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Okay, that was meant to look like an expletive but its not, it's a cover-up for the word "motherboard" (although I felt like letting the word you thought I was referring to fly when this all happened). Last night, the motherboard on my laptop had a meltdown and now, I have to ship the thing off for two weeks. Needless to say, as I type this post on a computer that isn't mine, I probably won't be blogging much for the next week or two. Please, though, skim through the tabs above and check out some of the site's other content. As soon as my mother@#$%* gets replaced, I'll have more substantive posts. For now, however, I'll shall take somewhat of a short break. Happy Holidays.

More On Mark's Gospel...

So, in addition to a pretty sweet snowblower that will come in handy this winter, I got a nice gift card to B&N. So, I picked up some books online, of course, more on Mark's Gospel:

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Merry Christmas...

...and Happy Holidays from all of us here at Pisteuomen (oh wait, it's just me, Michael Halcomb). Regardless, travel safely and share the love of Christ wherever you go!

When Bloggers Meet

One of the things I like best about blogging is the chance to interact with other people who love discussing the same types of things I'm interested in. One benefit of all of this is that sometimes, you get to meet the people you've come to know via modem. Over a year ago, through dialogue on another blog, I met Chris Vanallsburg (I'm wearing the brown coat and he's wearing the black vest in the pic). Chris is a native of MI but now lives in NC. Through various conversations on Facebook and each other's blogs, we began to get to know each other. This month, when he came home for the holidays, we decided to get together for lunch and visit a couple of bookstores. We ate at Panera and also had a visit to a Reformed bookstore (yes, he's one of those people!) and Eerdmans. For me, it was like Christmas-come-early going to those shops. I picked up 12 books and it all rang-in under $50. I was quite pleased.

Chris and I had some good conversation and despite the insane blizzard conditions (seriously, I shouldn't have driven to Grand Rapids but I didn't know it was going to get so bad so quickly) it was quite a pleasant visit. Here are the books I added to my library:


Free Toolbar for Bible/Theology Bloggers: Free Software From Pisteuomen

Have you ever wanted to have all the Bible & Theology blogs that you like in one place? Want to un-muddy your page-reader or blogroll? Want some kind of aggregator that you don't have to manage? Want to visit a blog without trying to type in a url you can't remember, going to your page-reader or googling it? Well, now you can have what you want. Today, a couple of days before Christmas, I am giving a present away here at Pisteuomen. The present is called "The Pistueomen Bible & Theology Bloggers Toolbar". This toolbar, a one-of-a-kind, contains scores of sites of active Bible and Theology bloggers. A couple of months ago, NT Wrong began collecting working urls of bloggers. Every url listed on his site, plus, many more are included here. One of the best things about the toolbar is that it is updateable, so, if you're not included this month, if you contact me with the proper info., your site can be included in next month's update. The toolbar is incredibly user-friendly, lightweight, easy to download and install and best of all, it's free. After using the toolbar, if you have any comments or suggestions, please, feel free to leave them here. So, get the word out; tell everyone about the Bible & Theology Bloggers Toolbar!!! Scroll down to see screenshots. Click the icon below to go to the download page. (IE and Firefox ready! Directions below too.)


(Firefox Screenshot)

(Internet Explorer Screenshot)

Download Instructions & Notes (Please Read!):

((If user screen shows up click "allow")
*Check notify box
*Click next
*Check desired boxes (IE or Mozilla / Firefox)
*Click next
*Install (or "browse" for desired destination, then Install)
*When it says "Installation Complete" select the "Close" button

In Firefox:
*You may see software installation screen
*Click "Install Now"
*Select "Restart Firefox"

Internet Explorer:
*Blog not found message (I didn't want you to fill out a form, so, nothing's there, ignore it and type your desired URL

After uninstalling, you may get a note saying "page not found". I didn't want
you to have to fill out a form so nothing's there. Type in your URL and proceed as you wish.

You may need to allow this BHO past your firewall. This is a clean file. There are no viruses. It has been scanned. If you experience problems in this area, you simply need to make sure the toolbar is bypassed in your virus program.


How To Tell Someone They Smell Bad

Have you ever had a friend that smelled really bad but you just didn't have the nerve to tell them? Have you ever been talking with someone and their breath just wreaked? Have you ever been playing basketball and your teammates pits just kill you? Well, what do you say? What do you do? And is there a nice way to do it? Here's what Marcus Aurelius once said (I must say, its quite a joy to stumble across passages like this when reading ancient literature!!!):

"Are you irritated with one whose arm-pits smell? Are you angry with one whose mouth has a foul odor? What good will your anger do you? He has this mouth, he has these arm-pits. Such emanations must come from such things. 'But the man has reason,' you will say, 'and he could, if he took pains, discover wherein he offends.' I wish you well of your discovery. Now you too have reason; by your rational faculty, stir up his rational faculty; show him his fault, admonish him. For if he listens, you will cure him, and have no need of anger--you are not a ranter or a whore." (Meditations, 5.28)

So, I guess the way to do it is to ask him some trick, self-reflective questions and or take him through some trick, self-reflective activity, so that he will soon realize that he stinks. How have you handled this problem?
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A Photographic Bibliography of Mark's Gospel: Studies in Mark, Pt. 85

Yesterday I posted a photo of me standing next to my stack of Markan books and articles. Since you can't get a good look at the titles in that picture, I thought I'd upload a sort of photographic bibliography here (it's much easier than typing all of that info. out!!!). Of course, you can't see the journal articles but oh well. Anyway, check out the panorama below. You can use the "hand icon" to forward or backward by moving it left to right and you can zoom in or out on the photos using the small "magnifying glass" icons in the bottom right corner. For the titles that are a bit fuzzy, you can zoom in to get a better view:


6 Ft. Deep In Mark's Gospel

Here's a photo of me standing next to all of my Mark articles and books. As you can see, the stack is over 6 ft. tall. Too bad I couln't include some of the stuff I have on my computer too.

