Friday, December 31, 2010

Reading through the Pseudepigrapha in a year

First year students in a New Testament Introduction class will often be introduced to a wealth of ancient literature that is not found between the covers of their Bible. Even if they are among the few who have a Bible with an apocrypha, they will not have those books normally categorized as the "Old Testament Pseudepigrapha." This corpus includes such books as Enoch, which although mentioned in the book of Jude, is not to be found anywhere in the Bible.

Yet, as many students of the New Testament soon discover, in order to understand much of the theology of the New Testament you must also be familiar with the thought and theology of the "intertestamental period" which is contained in the "Apocrypha," "Pseudepigrapha" and the Dead Sea Scrolls. But unless you take an elective in this vast corpus of literature, chances are you will only hear references here and there and never have a chance to read it. Many students will leave seminary having never seen a copy of the Pseudepigrapha much less read it. This is unfortunate, but understandable. This literature is not part of the Jewish or (Protestant) Christian canon. And there much more of it to read than there is Bible.

Whenever a student tells me that she or he wants to do a Ph.D. in New Testament I always recommend that they become familiar with the literature in the Pseudepigrapha. But this can be a daunting task in itself.

Thankfully, Joseph Kelly over at Kol-Ha-Adam has provided a calendar for reading through the Pseudepigrapha in a year (see below). It breaks down the books found in Charlesworth's two volume set and lists what to read on a given day. I may try this myself since, although I work in this literature constantly, I have not sat and read through it in quite a long time.

So here is a new year's resolution for you with a link to the calender and here is to a year of reading strange and esoteric literature.

Thanks to Joel Watts for pointing this out.

Thursday, December 30, 2010

Is historical criticism a great enemy of preaching?

Anyone who has sat through a graduate/seminary level biblical studies class has invariably experienced a conflict between what they are being told about the Bible and what they were taught about the Bible through preaching. And as we become more and more familiar with the conclusions of higher biblical criticism, it sometimes becomes difficult to listen to preachers or even, perhaps, to be preachers ourselves. Our sources of knowledge seem to be at variance with one another.

My students will often ask me: "what the heck am I supposed to do with the text now that you have deconstructed it"? That is an excellent question which I am not sure that I always give the best answer. It will probably be a lifelong struggle for all of us.

Walter Brueggemann is an example of one who lives in both worlds. He is a biblical critic, but also an outstanding preacher who brings life to the Bible. One of my students, Ryan Gear, has posted a short clip in which Brueggemann suggests that historical criticism has become the enemy of preaching since it makes imagination impossible because it flattens the text by way of explanation. He suggests that preachers should value historical criticism, but put it in its place and move beyond it.

What do you think? Is historical criticism an enemy of preaching? Can the two reside and work together? Or, are they so at odds with one another that they are, in the words of Longfellow, "Two ships that pass in the night"?

How, if at all, do you incorporate the knowledge of historical criticism in your preaching and teaching?

Wednesday, December 29, 2010

New NIV Shoots to the Top.

The 2011 version of the NIV has been out for barely two months, but it is making big gains.

It is number 3 on Amazon ahead of other Bibles. But what makes this all the more interesting is that the print version has yet to be released. All sales at this point represent the digital rather than print version.

According to a USA Today report the digital version of the the new NIV is number one in the Apple store under the category of Religious/Spiritual and number 13 across all categories for Christmas week. In fact, Bible apps have recorded 1 million downloads over the last five months.

E-books are certainly the wave of the future and Zondervan, publisher of the NIV, has been quick to capitalize on this new market. E-book Bibles now represent 25% of their e-book sales.

The world is changing. It is now even easier for a person to carry a copy of the Bible with them wherever they go. They can have it on a laptop, an iPad, or a cellphone. The question is, will they read it?

Tuesday, December 28, 2010

The Christian war on Christmas

Earlier this month I posted a piece on why I did not think Christians need to defend Christmas. Today, Allan Bevere, My colleague at Ashland Seminary, has a post recounting about the days when attacks on Christmas came not from the secular but the religious. Here is some of what he has to say.

"Shocking as it sounds, followers of Jesus Christ in both America and England helped pass laws making it illegal to observe Christmas, believing it was an insult to God to honor a day associated with ancient paganism," according to "Shocked by the Bible" (Thomas Nelson Inc, 2008). "Most Americans today are unaware that Christmas was banned in Boston from 1659 to 1681."

All Christmas activities, including dancing, seasonal plays, games, singing carols, cheerful celebration - and especially drinking - were banned by the Puritan-dominated Parliament of England in 1644, with the Puritans of New England following suit. Christmas was outlawed in Boston, and the Plymouth colony made celebrating Christmas a criminal offense, according to "Once Upon a Gospel" (Twenty-Third Publications, 2008).

Christmas trees and decorations were considered to be unholy pagan rituals, and the Puritans also banned traditional Christmas foods such as mince pies and pudding. Puritan laws required that stores and businesses remain open all day on Christmas, and town criers walked through the streets on Christmas Eve calling out "No Christmas, no Christmas!"

You can read the rest of the post over on Allan's blog.

Herod the Great or not so Great?

This being the Christmas season it is a perfect time to give some consideration to Herod the Great. Today is the day that the western church celebrates the feast of the innocents.

Herod is known to Christians through one incident and one only, the massacre of the innocents as recorded in Matthew 2:16-18. There we read that Herod, having been accidentally tipped off about Jesus' birth by the Magi, attempted to kill the newborn king of the Jews by killing all boys in the Bethlehem vicinity two years or younger. Herod dies in the next verse (2:19) and so does most Christians' knowledge and interest in the infamous Jewish king.

