinking poison. Socrates’s friends are sad, but Socrates tells them that he is neither sad nor scared of his impending death. He said, “I desire to prove to you that the philosopher had reason to be of good cheer when he is about to die, and that after death he may hope to achieve the greatest good in the other world.”

Socrates believed, and argued, that the soul was immortal. He believed in eternal life, which, believe it or not, found tepid acceptance in the ancient world.

But for Socrates, eternal life was simply the logical extension of his philosophy of Forms. And his idea spread.

Even to a certain monotheistic religious group off the Mediterranean Sea whose only idea about God was that he protected their land and their crops.

The Torah doesn’t say anything about eternal life.

Check it. Really, go check it. You won’t find anything. Nor will you find anything in the Old Testament about eternal life.*

*(Actually, the last chapter of Daniel is about eternal life, but it’s a much later addition to the book. I’ll show you next week how we know that.)

Considering that eternal life and the immortality of the soul is such a major theme of the New Testament, it’s strange how absent it is in the Old Testament. After all, your eternal destination is pretty important, right?

And that’s what the Sadducees thought. As I’ve repeated from time to time over the last two weeks, the Sadducees had their Torah, and the absence of any discussion in it on the afterlife meant Socrates was wrong.

The liberal Pharisees, however, weren’t so sure. In fact, they found Socrates so convincing that—if you can believe it—they not only borrowed from him, but contorted their own scriptures to do it (of course you can believe, because for five weeks this is all I’ve let you read about).

Here’s what they did.

The Old Testament books of Isaiah and Jeremiah tell us that when the Babylonians invaded and destroyed Jerusalem, they buried the dead bodies in a valley that surrounds the west and south of Jerusalem and merges with the Kidron Valley, the other principal valley around Jerusalem. This valley is referred to throughout the Old Testament by one of two names: either “Topheth” or the “Valley of the son of Ben Hinnom.” In the New Testament, it is called “Gehenna”, a Greek transliteration of its Hebrew name. The Old Testament prophets interpreted this as the fulfillment of a curse brought on by child sacrifice in that valley. Here’s the text (pay attention to the bold portions):

Jeremiah c7 v30-34: The people of Judah have done evil in my eyes, declares the Lord. They have set up their detestable idols in the house that bears my Name and have defiled it. They have built the high places of Topheth in the Valley of Ben Hinnom to burn their sons and daughters in the fire—something I did not command, nor did it enter my mind. So beware, the days are coming, declares the Lord, when people will no longer call it Topheth or the Valley of Ben Hinnom, but the Valley of Slaughter, for they will bury the dead in Topheth until there is no more room. Then the carcasses of this people will become food for the birds and the wild animals, and there will be no one to frighten them away. I will bring an end to the sounds of joy and gladness and to the voices of bride and bridegroom in the towns of Judah and the streets of Jerusalem, for the land will become desolate.

and,

Isaiah c66: “As the new heavens and the new earth that I make will endure before me,” declares the Lord, “so will your name and descendants endure. From one New Moon to another and from one Sabbath to another, all mankind will come and bow down before me,” says the Lord. “And they will go out and look on the dead bodies of those who rebelled against me; the worms that eat them will not die, the fire that burns them will not be quenched, and they will be loathsome to all mankind.

The Pharisees observed that God’s punishment in this life for disobedience was going down to this valley called Gehenna—that valley where Isaiah said there were so many bodies that maggots would never seem to stop feeding and the fire to incinerate them never seemed to stop burning. Therefore, the Pharisees reasoned that, if Socrates was correct, then punishment in the afterlife would have to mirror God’s punishment in this life.

Which the Pharisees concluded meant that the unrighteous would also go down to Gehenna in the next life.

The Pharisees were so influenced by Socrates that they weren’t debating whether anyone in the afterlife would go down to Gehenna. The texts we have merely reflect debates about who would go down to Gehenna. By the time Jesus came to the Earth, the Jewish rabbis had compiled a long list of people who would not inherit the ha’olam ha’ba (“the world to come”) and who would go down to Gehenna.

So, surely Jesus wouldn’t indulge in this theology that came from Socrates, right?

It turns out that Jesus not only engaged in it, but he made his own list:

“You have heard that it was said to the people long ago, ‘You shall not murder, and anyone who murders will be subject to judgment.’ But I tell you that anyone who is angry with a brother or sister will be subject to judgment. . . . And anyone who says, ‘You fool!’ will be in danger of the fire of GehennaMatthew c5 v21-22

You might be think, “No, Chris, Jesus didn’t say Gehenna; he said Hell.

That’s what your Bible translates, but that’s not what he said. In fact, literally not any person in your Bible ever said the word “Hell.” The first time anyone used that word was seven centuries after Jesus’s time in pagan folklore.

The Jews invented the doctrine of Gehenna centuries before Jesus’s time, and Jesus borrowed the language of that doctrine.

Which raises all sorts of questions. Did Jesus even really endorse eternal punishment? When Jesus talked about Gehenna, what was he doing?

If you grew up the way I did, you’ve been raised to accept Hell without question.

And no matter how much gloss we put on top it, no matter how much we talk about it really being about a relationship with Jesus, no matter how much we avoid talking about it, no matter how many smiles we project, food pantries we staff, days of service we organize, happy songs we sing about blue skies and rainbows and sun beams from heaven—modern Christianity is almost entirely about not going to Hell.

But, in light of Hell’s origins, I think it’s time we at least revisit what Jesus was doing with it.

(I also think we should quit saying Hell and instead say Gehenna—I mean, if we’re trying to be biblical)

As you have seen in previous weeks, the Bible does all kinds of borrowing. The Old Testament borrows from Babylon. Jesus and the New Testament writers borrowed from the Essenes. Jesus and the New Testament writers borrowed from rabbinical Judaism. They even borrowed from some of the rabbis’ most audacious inventions.

Yet, in virtually no case did the Bible borrow something in order to affirm the underlying thing. It borrowed in order to rush towards something more lofty.

Next week, we’ll talk about the book of Revelation, the book of the Bible that by far borrows more than any other. By the time you finish, you may be surprised at how unsure you are about Hell after all.

The Bible That Borrows Part 4: The Pharisee Bible

We think of Jesus as that guy who opened up God to people of every nationality, but on one occasion a non-Israelite woman pleaded with Jesus to heal her daughter, and Jesus couldn’t have seemed less interested.

“I was sent only to the lost sheep of Israel,” said the Lord and Savior of all humanity.

Let’s take a moment and admit to our souls that this is extremely weird.

Matthew calls this woman a “Canaanite”, which is an interesting choice. By the time of Matthew, there shouldn’t have been any Canaanites wondering around.

The Law of Moses instructed the Hebrews to kill them all.

Yet, when Matthew’s so-called Canaanite woman begged Jesus even harder, Jesus doubled down: “It is not right to take the children’s bread and toss it to the dogs.”

The dogs.

This was a mother in misery.

And Jesus called her a dog.

Now can we admit that this is weird?

This is the same Jesus who on the night his betrayal told Peter to put down his sword against Roman soldiers (which, as an aside, why did Jesus wait until that night to say anything about Peter’s sword?). This is the same Jesus who gave us the Good Samaritan. Who gave us the new covenant in which there is “no Jew nor Gentile, no slave nor free, no male nor male and female, for we are all one in him.” Right? Jesus calling someone a “dog” sounds a lot like comments I read underneath Youtube videos, but not a lot like Jesus.

So, what’s going on here? That’s what we’ll cover today. As usual, we have some ground to cover.

Jesus, The Rabbi

Last week, we talked in detail about the Essenes, and I briefly mentioned the Pharisees and the Sadducees. Today, we’re circling back to the Pharisees.

As I said yesterday, if someone in the first century was a rabbi, that means they would have aligned with the Pharisees.

Jesus was a rabbi.

If you don’t believe me, ask his friends and enemies:

  • Going at once to Jesus, Judas said, “Greetings, Rabbi!” and kissed him. Matthew c26 v49
  • Peter said to Jesus, “Rabbi, it is good for us to be here. Let us put up three shelters—one for you, one for Moses and one for Elijah.” Mark c9 v5
  • “What do you want me to do for you?” Jesus asked him. The blind man said, “Rabbi, I want to see.” Mark c10 v51
  • On one occasion a Pharisee stood up to test Jesus. “Rabbi,” he asked, “what must I do to inherit eternal life?” Luke c10 v25
  • “And some of the Pharisees in the crowd said to him, ‘Rabbi, rebuke your disciples.’” Luke c19 v39
  • “Then there came to him some of the Sadducees…and they asked him, saying, ‘Rabbi…’” Luke c20 v27

Jesus is identified as a rabbi in every one of the four gospels.

Jesus’s disciples called him a rabbi.

The Pharisees called him a rabbi.

The Sadducees called him a rabbi.

Even a blind man called him a rabbi.

So, what’s a rabbi?

Pay attention to the details of this next part. To me, they’re everything.

In the towns of Galilee, Jewish children around the age of five or six entered Bet Seferessentially Jewish elementary school. By the age of ten, most of these children, starting with B’eresheit bara Ehohim (where have you heard that?), would have memorized the entire text of the Torah.

Which is freaking amazing.

The children who excelled in Bet Sefer (because memorizing the Torah apparently isn’t by itself amazing) graduated to Bet Talmud. By the age of fourteen, most children in Bet Talmud would have had the entire Hebrew text memorized.

(Which is double . . . triple . . . quadruple . . . infinity amazing)

And again, the teenagers who excelled in Bet Talmud would have a chance to move further. The final stage of Jewish education was called Bet Midrash. Before you could be accepted to Bet Midrash, you would present yourself before the rabbi whose group of disciples you hoped to join. After all, it was through Bet Midrash that Jewish children would become rabbis themselves.

As I pointed out last week in our discussion of the Essenes, the rabbis also understood that texts are pliable things. Flexible things. Things that look different from different angles.

Texts have to be probed.

Interpreted.

Questioned.

Deconstructed.

Viewed from different perspectives.