A Prayer For The United States

This is a prayer from Billy Graham, quite profound I think, for the United States. After you read it, leave a comment and let me know what you think about it:

'Heavenly Father, we come before you today to ask your forgiveness and to seek your direction and guidance. We know Your Word says, 'Woe to those who call evil good,' but that is exactly what we have done. We have lost our spiritual equilibrium and reversed our values. We have exploited the poor and called it the lottery. We have rewarded laziness and called it welfare. We have killed our unborn and called it choice. We have shot abortionists and called it justifiable. We have neglected to discipline our children and called it building self esteem. We have abused power and called it politics. We have coveted our neighbor's possessions and called it ambition. We have polluted the air with profanity and pornography and called it freedom of expression. We have ridiculed the time-honored values of our forefathers and called it enlightenment. Search us, Oh God, and know our hearts today; cleanse us from every sin and Set us free. Amen!'
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Jesus' Birth In Context

Here is a compilation of posts from this year's Christmas series on Pisteuomen titled "Jesus' Birth In Context". I have also listed some back posts from last Christmas. So, here's a list of twelve posts dealing with the birth of Jesus and the Infancy Narrative(s). Enjoy.

* God-man Talk At Christmas: Jesus' Birth In Context, Pt. 7
* Was Mary Scandalous? Was She Raped?: Jesus' Birth In Context, Pt. 6
* The Magi: Jesus' Birth In Context, Pt. 5
* Was Jesus' Birth Unique?: Jesus' Birth In Context, Pt. 4
* A Miraculous Conception?: Jesus' Birth In Context, Pt. 3
* Jesus & Prophecy: Jesus' Birth In Context, Pt. 2
* Born Of A Virgin?: Jesus' Birth In Context, Pt. 1

* Jesus' Genealogy At Christmastime
* Why December 25th?

* Rethinking "The Inn": Christmas Tradition Vs. Scripture, Pt. 3
* Was Jesus Born In A Cave? Christmas Tradition Vs. Scripture, Pt. 2
* Erroneous Christmas Carols: Christmas Tradition Vs. Scripture, Pt. 1

One Absurdity Of Modern Christianity

Some time ago, there was a cartoon in The New Yorker that had a CEO ending his board meeting with the following remark: “And so, while the end-of-the-world scenario will be rife with unimaginable horrors, we believe that the pre-end period will be filled with unprecedented opportunities for profit.” You know, this cartoon really hits the nail on the head. Two of the fastest growing beliefs in Western Christianity have to do with end-times and money. I want to suggest here that when both of these tenets are accepted by one person, let alone a group of persons, the atmosphere is ripe for hedonism!

How so? Well, think about it this way: If you're an end-times, rapture-believeing type of person, chances are, you already have it ingrained in you that you couldn't care less about this planet. The thought is: "Why should I care, it's all going to burn up and end in disaster anyway. I'm going to get raptured and spared, so, it's not my problem to worry about it." Lest you think I'm being too simplistic here, think again; people really do believe this way! I know these people firsthand.

Now, you have this person who couldn't care less about this planet and its preservation because they think its all going to go to hell soon anyway and they start listening to Word of Faith preachers (e.g. Osteen, Hinn, Meyer, etc.), who emphasize over and over, the greatness of wealth...what is the end-result? A hedonist who "says" that they believe in Jesus and the Bible but don't think and live in ways that match-up with Jesus or the Bible. Yes, you read that last sentence correctly!!! When you have someone who doesn't care about this world because they're going to leave it soon and then they start getting into the mindset of "I need to get lots of money", well, they've become worldly-focused!

How ironic! Like the cartoon says, they don't care if the world ends in hell but what they do care about is living it up right now! This is the perfect elixir for selfishness and me-focused religion. And what is all of this but a type of sickening hedonism? It's not the way of Jesus and its certainly not Christianity! And friends, those are some very practical, theological reasons why you should reject both Dispensationalism and Word of Faith-ism.

Did Jesus Have Powers?

Or was it the Holy Spirit that enabled Him to do the things He did (and said)? Or was it both?

How To Fix the "http:///?%20www" Error

Recently, I began noticing a couple of funky things happening with my computer: 1) When I'd type in a URL, the page would act like it was taking forever to load and then, it usually wouldn't load but instead would go to an error page, and 2) The URL I typed in, such as, would automatically change itself to http:///? After running AVG, WinUtilities, Windows Defender, HiJackThis, WinSockFix, LMFix, Task Manager, Add/Remove Programs and attempting to edit some registry values, nothing had worked. Paying closer attention to what my computer was doing when I was online, I noticed there were some DNS errors. So, I figured that something was up with either my internet server or my router.