Well there are two articles in this week's news that will help you to learn more about Herod and perhaps even see another side of him.

The first is a description of the recently discovered tomb of Herod. Ehud Netzer, who died in October, has an article in Biblical Archaeology Review describing his lifelong search for Herod's tomb. The article not only describes the search for the tomb, it also fills-in some historical details about Herod's fascinating life. Although certainly not someone you would want to date your daughter, Herod was a brilliant builder, politician and statesman. Even if many of his accomplishments were powered by the edge of a sword.

The second article is by Geza Vermes in what is an attempt to rehabilitate Herod and help us to understand him in context. Here is the conclusion from Vermes' article.

In short, both Jewish and Christian traditions treat him as Herod the Terrible. The historian, however, is fully aware, despite Herod's grave shortcomings, of his unparalleled political and cultural accomplishments. In particular, his long friendship with Augustus was highly beneficial to the inhabitants of Judea and the Jewish religion. Moreover, while Herod enjoyed the enviable status of a "client king, friend of the Roman people", none of his descendants, if the short reign of Agrippa I (41-44 CE) is discarded, was sufficiently esteemed by Augustus and his successors to receive the title "king of the Jews". All in all, in view of these unquestionable achievements Herod deserves to be known as the one and only Herod the Great.

Thanks to Jim West for pointing out the Vermes article.

Monday, December 27, 2010

Celebrating 400 years of the King James Bible

I've mentioned before that Ashland Theological Seminary will be hosting a series of events celebrating the King James Bible. We will also have a museum with over 40 different items on display. We will be exhibiting such items as a fragment of the Dead
Sea Scrolls (200 BCE), Greek Exodus fragments (300 CE), a Torah Scroll (1492) and a number of Bibles some over 500 years old.

One of the local newspapers has run an article on the event. Strange that they would do so on Christmas day since I can't imagine that is one of the days that newspapers figure high on most people's agenda. But in any case, here is a piece from the Mansfield News Journal.

I'm back!

I have been away for the last ten days celebrating Christmas on a cruise in Western Caribbean. I am trying to get caught up on everything that has happened while I was gone, and plan to be back up to speed soon.

Sunday, December 26, 2010

Matthew 2:1-12

After Jesus was born in Bethlehem in Judea, during the time of King Herod, Magi from the east came to Jerusalem 2 and asked, “Where is the one who has been born king of the Jews? We saw his star when it rose and have come to worship him.”

3 When King Herod heard this he was disturbed, and all Jerusalem with him. 4When he had called together all the people’s chief priests and teachers of the law, he asked them where the Messiah was to be born. 5 “In Bethlehem in Judea,” they replied, “for this is what the prophet has written:

6 “‘But you, Bethlehem, in the land of Judah,
are by no means least among the rulers of Judah;
for out of you will come a ruler
who will shepherd my people Israel.’”

7 Then Herod called the Magi secretly and found out from them the exact time the star had appeared. 8 He sent them to Bethlehem and said, “Go and search carefully for the child. As soon as you find him, report to me, so that I too may go and worship him.”

9 After they had heard the king, they went on their way, and the star they had seen when it rose went ahead of them until it stopped over the place where the child was. 10 When they saw the star, they were overjoyed. 11 On coming to the house, they saw the child with his mother Mary, and they bowed down and worshiped him. Then they opened their treasures and presented him with gifts of gold, frankincense and myrrh. 12 And having been warned in a dream not to go back to Herod, they returned to their country by another route.

Saturday, December 25, 2010

Luke 2:6-20

6 While they were there, the time came for the baby to be born, 7 and she gave birth to her firstborn, a son. She wrapped him in cloths and placed him in a manger, because there was no guest room available for them.

8 And there were shepherds living out in the fields nearby, keeping watch over their flocks at night. 9 An angel of the Lord appeared to them, and the glory of the Lord shone around them, and they were terrified. 10 But the angel said to them, “Do not be afraid. I bring you good news that will cause great joy for all the people. 11 Today in the town of David a Savior has been born to you; he is the Messiah, the Lord. 12 This will be a sign to you: You will find a baby wrapped in cloths and lying in a manger.”

13 Suddenly a great company of the heavenly host appeared with the angel, praising God and saying,

14 “Glory to God in the highest heaven,
and on earth peace to those on whom his favor rests.”

15 When the angels had left them and gone into heaven, the shepherds said to one another, “Let’s go to Bethlehem and see this thing that has happened, which the Lord has told us about.”

16 So they hurried off and found Mary and Joseph, and the baby, who was lying in the manger. 17 When they had seen him, they spread the word concerning what had been told them about this child, 18 and all who heard it were amazed at what the shepherds said to them. 19 But Mary treasured up all these things and pondered them in her heart. 20 The shepherds returned, glorifying and praising God for all the things they had heard and seen, which were just as they had been told.

Friday, December 24, 2010

Luke 2:1-5

In those days Caesar Augustus issued a decree that a census should be taken of the entire Roman world. 2 (This was the first census that took place while Quirinius was governor of Syria.) 3 And everyone went to their own town to register.

4 So Joseph also went up from the town of Nazareth in Galilee to Judea, to Bethlehem the town of David, because he belonged to the house and line of David. 5 He went there to register with Mary, who was pledged to be married to him and was expecting a child.

Thursday, December 23, 2010

Matthew 1:18-25

18 This is how the birth of Jesus the Messiah came about: His mother Mary was pledged to be married to Joseph, but before they came together, she was found to be pregnant through the Holy Spirit. 19 Because Joseph her husband was faithful to the law, and yet did not want to expose her to public disgrace, he had in mind to divorce her quietly.