Applied in different circumstances.

Sure, any literate person can read the words of a text, but the Pharisees correctly understood that that is just the beginning. Once a text is read, the reader has to decide what it means, and whether its mean the same thing now as it did when it was written. Sure, the Torah instructs Jews not to work on the Sabbath, but how does one follow this command? The Jewish Mishnah is full of commentary on this, and there were many splits of opinion on this issue and many others.

Can you walk? If yes, how far can you walk? If you drop something while you walk, can you pick it up? If you can pick up something you drop, can you pick up other things? How many other things? How far? Is there anything you cannot pick up? How much weight can you pick up and carry? How far can you move something you pick up? Does it matter if the load you pick up is shared by others? Are there any exceptions for emergencies? Are there any other Jewish laws that supersede Sabbath laws?

(You may pass this off as legalism, but violation of the Sabbath is punishable by death, so figuring this out was important work.)

If you were to compile a list of a particular rabbi’s interpretations of the law, the prophets, and the writings, the list you would end up with was called that rabbi’s “yoke.”

A rabbi’s yoke could be understood by making a list in two columns. In one column, you would list the things on any issue of the Torah that a rabbi did not allow. In rabbi speak, these things were said to be “bound”. In another column, you would list the things that a rabbi allowed. Things that were allowed were said to be “loosed.”

Where have you heard this language?

Usually, rabbis would trace their yoke back to the rabbi who taught them, who would trace their yoke back to the rabbi who taught them. If you followed the trail long enough, you would go back to a kind of exceptional rabbi of the Tanakh who had reached such a stature that they were conferred the authority to make new interpretations of the text. A rabbi with authority to reinterpret the text was and is said to have s’mikhah, the Hebrew word denoting authority. The ceremony of giving s’mikhah would involve two rabbis already with s’mikhah who would place their hands on the new rabbi, thus vouching for their exceptional competence.

When the best of the best of Bet Talmud presented themselves before a rabbi to be accepted to the final stage of Jewish education, Bet Midrash, the question of greatest concern to the rabbi was whether this disciple had what it took to propagate the rabbi’s yoke—that rabbi’s way of living out the Torah, the Nevi’im, and Ketuvim (the law, the prophets, and the writings).

If you have to re-read what I just wrote, do so because this is the key to everything ever taught by that son of a carpenter from poor Galilee.

Remember last week how I showed how John the Apostle depicted John the Baptist in a way that would have appealed to the Essenes?

Even despite John the Baptist’s Essene connections, John the Baptist also took on the title “rabbi”, and this detail is not an accident.

So much debate has been devoted in our time to why John baptized Jesus. Understanding the baptism scene requires understanding the Essenes and the Pharisees.

Notice the convergence of influences that Matthew brilliantly paints together. John laid his hands on Jesus, and became Jesus’s first witness for his s’mikhah. At the same time that John baptized Jesus, God came down on Jesus as a dove. Any Pharisee reading Matthew would instantly recognize that Matthew was making an argument.

Matthew’s baptism scene is an argument—an argument that God was Jesus’s second witness, and that Jesus now had s’mikhah.

The text was now his.

He had the “keys to the kingdom.”

Notice in the text how many times his s’mikhah gets emphasized in the gospels.

  • When Jesus had finished saying these things, the crowds were amazed at his teaching, because he taught as one who had authority, and not as their teachers of the law. Matthew c7 v28-29
  • Jesus entered the temple courts, and, while he was teaching, the chief priests and the elders of the people came to him. “By what authority are you doing these things?” they asked. “And who gave you this authority?” Jesus replied, “I will also ask you one question. If you answer me, I will tell you by what authority I am doing these things. Matthew c21 v23–24
  • Then Jesus came to them and said, “All authority in heaven and on earth has been given to me.” Matthew c28 v18
  • The people were all so amazed that they asked each other, “What is this? A new teaching—and with authorityMark c1 v27

Matthew places the “sermon on the mount” almost immediately after Jesus gets his s’mikhah and calls his first disciples. Notice how much of the sermon on the mount takes the form of “You have heard that it was said [old teaching on the Torah] but I tell you [new interpretation of the Torah].” There is a reason Matthew arranges his gospel the way he does. He is tying together all these elements of Jesus’s rabbinical identity as a Pharisee with authority to reinterpret the text.

And when you view Jesus as the Pharisee that he was, other texts start to look different.

Notice what happens when Jesus is asked where his s’mikhah came from.

Jewish children who go through Bet Midrash are trained to respond to questions with questions. In fact, the answer to the original question is usually in the responsive question itself. As you will see, Jesus’s answer is that his s’mikhah came from (1) John the Baptist and (2) God. But notice how he answers:

Jesus entered the temple courts, and, while he was teaching, the chief priests and the elders of the people came to him. “By what authority are you doing these things?” they asked. “And who gave you this authority?”

Jesus replied, “I will also ask you one question. If you answer me, I will tell you by what authority I am doing these things. John’s baptism—where did it come from? Was it from heaven, or of human origin?”

They discussed it among themselves and said, “If we say, ‘From heaven,’ he will ask, ‘Then why didn’t you believe him?’ But if we say, ‘Of human origin’—we are afraid of the people, for they all hold that John was a prophet.”

So they answered Jesus, “We don’t know.”

Then he said, “Neither will I tell you by what authority I am doing these things.

Matthew c21

Do you see it? Matthew depicts a carpenter’s son from Nazareth as both (1) possessing s’mikhah and (2) dominating the Jewish leaders in the kind of discourse that would have been mastered only at the highest level of Jewish education.

But Jesus was about to do something even more radical.

As I said earlier, a disciple wishing to study under a particular rabbi would present themselves before the rabbi for a kind of oral exam on steroids. If the student passed the test, the rabbi would tell the student, “come follow me.” So, the rabbi would drill the candidate with an excruciating barrage of questions about the Hebrew text—about the law, the prophets, the writings, the oral law, prominent rabbis’ interpretations of the text, and so on. The goal was to weed out students who would not effectively carry on the rabbi’s way of living out the Torah. After all, to choose a disciple was to make a serious time commitment.

But Rabbi Jesus did something altogether different.

Right after Matthew records John the baptist and God giving Jesus his s’mikhah, Jesus took the extremely rare step of presenting himself to his new disciples—rather than the other way around.

Of course every once in a while, you are presented with a childhood prodigy. Mozart, Pascal, Picasso, and even Tiger Woods were undeniable childhood prodigies.

But Matthew wants to eliminate any doubt that Jesus’s disciples were not like them. When Matthew tells us that Peter and Andrew were fisherman, he is telling you that at some point in Peter and Andrew’s Jewish education, they had to go back to their family to learn the family trade because they were not good enough for any of the rabbis.

When you read that Peter and Andrew “dropped their nets”, this is what you’re reading. Not that Jesus’s long hair and blue Swedish eyes would put people into a trance—as depicted in every Jesus movie. Or that “there’s just something about Jesus”—as I’ve heard in so many sermons.

People, no.

When Jesus said to Peter and Andrew, “come follow me,” this was the first time in their whole life that a rabbi had told them that they were good enough.

Which gives a wholly different meaning to Jesus’s words, “My yoke is easy, and my burden is light.”

But Jesus was about to do something even more radical.

While Jesus and his disciples were camped outside Caesarea Philippi, he told his disciples that they were given “the keys to the kingdom.” This may not mean much to you. But I promise it did to them.

Someone given the “keys to the kingdom” was given the authority to make new interpretations and judgments about what is permitted and not permitted.

This is s’mikhah.

Jesus told his disciples that they had the power to bind and loose.

And then he told his disciples to make more disciples.

Who would continue to bind and loose.

Don’t believe me, read Acts 15.

Matthew is doing something never before heard of.

Matthew is arguing that people in the “Jesus movement” would be given authority to make decisions about what is right and wrong, what is allowed and not allowed.

When we read Jesus telling his disciples, “A new command I give you: Love one another. As I have loved you, so you must love one another. By this everyone will know that you are my disciples, if you love one another,” what he is doing is giving us our compass. He is setting the parameters of this authority. BUT, as I have taken great pains to demonstrate, we—like the Jews have done for centuries—get to decide in our day what that commandment means.

Jesus has great faith in his disciples to determine what to loose and what to bind.

Especially the ordinary disciples who don’t spend their free time writing blog posts.

This is totally different than how I was brought up to understand church. This is totally different than how I was brought up to understand being a Christian.

Do you need a glass of water?

Water

Jesus did a lot of reinterpreting.

The seventh and final yearly festival of the Jews is Sukkot (Sue-COAT), or the “Festival of Tabernacles.” The weeklong festival commemorates the Old Testament story of the Hebrews exiting slavery in the Nile-lush Egypt and living dependent on God in the barren desert. The  festival-goers construct a sukkah—essentially a big tent made out of branches—and have a weeklong religious camp festival.

Dancing.

Singing.

Wine.

Clapping.

Drums.

Flutes.

Shouting.

And—to commemorate the Hebrews’ former life in the Sinai desert—passionate sermons about water.

The Hebrews’ story of the wandering in the desert is all about relying on God’s provision. Water is everything. Water is dependence on God. Water is thirst for God. Longing for God. Desperation for God. It is what came out of some rock that God miraculously provided in the Sinai desert. When we get to John c7 in the New Testament, these details are the subtext of what must have been a remarkable scene.

Jesus, we are told, had been hiding out all week during the festival, but by the end of the chapter it was the seventh day—what Jews to this day call the “last and greatest day of the festival.”

The last day has a certain ritual. First, the priest would assemble all the people and read aloud from Jeremiah:

Lord, you are the hope of Israel; all who forsake you will be put to shame. Those who turn away from you will be written in the dust because they have forsaken the Lord, the spring of living water.

After reading Jeremiah, the priest would pour a pitcher of water and wine on an alter (what Leviticus calls a “drink offering”) while these people who had been dancing and drinking wine for a week would shout, “HOSANNA, HOSANNA!” And as the crowd became more and more inebriated, they would get louder and louder.