Now, here's where things get a little tricky. About a week after having these problems, which was also a week after my wife had put up our Christmas tree, which was plugged into the same power strip as my router, I noticed that once she moved the Christmas tree plug to a different outlet, all of the internet problems went away. Now, everything is working just fine. My conclusion is that, somehow, the new appliance was affecting the power strip which was in turn, affecting the router that was also plugged into it. This seemed to explain why I could be online and connect some times but couldn't at others. It was like the new appliance was interferring with the router and at those moments I couldn't connect.

In the end, then, the problem wasn't with my computer; I didn't have a virus. Instead, the issue was with an appliance that was affecting my router. My advice is this: If you've added anything new to or have changed your power strip arrangements, trying going back to the way you had them before the errors started popping up. If you've changed nothing, then it is probably time to get your router checked out. If you have a replacement router or a spare one, try it out and see if the problems disappear. If you're directly connected via ethernet cable, etc., check the cable and wall connection. After all of this, if they're still around, then check with your internet provider, your server, etc. to see if there are any internal company issues. Hope this helps!!!

For more of my troubleshooting articles on this site, see the following links: My Cursor Keeps Moving When I Type: Trouble-Shooting Vista, My Internet Suddenly Stopped Working: How To Fix It, How To Find Hidden Folders/Files In Vista and "Windows Explorer Must Shutdown...Must Restart" Loop. Blessings!
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God-Man Talk At Christmas: Jesus' Birth In Context, Pt. 7

During Christmastime, in the Christian tradition, we hear over and over that Jesus is God made flesh. To put it differently, Jesus is the "God-man". The traditional teaching in Christianity is that the Holy Spirit overshadowed Mary, she miraculously conceived a child as a virgin and gave birth to Him. Thus, He was "God's Son" or "The Son of God". In the opening verses of Mark's Gospel, the nomenclature is used: Jesus the Messiah, "Son of God" (Grk: yios theos). It also appears in Mk. 5 (Gerasene Demoniac story) and Mk. 15 (story of the Roman Soldier at the cross).

Interestingly, this title is not unique to Christendom and it is certainly not unique to Jesus. Nearly 50 years before Jesus stepped on the scene, Octavian was already referring to himself as the divi filius (the Latin of yios theos). For the 30 years prior to Jesus' birth Augustus was also being called this. During the rule of Tiberius, we know that his ruling son, Germanicus, also referred to himself (and had others refer to him) this way too. Elsewhere in Greek writings, we find that followers of Asklepius, Dionysius and Zeus, among other so-called deities, were referred to as the "sons" of that god.

In Jewish literature we find "son of God" language in Dan. 7 and Psa. 110. A. Y. Collins has also written an article that shows where this phrase can be found in Dead Sea Scroll literature. Among Hebrew persons, this phrase seems to have been a reference to a coming Messiah. The fact is, in scores of documents and inscriptions, all dated before Jesus, this label is used. It is found in both the biblical texts and in extra-biblical texts; it is found in Jewish lit. and Graeco-Roman lit. as well.

So, what do we make of this? How might it affect the language we use at Christmas? To answer the first question, I would suggest, along with A. Deissmann, that even if the "Son of God" characterization originated in Hebrew circles, by the time it came to be applied to Jesus, that is, in a predominantly Graeco-Roman society and culture, Gentiles were hearing and understanding it in a bit of a different light than their Jewish counterparts (and vice versa). Not only was this a "messianic" reference, it was also a socio-politically subversive title (e.g. there is a new King / Ruler on the empirical playing field now!). Moving on to answer the second question: What this means for us at Christmastime is that while this title is not unique to Jesus, it still has significant meaning. Probably, it is not a title that refers specifically to the "virginal conception / birth" but rather, to Jesus as the coming Messiah, again, the "new" Ruler. In other words, at Christmastime, during Advent, when we use the phrase "Son of God" it is probably more correct for us to use it in terms of focusing on the "coming" or "arrival" of the Messiah and not necesarrily on the notion that He was "virgin born". It would have resounded in the ears of hte first believers as a type of subversive political mantra too: You don't have to submit to evil authorities, follow Me, I am your King.

All I am suggesting here is that when we use the title applied to Jesus by the first Christians, we use it to reflect on Jesus' advent, not necesarrily the way that advent happened. I realize it may seem like I'm splitting hairs here because reflecting on His advent leads to reflecting on His conception. However, many times the great theological truth of His arrival or coming simply gets overshadowed by how it happened. So, I am simply contending that this holiday season, we focus not only on the "how" but also, and maybe even moreso, on the "why" and "who" of Christmas. I am also suggesting that we do some socio-religio-political reflection; let us consider how Jesus affects and penetrates all of these spheres of our lives today. Also, think about how being a Christian during this season may cause you to be subversive to all sorts of evil and oppressive "empires"...even your own! But most of all, make sure you giev Jesus the praise and honor that is due to Him, the Son of God, the Messiah, our King. Merry Christmas!!!

Was Mary Scandalous? Was She Raped?: Jesus' Birth In Context, Pt. 6

What better time than Christmas to resurrect old arguments about the birth of Jesus, right? Let's take, for example, the dated notion that Mary, the mother of Jesus, was raped by a Roman soldier named Panthera. This, actually, is a viewpoint that the modern filmmaker (and member of the infamous Jesus Seminary) Paul Verhoeven is attempting to make a movie and write a book about. The title of the book is Jesus Of Nazareth: A Realistic Portrait. But is the notion that Mary was raped, actually realistic? Or better yet, is this an argument we can place any stock in? Not so much because it troubles me theologically but because I can find no good evidence that would cause me to subscribe it, leads me to say "No" to both answers. More on this in a moment!

