Friday, December 25, 2020

How accurate is our Hebrew Bible?

<i>My Christmas essay</i>

Most Christians are aware that the Bible was not originally written in English, though some have thought so.  The Old Testament was written in Hebrew and the New Testament was written in ancient Greek.

But both were written over two thousand years ago.  So how do we know that we now have accurate copies of what was originally written so long ago?  That is what I want to address here.

The basic problem is that we do not have the originals of what was written.  All we have copies.  And the copies do differ in various ways.  So which -- if any -- is the correct version of the originals?

One way of looking at that is to find the oldest possible copy -- on the assumption that errors are less likely to have crept in the closer we get to the original.  But the oldest copies we have of the Hebrew Bible (the Old Testament) go back only about a thousand years.  A lot could have happened in the thousand years before that.

Over 60 years ago, however, there was a great find.  Hidden away in some caves in Israel were some copies of the Hebrew scriptures that dated from about the time of Christ.  They are sometimes referred to as the "Dead Sea Scrolls", though the term Qumran scrolls would be more accurate.

So how do those scrolls compare with the Hebrew Bible we have today?  That has been the focus of a huge body of scholarly enquiry and analysis.  And the broad answer is that some of the scrolls are exactly as we have them today and some are not.  So how do we account for that?

The biggest wonder is that some parts of the Hebrew text  -- particularly the book of Isaiah -- have survived without change for so long.  What we have today is the result of copies of copies of copies of copies and it is well known how inaccuracies can creep into any text that is the result of much copying.  So how did at least one book of the Bible survive copying without error?

The answer is religious.  About a thousand years ago a group of religious Jews emerged -- the Masoretes -- who devoted huge efforts into copying accurately.  It is the copies that they made which are the basis for our English Bibles. And the Masoretes claim that the copies that they have so painstakingly produced are an accurate copy of what was originally written.

So how can we check up on that?  There is one major way.  Since before the time of Christ, the old Hebrew text had been translated into Greek -- the language of learning in the ancient world. Those translations are called by scholars the LXX.   When Jesus and the apostles quoted from the OT, the words they used as quoted in the NT came from the LXX.  And we have some very old copies of the LXX -- going back to around the 4th century AD.  And being much older than the copies we have of the Hebrew Bible itself, the LXX could be regarded as as closer to the Bible as originally written. So how does the LXX compare with the Hebrew Bible we have today?

There are many differences, most minor but some major. So how do we account for those differences?  Based on very detailed studies by many scholars, it looks like the copy of the Hebrew text that the translators used was different from the Hebrew text that we have today.  Some scholars have even done a careful back-translation from the LXX to produce a probable version of the Hebrew text underlying it.  That version is usually referred to by the German word "Vorlage".  But the Vorlage too differs clearly from the current Hebrew Bible.

So the fact that the Vorlage differs in many ways from our current Bible reinforces what the Qumran scolls tell us -- that there is much uncertainty about what the Bible authors originally wrote.  The broad outline is there but many details are different.

One of the most prolific and authoritative writers on the Qumran scrolls is Emanuel Tov, an Israeli. From 1990-2009 he served as the Editor-in-Chief of the international Dead Sea Scrolls Publication Project, so he knows his subject.  And a few years back he produced a summary of what the many years of research into the scrolls have taught us.  Find it <a href="">here</a>.  I have just read it and find much interest in it.

His final deduction is the most interesting. He concludes that, before and during the time of Christ, the Pharisees maintained in the Jerusalem temple copies of the sacred Hebrew texts that they regarded as authoritative.  Christ himself admitted that the Pharisees were meticulous scholars with a great reverence for Jewish law so we can assume that they went to great lengths to ensure that their copies of the ancient texts were as accurate as possible.  What they produced was probably nearly as good as what modern scholars would have produced in their position.

But Jews have always had great reverence for their scriptures so there would have been many copies of them in whole or in part throughout the land.  The Temple scrolls would have been in part a reaction to that.  They were an attempt to sort out from the many scrolls available what could be relied on.  And access to the Temple scrolls for any purpose would have been closely guarded.  So only a minority of the scrolls in circulation would have been copies of the Temple scrolls.  

But here's the thing:  From the copies of them that we have, it seems that the Temple scrolls were almost identical to the version that the Masoretes gave us, identical to our Hebrew Bible of today.  One could proclaim that to be a blessed miracle but the more likely explanation is that the early Masoretes of a thousand years ago did have access to good copies of the Temple scrolls and relied on them.  So what we have today is the version of the Hebrew scriptures that originated from the ultra-careful work of the ancient Pharisees

So the explanation for variations in ancient versions of the scriptures becomes clear:  There WERE different versions of some of the scriptures circulating in ancient Israel but we have the Pharisees to thank for sorting out that confusion and arriving at a version of the scriptures that is as close as possible to what was originally written.

Tuesday, December 31, 2019

Biblical Textual criticism

In my spare moments over the Christmas season, I have been doing something that is quite appropriate to the time.  I have been reading a lot of textual criticism of the Bible, particularly the OT.

 Textual criticism arises because we do not have any of the original books of the Bible.  They have all been lost over the centuries and only copies remain.  And the copies do not all agree with one another.  So what to do?  Deciding what to do has generated the vast body of textual criticism

I should add the the various disagreements between the copies do not not affect the overall message.  The differences are mainly of detail.  But in a book as important as the Bible, even minor details are of interest.

As a general rule, the oldest MSS (copies) should be closest to the original.  Copying errors do creep in so they should accumulate over time.  So we are fortunate that some MSS that we have are quite old, dating to around 200BC.  I have taken a passing interest in textual criticism for many years so I knew that.  What I did not know was that the earliest copies of the Hebrew Bible (Codex Alexandrinus, Codex Vaticanus, Codex Sinaiticus) were in GREEK.  How come?

The Greek versions of the OT arose because there was a substantial number of Jews in Biblical times who did NOT live in Israel.  They lived in Alexandria in Egypt.  Alexandria was a great commercial centre so there were Jews in business even then.  And many were born in Egypt so spoke only the language of Alexandria at the time:  Commercial Greek.  They had "forgotten" Hebrew.  But they were still religious so wanted to hear the words of their scriptures.  So they had their scriptures translated into a language they could understand:  Greek.  The Greek version of the OT that they produced is generally referred to as the Septuagint, abbreviated as LXX.  And it is that version that gives us the oldest form of the Bible texts.  The oldest Hebrew texts of the OT are many centuries later.

It is said that all translations are interpretations and that was certainly true of the LXX.  The first translation was rather unskilful in some ways so subsequent copyists tried to "tidy it up" as they copied.  Result:  There are no two copies of the LXX that are identical.  Additionally, some ancient copies of the LXX contain passages that are not in all of them and not in the Hebrew text. (e.g.  Ezekiel 28:11-19)

So a great scholarly endeavour has arisen which aims to capture the "Old Greek", the Septuagint as it was originally written -- in the view that the Old Greek would be closest to the Hebrew text that the scribes were originally translating.