And this is when Jesus finally came out of hiding.

After all the build up, John tells us that Jesus yelled at the top of his voice:

Let anyone who is thirsty come to me and drink. Whoever believes in me, as Scripture has said, rivers of living water will flow from within them.

By this he meant the Spirit, whom those who believed in him were later to receive.

Cinematic perfection.

And a totally new way of understanding Sukkot, not to mention the prophet Jeremiah. The Pharisees had been talking about the Holy Spirit before Jesus arrived on the scene. I’ll talk more about this in Part 7, but the Pharisees understood the spirit of God on a limited number of occasions to enter people and give them divine revelation. But the Holy Spirit was not given to the masses. What Jesus said during this Sukkot was revolutionary.

Before we end, I mentioned some rock…

Some Rock

As I said, the Israelites left Egypt and “wandered” around the Sinai Desert for forty years. They began their journey in a place called Rephedim, where the writer of Exodus tells us there was no water. It is in Rephedim that Exodus says God miraculously provided water from a rock.

Their story in the desert continued for forty years, but the narrative made no mention of how they continued to get water during that time.

Until their last year.

In a different book, Numbers, we are told that the Israelites are at the end of the forty years when they come to a place called Kadesh. At Kadesh, a familiar story emerges. There was no water. The people panic. And, again, God provided water from a rock.

Apparently, this bothered some Pharisees who were intimately familiar with the barrenness of the Sinai desert.

Reasonably, so thought the Pharisees, the Israelites drank water in the forty years of wandering in the desert.

I think we would all agree with that.

But the only mentions of them having access to water were in Rephedim in year one and in Kadesh in year forty. There really isn’t much water in the Sinai desert and the text speaks to nothing in between years one and forty.

(Remember our discussion about problematic doublets throughout the Old Testament text?)

So where did they get their water in the forty years of wandering in the desert between Rephedim and Kadesh?

After some debate, the rabbis decided—in all seriousness—that the rock in Rephedim and the rock in Kadesh must have been the same rock.

But Rephedim and Kadesh are hundreds of miles apart. So, how did the same rock from Rephedim forty years later appear in Kadesh?

They concluded that the rock must have followed them.

Haha.

I laughed just typing that.

Here’s a second century text that describes the view from Jesus’s time.

So the well, which was with Israel in the wilderness, was a rock of the size of a large vessel, and was oozing out and rising as from the mouth of this flask, traveling with them up the mountains and down to the valleys. Wherever Israel encamped, it encamped opposite them before the door of the Tabernacle.

-Tosephta Sukkah

Okay.

This is silly.

After all, the writer of the account of Kadesh really went out of his way to show that the Israelites had no idea where they were going to get their water from. If an “oozing” watering rock for forty years had just been “traveling with them up the mountains and down to the valleys”, the Hebrews wouldn’t have been panicked in year forty about where they would get their water.

So, it’s a good thing that Jesus came down to Earth to clear up all that Jewish nonsense, right?

Not quite. Here’s Paul. You could say he wrote some parts of the New Testament.

Our ancestors were all baptized into Moses in the cloud and in the sea. They all ate the same spiritual food and drank the same spiritual drink; for they drank from the spiritual rock that followed them. I Corinthians c10 v2-4

Uh oh.

Paul is one of us, right? He’s not supposed to engage in this tortured reading of the sacred text, right?

But he went even further. The next line: “And that rock was Christ.

That rolling rock—which is not in the actual text—but which a bunch of Pharisees haphazardly one day just imagined up . . . was Christ?

Christ was a rock? That rolled around in the desert?

What does that mean?!?!

Paul?!?!?!

Shadows

By now you’ve seen this enough times: Jesus, Paul, Matthew, John, Peter, and the rest of their gang were Jews. And the ancient Jews weren’t as interested in the original intended meanings of their text as you are today. What you read when you read the Bible is a mix of new ideas and realizations that come into contact with old upbringings. Paul was thoroughly a Pharisee. When you read his letters, you are reading the thoughts of a man who sees the old lessons from his rabbi with his new conviction that it was all rushing towards Jesus.

John does this.

Matthew does this.

Luke does this.

Peter does this.

This trips people up when the New Testament uses the words that “[such-and-such event] ‘fulfilled’ some text in the Old Testament.”

A better way of understanding the word “fulfilled” is probably more like “resembled”.

The New Testament book of Hebrews puts it this way: “The Torah is only a shadow of the good things that are coming—not the realities themselves.”

Each author of the New Testament would interpret the story of Jesus differently because they all grew up perceiving different shadows. In other words, as Jews, each New Testament writer grew up with different perspectives on the Torah. This is one reason why modern Christians who expend so much effort to argue that the Bible doesn’t contradict itself are putting their energy into the wrong line of questions.

I think Jesus was interested in the Old Testament text, but not for its own sake. The New Testament depicts in Jesus a complete disinterest in the Old Testament’s priestly cult, tribalism, the Temple in Jerusalem, purity regulations, the history of Israel, and so on.

Unless, of course, something in the Old Testament was useful to make a point about something else.

What Jesus was and is interested in are humans. Humans as they are right now. Humans with all their problems and contradictions. Humans who don’t fit neatly into boxes.

And the stories that humans would write down from time to time as they tied to understand themselves and their place in the cosmos. And as they tried to understand God. And how they relate to God.

So, let’s circle back.

We started this discussion with Jesus ignoring a desperate woman for the sole reason that she was not a Hebrew. And then he called her a dog.

When Jesus called that Canaanite woman a “dog”, he was speaking as a Pharisee as part of a debate that Pharisees were having among themselves. I have no idea whether Jesus said this to her face or not. But I do know this: The woman was his secondary audience. Jesus’s primary audience was the people in his vicinity who had been reared up to hate anyone who might challenge Israel’s occupation of its “promised land.” He said what he did because he knew she was about to do something that would defy Hebrew expectations.

Read what happens next.

Leaving that place, Jesus withdrew to the region of Tyre and Sidon. A Canaanite woman from that vicinity came to him, crying out, “Lord, Son of David, have mercy on me! My daughter is demon-possessed and suffering terribly.”

Jesus did not answer a word. So his disciples came to him and urged him, “Send her away, for she keeps crying out after us.”

He answered, “I was sent only to the lost sheep of Israel.”

The woman came and knelt before him. “Lord, help me!” she said.

He replied, “It is not right to take the children’s bread and toss it to the dogs.”

“Yes it is, Lord,” she said. “Even the dogs eat the crumbs that fall from their master’s table.”

Then Jesus said to her, “Woman, you have great faith! Your request is granted.” And her daughter was healed at that moment.

We assume that our enemies gloat over us. That they hate us as much as we hate them. That they despise us. Look down on us. Don’t believe me? Listen to any Donald Trump speech.

We don’t think of our enemies as vulnerable. As humble. That they would eagerly wait like a dog to eat the crumbs that fall off our table.

And this woman was just that.

Her words were among the greatest to have ever been spoken. And this story is one of the greatest to have ever been written down.

Jesus’s life took place in a time when the Jews were wrestling with how to think about outsiders. For a moment, Jesus appeared to take one side of the argument. But he did so in a way that would advance the other side. He allowed the woman to do something that would advance the human race.

He allowed the woman to show that the grace and goodness of God can be found even in the people we hate the most. Even in the people we imagine gloating over us.

I believe that Jesus could have chosen any ancient religion through which to use human understandings of God and the cosmos to point to himself, but you would be hard pressed to find a more oppressed group in all of history than the Jews.

So he chose the Jews.

And to push them forward, he took possession of some of the harshest ideas of their language.

Because, as the Bible says, he became them.

That Jesus, a champion for oppressed people anywhere, would choose the Jewish people in Israel should not be surprising. Though, I think Jesus has a heart for the Muslims just as he does the Jews. The point of the Old Testament is not what it literally says, but how the first century writers thought it pointed to something better.

Paul would later do the same thing in Greece, and it is the Greeks whom we’ll talk about next week. If you can believe it, the Bible borrows from them too. And WAY more than it borrowed from Babylon.

Part 1 Part 5

The Bible That Borrows Part 3: The Qumran Bible

Jesus and the Jews of his day didn’t read the scriptures the way you and I do, and today I’m going to prove it.

….

Last week was illuminating for some and distressing for others. We talked about what I think are the brilliant ways that the Old Testament’s writers borrowed from Babylon to talk about a God whose chief interest was not the mighty Babylonian Empire, but the people on its underside. We talked about the first books of the Bible, which were not written by Moses, but by a post-exile nationalist. Finally, we talked about Adam, who is less an historical character and more a mythological character who was crafted to symbolize the struggle and hope of the nation of Israel.

Those who struggled the most with last week’s installment for the most part observed a contradiction between two facts: (1) my whole argument depended on Moses not writing the first books of the Bible and (2) Jesus on many occasions says or implies that the Torah came from Moses.

Jesus really does do that. And repeatedly.

(Despite the concern’s undeniable validity, I’m always amused when it comes in the form of “You obviously haven’t read what Jesus said.”)

Really, I take this concern seriously.

So seriously, that this and the next week’s installments are all about that concern.

Today, we will talk about the Essenes of Qumran and how scholars believe they influenced the New Testament’s writers. Next week, we will talk about Jesus, who came to Earth, pitched his tent among us, and became a Pharisee (yes, he did that).

What I’m going to talk about today and next week has caused me to love Jesus even more than I already did.

So, let’s go for it.

The Jewish Sects of the New Testament

First, the Essenes are best understood in the context of greater Judaism, so I first need to talk about the Jews themselves. We Christians talk about them a lot, certainly, but in my experience our discussions mostly operate to support our conceptions of ourselves. When we talk about Judaism, we are usually projecting onto it the things we don’t want in Christianity.

In these next two weeks, I will try to avoid doing that.

The writers of 1 Kings and 1 Chronicles tell us that the high priest when King Solomon finished the temple in Jerusalem was a man named Zadok. Nine centuries later, the “sons of Zadok“—you know them as the Sadducees—were one of the Jewish sects of the first century. True to their name, these sons of Zadok were all about their Temple. The Temple was their identity.