20 But after he had considered this, an angel of the Lord appeared to him in a dream and said, “Joseph son of David, do not be afraid to take Mary home as your wife, because what is conceived in her is from the Holy Spirit. 21 She will give birth to a son, and you are to give him the name Jesus, because he will save his people from their sins.”

22 All this took place to fulfill what the Lord had said through the prophet: 23 “The virgin will conceive and give birth to a son, and they will call him Immanuel”(which means “God with us”).

24 When Joseph woke up, he did what the angel of the Lord had commanded him and took Mary home as his wife. 25 But he did not consummate their marriage until she gave birth to a son. And he gave him the name Jesus.

Wednesday, December 22, 2010

Luke 1:46-55

And Mary said:

“My soul glorifies the Lord
47 and my spirit rejoices in God my Savior,
48 for he has been mindful
of the humble state of his servant.
From now on all generations will call me blessed,
49 for the Mighty One has done great things for me—
holy is his name.
50 His mercy extends to those who fear him,
from generation to generation.
51 He has performed mighty deeds with his arm;
he has scattered those who are proud in their inmost thoughts.
52 He has brought down rulers from their thrones
but has lifted up the humble.
53 He has filled the hungry with good things
but has sent the rich away empty.
54 He has helped his servant Israel,
remembering to be merciful
55 to Abraham and his descendants forever,
just as he promised our ancestors.”

Tuesday, December 21, 2010

Luke 1:26-38

In the sixth month of Elizabeth’s pregnancy, God sent the angel Gabriel to Nazareth, a town in Galilee, 27 to a virgin pledged to be married to a man named Joseph, a descendant of David. The virgin’s name was Mary. 28 The angel went to her and said, “Greetings, you who are highly favored! The Lord is with you.”

29 Mary was greatly troubled at his words and wondered what kind of greeting this might be. 30 But the angel said to her, “Do not be afraid, Mary; you have found favor with God. 31 You will conceive and give birth to a son, and you are to call him Jesus. 32 He will be great and will be called the Son of the Most High. The Lord God will give him the throne of his father David, 33 and he will reign over Jacob’s descendants forever; his kingdom will never end.”

34 “How will this be,” Mary asked the angel, “since I am a virgin?”

35 The angel answered, “The Holy Spirit will come on you, and the power of the Most High will overshadow you. So the holy one to be born will be called the Son of God. 36 Even Elizabeth your relative is going to have a child in her old age, and she who was said to be unable to conceive is in her sixth month. 37 For no word from God will ever fail.”

38 “I am the Lord’s servant,” Mary answered. “May your word to me be fulfilled.” Then the angel left her.

Monday, December 20, 2010

A Social Network Nativiety

Thanks to Steve Walton for pointing this out to me on Facebook. Enjoy!

Friday, December 17, 2010

Wiki Bible Commentary

James McGrath has noted that in his recent class on Revelation he required his students to contribute to the Wikibooks commentary on Revelation. This sounds like an interesting project and I will need to talk further with the good Doctor to learn how he went about it. In the mean time you can read the results here.

Below is an example of what you will find there. I chose Revelation 13:18 to see what they had to say about the mark of the beast. Good stuff!

18Here is wisdom: Let him that has understanding count the number of the beast, for it is the number of a man, and his number is six hundred and sixty-six.

Commentary: Of all the verses in Revelation, Rev. 13:18 has easily received the most attention. There have been many interpretations regarding the number 666. It may simply signify incompleteness and chaos by virtue of the fact it falls short of the perfect 777.

However, gematria, the ancient practice of assigning letters numerical value, was common in John’s day. Going the other way (numbers to letters) involves a little more guess work after 2000 years. Having said this, the Greek to Hebrew to number translation of Nero can produce 666. Also, the word Beast itself also produces 666. It seems John is showing as explicitly as he is able that 666 is the Beast is Nero is 666, etc. Nero is also a likely candidate due to his rampant persecution of christians. Furthermore, he would have been extremely well known to John's audience, so that even after concealing his identity in the number, the beast would have clearly stood as a symbol of Nero.

Additionally significant is the fact that 666 is the eighth sequential doubly triangular number; that is, it is the eighth number which is the sum of successive numbers beginning with 1 whose last number in the series (in this case 36) is also triangular. Some have argued that this could be the meaning of the symbolism of the beast having seven head, with Nero being the eighth and the beast himself. This may be pushing the symbolism too far.

There is actually some contention that the number is not, in fact, 666, but is instead 616. This can be found in some early manuscripts of the book. These are certainly in the minority, although they are not totally without merit. This comes from using the Latin form of Nero's name, translating it to hebrew, and then assigning a number value to the letters. This is the same process discussed above which translates the letters of Nero's name to 666.

Congrats to Constance Gilbert!

You are the winner of the Ephesians volume. Send me your address in the comments section and I will send it to you. I will not publish your address.

Was Jesus Born in a Stable?

Mark Goodacre has uploaded his latest installment of the NT Pod. In this episode Mark looks at the translation of Luke 2:7 and asks: "was Jesus born in a stable?" He covers some of the same material of that I did in my own post asking "is there finally room at the inn"? But, as usual, Mark provides a masterful presentation of the material. What he points out is while there is a manger, there is no inn keeper and no stable.

You can hear what he has to say over at the NT Pod page.

Thursday, December 16, 2010

The Date for Christmas: When was it decided and did Christians steal it from the pagans?

Last year Biblical Archaeology Review ran an article that Andre McGowan in which he provides a historical outline for how December 25th came to be the day the church celebrates Jesus' birth. It is a well-written, balanced article. McGowan argues that the popular notion that Christians stole the day from the pagan's may not be all that accurate. Here is an excerpt.