And a serious question is what do we do when the Hebrew text and the Greek text diverge.  Since the LXX is much more ancient than any surviving copy of the Hebrew OT, it is reasonable to say that the LXX is closest to the original and it is the LXX readings that should appear in our English versions of the Bible.  That has mostly not occurred. 

And the reason why is the Masoretes.  The Masoretes were Jews of around 1000AD who produced a text of the Hebrew Bible that they proclaimed as correct.  They claimed that as Jewish scribes copied and recopied the OT over the centuries, they had exercized extreme care not to change anything.  That was sufficiently impressive for Christian Protestants to adopt the Masoretic text as the basis of their translations into English.  The OT in the King James Bible is a translation of the Masoretic text

It was however something of an assertion and could be disbelieved.  Then an amazing thing happened.  The Dead Sea scrolls were discovered and dated to just before the time of Christ.  So at last we had some ancient Hebrew texts.  The texts were far from a complete copy of the OT but there were some fairly substantial bits of it.  And one scroll was of the Book of Isaiah.  So how close was the DSIA (Dead Sea scroll of Isaiah) to the Masoretic text?  It was virtually identical!  Those careful Jewish scribes had indeed copied the text of their Bible unaltered for over a thousand years!

It is clear however that there were variant versions of the Hebrew text available in ancient times -- as some of the Dead Sea scrolls were NOT identical to the Masoretic text.  The text we now know as Masoretic was probably in the mainstream but it was not the only Hebrew text in ancient times.  But we can't go back beyond the Dead Sea scrolls so we still have no real way of knowing whether a variant reading is right or wrong. 

Which is where the LXX comes in.  Some LXX copies are much more ancient than the Dead Sea scrolls and appear to be translated from much earlier Hebrew texts.  Even though it is a translation, the LXX may get us closer to the original Hebrew text.

And that is what textual criticism is all about.  Via big debates stretching over the last 200 years, scholars have come to tentative agreement over what is the original text of the OT.  There is still of course no perfect agreement but the various "recensions" produced by different scholars are in something like 99.0% agreement.  So we can be certain that modern scholarly translations into English are firmly founded in what was originally written.  What is amazing at the end of the day is how accurately the Bible has been transmitted to us over the centuries.

Monday, May 20, 2019

The Bible on marriage, gender, and sexuality

All human beings are created in God’s image and are, therefore, of immeasurable value (Gen. 1:26-27). Our male and female genders are also a part of God’s original good creation, and our sexuality is to be celebrated. The God-ordained context for virtuous sexual expression and procreation is marriage, a sacred covenant between one man and one woman (Gen. 2:24; Mt. 19:4-6; Heb. 13:4).

For Christians, the sanctity of the marital covenant is further reinforced by the New Testament use of marriage as a metaphor of Christ and the church (Eph. 5:31-33).

The biblical design for human sexuality demands sexual faithfulness for married couples (Exod. 20:14; 1 Cor. 6:13-20) and chastity for those who are single (1 Thess. 4:3-8). All premarital and extra-marital sexual activity (e.g., fornication, adultery, incest, prostitution, homosexual behavior, and all sexual activity involving children) is immoral.

Homosexual behavior is explicitly and repeatedly forbidden in both the Old and New testaments (Romans 1:27; Jude 1:7; 1 Timothy 1:8-11; Mark 10:6-9; Matthew 19: 4-16; 1 Corinthians 6: 9-11; 1 Corinthians 7:2; Leviticus 18:22; Leviticus 20:13; Genesis 19:4-8)

And all use or involvement with pornographic materials is sinful, as are all forms of sexual abuse, exploitation, and harassment (1 Cor. 6:9-10; 1 Tim. 1:9-10).


Repeated from June 22, 2017:

The scripture that the mainstream churches can't find

Here it is:

"Neither the sexually immoral nor idolaters nor adulterers nor men who have sex with men nor thieves nor the greedy nor drunkards nor slanderers nor swindlers will inherit the kingdom of God."

Their theologians can find it though.  It's in 1 Corinthians 6:9. So what do liberal  theologians say about it?  How do they wriggle around it?

They say that the word "Arsenokoitai" (meaning homosexual) in Paul's original Greek is of uncertain meaning.  And it is true that Paul's use of it in 1 Corinthians 6:9 and 1 Timothy 1:10 is the only mention of the word in the NT.  And my Liddell & Scott Lexicon of ancient Greek notes it as being found only in the NT. So let us look at the complete passage in the original Greek:

Tricky, Huh?  The word we are interested in is the last one on the third line.

Not really tricky.  Liddell & Scott give the word as a pair:  "Arseno-koitees".  And "arseno is the normal Greek word for a male. And "koitees" means to sleep. So the word clearly means "male-sleeper'.  Paul just jammed two common words into one -- with  perfect confidence that his meaning would be obvious. Only a liberal theologian could doubt what he meant.

Curiously, when academics talk about sexual intercourse, they often refer to it as "coitus".  They actually use an Anglicized spelling of the same Greek word that Paul used in referring to sex with men. The Left really are pathetic in their flight from reality. 

There is a very extensive coverage of the whole issue here.  They are more polite than I am but come to the same conclusion.

And if there were any doubt about the NT condemnation of homosexuality, Paul makes it REALLY clear whom he is talking about in Romans 1:27.  They are among those who have been abandoned by God.

A small footnote: In 1 Corinthians 6:9 Paul does not in fact refer to homosexuals generally. He specifically refers to MALE homosexuals, people whom Britons and Australians still sometimes call "poofs" or "poofters". I won't repeat the American slang term as it is rather more excoriating than the British one. Lesbians don't get off entirely, however. See Romans 1:26.

UPDATE:  While we have a large body of writings on which to base our understanding of classical Attic Greek, we have nothing like that for the "koine" Greek of Christ's day.  The NT is just about all we have of it.  So it could obviously have been common for "Arsenokoitai" to be widely used at that time without  our having any surviving evidence of that.  And I get the feeling from Paul's casual use of the term that it was in fact common.  I think that it was most likely to have been the contemptuous term of its day.  "Male-sleeper" is not as contemptuous as "f***ot" or "poof" But I think it probably served a similar function.

And, if I can build speculation on speculation, we can perhaps see an explanation for why Paul was so explicit in his description of homosexuality in Romans 1:26,27.  Why did he not simply use "Arsenokoitai", as he did elsewhere?  Possibly because it was Greek slang that would not be well understood in Rome. Greek was perfectly well understood in grand Roman society but Paul was probably addressing poor Romans whose native language was Latin.  Was the epistle to the Romans in fact originally written in Latin?  For an educated man like Paul to understand Latin would not be surprising.  And we know that he did once say something important in Latin: "Appello Caesarem".