The Sadducees were the priestly order, the elite, and—unlike the Pharisees, about whom I’ll talk shortly—they believed that the only acceptable way to worship God was in the Temple (which is why the Sadducees died out when the temple was destroyed in 70 CE). They affirmed the Torah, but not the other parts of the Hebrew Bible—what Jews call “the Prophets” and “the Writings” (the Nevi’im and Ketuvim).

They also had no regard for Greek ideas like eternal life and resurrection (I’ll highlight that in two weeks).

If you were to sit down at the bar with a Sadducee, he would tell you that the purpose of life was literally what the Torah says it was: God’s provision in this life at the cost of making the right sacrifices in the right ways in the Temple in Jerusalem.

On the other hand, the Pharisees sought to distance Judaism from the trappings and elitism of the Temple. They were the democratizers of Judaism. They brought Judaism down from the unapproachable mountain to the people.

Their distinguishing characteristic were the rabbis. The rabbis traveled throughout Judea making among the ordinary people disciples of the Torah and the other scriptures. To them, personal prayer and study of the Hebrew Bible (the “Tanahk”) were each an acceptable means of worshiping God, even on par with the Temple worship of the Sadducees.

The Pharisees interpreted the Torah more liberally than the Sadducees, especially with the way they permitted the observance in the home of certain Jewish holidays that were originally commanded to be in the temple.

This comes as a surprise to most modern Christians.

We often use the phrase “legalistic Pharisee” to describe someone who is hyper technical about commands in the text. While I hate that phrase, at least “legalistic Sadducee” would be more accurate.

The Caves of Qumran

Now that we’ve talked about the Pharisees and Sadducees, let’s talk about the Essenes.

Israel and Rome went to war in 66 CE, and it didn’t go well for Israel. Within four years, Rome completely destroyed Jerusalem and within another three years completely destroyed the Jewish mountain city of Masada.

During the war, the Roman army led by Titus (who would succeed Vespasian to the throne as emperor of Rome) surrounded and accepted the surrender of an army led by Flavius Josephus, an Israeli general and governor over Galilee.

After his surrender, Josephus accepted an offer of commission from the Roman Senate to become a Roman citizen and write a history of the Jewish people for the Roman government.

Which deserves an applause. By any measure, that is a spectacular rebound!

It’s hard to overstate how much Jewish history we know because of two of his works—The Jewish War and the Antiquities of the Jews. In The Jewish War, Josephus provides a detailed account of each of the Jewish sects. He describes the Sadducees, the Pharisees, and also the Essenes, a small group sworn to poverty that lived in the wilderness of Qumran near the Dead Sea. For nearly two thousand years, we knew little of the Essenes other than what was written in The Jewish War.

And then came a goat.

In 1948 in the Dead Sea region near Khirbet Qumran, a goat under the watch of an Arab Bedouin shepherd ran away from the herd, up a hill, and into a cave. The shepherd, hoping to scare the goat back down the hill, threw a rock into the cave, but the sound from the impact didn’t make the usual sound of a rock against limestone.

Qumran-Caves1.jpg

There were 2,000-year-old scrolls in there.

Instead, it made a ping sound.

That shepherd could have had no idea that the impact came from what was the first of what would be hundreds of scrolls that archeologists and scholars of ancient Hebrew call the Dead Sea Scrolls. Even when the shepherd found the scrolls, he could have had no idea what he had; the Bedouin were neither literate nor Hebrew speakers.

E_L_Sukenik_1951.jpg

Professor Sukenik

After a series of discreet payoffs and handoffs reminiscent of a le Carré spy novel, the scrolls eventually ended up in the hands of Professor Eleazar Sukenik of Hebrew University, who immediately set out to publish the contents of the scrolls for the general population. Once the scrolls were published, scholars quickly and widely recognized them from Josephus as belonging to the Essenes of Qumran.

Scholars widely believe that when Titus’s army marched into Judea during that war I mentioned, the Essene community stored their most important scrolls in the caves located above Khirbet Qumran and fled south to a Masada in hopes of one day returning to Qumran and their scrolls.

But, they never returned.

As an aside, on the very night that Professor Sukenik brought home the first discovered Qumran texts, the United Nations voted to approve a plan to establish an independent Jewish state in Palestine. Professor Sukenik noted in his diary that on the day the UN established an Israeli state, he held documents untouched literally since the last time there was an Israeli state.

Over a series of decades, more documents in other caves above Khirbet Qumran were discovered. While the first cave had seven documents (a great find by itself), the fourth cave contained more than five hundred documents!

Five hundred!!!!!!!!!!

!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!

In sum, archeologists have recovered over nine hundred documents from the caves of Qumran—unquestionably one of the great finds in archeological history.

So, what did the Dead Sea Scrolls tell us about the Essenes, and what does that have to do with the Bible?

The Qumran Yahad

We’re going to talk about some of those documents, but first let me introduce you to the Essenes, who were as much a community as a Jewish sect.

We learn as much about how the community thought of itself from the Serekh ha-Yahad (סרך היחד) (“The Community Rule”) as any other Dead Sea scroll. The Community Rule strikingly identifies differences between itself and the mainstream Jews of the time.

The document begins with the community—the Yahad—and the covenant each member would make to disavow worldly possessions in favor of a communal lifestyle.

The community was led by a so-called—and unidentified—”Teacher of Righteousness” and referred to itself as the “Sons of Light“. Imbued in the text of the Community Rule is the posture of a minority group that saw itself as oppressed by the mainstream Jewish sects, whom the Community Rule and many other Dead Sea scrolls refer to repeatedly as the “Sons of Darkness“, and which were led by the so-called—and also unidentified—”Liar.”

Keep these names and phrases in mind because they show up throughout virtually all Qumran literature, which we’ll be talking about today.

The Essenes thought of Yaweh in much the same way as other Jews. Where they differed with the Pharisees and Sadducees was in the strictness with which they interpreted the Torah. The Serekh ha-Yahad begins by instructing the Yahadnot to deviate in the smallest detail from any of the words of God.” Of course, all Jews would basically ascent to that statement, but, as you will see, the Essene community really took it to a special level.

Here’s an example.

It’s well known that ceremonial cleanliness is a major theme in Jewish law, and the book of Leviticus lists any number of ceremonially unclean things for Jews to avoid. Further—and similar to the properties of coodies as understood by every single 1st grade child—the state of “uncleanliness” can be transported upon contact from person to person or even thing to thing.

  • So, if an unclean animal such as a pig touched an otherwise clean object like a water jug, on contact the water jug would become unclean.
  • And any person who touched the water jug would become unclean.
  • And if water from the unclean jug was poured into a clean jug, the clean jug would become unclean.

All Jews would be in agreement so far.

But what would happen if a clean water jug poured water into an unclean water jug? Would the uncleanliness travel up the downward-pouring water to the clean water jug?

This is something Jews actually debated. Really.

The Pharisees said “nah”.

The Essenes said “oh, most certainly yes”.

You may think this disagreement . . . well . . . small, but it was because of this that the Community Rule instructed the Sons of Light to “hate the Sons of Darkness with the vengeance of God.” The foundation of the Yahad that we find in the Community Rule and other Qumran texts—most notably the apocalyptic “War Scroll“—is life as a cosmic battle between the Sons of Light (themselves) and the Sons of Darkness (all other Jews).

Harsh.

Hypertechnical.

(Though not terribly removed from many of the stupid controversies I’ve personally witnessed from time to time in my own churches of Christ.)

One more example.

The Community Rule specifically commands the Yahad “not to advance their holy times and not to postpone any of their festivals.”

What does this mean?

Generally when reading an ancient document that makes such a stern prohibition like this, you can assume that other sects were doing the thing.

And they were.

But, why?

The book of Exodus commands Jews not to do any work—including cooking—on Saturday, the Sabbath day. But Saturday is not the only Sabbath Day. The book of Leviticus also commands Jews to observe a Sabbath during some Jewish holidays. So, imagine if a Jewish holiday fell on the day immediately before or after Saturday. All work and cooking would be forbidden for two consecutive days.

First of all, fasting two days in a row is painful enough, but in this time of no refrigerators, this would also be a logistical problem.

On years when this would have been an issue, the Pharisees and the Sadducees solved the problem simply by adjusting the calendar. Nothing in the Torah explicitly forbids this, but nothing authorizes it. And so the Essenes argued against it from silence in the text.

And lived all alone.

Why do I provide these examples? Is it just to show how smart and important I am?

No.

I provide these examples because if you want to appreciate the main points of my discussion today, you need to appreciate how strictly the Essenes interpreted their text.

So, let’s get back to one of the original questions. How might the Essenes have been so influential to the writers of the New Testament?

Baptism

Matthew c3 introduces New Testament readers to John the Baptist, a man of the wilderness whom the gospels describe in the likeness of another inhabitant of the wilderness, the prophet Elijah. Matthew tells us that people went out to him from all over Israel to confess their sins and be baptized in the Jordan River.

If you’ve read the Old Testament enough times, in the back of your mind you’ve probably wondered whether you might have been missing something.

Where did John get the idea to immerse people in water for the forgiveness of sins?

There’s nothing in the Old Testament that commands or even hints at this. Of course, Jews have a long legacy of ritual cleansing before meals and other events as a means of obtaining “ceremonial cleanliness”, but in Judaism uncleanliness and sinfulness are not the same thing. To the Jews, forgiveness of sin is done through the high priest on the annual Day of Atonement, not through ritual cleansing in water.

It turns out, for all the strictness with which these Essenes interpreted the Hebrew text, they were the pioneers of the Christian tradition of baptism for the forgiveness of sins. Neither Paul, nor Peter, nor John the Baptist, nor Jesus Christ invented baptism for the forgiveness of sins. That small, poverty-sworn group in Qumran did.

So, was John the Baptist an Essene?

Or was he at least raised as an Essene?

Again, the text never mentions the Essenes explicitly, but the case is strong.