Let me digress a little bit here and ask another question, one that has also been around a while but also seems to get brought up at Christmastime: Did God rape Mary? Was the miraculous conception an act of interpersonal violence? Did God force Himself on the young Jewish girl? Is God some type of serial rapist? Could this story only work in a culture where patriarchy silenced women and left them with no voice? Well, let's start with the last question, to which I would answer "No". For one, this story has persisted through the ages. For two, women were not totally silenced (even when raped) in antiquity, as the OT story of Tamar attests. Further, the society (dominated by males) actually developed laws to protect women from rape and to punish men who carried out such acts. See: Exodus 22.15-6 and Dt. 22.25-9. On a side note, the OT is replete with links to rape (Gen 20, 26, 34; Ex. 22.15-6; Dt. 22.25-9; 1 Kgs. 1, Jer. 20.7, Ezk. 16, 23; Jdg. 19-21; 2 Sam. 13, etc.). Even Tamar, who was raped, is mentioned in Jesus' lineage. Realizing that women had a "right" to say "no", when we read birth narratives about Jesus, we actually find Mary saying "yes" (e.g. "I am your bondservant..."). She is choosing to proceed with the event.

I wish I could go more into this (and perhaps I will at a later time) but from a narrative point-of-view, Mary is not raped by God. As odd as it seems to say it, the act appears "consensual". So, did they have sex? Was there some kind of "divine hookup"? Well, not really. The Gospels say (and Christian tradition affirms) that it was through the Holy Spirit overshadowing Mary that she became pregnant. In Christian theology, the belief is that the Holy Spirit never forces Himself upon persons but that only enters their life upon invitation. Clearly, the Gospel story / stories depict Mary as inviting God to work in her life. So, did God rape Mary? If we take the point-of-view of the Gospels--written by males in a patriarchal culture, who, if they had wanted to show "male dominance" could have easily made it seem like "divine rape"--we can say "No".

Now, back to the Roman soldier named Panthera. Where did this story even come from? Well as best as I can tell, it pops up in a 2nd-century document written by the Christian philosopher named Origen (who, perhaps, recieved it from Ambrosius). In a work he titled Against Celsus, he notes that another philosopher, named Celcus, was promoting this idea. Now, I have included all of chapter 32 of Against Celsus below so that you can read it for yourself. But if you read it, and do that in context, you will see that Origen is not all that concerned with defending a theology of a virginal conception or birth. Instead, what he is concerned with doing--and this fact bears out through the entirety of the work--is to argue, against Celsus, that Christians aren't simplistic thinkers (or stupid). To be able to do this, oddly, Origen feels like he has to prove that Jesus was not born from an ignorant Roman soldier but that His birth was legitimate. As Origen says at the end of chapter 32: "It is probable, therefore, that this soul also, which conferred more benefit by its residence in the flesh than that of many men (to avoid prejudice, I do not say all), stood in need of a body not only superior to others, but invested with all excellent qualities." For Origen, it is important that Jesus be "superior" and have "excellent" qualities. In other words, to prove that Christians are great thinkers, Origen felt like he had to show first that Jesus was great. This is an odd approach to say the least.

Before leaving Origen, I should also point out that elsewhere, Origen is not hesitant to tie the incarnation of Jesus to the Pax Romana (Roman Peace). Origen thought Jesus' incarnation was God's way of proving that the Pax Romana was the way to establish world peace. The Graeco-Roman guild of NT scholarship argues the opposite of this view across the board; indeed, Origen would not find welcome in those circles today!

What I find most interesting about Origen's work is that it is not a defense of the virginal conception, in the main. In fact, he does not seem all that concerned with the theological concept. Of course, neither do any of the apostle Paul's writings point to the virgin birth (some have argued that Gal. does), nor do any of the other NT documents. Only Matthew and Luke mention it directly (though the saying in Mk. may be another allusion). There is little even in the NT dealing with this matter. Though Paul's letters were highly occasional, one wonders why he never drew any theological concepts from the conception if it were so significant? What about the other writers?

While there is little said about the virginal conception, it goes without saying that the Gospel writers aim to be clear on the matter: Mary was not raped and she was not the victim of scandal, neither was she scandalous herself. What took place was an act between Mary and God. If a rape consists of violating personal consent, taking advantage of a vulnerable person, misusing power and authority (as happens with so many ministers today!!!), then the Gospel story cannot be found guilty and as such, neither can God. Just as well, Mary is presumed innocent (as the Early Church's end-view attests to).