Wednesday, April 24, 2019

Predestination and Donald Trump

The doctrine of predestination is part of Christian teachings.  It is to be found primarily in Paul's letter to the Ephesians, chapter 1 but there are also various hints of it in Christ's words.  For instance, when Simon Peter cut off the servant's ear with his sword in the garden of Gethsemane, Jesus said: "Put up thy sword into the sheath: the cup which my Father hath given me, shall I not drink it?" -- John 18:10.

The early Christian reformer, John Calvin of Geneva, was a great expositor of predestination. He placed it front and centre of his teaching.  But it was a difficult doctrine.  If everything is predestined before we were born, what is the point of trying to be good? We could personally have no hand in what we did. And, more to the point, whether we were saved to eternal life in heaven or not was also pre-ordained. So, as Calvin saw it, the interesting thing was to see which group you belonged to:  The saved or the damned.

And you could find that out by looking at the lot that the Lord had given you. If you lived a virtuous and prosperous life, that suggested that the Lord had picked you out as one of the good guys and you could be proud of that.

So that was a considerable discipline.  If you misbehaved, it would reveal you as one of the damned. And all good people would shy away from you.  So you had to act very virtuously or you would have no hope of eternal life.  So Calvin built up a reasonable ethical system that way, that did take predestination into account.  You were always looking for signs of God's favour to reassure yourself of your destiny and the signs were your own ethical behaviour.

And Calvin was influential.  His disciple John Knox took his teachings to Scotland, where they took strong root and the various Presbyterian churches preached it from their pulpits. And the Dutch Reformed churches are generally Calvinist too.  Protestant Dutchmen in Australia generally just go along to their local Presbyterian church.

In my lifetime, however, I doubt that I have ever heard any mention of the doctrine from a Presbyterian pulpit.  It has sort of unofficially died out as being too "difficult" a doctrine.  The odd thing, though, is that the doctrine has lived on among the Presbyterian laity.  I remember well the way both my mother and my aunties would say to me on occasions -- with quiet confidence --   "Don't worry, John.  It was all planned out before were were born".  The people are still often Calvinists, regardless of what the clergy are.

My theology is no better than Calvin's so I don't propose to attempt an improvement on it. I think it may be helpful  however if I point out a few things.

The most important is that predestination is part of the mercy gospel, which is a prominent element in Christian teaching. Its powerful preaching in Matthew 5 is well known:  "If a man smiteth thee on thy right cheek ..."  So predestination fits in there.  If you know that an evildoer cannot help it, that he was predestined to do that evil, you are much more likely to be forgiving than if you think he could possibly have refrained from doing that evil deed. "There but for the grace of God go I". So predestination makes Christians merciful, which is probably a good thing.

Predestination also helps to make sense of the world.  If strange things happen, you will not be disturbed by them.  They are just God's will and nobody can know the mind of the Lord.  So the doctrine gives you mental repose.  Whatever happens, it is all taken care of.  There is no cause to worry. And it seems to work.  In my experience Presbyterians do seem to be steadier in the face of life's uncertainties and difficulties.  "It's all God's will". So they just get on with their lives as best they can.   It's about as non-neurotic as you can get.

The great example in our era of steadiness in the face of furious and prolonged abuse and attack would have to be Mr. Trump -- and he was brought up as a Presbyterian, courtesy of his Scottish mother.  Did he hear from his mother:  "It was all planned out before we were born"?  I would be surprised if he did not.

Arabs also, of course, believe that everything is fated:  "InshAllah!". But it seems to be altogether too relaxing to them.  It becomes an excuse not to strive. They don't have Calvin's wisdom on that.


Wednesday, April 17, 2019

Obedience to the authorities and Romans 13

Romans 13 was for a long while held to support the divine right of kings.  But does it? It is certainly a command to be a good citizen and one cannot easily object to that.  But the idea that one should just accept anything that any government does is surely troubling.  Even more troubling is the idea that all governments, however bad, were put there by God. So let's see where Paul may have been coming from in writing that.

I have previously suggested here and here that some of the commands to Christians given in the NT were not meant as instructions for all times but rather for the very transitional period when the first flowering of Christianity was in danger of being crushed under the feet of the established authorities, mostly Roman but also more local.  The imperative was for the faith to survive but once that was firmly in place "normal" rules could apply. That helps us to understand the most disobeyed instruction in the Bible:

Ye have heard that it hath been said, An eye for an eye, and a tooth for a tooth: But I say unto you, That ye resist not evil: but whosoever shall smite thee on thy right cheek, turn to him the other also. And if any man will sue thee at the law, and take away thy coat, let him have thy cloke also. And whosoever shall compel thee to go a mile, go with him twain. Matthew 5:38

That advice runs against all nature.  No-one naturally behaves that way.  It is anti-instinctual. So it must have been designed for a very special occasion.  And it was.

It seems to me that these were instructions Jesus gave in full knowledge of the hostility that already existed towards him and the great danger his followers would be in after his death.  He wanted his teachings to survive his death and the disciples were to be the vehicle for that survival.  So he gave them instructions which would minimize hostility towards them.

How do we know that these instructions were for a transitional period only?  Easy.  Many of his other instructions were quite martial. "He said to them, "But now if you have a purse, take it, and also a bag; and if you don't have a sword, sell your cloak and buy one.".  Again: "Do not suppose that I have come to bring peace to the earth. I did not come to bring peace, but a sword".  And Christ himself drove the moneychangers out of the temple. And when Simon Peter cut off the servant's ear with his sword, Jesus did not say that the use of the sword was wrong.  He simply said that the time was wrong for that -- John 18:10.

And Romans 13 is clearly an elaboration of the instructions in Matthew 5. Paul was a good apostle. It reads:

Let everyone be subject to the governing authorities, for there is no authority except that which God has established. The authorities that exist have been established by God.  Consequently, whoever rebels against the authority is rebelling against what God has instituted, and those who do so will bring judgment on themselves.  For rulers hold no terror for those who do right, but for those who do wrong. Do you want to be free from fear of the one in authority? Then do what is right and you will be commended.  For the one in authority is God’s servant for your good. But if you do wrong, be afraid, for rulers do not bear the sword for no reason. They are God’s servants, agents of wrath to bring punishment on the wrongdoer.  Therefore, it is necessary to submit to the authorities, not only because of possible punishment but also as a matter of conscience.  This is also why you pay taxes, for the authorities are God’s servants, who give their full time to governing.  Give to everyone what you owe them: If you owe taxes, pay taxes; if revenue, then revenue; if respect, then respect; if honor, then honor.