In addition to the Essene’s practice of baptism and the fact that the Essenes apparently lived in the wilderness near the Jordan River—what the Essenes tell us about themselves is even more striking.

  • They committed themselves to poverty and an ascetic lifestyle,
  • their main enemies were what they perceived as the overly permissive Pharisees,
  • they only wore clothes and ate food from within their community, and
  • they wrote in a distinctly apocalyptic tone.

If you were to make a list of each core Essene characteristic, you could easily find them in John the Baptist.

Oh.

And the Essenes even called the Pharisees a “brood of vipers.”

Have you heard that phrase before?

Are you beginning to see it?

Good.

Because I’ve barely started.

Sons of Light

As I said earlier, the first command of the Community Rule, the Serekh ha-Yahad, commands the sons of light to hate the sons of darkness with the vengeance of God. As I mentioned earlier, the battle between light and darkness saturates Qumran literature.

So, you might wonder: do any of the New Testament authors talk this way?

Oh.

Yes.

The apostle John recorded that Jesus told his disciples to “Believe in the light while you have the light, so that you may become sons of light.”

Cool.

Is that it?

No way!

The battle between light and darkness is the driving theme behind the entire gospel of John. Like the Big Bang of the universe, John’s gospel begins with an explosion of light. Here’s the beginning of chapter 1.

In the beginning was the Word, and the Word was with God, and the Word was God. He was with God in the beginning. Through him all things were made; without him nothing was made that has been made. In him was life, and that life was the light of all mankind. The light shines in the darkness, and the darkness has not overcome it.

There was a man sent from God whose name was John. He came as a witness to testify concerning that light, so that through him all might believe. He himself was not the light; he came only as a witness to the light.

The true light that gives light to everyone was coming into the world.

Light light light light light . . . all mixed in with John the Baptist, who we just observed was the early pioneer out in the wilderness of the Essene baptism. It is this man whom John the apostle calls a witness to, what else, but the . . . light.

Yes!

And once John finishes with chapter one, he doesn’t put on the brakes. Really, he takes the light-dark-light-dark theme into overdrive.

  • This is the verdict: Light has come into the world, but people loved darkness instead of light because their deeds were evil. John c3 v19
  • Everyone who does evil hates the light, and will not come into the light for fear that their deeds will be exposed. John c3 v20
  • But whoever lives by the truth comes into the light, so that it may be seen plainly that what they have done has been done in the sight of God. John c3 v21
  • John was a lamp that burned and gave light, and you chose for a time to enjoy his light. John c5 v35
  • When Jesus spoke again to the people, he said, “I am the light of the world. Whoever follows me will never walk in darkness, but will have the light of life.” John c8 v12
  • While I am in the world, I am the light of the world. John c9 v5
  • Jesus answered, “Are there not twelve hours of daylight? Anyone who walks in the daytime will not stumble, for they see by this world’s light. John c11 v9
  • It is when a person walks at night that they stumble, for they have no light. John c11 v10
  • Then Jesus told them, “You are going to have the light just a little while longer. Walk while you have the light, before darkness overtakes you. Whoever walks in the dark does not know where they are going. John c12 v35
  • I have come into the world as a light, so that no one who believes in me should stay in darkness. John c12 v46

Did John endorse every view of the Essene community? I doubt it. I don’t think John endorsed every view of the Essenes any more than the Old Testament writers endorsed every view of the Babylonians.

Like Ralph did in the Old Testament, John borrowed.

The Pesher Habakkuk

If I ended this part of my essay on the Bible right here, sure, it would be cool. But I promise I’ve saved the most important part for last. In this last section, I discuss the Pesher Habakkuk, arguably the single most important Dead Sea Scroll for unlocking the mystery of the New Testament authors’ treatment of the Old Testament text. Pesher is the Hebrew word for “commentary” or “interpreting.”

If you want to understand why I’m not concerned with Jesus’s mentions of Moses, do not skip this part.

The original Old Testament book of Habakkuk is written from the perspective of the prophet Habakkuk, whom God warns of the coming Babylonian destruction of Jerusalem.

Habakkuk c1 v5–7

Look at the nations and watch—and be utterly amazed. For I am going to do something in your days that you would not believe, even if you were told. I am raising up the Babylonians, that ruthless and impetuous people, who sweep across the whole earth to seize dwellings not their own. They are a feared and dreaded people; they are a law to themselves and promote their own honor.”

Read the above text. There should be no doubt—none whatsoever—that Habakkuk’s writing concerned Babylon (or, in some translations, the Chaldeans—same thing). I made it bold for you just to make it easy. Again, Babylon. No one other than Babylon. And in fact, Babylon was the new world power during the time when Habakkuk was written and in fact did destroy Jerusalem.

So, there is no reason to believe Habakkuk was talking about anyone other than Babylon.

Are you with me?

So let’s go to the 1st century BCE Pesher Habakkuk. Early in the text, the writer quotes Habakkuk c1 v5–7, but something remarkable happens. 

The pesher writer disagrees with you.

“Interpreted, this concerns the Romans, who are quick and valiant in war, causing many to perish.” Pesher Habakkuk, column 1 lines 10–12 (emphasis added)

Okay.

Perhaps you’re just skimming this whole essay.

But I have to ask.

Did you notice that?

I hope you did because of the ridiculous amount of time I spent emphasizing it for you. The author of the pesher completely ignored the original meaning of the text and reinterpreted it in light of his present circumstances. Almost like saying, “I know you thought—and maybe even Habakkuk thought—he was writing about Babylon, but I really don’t care.”

Remember, this was written by an Essene. These are the guys who read the text more strictly than everyone else.

Habakkuk c2 v2

In Habakkuk c2 v2, God gives Habakkuk a vision and commands him: “Write down the vision, and make it plain on the tablets.” Throughout the book of Habakkuk, God explains to Habakkuk how the Babylonians will exercise dominion on the Earth, but will eventually lose it.

For the pesher writer, however, the text spoke to something entirely different. The Essenes were distinctly apocalyptic among Jews. That is shorthand for saying that they believed in an end of time, a concept you won’t find in the Torah.

But what you and I wouldn’t see, the pesher writer fills in for us.

The pesher writer says: “And God told Habakkuk to write down that which would happen to a final generation, but he did not tell him when it would come to an end.”

Habakkuk literally says nothing like this.

Habakkuk is concerned with the fall and rise of Jerusalem. But from the perspective of the pesher writer, this world seemed hopelessly miserable and unredeemable. What Habakkuk wrote about had happened centuries earlier, and the yahad needed something that could speak to their present despair. The yahad was determined to find their apocalyptic views in any text—even in texts that had nothing to do with the end of times.

Let’s never forget in this academic discussion that we are dealing with real human people.

Moving on, why should Habakkuk write down the vision “plainly” on tablets? Verse two continues, “so that he who reads it may read it speedily.” Again, the most natural way of reading this is God telling Habakkuk to write down the vision so at a later date other readers can access it easily.

Not so, says the pesher, for it tells us, “This concerns the Teacher of Righteousness, to whom God will make known all the mysteries of the words of his servants the Prophets.”

For someone like me who was raised to value the “historical-grammatical” method of interpretation, the Pesher Habakkuk is almost comical at this point. If any one of us reasoned in the pulpit on Sunday in this manner, we would be summoned before the church elders.

Habakkuk c2 v4

Habakkuk c2 v4 is one of the most famous passages in all of scripture: “The righteous shall live by his faith.” Jews to this day understand this to mean that the righteous person will prosper through (1) his or her faith in Yaweh and (2) the Torah he gave to Moses.

But again, the pesher writer contends that everyone here is mistaken. He writes, “This concerns all those . . . whom God will deliver . . . because of their faith in the Teacher of Righteousness.”

In other words, Habakkuk c2 v4 is not about faith in God, but faith in the leader of the Qumran sect.

(Hint: Habakkuk wasn’t writing about the Essenes.)

Maybe this all doesn’t impress you very much, but to me, it’s stunning.

And understand, there are many pesher texts: Pesher IsaiahPesher HoseaPesher NahumPesher ZephaniahPesher Psalms are notable examples.

I grew up thinking that the most faithful way to interpret a text was to ascribe to it its original meaning. Or at least try to do that.

Reinterpreting texts was somehow dishonest. It was what those activist judges supposedly do.

Is the 9th Circuit Court of Appeals in good company with 1st century ancient Hebrews?

You may consider yourself what is often called a “strict constructionist”—one who tries to interpret a text based on the literal meaning of what words most naturally meant in their time. And you may be surprised that a group of Jews who interpreted their text so strictly also interpreted it so liberally.

But, as I’m about to show you, the people who wrote the Bible you have read and carried to church each Sunday were even more liberal with the text than the Essenes.

They were even more liberal than the Pharisees.

Pesher in the New Testament

“Live By His Faith”

Earlier, we saw how the Pesher Habakkuk interprets Habakkuk c2 v4 to mean faith in the Teacher of Righteousness.

The New Testament also quotes Habakkuk c2 v4, three times in fact (Romans c1 v17, Galatians c3 v11, and Hebrews c10 v37–38).

However, each time, the writer uses the passage to mean something other than what it originally did. In each case, the writer uses it to say that the righteous will live by (1) faith in a man who lived on the Earth and (2) departing from the Torah.

Again, the mainstream Jews understood Habakkuk c2 v4 to mean—and it probably did originally mean—faith in Yaweh and his Torah.

Nobody—not the Essenes, not anybody—thought Habakkuk c2 v4 was an invitation to leave the Torah. But the New Testament writers were perfectly willing to re-read old texts in light of present circumstances.

And it didn’t stop with Habakkuk.

Out of Egypt

When Israel was a child, I loved him, and out of Egypt I called my son. But the more they were called, the more they went away from me. Hosea c11 v1

In the big picture, the Old Testament tells the story of God rescuing the Hebrews from slavery in Egypt, and settling them in the land of Israel. However, the story continues that despite God’s provision, the Israelites repeatedly rejected God’s commandments as given through Moses. When we read the above passage from Hosea, this is what we are reading. Hosea isn’t predicting a single thing. He is describing something that had already happened.