Origen, Against Celsus (chp. 32)

But let us now return to where the Jew is introduced, speaking of the mother of Jesus, and saying that when she was pregnant she was turned out of doors by the carpenter to whom she had been betrothed, as having been guilty of adultery, and that she bore a child to a certain soldier named Panthera; and let us see whether those who have blindly concocted these fables about the adultery of the Virgin with Panthera, and her rejection by the carpenter, did not invent these stories to overturn His miraculous conception by the Holy Ghost: for they could have falsified the history in a different manner, on account of its extremely miraculous character, and not have admitted, as it were against their will, that Jesus was born of no ordinary human marriage. It was to be expected, indeed, that those who would not believe the miraculous birth of Jesus would invent some falsehood. And their not doing this in a credible manner, but (their) preserving the fact that it was not by Joseph that the Virgin conceived Jesus, rendered the falsehood very palpable to those who can understand and detect such inventions. Is it at all agreeable to reason, that he who dared to do so much for the human race, in order that, as far as in him lay, all the Greeks and Barbarians, who were looking for divine condemnation, might depart from evil, and regulate their entire conduct in a manner pleasing to the Creator of the world, should not have had a miraculous birth, but one the vilest and most disgraceful of all? And I will ask of them as Greeks, and particularly of Celsus, who either holds or not the sentiments of Plato, and at any rate quotes them, whether He who sends souls down into the bodies of men, degraded Him who was to dare such mighty acts, and to teach so many men, and to reform so many from the mass of wickedness in the world, to a birth more disgraceful than any other, and did not rather introduce Him into the world through a lawful marriage? Or is it not more in conformity with reason, that every soul, for certain mysterious reasons (I speak now according to the opinion of Pythagoras, and Plato, and Empedocles, whom Celsus frequently names), is introduced into a body, and introduced according to its deserts and former actions? It is probable, therefore, that this soul also, which conferred more benefit by its residence in the flesh than that of many men (to avoid prejudice, I do not say all), stood in need of a body not only superior to others, but invested with all excellent qualities.
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The Magi: Jesus' Birth In Context, Pt. 5

Throughout Christian history, the magi (Grk: magoi) have become a central part in Jesus' birth narrative. Yet, there are some good reasons for us to step back, survey their roles in the story and ask some new questions. We shall start with questions that challenge some of our presuppositions: Why have they been referred historically to as "kings"? Why have people suggested that they are "wise"? What makes us think that they were "men"? Why do we only include three in the episode? How do we know they traveled by camel? Is there any reason for us to believe that they were wealthy? Why do we assume that they were intelligent stargazers and that they could read the heavens? Is there evidence to suggest that they were from Babylon or Persia? Why do they give the gifts they do?

Now, answering all of these questions could lead to the writing of a book. But, I want to ponder them, so, I'll have to do so in a more brief manner than a tome. So, let me just explore the above questions one-by-one.

1. Why have they been referred historically to as "kings"? The proper answer to this, I think, is that to be seen as "fulfilling" OT texts like Isaiah, they must be viewed as kings. Isaiah says that kings will worship the Messiah. So, to "fulfill" predictions, people have connected the magoi with kings (even their gifts correlate with those mentioned in Isa.). But the truth is, every piece of ancient literature that we have never suggests that magoi were kings. Instead, all of the extant literature contends that they were indeed, servants to kings. (In the 2nd century, however, we do have a Christian writer who links them to kings, though he doesn't say they themselves are kings, he merely links them to them). When we read Matthew's account of the birth narrative, we see this too. The magoi visit a king, take orders from him and proceed to find Jesus. Never are they depicted as the kings. What has happened then is that through prooftexting and making false scriptural connections (in hopes of prediction/fulillment) we have flipped Matthew's writing on its head: these magoi are not to be presented as kings but as servants to kings.

2. Why have people suggested that they are "wise"? The easy answer is that they were interpreted as stargazers, readers of the heavens. Yet, in antiquity, stargazers were looked on with suspicion and ridicule. Their jobs were seen as absurd; they were learned in nonsense. Mark Alan Powell has shown numerous examples of this. He contends that the "star" they were supposedly following is nothing complicated but rather, it was simple, right in front of them; anyone could have followed it. Notice that when they get to Jerusalem the first thing these guys do is ask "where is the one born king of the Jews?" Ever noticed that they came from the East only to ask a question? Ever noticed that they traveled to Jerusalem unsure of where they were going? Wise? Not so much. Ever noticed that had the angel not appeared to them, they probably would have gone back to Herod? The fact is, stargazers in antiquity were viewed as the opposite of wise: they were fools. Notice in Matthew that it is the "foolish" whom God chooses to reveal things to, not the "wise". So, we should see these magoi in their proper ancient social contexts as fools.

3. What makes us think that they were only "men"? Well, this is probably due to the fact that in antiquity, men were viewed as workers and travelers while women stayed at home. But the fact is, the text never suggests that they were only men. I must admit, however, that I have not read any ancient passages that depict them as women. Still, this should give us pause when we think about how to identify them.

4. Why do we only include three in the episode? The most likely answer to this is that there are "three" gifts that are given (gold, frankincense and myrrh). Yet, we can't say with confidence that one person gave all three gifts or that ten did, maybe even twenty, let alone three. It is reading way into the story that has led us to both identify the magoi as kings, wise, male and numbering three.

5. How do we know they traveled by camel? We don't! They could have traveled by boat (depending on where they were coming from; it could have been included part of their journey!), by foot, by donkey, etc. We have no clue. It is the late reworking of the nativity story that has led us to presuppose that camels were in the mix.

6. Is there any reason for us to believe that they were wealthy? No. Indeed, they gave great gifts but we don't know how much they gave. It could have been a small pouch full or an abundance. They could have brought the gifts from home or bought them on the way there. They could have sold their own goods to get the gits, they could have traded for them, purchased them or already owned them and just gave them up. We have no hard evidence to be in a position to say a lot about their social status. But the fact is, if magoi were typically despised and if they were generally servants, they probably weren't wealthy.