The most loudly touted theory about the origins of the Christmas date(s) is that it was borrowed from pagan celebrations. The Romans had their mid-winter Saturnalia festival in late December; barbarian peoples of northern and western Europe kept holidays at similar times. To top it off, in 274 C.E., the Roman emperor Aurelian established a feast of the birth of Sol Invictus (the Unconquered Sun), on December 25. Christmas, the argument goes, is really a spin-off from these pagan solar festivals. According to this theory, early Christians deliberately chose these dates to encourage the spread of Christmas and Christianity throughout the Roman world: If Christmas looked like a pagan holiday, more pagans would be open to both the holiday and the God whose birth it celebrated.

Despite its popularity today, this theory of Christmas’s origins has its problems. It is not found in any ancient Christian writings, for one thing. Christian authors of the time do note a connection between the solstice and Jesus’ birth: The church father Ambrose (c. 339–397), for example, described Christ as the true sun, who outshone the fallen gods of the old order. But early Christian writers never hint at any recent calendrical engineering; they clearly don’t think the date was chosen by the church. Rather they see the coincidence as a providential sign, as natural proof that God had selected Jesus over the false pagan gods.

It’s not until the 12th century that we find the first suggestion that Jesus’ birth celebration was deliberately set at the time of pagan feasts. A marginal note on a manuscript of the writings of the Syriac biblical commentator Dionysius bar-Salibi states that in ancient times the Christmas holiday was actually shifted from January 6 to December 25 so that it fell on the same date as the pagan Sol Invictus holiday. In the 18th and 19th centuries, Bible scholars spurred on by the new study of comparative religions latched on to this idea. They claimed that because the early Christians didn’t know when Jesus was born, they simply assimilated the pagan solstice festival for their own purposes, claiming it as the time of the Messiah’s birth and celebrating it accordingly.

More recent studies have shown that many of the holiday’s modern trappings do reflect pagan customs borrowed much later, as Christianity expanded into northern and western Europe. The Christmas tree, for example, has been linked with late medieval druidic practices. This has only encouraged modern audiences to assume that the date, too, must be pagan.

There are problems with this popular theory, however, as many scholars recognize. Most significantly, the first mention of a date for Christmas (c. 200) and the earliest celebrations that we know about (c. 250–300) come in a period when Christians were not borrowing heavily from pagan traditions of such an obvious character.

Read the rest of the article here.

Thanks to Derek Leman for the link.

Wednesday, December 15, 2010

Ephesians: A Participatory Guide

Allan Bevere and the folks at Energion Publications have been kind enough to provide me with an advance reader copy of a participatory study guide to Ephesians.

As an author, Robert Cornwall is uniquely qualified to write just such a volume. He is the Pastor of Central Woodward Christian Church in Troy Michigan and he holds a Ph.D. in Historical Theology from Fuller Theological Seminary. What that means is that Cornwall brings together the concerns of both the Pastor and the Scholar as he leads the reader through a study of Ephesians. Indeed Cornwall has this say about the volume: "Faith and understanding are not mutually exclusive categories, and this study seeks to draw them together" (1v).

The method used for this study is lectio divina ("holy reading"). This method is steeped in over 1800 years of Christian history and tradition. Using the "four movements" (Reading, Meditating, Praying and Contemplating), Cornwall leads the reader through 8 lessons that cover the Epistle to Ephesians. Each lesson has:

  1. An opening prayer
  2. A reading from Ephesians
  3. The lesson for the section
  4. A set of discussion questions
  5. An exercise to help reinforce the lesson and the experience
  6. A historical/theological reflection
  7. A closing prayer

I am impressed with Cornwall's efforts. He has done a fine job bringing in both theological and pastoral concerns (not that they are or should be different than one another). He is also not afraid to shy away from difficult, yet important questions. For instance, in the first lesson he dives right into the debate over whether Paul wrote Ephesians or if someone wrote it in Paul's name. The topic of pseudonymity is not usually on the mind of those not engaged in scholarly debates. But Cornwall does not "protect" the reader, but instead draws the reader in to consider the implications. And as far as I can tell, he does not tell the reader what to think. Rather the reader is engaged further in the discussion questions when he asks them to think about how pseudonymity might or might not effect a reading of Ephesians.

Another strength is the way the reader is introduced to the wider Christian tradition. The opening closing prayers of each lesson are taken from the various hymn and prayers that have been handed down to us across the years. In one lesson the reader begins with a prayer by Reinhold Niebuhr (20th cent) and concludes with one from St Dionysius (3rd cent). In this fashion, the reader interacts with and appreciates the continuum of Christian worship throughout history.

The volume is complemented by a useful appendix listing some recommended "tools" for doing Bible study. This is particularly helpful since several of the exercises include reading in Bible dictionaries or commentaries. Cornwall's selection will help the reader to find and use a quality resource.

I commend Robert Cornwall and Energion Publications for producing a thoughtful study guide that does not spoon feed information to readers and supply with trite solutions to make it through life. Rather, this volume will challenge the reader to think as well as learn. It would serve either an individual or group study, but I think a group setting would make the interaction all the more valuable. I look forward to seeing other similar study guides in the future.

The release date for the Ephesians guide in January 3rd.

I have decided that I will do a giveaway with this volume. Leave your full name in the comment section of the post. I will take names until 11:55pm on Thursday, December 16th. I will choose the recipient on Friday.

Tuesday, December 14, 2010

Scot McKnight on the Gospel

Trevin Wax has an interview with Scot McKnight based on Scot's recent article "Jesus vs Paul" in Christianity Today. Trevin asks Scot to think a little more about the apparent conflict between Paul's justification centered Gospel and Jesus' Kingdom Centerer Gospel. Read it here.