Also, I think every human being alive would agree that the “son” Hosea is talking about is Israel.

But, Matthew, like the Pesher writer, thinks you’re wrong. In Matthew c2, we are told that because King Herod tried to kill every firstborn child in Israel, Jesus’s parents hid away in Egypt until they returned and settled in Nazareth. Matthew, once again—by our standards—playing fast and loose with the text, gives us this commentary:

So he got up, took the child and his mother during the night and left for Egypt, where he stayed until the death of Herod. And so was fulfilled what the Lord had said through the prophet: “Out of Egypt I called my son.” Matthew c2 v14–15

Can you imagine how Matthew’s first readers would have reacted to that? Think about what a daring thing it would have been to write that. If you wanted to be a pesher writer, you needed some big cajones!

When you go back to Hosea, Matthew’s assertion is stunning. It probably was uncomfortable in his time, but is even more uncomfortable to the modern reader.

The Virgin Birth

In Matthew c1 v23, the angel Gabriel tells Mary, a virgin, that she will conceive and that her son would save people from their sins. After this, Matthew comments that this was to fulfill what was prophesied in Isaiah c7 v14.

But did Isaiah do that?

In Isaiah c7, King Ahaz of Judah learns that Israel and Syria are planning to invade Judah. Isaiah then prophesies to King Ahaz that God will not thwart the military invasion. To prove this prophecy, Isaiah tells Ahaz to ask God for a sign, but Ahaz responds that he would not put God to a test.

Isaiah responds, “The Lord himself will give you a sign: The virgin will conceive and give birth to a son, and will call him Immanuel.”

Jews from Isaiah’s day to the present had much to say about Isaiah c7 v14, but not that this boy would be the Messiah. The text, which has much to say about Judah’s deliverance from Israel and Syria, has nothing to say about a Messiah. Further, in the original Hebrew of Isaiah c7 v14, the word “almah” meant only a young woman who had not yet given birth. For a woman to be an almah, it did not matter than she was a virgin. That said, the Greek translation that Matthew had rendered almah as “parthenos”, a Greek word that specifically means “virgin”. This gave Matthew the opportunity to interpret Jesus as the fulfilment of Isaiah.

An opportunity upon which he seized.

Humorously, while neither Mark, Luke, or John mention anything about a virgin birth, when the Revised Standard Version translators in 1952 rendered almah as “young woman”, conservative Christians accused the translators of tampering with the Christian Bible.

The God of Abraham, Isaac, and Jacob

I mentioned earlier that the Sadducees didn’t believe in the immortality of the soul or any kind of resurrection. So, in Matthew c22, the Sadducees approach Jesus—who emphatically taught that people would be resurrected.

That same day the Sadducees, who say there is no resurrection, came to him with a question. “Rabbi,” they said, “Moses told us that if a man dies without having children, his brother must marry the widow and raise up offspring for him. Now there were seven brothers among us. The first one married and died, and since he had no children, he left his wife to his brother. The same thing happened to the second and third brother, right on down to the seventh. Finally, the woman died. Now then, at the resurrection, whose wife will she be of the seven, since all of them were married to her?”

This question is obviously meant to trap Jesus into admitting that, in this time when women were mere property of their husband’s, the resurrection was going to invite some nasty property disputes in this so-called Heaven he had been preaching about. Jesus had none of it. According to the McNeal Revised Version*, Jesus responded, “There is no property in Heaven.”

*(Not an actual translation.)

But Jesus wasn’t done. Thinly veiled behind the Sadducees’s question was the insinuation that the resurrection of the dead was a bunch of hogwash.

What Jesus did next was straight out of the pesher tradition I’ve belabored today.

Jesus replied, “You are in error because you do not know the Scriptures nor the power of God. When the dead rise, they will neither marry nor be given in marriage; they will be like the angels in heaven. Now about the dead rising—have you not read in the Book of Moses, in the account of the burning bush, how God said to him, ‘I am the God of Abraham, the God of Isaac, and the God of Jacob’ ? He is not the God of the dead, but of the living.

On its face, Jesus’s words seem innocuous enough until you read how wildly Jesus used Exodus c3.

In Exodus c3, God appears to Moses in a burning bush and identifies himself to Moses as the same God whom Abraham, Isaac, and Jacob worshipped. Literally no one ever had read Exodus c3 and concluded that it had anything to do with Abraham, Isaac, and Jacob still being alive.

Did Jesus, the Son of God, take scripture out of its original context?

Oh yes.

Which, by the way, is funny to me because this text is so frequently used by people who want to prove that Moses wrote the first books of the Bible.

Are you beginning to see why I see it differently?

(Not asking you to agree with me. Just to see that I’m not totally insane.)

This passage is also used as a proof text for Jesus being better at the scriptures than everyone else.

I agree that he was.

But how was he better?

Were his historical-grammatical hermeneutical chops the best?

Were the Jews just lazy and not very interested in their scriptures?

Or was Jesus the best at the scriptures because he dared to stretch their meaning even further than anyone else ever dreamed?

And what’s even more amazing to me is that the Pharisees witnessed the whole discussion . . . and loved it! Jesus’s pesher take wasn’t controversial!

“Well said, teacher!” they said.

Can you even handle this?

Concluding Thoughts

I sometimes get criticized for over elaborating on certain topics, and I have a long history of this. When you observe me do this about a particular topic, what you’re seeing is an insecurity of mine. I expect my audience will not be receptive to what I’m saying.

Here’s what you need to understand.

I really could have kept going. I cut out an astounding amount of material.

If you want more examples of the theme I’ve described, here are a few others:

  • John’s use of Isaiah c40 v3;
  • Jesus’s use of Psalm 82 in John c10;
  • Paul’s use of Genesis c12 v7, c13 v15, and c24 v7 in Galatians c3 v15-29;
  • Paul’s use of Isaiah c49 in 2 Corinthians c6 v1-2;
  • and more.

To the first century Jew, faithfulness to the text meant testing its boundaries and creatively applying it in order to “discover” the true heart of God. This is so different than our stereotype of them and our common usage of the text.

We have to remember this when we read the New Testament. The New Testament writers—like the Old Testament writers—had agendas. And they read the Old Testament with agendas. They were not these automatons who lacked control over what they wrote.

The New Testament writers were convicted that a carpenter’s son from Galilee named Jesus was God in the flesh, and they re-read their text to conform to those new convictions.

Next Week

On the foundation I have laid today, next week we’ll talk about Jesus as a first century Pharisee.

Part 1, Part 2, Part 4

The Bible That Borrows Part 2: The Babylonian Bible

I was six years old and living in the drab, grayish-brown desert outside of El Paso, Texas.

One Sunday, a family from church kindly invited us to their house for lunch. Like any good Texas family, they lived about as far away from every other human as they possibly could.

Also, like any good Texas family, they owned an enormous amount of what ordinary people would assume completely useless land. And, like, six or seven four-wheelers.

My story begins after lunch on this day, when their ten-year-old son took me out on one of them. I rode on the back, and we took that little two-stroke wonder everywhere. Full speed down the slopes, nimbly around rocks and thistles and the occasional groupings of cacti.

For a six-year-old boy, this was peak life. My soul was wide open (as were my eyes and mouth).

And that’s when the boy driving that four-wheeler turned around, looked me right in the eye, and yelled, “DUCK!!!”

He yelled it loudly. He yelled it clearly. And before you and the Almighty, his voice traveled back to me just fine. So, you probably expect that we were approaching some low obstruction and that, whatever it was, I ducked below it.

You are correct that we were approaching a low obstruction.

However, in my six years on the Earth of running around, kicking soccer balls, hopping fences, getting dirty, and watching Looney Tunes—for whatever reason—nobody had ever used the word “duck” to me like that before. I’ve never been extremely tall, and even the tallest six-year-olds can safely walk beneath most things. Also, I had lived the first four years of my life in the Philippines, and many people there don’t speak English all the time. To this point, I’d only lived in the US for two years.

So, when he looked back at me and said “duck”, the image that appeared in my head was . . . a duck.

And I began looking around for one.

As we approached his house, what came next—perfectly at the level of my head and at about twenty miles per hour—was a clothes line.

Everything above my neck immediately halted, but my legs and feet continued forward with the momentum of the four-wheeler below me.

Which meant the next thing was the rebound.

My forty-five pound body was no match for that clothes line, and I propelled off of it so hard that for a moment time seemed to stop. As I seemingly floated there, hands clawing at the air, it was as if for two seconds or two years—hard to say from my perspective—Newton’s laws of motion gave way to Einstein’s general theory of relativity. And then . . .

*THUD*!

“I yelled back at him to duck!” the boy truthfully explained to his dad, who looked guilt-ridden at my dad, who turned back at me and asked, “Did you hear him call at you to duck?”

Now, today I can admit how ignorant I was then, but six-year-old me was no idiot. As I scanned the room, it was clear that I was the only person who hadn’t already known that word, and context clues had more than filled in what to me had previously been unknown. And nobody likes to be that ignorant guy, that guy who took out a baseball that was signed by Babe Ruth and actually played with it.

So I preserved my dignity.

“No, I couldn’t hear him over the sound of the four-wheeler,” said me, who heard him just fine.

I didn’t know it at the time, but God taught me something about the Bible that day. And I learned it more than twenty years later.

….

This week’s installment is information heavy, and much of it won’t seem interesting right away. I know how busy you are, and I want to honor your time, so let me tell you exactly where I’m going.

Traditionalists generally believe that Moses wrote the Bible’s first five books, and around 1,400 or 1,500 BCE.

However, virtually everything I believe today about the Bible hinges on one foundational premise: Not only did Moses not write the first books of the Bible, but they were written about a thousand years after his time—after Babylon destroyed Jerusalem. Once you accept this premise, the Bible—let alone its first five books—takes on a different character.

That’s where I’m taking you. Now, let me make my case.