Paul was writing in the very beginning of the Christian expansion and there was already hostility to their "strange" beliefs in the Greek cities where they were mostly to be found.  So he wanted to instill attitudes of non-resistance to make them safe.  That both he and Christ saw non-resistance as powerful was in fact amazing wisdom for the time.  It was brilliant advice on how to survive hostility and danger. Psychologists these days teach "de-escalation techniques" for dealing with conflict but Christ and Paul taught such techniques 2,000 years ago.

But are we certain yet that the desire for a peaceful life lay behind those instructions?  I think there is one more piece of evidence that clinches it. It is in I Timothy 2:

I exhort therefore, that, first of all, supplications, prayers, intercessions, and giving of thanks, be made for all men; For kings, and for all that are in authority; that we may lead a quiet and peaceable life in all godliness and honesty

So it is clear that deflection of aggression from the authorities is the single theme of Matthew 5, Romans 13 and 1 Timothy 2. And in those times deflecting hostility was vital if the faith was to survive.  Being known as good people would help them survive.

But what if the survival of the faith is no longer threatened, as is the case in the modern world, with its billions of Christians?  I think in that case the instructions continue as useful tools but they are not something mandatory.  They were instructions for a particular time and circumstance.  So we may no longer use swords but armed self-defense is allowed. But Christian forgiveness still is a wise response to many conflict situations in 1 to 1 relationships.

So was Paul pulling a fast one in telling us that all governments were ordained by God?  Was he telling a white lie in order to get the early Christians to behave?

He was not.  He was simply re-iterating the doctrine of predestination, as found in Ephesians chapter 1.  John Calvin was much taken by that doctrine and did much to elaborate it and it survives as an official doctrine of Presbyterian churches to this day.  It is even preached in the 39 Articles of Religion of the Church of England, albeit in a rather strangled way. That does however raise new issues so I will leave a discussion of it for another day.

Friday, March 29, 2019

Bible verse scrawled on a tribute wall to victims of the Christchurch mosque terrorist attack sparks outrage - as mourners call for it to be removed immediately

Since nobody else seems to be offering an exegesis of Luke 19:27, perhaps I should.

For a start, it is part of a parable in which Jesus is emphasizing that deeds have consequences and that good deeds are expected. And as a parable it is not meant to be taken literally.  So saying that it commands that non-Christians should be slain is wrong.

The first part of the parable tells us that we should use our abilities for good.  So those who contributed something got a reward.  And doing nothing was insufficient.  The man who had simply locked away the money he had was penalized.

And then we come to actual opponents of the good.  They were to be slain -- as the wicked would be at the last day

A Bible verse scrawled on a tribute wall for the Christchurch mosque massacre victims will be removed after it sparked outrage among members of the public.

The message, which simply read 'Luke 19:27', was spotted by Duncan Lucas as he made his way past the wall on a development site in Auckland on Tuesday.

Mr Lucas decided to look up the gospel verse, and was shocked to find it was a reference to enemies being killed in front of a king.

'Not being somebody well versed in biblical studies, it struck me curious someone would write it up with no reference,' Mr Lucas told

'Without any surrounding context, it [the verse] shows a particular standpoint and indicates that anyone of one particular faith is not deserving of equal treatment,' he added.

In the King James version of the Bible, the verse reads: 'But those mine enemies, which would not that I should reign over them, bring hither, and slay them before me.'

While Mr Lucas didn't think the reference needed to be removed he did say it was a 'bit sick' that someone had appeared to deliberately leave out any context.

'I just think whoever put it up there knew they avoided context and knew it would speak to people who looked it up. I think that's a bit sick,' he said.

The marketing manager for Precinct Properties, which erected the tribute wall, confirmed the company were 'making steps' to remove the reference.

She said the company were happy to hear from any members of the public who might deem a message on the wall as inappropriate.

But she added that in the main the wall had been filled with 'overwhelmingly positive' content.

Since the message board was created many well-wishers have taken the time to write touching tributes and inspirational words. 


Sunday, December 16, 2018

Why a great Protestant hymn breaks my heart

I don't know if I will be able to convey what is after all a feeling but I cannot listen to the original version of the great Lutheran hymn "Ein feste Burg ist unser Gott" (A mighty fortress is our God) without being upset.

The hymn is now best known in the marvellous setting by J.S. Bach -- a supreme work of musical art -- so we usually overlook the original hymn.  Both the original work and the Bach setting are works expressing Christian triumph over evil and adversity  but in the original version you get a feeling for what Christians of hundreds of years ago had to triumph over.

The world they lived in was full of tragedy, hardship and disaster  and they attributed it all to demons and the Devil himself.  To them the Devil was real and powerful and present in their lives. They saw his cruel deeds all about them on a daily basis -- in sickness and death and disaster.  There are few things, if any, more upsetting than the death of a child but they had to endure such deaths often.

So what the hymn conveys to me is both how awful their lives were and how their Christian faith gave them the heart to power on.  Their faith was their only rock, their only comfort. They had no power to combat the evils around them. It cuts me up that they had so little power over their lives when we have so much.  Their survival truly is a wonder.

But I have said as much as I can.  Just listen to the starkly simple words of a very simple hymn and feel for those poor people.

As students of foreign languages always tell you, you cannot adequately translate a poem and that is certainly so here.  The song is even more powerful in the original German:  Simple punchy words

The words: "Gut, Ehr, Kind und Weib: lass fahren dahin" are not well translated above.  They say that your possessions, your honour, your child and your wife can all be lost but the Devil still has not triumphed. What tragedies they had to expect!

And now listen to the wonderful things Bach did with that ultra-simple hymn:

Bach had joy in the Christian triumph over the Devil

Footnote:  The opening image in the first video above depicts Luther nailing his 95 theses to the door of the Wittenberg Castle church.  In the background is the Wartburg castle where Luther hid from his imperial pursuers

Wednesday, December 12, 2018

Is Sunday the Sabbath?

A very obvious question is how come Christian churches hold their Sabbath on the day of the Sun rather than on the seventh day of the week -- which is what the Bible commands?  Seventh Day Adventists and Seventh Day Baptists remind us that there is an issue there.

I imagine that most Christians assume that some great Christian eminence or Christian council came together in order to switch observance from Saturday to Sunday as a way of separating Christians from Jews.  Sunday is seen as part of the New Testament that supersedes the Old.

There is still a lively debate among theologians on the issue and I have read both sides.  One lot say that there is nowhere in the NT or anywhere else that commands a change from Saturday to Sunday so the old law still applies and Saturday therefore is the only true Sabbath.

The other lot say that the Apostle Paul released Christians from strict Sabbath observance so we can choose Saturday or Sunday at our discretion.  They have two scriptures on their side in that:

Col. 2:16-17. Let no man therefore judge you in meat, or in drink, or in respect of an holyday, or of the new moon, or of the sabbath days:

Rom. 14:5. One man esteemeth one day above another: another esteemeth every day alike. Let every man be fully persuaded in his own mind.  He that regardeth the day, regardeth it unto the Lord; and he that regardeth not the day, to the Lord he doth not regard it. He that eateth, eateth to the Lord, for he giveth God thanks; and he that eateth not, to the Lord he eateth not, and giveth God thanks.