The Story of the Nativity in the Digital Age

Thanks to Jim West for this.

Monday, December 13, 2010

Was Canada responsible for the worldwide flood?

Well, not really. But a recent article suggests that it may have been triggered by an event in what is now Canada. The multiple flood stories from antiquity, including the one in Genesis, have often led scholars and scientists to suspect that the stories were reflecting memories of a historical event. They have surmised that a localized, catastrophic flood gave rise to the world-wide flood stories we know so well.

Recently a British scientist suggested that the flood was triggered when the ancestor of Lake Winnipeg burst its banks 8,000 years ago.
An article in the Montreal Gazette had this to say recently.

A British researcher has published a startling new theory that the remains of untold ancient settlements from a 100,000-year stretch of human history were submerged by the rapidly rising waters of the Persian Gulf around 6,000 BC — the result, in all likelihood, of a catastrophic, planetwide flood triggered in Canada.

There's a consensus among scientists that the collapse of a kilometres-high glacial dam at the end of the last ice age caused a massive outflow of meltwater into the Arctic or North Atlantic Ocean near Hudson Bay, generating a sharp rise in sea levels around the world and profoundly altering the Earth's climate.

Some scientists have even speculated that ancient myths about great floods — culminating in the biblical story of Noah's Ark — were inspired by the worldwide deluge.

But the new theory, advanced in the latest issue of the journal Current Anthropology by University of Birmingham archeologist Jeffrey Rose, offers the clearest picture yet of what may have been lost at the Middle East nexus of human civilization when Canada's super-sized Lake Agassiz — a remnant of which is today's Lake Winnipeg — suddenly burst its banks 8,000 years ago.

The resulting rise of the Indian Ocean flooded a Great Britain-sized expanse of the Arabian Peninsula that had previously been above water and was almost certainly inhabited by ancient peoples for as long as 100 millennia, Rose stated.

The rising water created the present-day Persian Gulf and drowned shorelines around the peninsula, along the northeast coast of Africa and elsewhere around the world.

Read the full article here.

Saturday, December 11, 2010

New Qumran Discovery?

Jim West posted a story about the 2004 discovery of a sealed Jar at Qumran where the Dead Sea Scrolls were discovered. Here is the article.

An intact, sealed, jar has been discovered at Qumran, the site where the Dead Sea Scrolls were found in nearby caves.

A multinational team of scientists have been analyzing the jar and their findings are set to be published in the journal Archaeometry. If you have a subscription (or access to a library with one) you can already see the article on the publication’s website.

“The finding of an intact and sealed storage jar is an extremely rare event,” the researchers write. The discovery “provides a unique possibility to analyse its last contents.”

Altogether nine scientists are credited in the paper. Kaare Lund Rasmussen, of the University of Southern Denmark, is listed at the lead author.

The jar itself was excavated in 2004. It was found about 50 meters south of Qumran in an uninhabited area that may have been used for agriculture. Animal bones and pottery shards were unearthed nearby. The group that found it was led by Randall Price of Liberty University and Oren Gutfeld of the Hebrew University of Jerusalem.

Pictures of the jar are published in the journal article. The rights to them appear to be held by the excavation group and a request to have them republished on this website was not granted as of press time.

“The intact jar, named Jar-35, was sealed with an overturned bowl fastened as a lid,” Rasmussen’s team writes. “When the lid was lifted and a camera lowered into the interior, a deposit up to 3 cm thick was discovered lining the bottom and the sides.”

This is the first I have heard of it. If it is true it would be a major new find. But waiting 6 years to reveal the Jar's contents or even announce the discovery seems suspicious. As Jim says, this could be like when Geraldo Rivera opened Al Capone's vault. NOTHING!

The fact that Randall Price is involved makes me suspect it is all hype.

Has anyone else heard about this over the last 6 years?

Zondervan Atlas Giveaway Winner!

Congratulations to Steve Walton! He is the winner of the Bible Atlas.

Many thanks to all of you for participating. Lookout for more giveaways in the future.

Steve, if you could please send me your address I will post the atlas to you at the beginning of the week. You can either email it to me or leave it in the comments section on the blog. I won't publish it.

Friday, December 10, 2010

More on why we don't need to defend Christmas

Allan Bevere, my colleague here at Ashland Seminary, has chipped in on why we should not defend Christmas and why modern Christianity is in a sad state when it fails to give proper recognition to the resurrection rather than the birth of Jesus.

Here are some of Allan's points:

First, the New Testament places the central emphasis on the cross and resurrection of Jesus. Every book of the New Testament refers to Christ's resurrection. One of the central christological claims of the early Christians was "He is risen!" not "He is born!" Of the four Gospels, two-- Matthew and Luke-- have birth narratives, and in Galatians Paul only briefly mentions that Jesus was "born of woman" (4:4). I am certainly not suggesting that the birth of Jesus is unimportant. I am simply pointing out that it does have the central emphasis given to it in the way the New Testament writers focus on Jesus' cross and resurrection.

Second, incarnation is exceedingly significant, but it's significance is highlighted by Jesus' death and resurrection. Without Easter, incarnation makes no sense. Indeed, I submit that without resurrection, the claim of incarnation is irrelevant at best and more likely absurd in its worst form. The classic text on incarnation-- Philippians 2:5-11-- places cross and resurrection as the focal point and climax of incarnation. It is true that Paul mentions the Son being born in human likeness, but the "emptying" of Christ finds its importance in his humbling on the cross and the exaltation of resurrection.