Genesis c1

Most people don’t wake up in the morning and think about the Bible’s writing style. The good news is I do, so you don’t have to.

The Hebrew Bible begins with the immortal words, B’eresheit bara Elohim, commonly translated “In the beginning God created.” Whoever the author was, he made important choices when he began the Bible this way, and in a short time we will come right back to them in detail. Those choices matter.

For right now, I simply want you to notice how these words relate to what the writer says next. In verse two, we are told that the Earth (“ha’arets”) was tohu wa’vohu, commonly translated “wild and waste”. So, with the phrases b’eresheit bara and tohu wa’vohu, we are two verses into Genesis c1, and we can see that the writer of Genesis c1 has either a habit or a preference for alliteration. You’ll see why this is important when we get to Genesis c2.

Then the writer gives us a series of number patterns; we are told that God spent the first three days separating:

  • on day one, dark from light;
  • on day two, the “waters above from the waters below”; and
  • one day three, the sea from the land, etc.

Once separated, God spent the next three days sequentially filling the things he separated, and in the same order of the things that he separated. So, we are told:

  • on day four he filled with the sun, moon, and stars what he separated on day one—the heavens;
  • on day five he filled with birds and sea creatures the things he separated on day two—the sky and the sea;
  • on day six he filled with land animals the thing he separated on day three—the land from the sea.

Hebrew writing after the Babylonian exile frequently employs the same parallel literary structures found in Genesis c1. Zechariah is one example, but there are plenty more.

It is also interesting that this Elohim fills the things he separates, because the Hebrew word bara, which usually gets translated “created”, more literally means “filled” or “fattened.”

(The same word we translate “created”, we translate “fattened” in Genesis c41 about the cows in Pharaoh’s dream).

The rhythm continues with the writer at the end of each day informing us that God saw what he made was “good”. The Hebrew word for “good” is tov. Because the word tov appears twice in the text with reference to the third day, Jews for thousands of years have believed that the third day of the week is double blessed and usually have weddings on that day. Don’t believe me, read the first sentence of John c2.

More numbers. To some, what follows will sound forced and even spurious at first. Especially, because Rob Bell says it, considering Rob Bell apparently is the devil. But there are distinct patterns of threes, sevens, and tens in Genesis c1.

Threes

We’ve already seen one pattern of threes—there are three days of separating and three days of filling. Also, bara occurs in three different places in Genesis c1. In the last place, it occurs three times.

Sevens

The first sentence in Hebrew is seven words. The second sentence is fourteen words. Ha’arets is written twenty-one times. Elohim is written thirty-five times. “It was so” is written seven times. “And God saw” is written seven times.

Patterns of three. Patterns of seven.

*Yawns*

Three and seven add up to ten (I can’t believe I just wrote that).

*Yawns harder*

Yes? Okay, bear with me.

Tens

“To make” is written ten times. “According to their kinds” is written ten times. “And God said” is written ten times—three times about people, seven times about other creatures. “Let there be” is written ten times—three times about the heavens, seven times about ha’arets.

See it now? Patterns of threes and sevens and tens—they are the skeletal structure of Genesis c1The writer of Genesis c1 prefers orderly literary arrangement, which is interesting because the narrative, which describes a transition from chaos to order and arrangement, begins with “deep water”—which, in ancient near-eastern literature is typically a literary device used to symbolize chaos. Here, the writer depicts Elohim conquering chaos and making order. He does so not just through the narrative of the creation, but also through a literary structure that begins with the ineloquent “tohu wa’vohu” (kind of like saying “wishy washy” or “splishy splashy”) to the majestic orderly arrangement of the days of creation.

You’ll understand in about ten minutes why this transition from chaos to order is important.

One more point from verse one. The translation, “In the beginning”, isn’t bad, but probably could be improved. Amy-Jill Levine argues persuasively that it should be “When in the beginning.” Another permissible translation is “When in the summit.”

Again, you’ll understand why this too is important in about nine minutes and fifty seconds.

Finally, throughout the Old Testament, there are numerous names that we translate “God.” Here, the Hebrew writer of Genesis c1 chose the name Elohim each time. This is interesting to say the least because the word is both plural and generic—really on par with saying “the gods.” For some reason, the writer of Genesis c1 did not like to use the sacred name, Yahweh. Although, perhaps even more strangely, this will change very suddenly.

And that’s the end of Genesis c1. Now that Elohim has created all ha’shamayim (Heavens) and ha’arets (Earth), the modern reader gets to the subsequent chapters ready to see what happens in those primordial places. In a sense, that’s the rest of what the Bible covers.

Sort of.

Genesis c2 and c3

Okay, so you’ve just read the account of the creation. If the Bible was like any other work of literature written by a single person, we would expect to move on to what happens next, right?

But that’s not what happens in Genesis c2.

When you get to Genesis c2, the story just seems to start over:

“This is the account of the heavens and the earth when they were created, when the LORD God made the earth and the heavens.” Genesis c2

You may think that’s an odd thing to say. That c1 was about creation, so we should be moving on now. Right?

So you read on, perhaps thinking those words aren’t meant to tell you what’s coming, but simply to summarize what the reader just read.

But something weird happens.

Genesis c2 has *ANOTHER* account of the order of creation

And it’s different.

And if Genesis c1 is correct, then Genesis c2 is wrong.

In the Genesis c1 narrative there were plants before humans, but in the Genesis c2 narrative there were humans before there were plants. Further, in Genesis c2 animals are made after humans, even though Elohim made them before humans in Genesis c1 (English translators try to “fix” this, but the Hebrew is unmistakeable—especially if you read verses 18 and 19 together).

And speaking of Elohim, the writer of Genesis c2 and c3 suddenly and without explanation starts referring to God as Yahweh—no longer just Elohim.

And that’s not all that has suddenly changed. Remember the number patterns I talked about? Number patterns of any variety go away. Even in English, Genesis c1 has an unmistakeable beat and rhythm, but Genesis c2 and c3 trade beat and rhythm for an arhythmic narrative prose.

Finally, instead of alliteration as the linguistic art form, the author of the chapter goes all out in aggressively making puns. First, God makes “man” (the Hebrew word for man is “adam”) out of the ground (the Hebrew word for ground is “adamah”). In other words, according to this ancient Hebrew suburban dad, God makes the “adam” out of the “adamah.” And then the first man is named Adam.

The serpent we are told is arum (“cunning”), but the humans are arumim (“naked”). The names of the rivers make their own pun in the story, though this one requires more explaining, and I think you get the point.

A few questions need to be asked.

Why are there two creation stories?

Why are they stylistically different?

Why are they factually different?

Why do all these changes happen at the same time?

Are there other parts of the Bible that act this way?

If the answer is yes (the answer is very yes), does that mean something?

Stick with me.

II Samuel tells a story about God causing King David to conduct a census of Israel. Then I Chronicles (written many centuries after II Samuel) tells us the EXACT story about King David’s census. Only in the chronicler’s retelling, SATAN rather than God caused King David to do it. That’s a detail—was it God or Satan?—that, had these stories been written simply by God zapping them down to human writers, you would have expected him to have told the same way both times (really, you would expect him to just tell the story once). In fact, II Chronicles—written two or three centuries before Christ—records the very first reference to any person specifically named “Satan” in the whole Bible.*

*(“The serpent” in Genesis is never called Satan. “Satan” in Job is actually “ha’shatan” which literally means “the accuser.” The account in Chronicles, likely a 3rd-century writing, is the first time anyone in the Bible wrote about someone namedShatan” or שָּׂטָן.)

The Bible is full of these doublets.

In fact, there are about thirty more in just the Old Testament.

Which raises many questions, chief among them:

Uh, why?

Again, going back to the idea that these are the direct words of God, does God have a habit of forgetting that he has already told a particular story? Not that I could blame him. I have told many stories to the same people many more times than just twice.

But does God forget how he originally told the story?

Or is something else really important happening here?

(There is.)

I just described several divergent characteristics of Genesis c1 and Genesis c2. It’s worth noting that these discernible patterns come and go in unison throughout the Bible, even within the same books.

It’s almost as if the finished versions of these books are a patchwork of concurrent narratives that later—probably centuries later, and perhaps during a time of national trauma—were sewn together.

(Actually, that’s exactly what they are.)

Documentary Hypothesis

The writer of Genesis c11 tells us that Abram’s father, Terah, was 70 when Abram was born, and that Terah died at the age of 205. A little subtraction tells us that when Terah died, Abram would have been 135. Right?

(Take a second and do this math.)

The writer of Genesis c12 (and reiterated in Acts c7) tells us that after the death of Terah, God told Abram to leave Harran. So, again, Abram must have been no less than 135 when he was called to leave Harran. Right? Right?

(Take a second and make sure you’re still with me.)

But Genesis c12 v4 specifically says that Abram was 75 when he left Harran.

Meaning, one of these two accounts in your Holy Bible is wrong.

And that’s my point. There are at least two accounts.

At least two.

Again, the traditional view has long been that Moses wrote the first five books of the Bible (called the “Pentateuch”), but scholars of the 18th century and on to today have seriously questioned that view in light of the composite nature of the text—doublets that in unison take on different literary forms, use different names for God, and often contain contradictory information. Further, increasingly more scholars in the last two centuries have taken seriously a variety of sentences that Moses almost surely didn’t write:

  • Numbers c12: “Now Moses was a very humble man, more humble than anyone else on the face of the earth.” (Because what humble man writes that?)
  • Deuteronomy c34: “No one knows [Moses’s] burial place to this day.”
  • Deuteronomy c34: “Since [Moses died], no prophet has risen in Israel like Moses.” (This statement most naturally suggests that consider time had passed, and many prophets had come and gone since Moses).

So, let’s talk about documentary hypothesis. You may need a cup of coffee for this part, but if you want to understand modern biblical scholarship, I promise this is something you need to know.

The literal story of the history of the Jewish people describes God establishing the priestly order before the nation of Israel became a thing. However, about a century and a half ago, a Lutheran from Germany, Julius Wellhausen, pondered several profoundly dangerous questions.