7. Why do we assume that they were intelligent stargazers and that they could read the heavens? The obvious answer is: They followed the star from wherever they were coming. But does Matthew seem to suggest that anyone could have followed this star? Or what if we consider the ancient view that stars were also considered celestial beings? Could they have been following an angel (of the Lord) then? Would this comport with other dreams, visions and appearances where angels are involved? Question #7 also relates to the next question...

8. Is there evidence to suggest that they were from Babylon or Persia? The phrase "from the east" (Grk anatole) has led people to believe that they came from areas where astrology was popular in antiquity. This may well be the case but we just don't know. Perhaps they had only traveled twenty or fifty miles instead of coming from Babylon or Persia. If we are going to glean anything from "East" we have to presuppose and imply a lot. One may be able to offer a possible reconstruction as has been done in the past (e.g. astrologers lived in Babylon, traveled to Jerusalem following solar guides, etc.). But the truth is, it seems that Matthew wants to suggest that it is God who does the guiding in the story. Would reading the heavens suggest that it wasn't God who was leading them?

9. Why do they give the gifts they do? It would seem to me that the gold, frankincense and myrrh are gifts, as the song says, are fit for a king. But is there more going on here than just that? I could be terribly wrong here but it seems so. If gold is fit for a king, fankincense for a prophet and anointing oil (myrhh) for one who is facing death, the point could be: This baby is a king/prophet who has been born to die. Or, we could simply argue that all three gifts are worthy of a king. Bearing this in mind, we see something interesting, something ironic going on here: In Matthew's story, it is not the actual kings that worship Jesus (indeed, Herod wants Jesus dead) but rather, servants of kings. Indeed, scripture is not "fulfilled" but inversed, flipped on its head. Matthew is using irony. It is not kings who come to Jesus (though kings should) but rather, servants of kings, foolish servants at that!

What does all of this mean for the Christmas story as we tell it today? Well it means that we should try to keep it in context so that we can get across what was really trying to be said and what was really trying to be focused on: That Jesus is the King of kings! Further, Jesus is a King of fools, a King whose servants are not wise by worldly standards but yet are privvy to the ways and voice of God. We should not try to read too much into this story so that the heart of it gets over-sentimentalized and lost. We must strive to retain the core of the story that focuses on Jesus' kingship and the fact that we are to be servants, even foolish servants for Him. During this Advent, I can hardly think of a greater truth!

Prophecy In Mark?: Studies In Mark, Pt. 84

I've been wanting to get around to this subject / post for a while but I've recently found myself taken up by other things. One reason I wanted to write about prophecy in Mk. is because before SBL, Mark Goodacre and NT Wrong were discussing the literary function of prophetic remarks. Bill Heroman also weighed in on the matter. Mr. Goodacre's thesis was that one could, in fact, date the Markan account (pre-temple, if I remember correctly) by considering the literary function of the prophetic instances in the story. If one subscribes to this thesis, they most likely see Mk. 13 as "prophetic" (especially in a predictive sense) and even "eschatalogical".

In the history of Markan scholarship, there is a longstanding tradition of reading Mk. 13 this way (e.g. it is typically referred to as the "little apocalypse"). It is with humility that I toss my hat into the ring and offer a different view. I have already written a lengthy post on Mk. 13 HERE and for that reason, I do not want to really re-cover those bases. I have also written about the so-called "Passion Predictions" in Mk. HERE. Again, for this reason, I am not going to rehash all of that information in this post. Instead, what I want to offer here are a few practical thoughts about what scholars dub "prophecy" in the Gospel of Mark. I will start with the "Passion Predictions" and then move on to "Mk. 13". After that, I will offer a brief conclusion.

1. When one turns to the pages of any Markan commentary, they are almost undoubtedly going to find section headings or sub-headings titled "Jesus' Passion Predictions" (or something of that nature). Even most modern Bible translations say something like this. And therein lies the problem: These presuppositions are so ingrained in us (and our translations and interpretations) that they rarely go unchallenged. It is almost as if scholarship "needs" Jesus to be predicting things. But does He? Does Jesus really predict His death? I would suggest to you that in Mark's account, He doesn't! That's right, He doesn't. Jesus does not predict His death and as such, is not being prophetic (as a foreteller).

How can I say this? Well, the key is Mk. 3.6. That verse, right near the beginning of Mark's story, tells us that the Pharisees and Herodians began plotting to kill Jesus. In Matthew's work, Jesus is in the presence of the "plotters" and is made aware of their plans. It couldn't be clearer that Mark wants us to think the same thing. Indeed, the first three chapters, especially from 1.4 (John the Baptizers arrest) all culminate at 3.6. It is a group of dramatic stories that cresendo in the plot to kill Jesus. From this point on, all throughout Mark's story, we find out that the officials are constantly trying to trip Jesus up, to catch Him in His words, to trick Him and to arrest Him.

It is for these reasons, the giving of all of these clues, that we can say with confidence that Jesus knew from the beginning that those in Jerusalem (and surrounding areas) were plotting to kill Him. And if He knew this from the start, how then can we suggest that He is predicting stuff? Well, we can't really. It seems more correct to say that Jesus is simply affirming what He has already found out will happen if He goes to Jerusalem. Jesus is not predicting His death. I mean, come on, the man even prays to have the cup taken from Him just before the crucifixion, had He "predicted" the events and done so with "divine accuracy", there's no way He would have prayed what He did. So, in my view, we cannot label Jesus as a "foretelling prophet" in light of these verses. As a byproduct, neither can we suggest that these are literary devices that can help us date the text; they do not fulfill the function of "prophecy".