Third, the church did not begin celebrating the birth of Christ until the fourth century A.D., some three hundred years after Jesus, and it took an additional 400 years after that for the feast day to be commonly observed in Europe. Easter, on the other hand, was already being celebrated as a specific annual feast day by the middle of the second century A.D. We also know that very early the Christians were gathering to worship on Sunday, The Lord's Day, not because it was the Sabbath (in Judaism the Sabbath is on Saturday), but because it was on the first day of the week that Jesus was raised from the dead. It is apparent, then, that the earliest Christians viewed the centrality of Jesus' resurrection in a way that they did not also understand his birth.

Allan makes some excellent points and with more precision than my own post. Read his full post here.

Need Jesus? There's an app for that!

The Lord and Savior Jesus Christ can now be found on your IPhone, bringing the Christian community together to reinforce Jesus' philosophy in a hip, sleek production that fits right in your pocket. And you can download it from Itunes all for $9.99.

I thought this was a joke but it is not. Maybe everyone else has heard about this, but it is new to me. Apparently DV8 Media has created the Life of Jesus IPhone App. They claim to use cutting-edge technology to reproduce a classic text to reach a new generation with biggest celebrity in history and the greatest story ever told. The app include such functions as the ability to read/search the Bible, to say/send a prayer, and watch 18 scenes from the Life of Jesus. It even has a Christian GPS that you can use to show every Christian IPhone app on the planet. Oh, and of course the ability to purchase Christian songs and ring tones.

Here is what the article has to say.

Revolutionary new media company DV8 Media has released "The Life Of Jesus", an epic, comprehensive mobile phone application dedicated to the life of the Christian savior. Containing cutting edge original video and audio productions, engaging interactive games, Christian-themed communication tools, and the full text of the New Testament, searchable and book-markable, The Life Of Jesus is designed to bring a new generation of Christians and the Christian community together to reinforce Jesus' philosophy in a hip, sleek and technologically advanced production.

DV8 will enable always-on access to the tech-savvy spiritually minded.

I also found this video on youtube.

Wow, am I ever thankful I don't have an IPhone. They only thing I can figure about this is someone is betting on making a lot of money. I wish I could do a giveaway with this.

Thursday, December 9, 2010

Book Giveaway! Zondervan Atlas of the Bible

I have received a copy of the revised edition of the Zondervan Atlas of the Bible from the kind folks at Zondervan. This is a really nice atlas! Dismiss your thoughts of how this is just another book full of maps. It is so much more! It not only contains numerous maps, it also has hundreds of color photos that help to bring the geography of ancient Palestine alive. It also contains extensive explanations of the geography that helps to place the stories of the Bible in historical as well as geographical context. It is complemented by a handy set of indexes and a geographical dictionary.

This is not your grandfather's Bible Atlas!

What makes this volume even more valuable is its author, Carl G. Rasmussen (Bethel University). I have been acquainted with Carl and his geographic expertise since 1993 when I participated in an historical and geographical course in Israel. Carl has lived or traveled in the Holy Land for over 40 years. His firsthand knowledge makes this a first rate atlas. (Check out his Holy Land Photos)

This is a $50 value ($27.97 on Amazon). Oh, did I mention that it also comes with a free poster of New Testament Jerusalem?

So here is how you enter. Simply leave your full name in the comment section of the blog and indicate that you would like to be entered into the contest.

The contest will close Friday, December 10 at 11:55 pm (EST). No entires after that time will be accepted. On Saturday I will use to choose the lucky winner and will announce it on the blog.

Wednesday, December 8, 2010

Why Defend Christmas?

I have gone back in forth in my mind about this topic over the years. But the recent debut of billboard wars between atheists and Christians leads me to say something about this.

Perhaps you are now thinking that I will blast the atheists and tell them why they are wrong. That Christians did not steal Christmas and that it is not a myth. Well, I am not.

What really bothers me is the Christian response of "defending Christmas". Defending it from what? That somebody says it is a myth? So what, that is exactly what I expect an unbeliever to think and say. What is being protected? Jesus? I hardly think that is either possible or necessary.

I think the problem is that many (American) Christians are just as steeped in the commercialism and greed of Christmas as those who have no faith profession. And we use the claim that it's Jesus' birthday as a shield for our over indulgences. Since the 19th century the holiday has been slowly moving in a decidedly non-religious direction and Christians have helped it along in many ways.

I wonder what percentage of Christians go to church on Christmas eve. Or even more importantly, how many go to Church on Christmas day when it happens to land on a Sunday? I remember the debates a few years ago about whether or not churches should be open on a Sunday that also happened to be Christmas. But if we really believe that Christmas is the significant day in the religious calendar we claim it is, than why not? This would seem to be more important than a tree and presents in the morning. (By way of self-disclosure, I did not go to church that day. I stayed home and opened presents with my wife. So, yes I could be accused of throwing stones in glass houses here).

Some may claim that it is important to defend Christmas because it is a significant event in salvation history. Granted, the Christian celebration of Jesus' birth is important and should be celebrated. But it is NOT the foundation of Christianity. More important is the claim of Christ's resurrection. It does not matter whether or not Jesus was born of a virgin. What is important is that he was raised from the dead.

This seems to be the focus of the New Testament authors as well. Jesus' birth is only mentioned in two of the four Gospels, and with very different details. Mark says nothing about Jesus' birth nor does John. In fact, except for Matthew and Luke no other New Testament writer mentions or alludes to any miraculous circumstances surrounding Jesus' birth. Paul notes that Jesus was born of a woman (Gal 4:4) and that he was of the line David (Romans 1:4). But Paul never mentions a virgin birth. True, he and many of the other New Testament writers call Jesus "the Son of God," but that is not a reference to a miraculous birth.