And Christ himself preached flexibility regarding Sabbath observance. Mark 2:27 “And he said unto them, The sabbath was made for man, and not man for the sabbath:”

What seems to have happened is that Paul wanted a broad church.  In particular, he wanted Jews and Gentiles to be equally welcome in the early Christian congregations.  And he had to be emphatic about that.  Christians who came from Jewry tended to observe all their Jewish customs. Christ was a devout Jew so that seemed entirely proper.

And the Jewish Christians tended to lecture non-Jews on the matter.  They tended to say that the non-Jewish Christians should adopt Jewish practice.  And Paul wanted to put a stop to that.  He wanted Christianity to be a religion for all, not just another Jewish sect.

So Paul preached tolerance, as we see in the scriptures above.  Follow Jewish custom if you like but that is not mandatory.

And that permission was very valuable in the ancient world.  Most of that world revered the Sun.  They worshipped various idols but were also sun worshippers.  And from ancient Sumerian times they had nominated the first day of the week as the sun's day  Some respect to the sun became customary on that day.

But the Jews of course have always been a cantankerous people.  From Moses on, their prophets have always said so.  So the Jews wanted to defy established custom and they did that by making the seventh day, not the first day especially holy

But that was always awkward for diaspora Jews -- i.e. Jews living outside Israel.  Their custom made them seem strange to the others about them and even led to a degree of persecution on occasions

So Paul put and end to that.  He wanted Christians to be well regarded so that people would listen with some respect when they preached the gospel of the living Lord. 

In the circumstances, most non-Jewish Christians probably switched to Sunday observance with alacrity.  Purists no doubt still argued for Saturday but Sunday suited most non-Jewish Christians just fine. And as Christianity spread far and wide the Jewish customs just faded out. Like everybody else, Christians now worshipped on the day of the Sun.

There are various mentions of weekly meetings between the early brothers during which food was eaten but they included no mention of which day the meeting occurred.  They followed the dictum that the meeting was important, not the day on which it occurred.  And in 1 Corinthians 11:17–34 Paul was emphatic that the day should be observed with due solemnity and in honour of the original Last Supper of Christ. But Paul laid down the basic form, not the day of Christian observances.

So there was at no time any proclamation from on high.  Using Sunday for solemn worship just evolved as a convenient custom for Christians. Though the fact that Christ was resurrected on a Sunday tended to legitimate Sunday observance for some

Speaking personally, it seems regrettable to me that Christians have perpetuated sun worship.  For health reasons, I do keep a form of the Sabbath myself. But I do it on the true sabbath -- JR.

Wednesday, September 05, 2018

Retired Anglican Bishop says devout Christian Scott Morrison’s views go AGAINST the Bible

In good Anglican style, Dr Browning is a very secular Bishop. His doctoral thesis was on global warming and he despises the many Bible condemnations of homosexuality (Jude 1:7; 1 Timothy 1:8-11; Mark 10:6-9; 1 Corinthians 6:9-11; 1 Corinthians 7:2; Leviticus 18:32; Leviticus 20:13; Genesis 19:4-8). So it ill behooves him to criticise the Biblical beliefs of Scott Morrison

And his account of scripture is very incomplete. He objects to the offshore detention of illegal immigrants on the basis (apparently) of the injunction to the ancient Israelites in Deuteronomy 10:19, "Love ye therefore the stranger: for ye were strangers in the land of Egypt"

But the NT version of that clearly refers to spiritual differences. 1 Peter 2:11 says: "Dear friends, I urge you as strangers and exiles to abstain from sinful desires that wage war against the soul". It is now the Christians themselves who are strangers to the world around them and they are urged to separate themseves from it. So separating ourselves from law-breaking migrants is entirely scriptural.

And it is Morrison, not the Bishop, who is obedient to the Bible when it comes to his practice of sending his children to a Christian school so they will not be subjected to pro-homosexual propaganda.  Something that is "an abomination to the Lord" is fine and dandy with the fake bishop

A former bishop has claimed Scott Morrison's beliefs are against the Bible, with the statement coming just after devout Christian Prime Minister revealed he sends his children to private school to avoid the 'values of others'.

Mr Morrison said he sends his daughters, aged nine and 11, to an independent Baptist school rather than the local public school to avoid sexual education classes requiring children to role-play bisexual teenagers with multiple partners.

Dr George Browning, a former bishop of the Anglican Church of Australia, said Christians have a right to be concerned that Mr Morrison will 'behave in a way that is out of step with true biblical values' due to his views on asylum seekers, climate change and social welfare.

Dr Browning said Mr Morrison's maiden speech to parliament in 2008 in which he quoted Bishop Desmond Tutu while detailing the values he derived from his faith were not reflected in his actions as a politician.

'Given these are clues to the values that Mr Morrison holds dear, we have the right to be somewhat surprised by the stand, or lack of it, that he has taken on several issues, the first and most obvious being refugees and asylum seekers,' he wrote in a column for The Melbourne Anglican.

'On the matter of "strangers and aliens" the Bible is unequivocally clear - we are to welcome and embrace them.

'It is a matter of national shame that we have mistreated so terribly those who have come to our shores. Those still incarcerated on Manus and Nauru are prisoners of a political ideology that has very little to do with the ongoing security of Australian borders.'

Dr Browning said Mr Morrison's views on climate change showed he did not 'stand up for truth'. 'That the Australian government has abjectly failed to produce a policy to address this truth is quite shocking,' he said.

'Thirdly, in using the quote from Desmond Tutu, Mr Morrison nails his colours to the mast of a preferential bias towards the poor and needy. This of course is the bias of Jesus himself.

'Is this bias demonstrated in successive budgets over which Mr Morrison has had the responsibility of shaping? It is hard to see it.'

Australians have a right to feel the values Mr Morrison 'espoused as a Christian' are 'being ignored', Dr Browning aruged.

Mr Morrison told 2GB on Monday that he did not want the 'values of others being imposed on my children in my school'.

'I don't think that should be happening in a public school or a private school. It's not happening in the school I send my kids to, and that's one of the reasons I send them there.'

Mr Morrison said his objection to elements of the controversial Safe Schools program was why he wants to protect the religious freedoms of private schools.

The activities in question are part of the Building Respectful Relationships program, written by Deakin University associate professor Debbie Ollis, which is mapped to the curriculum in Victoria.

One exercise titled 'Different perspectives on sexual intimacy' requires students to use character cards to do 20-minute role-plays.

Mr Morrison went on to tell Mr Jones he backed federal funding for public education, which is run by the states and territories.