If the Bible is potentially made of composite sources that contradict each other, is it possible that the Bible is not an accurate record of Israel’s history? And, if so, is it possible that the priestly order did not begin until much later? And, if so, what does that mean?

His seminal work, Prolegomena zur Geschichte Israels (“Prolegomena to the History of Israel“), is often compared to Charles Darwin’s Origin of the Species. It is long, tedious, and not exactly full of humor.

But it is probably the most important modern work of Christian theology.

The idea Wellhausen systemically described—and which is where nearly all modern scholars begin, even if they diverge somewhat from his view—generally holds that there were at least four independent sources—one from Judah (what scholarly works call the “J” source), a source from its northern neighbor, Israel (the “E” source), the author of Deuteronomy (the “D” source), and the Priestly source (“P”).

According to Wellhausen, what we today call the Old Testament (what Jews call the Tanakh) is a dicing and splicing of these sources by a later editor (who Wellhausen calls a “Redactor”).

His theory is called documentary hypothesis, and here’s a picture of it.

400px-Documentary_Hypothesis_Sources_Distribution_English.png

But again, to one who considers the Bible without factual error, it matters little where these sources came from or who put them together. If God one day caused some guy named Ralph to write down and splice together what had once been parallel oral traditions, that would not be theologically significant. As long as these people were writing word-for-word the words of God and not their own opinions, inerrancy would be safe.

Today, when some part of the Bible appears to be in conflict with another, evangelicals usually say that we simply need to think harder or that the proper understanding hasn’t yet been revealed to us.

The idea that the Old Testament books were themselves composite works assembled by an editor had been suggested before Wellhausen’s time. What Wellhausen did was systematically identify the composite parts. And once he deconstructed them, he persuasively put them back together in a way that has since led to the creation of hundreds if not thousands of conservative safe places. Wellhausen advanced two main arguments:

First, the Old Testament does not accurately reflect Israel’s history.

Second, when Ralph or whoever else assembled and edited the Old Testament, he did so to advance a nationalist agenda.

In painstaking detail, Wellhausen demonstrated that, contrary to how it appears in the text, the priestly order and the law were not present throughout all of Israel’s history. That thousands of years of simple worship became increasingly formalized over time.

And it turns out that archeology is WAY more favorable to the 19th century Wellhausen than to modern conservative evangelicals.

  • The entire Old Testament is written using a Hebrew alphabet system that did not exist during Moses’s time;
  • There are town names in the books of the Old Testament that did not exist during Moses’s time;
  • Centuries-old archeological digs of Jericho do not support the story of its destruction described in the book of Joshua; and
  • There is little to bear out the story of a large, enslaved Hebrew ethnic group in Egypt, as described in the book of Exodus.

Moses did not write the first five books of the Bible. Nor is much of the Old Testament historically reliable. Nor was it ever intended to be. Nor is the Old Testament nearly as “old” as its name suggests.

To many people, this is terrifying. The common reaction to Wellhausen is that the Bible cannot be biased because that would make it just any other work of human literature. Notice the straw man argument used to describe documentary hypothesis on the evangelical website, Got Questions?.

Screen Shot 2016-10-08 at 3.49.44 PM.png

Got Questions? scoffs at documentary hypothesis as just “liberal theology’s attempt to call the veracity of the Pentateuch into question.” And that’s unfortunate. Documentary hypothesis is not an attempt to do anything other than reach a reasonable conclusion from the totality of the evidence. Documentary hypothesis should be judged on its own merits rather than the motivations of some of its advocates.

Some of your brains are presently on fire, and that’s perfectly fine. Changing your mind is no small feat, and not without consequences. Walk with me.

I’m going to take you to the 6th century BCE literature of the Babylonian Empire. When the Israelites were held as captives in Babylon during this time, it is virtually certain that they were exposed to their literature. The authors of the “books of Moses” borrowed from Babylonian literature to make specific theological arguments to their people.

Arguments I literally affirm.

Babylon

I told you earlier that I would talk about the importance of the choices that the author made in writing the first sentence of the Bible. Let’s do that now.

The Babylonian army of King Nebuchadnezzar conquered the known world in the 6th century BCE, Israel and Judah in 586 BCE. The Bible gets this right. One of the most important characteristics of the conquering was “the exile”—Jews forcibly removed from their land in and around Jerusalem and placed in Babylon.  When there, the exiles were exposed to Babylonian literature, and I want to highlight two pieces of literature on which scholars have written extensively. Keep your Genesis hat on.

The first is the Enuma Elish.

The Enuma Elish begins with the Apsu, the god of fresh water, and Tiamat, the goddess of deep salt water. These two gods are depicted to represent primordial chaos. Then, a god named Marduk leads gods of wind against Apsu and Tiamat.

In this battle between the older gods of water and the younger gods of wind, the wind gods essentially blow up the salt water god, Tiamat, and split her open in two. The top half made a vault of water in the sky; the bottom half made the earth’s sea.

Does this ring a bell?

Also, remember how Genesis c1 begins with the “spirit”, or literally “wind”, of Elohim hovering “over the deep”? Interestingly, the Hebrew word for deep, tehom, when enunciated sounds almost exactly like Tiamat. In fact, the etymology is the exact same.

Does this ring a bell?

(If it doesn’t ring a bell, read it again. Keep reading it until it does.)

At the end of the story, Marduk creates humanity out of the blood of Tiamat and humanity being made slaves to Marduk and his buddies, a convenient end for Babylonian kings who were made to be viewed as gods.

Notice the similarities:

  • Both stories establish order out of chaos.
  • Both separate “the waters above from the waters below.”
  • Both start with darkness before the creation.
  • Both involve wind blowing on deep water.
  • Light exists in both before the creation of the sun, moon, and stars.
  • The sequence of creation is similar, including the creation of the “firmament”, dry land, stars, sun, and humanity.
  • The creation is followed by rest.

One last thing, and the point to which I’ve been building for the last fifteen minutes. Remember how I mentioned earlier that “When in the summit” is a possible translation of the first words of Genesis?

The first words of the Enuma Elish are “When on high.”

The clever writer of Genesis c1 wants his powerless and oppressed Israelite comrades to know one specific thing.

The gods of powerful Babylon are up on high.

But Elohim, the God of lowly Israel, is higher.

!!!!!

I love it.

Next, The Epic of Gilgamesh.

The Epic is long, but the relevant part of it begins with a god who tells a certain Utnapishtim (1) that the other gods are going to wipe out the world with a flood and (2) to build a boat. Utnapishtim builds a boat and brings animals on the boat. He even sends out a bird to see if the water has receded.

Even traditionalists can admit that this at least resembles the story of Noah, but there’s more.

Utnapishtim is granted the gift of immortality. Later in the story, Gilgamesh wants to revive his friend, Ankidu. After some cajoling, Utnapishtim tells Gilgamesh that there is a plant on the bottom of the sea that will grant Ankidu immortality. Gilgamesh dives to the bottom of the sea and actually gets the plant. When Gilgamesh reaches the surface, he is tired from the dive and takes a nap.

Guess what comes and takes the plant away during his sleep.

Seriously, guess.

Yeah.

A serpent.

Ever hear about a serpent that separated humans from an immortality-granting plant?

Haha, I sure do.

In light of the internal elements of the Old Testament that point to it being written after the exile, as well as the literary works the Israelites would have been exposed to during the exile, I’ve become convinced that the Old Testament wasn’t written to tell history. At least not the way we tell history.

It’s much more interesting than that.

So Why Was Genesis Written?

I have taken great pains to show you how Genesis borrowed so heavily from Babylonian literature, and you have taken even greater pains to read it. What I’m going to do next is tell you what I think it means.

The Old Testament was put together after the Babylonian exile, a time when the people of Israel were recovering from a national crisis. The Israelites—whose core understanding of God was tied to their land—were asking themselves “If God allowed us to be exiled from our land, is God still with us today?” Ralph the assembler of the Old Testament was a priest who wanted the people of Israel to know that God was still with them. However, God would keep them in their land only if they maintained zeal in worshiping him according to the priestly code we read in Leviticus and not just in any old way.

(Today, we sometimes use what is said about the Old Law to strain the New Testament for every discernible instruction on worship we can find, lest we be consumed for offering a “strange fire.”)

Adam is a mythological character who symbolizes the Israelites. The Garden of Eden is the temple in Jerusalem where Heaven and Earth come together. Adam is exiled from the land that God gave him, just as the Babylonians exiled the Israelites from their land. And Adam is exiled from the garden because of his desire for earthly power, just as the priests argued that Israel was so exiled from their land.

Importantly, while our Ralph borrowed from Babylonian literature to make his argument, he also carefully distinguished Elohim from the gods of the stories from which he borrowed.

  • The sun, moon, and stars are depersonalized;
  • Light exists before the sun appears (an insult to their often-hostile neighbors to the south, the Egyptians, who worshipped Ra);
  • Chaos is depersonalized;
  • Creation was effortless;
  • There’s no divine conflict;
  • If Marduk was “on high”, Elohim apparently is in the “summit”, the highest place; and
  • Elohim doesn’t make humans his slaves.

In other words, the God of Genesis is bigger, better, higher, and more compassionate than the god of Israel’s neighbors. If there’s a literal truth in Genesis, that’s it!

In subsequent posts, I’m going to show other ways the Bible does this. Really, if you want to be a person who goes “back to the Bible”, you need to go back to the Bible’s writers and their conventions for telling their national stories. They aren’t ours.

I sometimes get called a “liberal” for how I read the Bible. But ask yourself: what’s more liberal? To interpret the Bible using our modern standards of telling history or to interpret the Bible using their standards?

This brings me back to my original story.

We often hear the ancient Hebrews the same way I heard my friend on that four wheeler years ago in El Paso. Sometimes they tell us to duck, and we go about the barren, lifeless West Texas desert in search of a duck.

Next Week

Next week we’ll build on this discussion and talk about the Dead Sea Scrolls. See you on Monday at 7pm CT!

Part 1 Part 3