But the one thing that you read time and time again in the Gospels, Paul and the rest of the New Testament is the importance of Jesus' resurrection. This is what made Jesus different and the Son of God (Romans 1:4). There were numerous stories in antiquity of famous people who had "unusual births" some more fantastic than that of Jesus. But for the early church it was not Jesus' birth, but his resurrection that demonstrated his importance.

Yet modern Christians pay little attention to Easter. This is a day we will go to church. But that is because it always falls on Sunday and we rarely pack the day with the kind and amount of events that we would Christmas. Besides, Easter has that pesky habit of moving its date every year which makes it hard for retailers to plan "Easter sales".

No I am not suggesting that we abandon Christmas. I admit that I enjoy the decorations and the carols and even giving gifts.

But I do think we would do well to rethink it and put more energy into Easter. I also don't we feel the need to "defend Christmas". The truth is we can't. Christmas is a Christian holiday that is not celebrated as such by the Christians. We are just as distracted about the meaning of the day as are the atheists.

Christmas does not need defending.

Tuesday, December 7, 2010

Cleopatra: Mommy Dearest? Black African?

Cleopatra has captured the imagination of the writers and readers of history since the time of Josephus. Julius Caesar and Mark Anthony both loved her, and Herod the Great feared her. And most modern people associate her with Elizabeth Taylor.

Stacy Schiff has a new book out on the femme fatale titled Cleopatra: A Life. Schiff attempts to place the famous Queen within the context of her time as a way to rehabilitate her image. Schiff sees Cleopatra not so much as a woman bent on world-domination, but rather someone who is very concerned for her country.

This past weekend she also had a piece in the Parade Magazine. Here is what she had to say.

Complain all you like about your own nutty family. You have nothing on the Ptolemies, the dynasty that produced Cleopatra VII, the last queen of Egypt. That clan made a habit of stabbing, poisoning, and dismembering each other. Mothers sent troops against daughters. Fathers hacked sons to pieces. It was rare to find one who didn’t liquidate a relative or two, Cleopatra included. Which makes it all the more improbable that the woman who has come down to us as seductress and sex symbol in fact made an artful career of motherhood—and of single motherhood at that.

When Cleopatra was 21 she met Julius Caesar, twice her age and the master of the Roman world. Just over nine months later she gave birth to his son. There were a few awkwardnesses. For a start, each of the new parents was married to someone else. Caesar’s wife was in Rome, and Cleopatra was at the time nominally joined in marriage to her 13-year-old brother.

Nothing better suited her political program than the birth of Caesarion, or “little Caesar.” Like the queens who preceded her, Cleopatra associated herself with Isis, the goddess of marriage, love affairs, pregnancies. Caesarion did more than assure her fertile, family-friendly credentials: With him on her lap, Cleopatra could rule as king. Her subjects were willing to submit to a female pharaoh so long as a male figured somewhere in the picture. She ordered his likeness carved on temples, at massive scale; if anything, images mattered more in a pre-literate age than they do in a televised one. Caesarion assured Egypt’s dynastic future. And with him Cleopatra cemented an alliance with Rome. In all ways, he was the ideal partner. He resembled his father. He was Roman. He was divine in both countries. And, as a 3-year-old, he was unlikely to meddle in any way with his mother’s agenda.

Several years after Caesar’s murder, Cleopatra sailed into Mark Antony’s life, in gilded barge with soaring purple sails. The most distinguished military commander of the day, Antony appeared the likeliest candidate to assume control of the Roman east. The two spent the early winter together. Afterward he married, for political reasons, in Rome. In Egypt 29-year-old Cleopatra gave birth to his twins, Alexander Helios and Cleopatra Selene, and later presented Antony with another son. His wife, meanwhile, produced daughter after daughter.

Cleopatra paraded her children out to special effect in royal pageants; here already was the campaign-trail baby, the Palin or Pelosi brood. She also saw to it that the children were well educated, in part by a distinguished, hard-driving tutor. In his care, they devoted themselves to rhetoric, philosophy, and history, which would not be good to them. In 31 B.C., Octavian soundly defeated Antony and Cleopatra in battle. Cleopatra’s options were death or transport to Rome as a prisoner. She chose the former. Caesarion was hunted down and murdered soon thereafter. Her surviving three children sailed to Rome, to be raised by the sister of her sworn enemy, who also happened to be Antony’s ex-wife.

As a teenager, Cleopatra Selene married an African king. She continued her mother’s legacy, posing as Isis and naming her son Ptolemy. Cleopatra’s only known grandson, he would be murdered by a Roman emperor. All traces of her children dissolved on that bloody spot. Less sexually bold than strategically fertile, she had used her brood to great political advantage. The irony was, of course, that had events followed their normal dynastic course, had Rome not intervened, Cleopatra would ultimately have been deposed—exiled, poisoned, hacked to pieces—by one of those four precious children.

Also in the news this week is the question of Cleopatra's race. Over on the Oxford University Press Blog Duane Roller discusses whether Cleopatra was a black African or Macedonian Greek. He is responding to those who have suggested that the famous Egyptian queen was black. Ultimately he concludes that Cleopatra's race is insignificant and what is important is that she was a powerful queen. But he does suggest that the possibility of her being a black African is slim. It is an interesting read.

Monday, December 6, 2010

Jesus or Paul? Whose gospel do we follow? Scot McKnight suggests a way to bridge the divide.

One thing that anyone who studies the New Testament for any length of time comes to realize is that Jesus and Paul and can appear to be very different. Jesus seems to be all about the Kingdom of God, taking care of the poor and outcast and bringing justice to the world. Paul is more interested in justification, how one gets saved and the ongoing problems facing the order of the church. And for many, New Testament scholars in particular, it seems as if reconciling the gospels of Jesus and Paul is impossible.