'[But] how about we just have state schools that focus on things like learning maths and science,' he added.

Mr Morrison is a devout Christian and attends the Hillsong Pentecostal mega church.


Thursday, July 26, 2018

The strange death of Protestant Britain

There is an article under the title above in "The Tablet", an international Catholic publication. It is very graphic in documenting the decline of church attendance in Britain. A small excerpt below. What the author, Ian Bradley, writes is no great surprise of course.  The churches themselves have long been agonizing over their steadily shrinking congregations.

What is interesting however is the report that the peak year for both Catholic and Anglican churchgoing was 1955.  That's pretty recent. What can have happened around that time to have caused such a decline?

To answer that, however, we have to look much more widely than Protestant Britain, because the truth is that Western Europe as a whole has lost faith.  It is only in the former Communist countries where faith survives, mostly Roman Catholic and Eastern Orthodox  faith.

Bradley, a Presbyterian minister, asserts that Catholic congregations have held up better in England than Anglican ones but is rather glib about that.  Is he unaware of the boost to Catholicism in Britain from Poland? Many Catholic congregations in Britain are now largely Polish. And there are also immigrant contributions from Asia (the Philippines and Vietnam) and Africa. So purely British Catholicism is also in sharp decline.  That is most clearly seen in the dearth of vocations these days. Australia is much like Britain and in Australia, as the old Irish priests die off, your priest these days is likely to be Asian or black.

So what is it about Western Europe and its derivative societies that has killed faith?  The answer is rather clear, even as to timing:  It is the Welfare State.  The Welfare State in Britain was the work of Clement Attlee, who was a politician for the Labour Party who served as Prime Minister from 1945 to 1951. The welfare State was widely adopted to varying degrees elsewhere in postwar Western Europe and took away most of the great anxieties in life.  You no longer risked hunger or unattended ill health and your children had good opportunities for advancing themselves through education.  The State became God. It did what God merely promised.

There were of course some other influences pushing in the same direction.  WWII spurred a great upsurge in scientific knowlege and technical innovation (think penicillin) that gave us more control over nature.  Instead of nature being "red in tooth and claw", it became "endangered". It was no longer a source of fear. Instead of misfortunes being caused by "hobgoblins and foul fiends", they are now caused by well-understood meteorological events and viruses, for instance.

That the welfare state was central, however, is powerfully shown by the example of Eastern Europe, including Russia.  Under Communist tyranny, everybody lived under a very comprehensive welfare state -- in theory.  In practice, the state was a source of fear. If you kept your head down, you had a job but the food was mostly poor and only intermittently available.  And health care was rudimentary for most.

So Eastern Europe experienced the welfare State as a nightmare, with only the afterlife promised by the church offering any prospect of relief.   And, now that Communism has gone from those unfortunate lands, the promises of socialism are still regarded with great cynicism and the faith that it tried to suppress forcibly is remembered as the true hope.

So that accounts well for the decline of the mainstream churches but Bradley also acknowledges the flourishing of smaller, often Pentecostal churches.  So what have those churches got that the old mainstream churches have not?  It would be very easy to say that they have a revised form of Christianity.  Perhaps their theory and practice is more "modern".

But that is not at all true.  Sin still matters to them.  Heaven and hell still matter to them.  They are "old" not "modern".  It is the mainstream churches who have gone "modern" in a desperate quest to hang on to their congregations.

Many would see the watershed for that transition in the book "Honest to God" by John A. T. Robinson, Bishop of Woolwich, published in 1963.  Not to put too fine a point on it, that book marked the introduction of atheism into the Church of England.  There was no longer a God.  There was only a "ground of our being", whatever that means.  So eventually you would even get Archbishops of Canterbury, such as Robert Runcie, claiming that in private they meditated rather than praying.

So it seems clear that the mainstream churches have moved in  exactly the wrong direction to hold their congregations.  This is most clearly seen in the case of the Anglican diocese of Sydney in Australia.  Sydney is a big city but it has only about a sixth of the Australian population -- but it has a third of Australia's Anglicans. And it is very "old fashioned".  Most of its clergy could probably assent sincerely to the declarations of the "39 articles of religion" found in the Book of Common Prayer, first published in 1662.

To put it in a nutshell, the Sydney diocese still preaches the old Protestant faith of 400 years ago -- and thrives doing so. Where the Sydney Catholic seminary has about 6 students, the Anglican church's Moore College has about 300.  The old Protestantism was a deliberate and sustained attempt to get back to the religion of the New Testament -- and in doing so they tapped into a spiritual powerhouse.

The rise of Christianity out of Israel into all the European world in its first few centuries was meteoric and transformative.  From the words of an obscure Judean prophet it became the religion of all Europe, sweeping all the old religions of Europe aside.  So tapping into that faith was to tap into great religious power. The old churches have become weak but Christianity has not.  It still has its old power to transform lives if it preaches redemption instead of homosexuality

So Eastern Europe and the Sydney diocese are strong counterpoints to the decline of traditional Christian Europe.

I have not so far mentioned the USA but my analysis applies well there also.  America is MUCH more religious than Europe. Why?

1). America still has a rather patchy welfare state with quite a lot of people falling into severe poverty at times. And access to healthcare is also very patchy, made worse by Obamacare.

2) America was founded by religious fanatics and there have long been religious "revivals" in America which keep the old Bible faith before people's minds. And that works all the old transformative Christian magic.

IN ST ANDREWS, my home town, the Presbyterian church built to commemorate the four Protestants burned to death here during the Reformation was recently turned into a university research library. Next door there was for many years a Salvation Army Citadel, a testament to the virtues of teetotalism and evangelical assurance championed by General William Booth. It is now a "Beer Kitchen".

A similar fate has befallen much of the rest of the Protestant landscape of Britain. In the South Wales Valleys Nonconformist chapels have all but disappeared, languishing, rotting and deserted where they have not been turned into second-hand furniture depositories.

In 1901 the city of Hull, long known as "pure and Protestant Hull", had one of the highest churchgoing populations in the country and 115 places of Christian worship, most of them Nonconformist chapels. Now just 11 remain in use and Hull has the lowest level of church-going of any British local authority. It is those denominations that have been the bedrock of British Protestant identity that have declined most spectacularly in the last 60 years. The two national denominations, the Church of England and the Church of Scotland, have each lost 75 per cent of their membership over this period


Tuesday, July 17, 2018

Arabian gold

Did you know that they mine gold in Saudi Arabia?  I didn't but I should have.  There are over 400 mentions of gold in the Bible so it had to come from somewhere. And Arabia is right next door. But as far as I can find the only mention of gold's origin is in Genesis 2:

"And a river went out of Eden to water the garden; and from thence it was parted, and became into four heads. The name of the first is Pison: that is it which compaseth the whole land of Havilah, where there is gold".