2. Without getting into a lot of stuff here (because there is a ton to get into), I would point you to the post I have already written on this matter HERE. To simply summarize my conclusion there, I should say that Mk. 13 is not "predictive" either. It may be prophetic in the sense of "forthtelling" but not "foretelling". By the same token it is neither apocalyptic or eschatalogical. Now, I realize that I am way out on a limb here by myself and that what I'm saying flies in the face of the majority of what Markan scholars have written through the ages. At this point, all I can say is, currently, this is where I stand.

When we read Mk. 13, we are to keep in view the temple and its impending destruction. Like Goodacre, while I find much to agree with regarding Kloppenborg's work, in the end, I disagree with his major premise and his dating of the text. But what is invaluable in Kloppenborg's work are all of the social cues that are given. For instance, when he talks about how ancient cities were "razed", certainly, Mk. 13 makes much more sense. In this context, there are all kinds of stock phrases, images, sayings, etc. that would have led ancient audiences to know that, beyond the shadow of a doubt, the temple was going to meet its end. But therein lies the point: There are all kinds of "cues" that people would have picked up on. To use a modern comparison, we can point to stock-brokers or Wall St. pundits. Many of these people, by watching trends in the economy, picking up on financial cues, paying attention to buying/selling/trading patterns, knew that a kind of recession was on the way. Were they "predicting" it? No! By being tuned into society (and their respective fields of work), they saw the recession coming. The same "kind" of thing is taking place in Mk. 13.

I shall have to point you to Kloppenborg's articles here as well as NH Taylor's two articles on Caligula because I do not wish to reproduce all of the social cues they uncover. Needless to say, they are there. The point I want to make, then, is that given all of these cues, we are not in a position to suggest Jesus is predicting anything. Anyone in the ancient world who might have been paying as much attention to things as Jesus had, might have been in a position to make the same suppositions. Perhaps they did (the peasants, I mean). Because we only really get to see things from the perspectives of the elite, we mostly get to see their views that they will rule with power and authority for ages to come. Certainly, there were peasant (and Messiah) movements that had a different perspective!

Given these findings, I'm not so sure that we can suggest that there is much in Mk. that is prophetic at all. Neither am I so sure that we can dub Jesus as prophetic. I am much more hesitant then, to suggest that there is a literary form of prophecy/prediction that allows us to date anything. It's not that I don't take these texts seriously, indeed, I do. In the end, I see them more from a practical social angle than anything else. It is this social angle that reminds me that Jesus knew from cues both what He and the Temple were in for. And that, well, it is my humble take on the matter.

Marriage, Divorce & Remarriage in Mark: Studies In Mark, Pt. 83

When we read Mark's Gospel or any other ancient text for that matter, the fact is, there are many things that we are not privvy to. The distance between our world and theirs is immense and because of this, we misunderstand cultural norms, ethical mores, theological stances, figures of speech, social metaphors, familial practices, etc. The work of Bible readers, in many ways and on many levels, is to uncover and understand as much about these things as we can so that we bridge some of the distance between the two horizons. When it comes to Mk. 10, the section of Mark's story where marriage is in view, there is a lot going on. Attempting to reconstruct the situation, understand it, bridge the gap and read between the lines can be quite tough.

So, I want to start by reminding us that the Gospel writers were highly selective in the materials they chose to include in their respective accounts. For example, when one reads Matthew 19.3, a text quite similar to that in Mk. 10, this "selectivity" is quite noticeable. While we can see similarities, we can also see differences (which we shall attribute to "selectivity"). We notice, for example, that a difference comes at the end of both sections. In Mt. we read, “Is it lawful for a man to divorce for any reason.” and in Mk., the clause “for any reason” is absent. This, then, is where we might ask why Mark did not include the clause? Well, the answer is quite simple: Mark didn’t include it because it was already presupposed. To put it differently, he felt like he didn’t need to include it because his audiences already knew about it.

In Mk. 10.1-12, I would contend, in fact, that this happens often. Mark leaves out a whole lot because his audiences already presuppose it. Let me give you a modern-day example. Suppose one person asks another, “So, what do you think about abortion?” Really, there is more to that question that we presuppose; we supply the extra meaning. Thus, we know that when that question is asked, what is really being asked is: “So, what do you think about abortion is it right or wrong?” I would submit that when we compare Mt. and Mk. something very similar is going on—in Mk. we have a condensed version of a the longer question found in Mt. So, to get the full effect, we must find out what the people presupposed in that context (or as narrative critics would argue: "we need to find out what the readers / hearers were expected to already know").

So, let's focus on Mk. 10.1-12 at this point. In this text there are many things that are missing because Mark didn’t need to include them; he didn’t need to waste time, ink and papyrus (or whatever he was writing on at that time) on things that everyone already knew. But part of our job is to uncover those presuppositions so that we can make full sense of what’s going on. Therefore, a context-sensitive reading is what will help us fill in the gaps—like we did with the “for any reason” statement. So, we are going to try to "reconstruct" the situation as best we can. Let’s stick with verse two. In context, through reconstruction (using Mt., here, for example), verse two would read: “Is it lawful for a man to divorce his wife for any reason.” But in Mark’s context, there’s even a little more that is presupposed. The question they ask is based on the law as it is found in Dt. 24.1-5. In those verses, if you read them, Moses is talking about the rules for giving a valid divorce certificate. Therefore, I want to suggest tha the full question of the religious leaders would actually look something like this: “Is it lawful for a man to divorce his wife for any reason as long as he gives her a valid divorce certificate?”