But an article by Scot McKnight in the recent issue of Christianity Today suggests a way forward. Scot does not deny the challenges, but does suggest a different starting point than is traditionally taken. Below is an excerpt from, the article.

It is not exaggerating to say that evangelicalism is facing a crisis about the relationship of Jesus to Paul, and that many today are choosing sides. I meet many young, thinking evangelicals whose "first language" is Jesus and the kingdom. Yet despite the trend, perhaps in reaction to it, many look to Paul and justification by faith as their first language. Those addicted to kingdom language struggle to make Paul fit, while those addicted to Paul's theological terms struggle to make Jesus fit. I know the experience because I, too, struggled to make the Pauline message fit the kingdom vision, and that was after struggling to make Jesus fit into the Pauline message.

Evangelicals have offered two ways to resolve this dilemma—that is, to bring Paul and Jesus into a more perfect harmony. What stands out is that each approach imagines that it is articulating the gospel itself. One approach is to master Jesus' gospel, the kingdom vision, and show how Paul fits. The other approach is to master Paul's gospel, his theology of justification, and show how Jesus fits. Each approach requires some bending of corners and squeezing of sides but, with extra effort and some special explanations, each thinks it can show the unity of the messages of Jesus and Paul and that the gospel of the kingdom and the gospel of justification are one and the same.

Take the Jesus approach. The kingdom of God, if one follows George Ladd's line of thinking (often called "inaugurated eschatology"), is defined as the "dynamic reign of God." It is grounded in texts like Matthew 12:28, where Jesus says that if he casts out demons by the Spirit of God, then the kingdom of God has (presently) come upon them. Or Mark 1:15: the time has been fulfilled, the kingdom of God has drawn near (so near that its presence is now being felt)—therefore repent and believe. It is not hard to fit "justification by faith" into the mold of the dynamic, personal, redemptive presence of God in the work of Jesus Christ. With some careful nuancing, the witness of Romans to justification and the witness of Ephesians to a cosmic redemption in Christ can be drawn into the ambit of the kingdom.

But a few problems always emerge. They have always given me an uneasy conscience about this kind of harmonizing. First, Paul doesn't talk about the kingdom enough to make me think his theology is really kingdom-shaped. His letters include fewer than 15 references to the kingdom. Fitting Paul into a kingdom mold is more by hook than it is by the book. Furthermore, Paul thinks more in terms of soteriology, justification, and ecclesiology than he does kingdom. So, if we are to be fair to Paul, we have to let Paul be Paul.

Also, here is the first of a set of video interviews with Scot on the topic. There are eight more on youtube.

Saturday, December 4, 2010

Holy Land Pictures from the Past

Jim West has posted a link to the Palestine Exploration Fund which has a display of 19th century pictures from Palestine and other locations in the region. Check it out to see pictures of the way the Temple Mount looked a very long time ago and prior to the development and archaeological projects undertaken by the Israelis (Compare with the picture to the right here). Then click back and forth to see other pictures. If you have ever seen these sights you will enjoy seeing the way they looked 100 or more years ago.

Friday, December 3, 2010

Is there finally room at the inn? Reading Luke 2:7 in the new NIV

One of the traditions of the Christmas season is the reenactment of the nativity by a children's Sunday School class. Usually a small boy and girl will play the part of Joseph and Mary making their way to Bethlehem to register for the Roman census. As the narrator reads from Luke's Gospel Joseph will knock on a door that is opened by another boy who waves off the weary and pregnant couple. The narrator explains that there is "no room at the inn." Joseph and Mary then go next door to the stable where Luke tells us Jesus is born.

But if you are using the new NIV this year you may want to adjust the script slightly. The translators have done away with the word "inn" in Luke 2:7 and replaced it with "guest room." The word kataluma is better translated as "lodging" or "guest room" rather than "inn". Apart from Luke 2:7, the term only appears two other times in the New Testament. In Mark 14:14 it describes the place where Jesus and the disciples eat the passover. This is the way the term is also used later in Luke 22:11. When a survey of the term is taken in the Greek Old Testament (LXX) it is more often understood as "lodging," "quarters" or "guest room", but not an inn or hotel. Moreover, in the parable of the Good Samaritan, the one instance in the New Testament where an inn does appear, Luke uses a completely different word for "inn" (pandocheion), which is a more specific term for inn.

So how then should we understand the statement in Luke 2:7? What do we mean by guest room? Was there no place for Joseph and Mary in someone's spare bedroom? In the context of Luke's nativity this seems to be the best explanation.

If Joseph and Mary are returning to Bethlehem because it is Joseph's ancestral home, then we would expect that they would have stayed with family rather than in an inn. During their time there Mary began to go into labor. When Luke says there was no "place for them in the lodgings" he may mean there was no place of privacy for Mary to give birth. The option of giving birth in a stable would have provided warmth and privacy. The problem, it seems, is not that all of the hotels in Bethlehem were filled. Rather, the place where they were staying was so full they had to go to the stable for privacy.

I think the translators should be commended on two levels. First for bringing a more precise translation to this verse. Second, for being brave enough to mess with a significant Christmas tradition. I wonder how many nativity plays will change over the next few years. I suspect, however, that the inn keeper will be turning away Joseph and Mary for years to come.

*Update, Mark Goodacre has commented elsewhere that this translation also appears in the 2005 TNIV. I had not noticed that before. But then again I am not an NIV reader. James McGrath offers an interesting floor plan of the Bethlehem house as described by Luke. He also provides a link to a couple of articles by Kenneth Bailey entitled "The Manger and the Inn" and "The Story of Jesus' Birth". Both are worth your time.*