Archaeologists have recently identified where the ancient river Pishon flowed.  And it is roughly in the middle of Arabia.

A few excerpts about modern gold mining in Saudi Arabia:

State-controlled mining firm Saudi Ma'aden plans to develop the Mansourah, Massarah gold mine, industry sources told Reuters.

Ma'aden operates six gold mines in the Central Arabian Gold Region, western Saudi Arabia which contains much of the Kingdom's gold rich ore deposits. It has recently started operating the Ad Duwayhi gold mine.

Saudi Arabia's efforts to build an economy that does not rely on oil and state subsidies involves a shift towards mining vast untapped reserves of bauxite, the main source of aluminium, as well as phosphate, gold, copper and uranium.

Sunday, July 02, 2017

Bring back the church militant?

In the Middle Ages, strong young Christian men responded to the call of the Pope to push back the Muslims and regain control of the Holy Land by force.  They threw out the Muslim invaders and brought the Holy land back into Christian hands, where it had been for around a thousand years.  And they held their gains for around 200 years.  So they were a major demonstration of the church militant

Why is there no church militant today?  Mainly because of bad theology -- under the influence of Christ's words in Matthew 5  where he counselled not hitting back at oppressors:

39 But I say unto you, That ye resist not evil: but whosoever shall smite thee on thy right cheek, turn to him the other also.

40 And if any man will sue thee at the law, and take away thy coat, let him have thy cloak also.

41 And whosoever shall compel thee to go a mile, go with him twain.

Clear enough one might think.  But what are we to think of Matthew 10: 34

"Do not suppose that I have come to bring peace to the earth. I did not come to bring peace, but a sword"

or Luke 22:

36 Then said he unto them, But now, he that hath a purse, let him take it, and likewise his scrip: and he that hath no sword, let him sell his garment, and buy one.

38 And they said, Lord, behold, here are two swords. And he said unto them, It is enough

So we gather from the second and third scriptures above that Jesus at a minimum believed in his followers defending themselves.  So was Jesus being inconsistent?  Are Christians under different commands?  If we believe the Bible to be the word of God, that is surely ruled out.  So what is going on?

Clearly, Christ was giving different advice for different occasions.  And the advice in Matthew 5 runs against all nature.  No-one naturally behaves that way.  It is anti-instinctual. So it must have been designed for a very special occasion.  And it was.

Part of his foresight was that his disciples would be persecuted after his death -- so it was important that he give them ways of surviving that.  He had to tell them to behave in a way that would protect them.  He had to give them what modern-day psychologists call "de-escalation techniques".  Above all else they had to avoid getting killed by hostile others, so that they could pass on his message.  

And in Matthew 5:38ff he taught exactly how.  He taught his disciples to be unthreatening and even likable when confronted with hostility.  He was giving them lessons in survival against great threat -- things to do immediately after his death,  not rules for all times and all situations.  And when modern-day psychologists look at his rules they will see that his de-escalation techniques were pretty good. You can turn down hostility if you go about it the right way.

So Matthew 5:38ff was the practical aspect of his teachings.  What at first sight seems totally impractical was in fact superbly practical. The survival of Christianity attests to that.  

But, as the other scriptures show, that advice was not for all occasions, all situations and all times.  Jesus did not preach pacifism.  So it is unsurprising that few Christians today are pacifists.  Only some small sects preach it: Seventh Day Adventists, traditional Quakers, Christadelphians and Jehovah's Witnesses.   The U.S. army, for instance, is still largely a Christian army despite various attempts to suppress that.

So the conventional response to Matthew 5 is broadly right.  It does not stand in the way of both individual self-defence or defence of one's own society. 

But when it comes to oppression from forces within one's own society, many Christians suddenly decide that Matthew 5 is applicable.  There is no reason to.  Matthew 5 was an instruction designed to protect a small and threatened minority.  Christians are certainly threatened in minor ways today but they are not small and their collective survival is not at stake.  

There is for instance no reason why they should be passive when confronted by Muslim aggression.  If Muslims hold aggressive demonstrations, Christians should be out holding aggressive counter-demonstrations. If Muslims carry around placards extolling Mohammed, they would be perfectly justified in carrying around placards saying that Islam is a false religion and that the Koran is the ravings of an insane pedophile.  

If masked Leftists attack them during a demonstration, they should shoot.

That does not mean Christians should abandon Matthew 5 in their personal  lives.  Christian forgiveness still is a wise response to many conflict situations in 1 to 1 relationships -- JR

Sunday, June 04, 2017

Note to Margaret Court: the Bible isn't meant to be read that literally

Robyn J Whitaker, a female lecturer at a "modern" theology college, attempts below to rebut the points about homosexuality made by Australian tennis great, Margaret Court. Much of what she says below is "ad hominem", attacking Ms Court personally, and she endeavours to make points about homosexuality by generalizing from heterosexual marriage. 

But the point about homosexuality is that it is NOT heterosexual marriage and the Bible consistently distinguishes between the two.  Homosexuality is a separate issue in the Bible and there is no indication that it should be seen as part of the "patriarchy" as Ms Whitaker extravagantly claims.

She claims that the Bible condones homosexuality but cannot produce a single text to that effect.  The OT is unrelentingly and savagely hostile to homosexuality and the Apostle Paul continues that hostility in Romans chapter 1 of the NT.  The big break in the NT is not any form of condoning homosexuality but rather a lifting of the duty to stone homosexuals to death.  Paul says it can be left to God to condemn and punish them.

For anyone who takes the Bible seriously as the word of God, there can be no doubt that homosexuals are in the outer darkness and not among those who will be saved. 1 Corinthians 6:9 says as much.  The Bible does NOT teach universal salvation.  It teaches that those wishing salvation must heed God's commands.

Ms Whitaker seems to think it important that Jesus did not explicitly condemn homosexuality.  He did not need to.  For him, as a devout Jew in a Jewish society, that was understood. So we see in Matthew 19 that, for him, marriage was clearly between a man and a woman and it was only they who could become "one flesh". And the authority he gave for that was what was found in the Jewish scriptures.  So there is no doubt whatever about his view of sexual relationships. Only male/female marriage was on his horizons.

But Ms Whitaker says that the Bible is just a very old book from which we can pick and choose what we like.  She is not a Christian.  At best she is a post-Christian, not unlike the scribes and Pharisees of Jesus' day -- whom Jesus condemned in Mathew 23:3.  And note the three things that Jesus there said the Pharisees neglected: "justice and mercy and faithfulness".  Ms Whitaker likes the mercy teaching but seems to have no interest in justice and faithfulness.  Jesus said you need all three

Margaret Court is wrong to claim marriage is "a union between a man and a woman as stated in the Bible", as she did in her open letter to Qantas, or that a "biblical view" of marriage is between one man and one woman, as she did on Channel Ten's The Project last week.

She is even more wrong to suggest she is being persecuted for her views. Here is why.

Reading the Bible to determine the shape of contemporary marriage is not an easy task. It is an ancient collection of 66 books, written in three different languages (Hebrew, Greek and Aramaic), and spanning over 1,000 years of human history.

Much of the Bible was written 2,500 years ago, when family life was very different.

In the Hebrew scriptures, Abraham fathered children with his concubine as well as his wife, and Moses likely had two wives (one of whom is presented as problematic because she was a foreigner).

Famous biblical kings, like David and Solomon, had entire palaces full of often dubiously acquired wives and concubines that served as symbols of their power and status.

    The reality is families in the Bible reflect the patriarchal structures of their period. Women were considered commodities to be married off for political alliances, economic reasons, or to keep families connected. They had no autonomy to choose their partners.

Polygamy was common, as was the use of slaves as sexual concubines.

I don't hear anyone advocating a "biblical view" of marriage suggesting we return to those particular scenarios.

In the New Testament, Jesus said nothing about homosexual relationships or marriage, except that people should not divorce. This teaching is widely ignored by many Christian denominations today.

Most likely, Jesus's concern in speaking against divorce was for the vulnerable place in which it left women, given they could not usually earn their own money or inherit.

Marriage was allowed in the New Testament, but the most prolific writer, Paul, thinks celibacy is preferable for a Christian.

When Paul writes "there is no longer Jew or Greek, there is no longer slave or free, there is no longer male and female; for all of you are one in Christ Jesus" (Galatians 3:28), he presents an ideology profoundly disruptive of patriarchal family structures, gender roles and hierarchy.

This kind of Christian teaching led, if anything, to a breakdown of traditional marriage structures (in ancient terms).

For example, the option to remain celibate and live in community (such as a nunnery or monastery) was a radical, attractive and liberating alternative to arranged marriage for women in earliest Christianity.

Jesus' own mother, who is an example of faith in the church's tradition, appears to have left her husband and other children at home to follow her itinerant son.

The nuclear family and the Bible

Not all opinions are of equal weight. While Margaret Court remains one of the most phenomenal sportswomen in Australian history, this does not qualify her as a spokesperson for Christianity on marriage equality.

Nor does being a self-appointed leader of a church she created.

Indeed, if Ms Court applied the literalism with which she reads Genesis to the whole of the Bible, she'd find herself in hot water, since 1 Timothy 2:12 explicitly forbids women teaching or having any authority over men.

This kind of culturally bound ideology is precisely why biblical scholars and mainstream Christian churches do not adhere to a literal interpretation of this ancient and diverse text.

To criticise and expect a higher level of discourse from a public figure is not bullying nor persecution.

Ms Court willingly put herself into the public space by writing an open letter to Qantas. She could have lodged her complaint privately with the company if she wished to remain free of public comment.

    There is nothing inherently Christian about the so-called traditional arrangement of the nuclear family.

You can find that model in the Bible if you look for it, but it is not the dominant view. Nor does the Bible condemn what we understand to be loving, mutual LGBTQI relationships today.

There is nothing like the contemporary concept of sexual orientation in the biblical text.

Where the Bible does appear to condemn homosexual acts it condemns same-sex acts that are rape, adulterous or represent imbalanced power dynamics, such as an elite male with a youth.

[Rubbish!  In 1 Timothy 1: 8-10 and elsewhere homosexuality is simply listed among all the foul sins that are contrary to the law of God]

Interestingly, these same power dynamics are not critiqued when an elite male takes a young woman as a sexual concubine; a sobering reminder of the patriarchal worldview that lies behind the text and ancient fears about penetration and masculinity.

Concepts of family and marriage have evolved and changed throughout human history, including within the church.

Modern Christian families can be made up of gay couples, straight couples, single people in community, childless adults, foster parents, step-parents, grandparents and biological parents.  It is their faith that makes them Christian, not their family structure nor sexuality.

Many Christians are not represented by the views we've recently heard from Margaret Court, nor those espoused by the so-called Australian Christian Lobby.

In fact, quite the opposite. Christian values of love, justice and inclusion found throughout the Bible are why so many Christians support marriage equality.


Tuesday, May 16, 2017

The puzzle of Matt. 5:38-41

In Matthew’s report of the Sermon on the Mount, Jesus says: “Ye have heard that it hath been said, ‘An eye for an eye, and a tooth for a tooth,’ but I say unto you, that ye resist not evil; but whosoever shall smite thee on thy right cheek, turn to him the other also.  And if any man will sue thee at the law, and take away thy coat, let him have thy cloak also.  And whosoever shall compel thee to go a mile, go with him twain.”

Mainstream Christians essentially ignore this pretty clear instruction.  They go to war, they fight back, they sue etc.  It is only some of the smaller denominations who take it seriously: Traditional Quakers, Seventh Day Adventists, Jehovah's Witnesses etc.  I respected my Bible from an early age so, at around age 14, I became a pacifist in obedience to that scripture.  Not long after I became an atheist, I joined the army.

But the reason why the scripture is mostly ignored is that it runs against all nature.  No-one naturally behaves that way.  It is anti-instinctual.  But despite my defection from Christianity, I have always wondered if I was missing something in that teaching.  And I now think I was.

As any serious Bible student will tell you, context can be enormously important in studying scripture.  The "proof-text" approach to exegesis can easily get it wrong.  You have to study what went before and after a passage as well as the passage itself.

So what context do we need to understand Matthew 5:38ff?  Is it the commandment to love others as ourselves?  That would certainly fit as equally unrealistic. But "I came not to bring peace but a sword" (Matthew 10:34) would seem an outright contradiction.

I think the context we need is in fact the whole of the Gospels.  We have to look at the whole message of the Gospels.  And that message is that Jesus knew from the beginning he was a new and different teacher and that his difference would get him killed.  And he saw great meaning in his life and death.  And the time he spent teaching his disciples tells us that he did not see his death as the end of his message.  He wanted his teachings to survive and be passed on. And exactly that happened, of course.

But part of his foresight was that his disciples would be persecuted -- so it was important that he give them ways of surviving that.  He had to tell them to behave in a way that would protect them.  He had to give them what modern-day psychologists call "de-escalation techniques".  Above all else they had to avoid getting killed by hostile others.  And in Matthew 5:38ff he taught exactly how.  He taught his disciples to be unthreatening and even likable when confronted with hostility.  He was giving them lessons in survival against great threat -- things to do right from that point onwards, not rules for all times and all situations.  And when modern-day psychologists look at his rules they will see that his de-escalation techniques were pretty good. You can turn down hostility if you go about it the right way.

So Matthew 5:38ff was the practical aspect of his teachings.  What at first sight seems totally impractical was in fact superbly practical. The survival of Christianity attests to that. -- JR