As we’ll see, the whole episode then, is about valid and invalid divorce certificates. It’s not merely or simply about marriage, divorce or remarriage. It is foremost about the role of valid divorce certificates and their roles in valid divorces and valid remarriages. It might seem silly to us that haggling over a divorce certificate was such a big deal but nonetheless, it was. They argued over food sacrificed to demons, if the water should be warm or could, still or running when baptizing someone...among other things. They haggle over technicalities just like we do. But this was no small issue. Again, we might compare it to abortion; it was a huge issue in Jesus’ day. In fact, there were two prominent Jewish groups who talked a lot about this issue. They were known as the Schools of Hillel and Shammai. The Hillel School was more liberal while the Shammai School was more conservative (if we can use such analogies without being terribly anachronistic). If it weren’t a big issue, there would have been no need for such groups (like those pro-choice and those pro-life today).

So, they argued a lot about valid and invalid divorce certificates. The idea was, if you don’t have a valid divorce certificate, you are not free to remarry. If you have an invalid certificate and try to remarry, you commit adultery. Now, when the religious leaders ask Jesus, “Is it lawful for a man to divorce his wife for any reason as long as he gives her a valid divorce certificate?” Jesus replies, “What did Moses command you?” If we add what is already presupposed in the conversation it is: “What did Moses command your ancestors—and by affiliation you—concerning valid/invalid divorce certificates?” As you can see, we’re getting a fuller picture by including what is already presupposed. And we might suggest that this is what (or very close to what) Jesus said or intended to say because of their reply back, “Moses permitted a man to write a certificate of divorce and (then) send her on her way.” Again, the conversation is really making sense; it is fuller; it is talking, in the main, about divorce certificates—not necessarily divorce!

And Jesus replies right back to them: “It was because your ancestor’s were stubborn (or hard hearted) that Moses wrote you this law about divorce certificates.” In other words, Jesus is saying that some men were being stubborn because when they violated the relationship and the wife requested the certificate of divorce so that she could be cared for by another and remarry, the man wouldn’t give it to her. So, the stubborn guy was withholding the certificate which, if she didn’t have it, prevented her from getting married again. Thus, she could not be cared for. So, Moses had to write a law commanding that if the certificate was validly requested, it must be handed over. Now, many have said that only men could write certificates. But archeological discoveries have disproved this. There have even been found ancient documents where a woman hired a scribe to write the certificate to divorce her husband.

The point is: If you don’t have a valid certificate, you can’t remarry—male or female. And if you don’t have a valid certificate and you go on with the process, you are an adulterer. You are an adulterer because you’re still married! So, at this point, I’m going to recount the presupposed, (re)constructed conversation thus far.

1. The religious leaders ask Jesus: “Is it lawful for a man to divorce his wife for any reason as long as he gives her a valid divorce certificate?”
2. Jesus responds: “What did Moses command your ancestors—and by affiliation you—concerning the giving of valid/invalid divorce certificates?”
3. The religious leaders reply: “Moses permitted a man to write a certificate of divorce and send her on her way?”
4. But Jesus answers: “It was because some were stubbornly refusing to give divorce certificates in valid situations that Moses had to write a law commanding, not just permitting, the handing over of the certificates.”

So, do you see how the whole issue thus far has to do with divorce certificates? That is crucial to understanding and correctly applying this passage. The passage, up to this point, is concerned with divorce certificates. In other words, they have been focused on the negative aspect of what happens in a marriage. At this point, Jesus shifts gears; he goes from talking about the negative to talking about the positive. He’s essentially saying, “Let’s quit thinking about the bad side of marriage and talk about the good.” This is where He cites some passages from Genesis, Exodus and Deuteronomy. Now, look at the next few verses. Jesus says that in the beginning God created male and female to be together; they would leave their parents and unite. The idea was that once they united, they were not going to leave one another. Thus, Jesus is saying, “God’s plan was that marriage would be lifelong. He never wanted it to get to the point of divorce certificates. He wanted people to be faithful to one another.”

And that is really important to catch here: People are to be faithful to one another. Notice how before Jesus ever mentions God “joining” the man and woman, the man and woman “unite” themselves (I take that to mean making vows to one another). In short, they unite themselves through their vows. Then, after that, God, in a public ceremony “joins” them together. The whole image is of a Jewish wedding. The two make their vows here, with God, pictured as the rabbi (or as acting through the rabbi). After they’ve made vows, He unites them before everyone else as husband and wife. It is quite similar to our weddings today. The couple makes their vows, then the minister leads them in “I do’s” and then He “pronounces” or “joins” them together.

Right after this image, Jesus says, “So, what God joins together, let no man separate.” He’s referring to a literal man here, that is, an adulterer, someone who has committed illicit sex with one’s wife. Jesus is saying, “Don’t let that man--even though he transgressed against Me, you and your wife--destroy your marriage, in fact, don’t let any man do that; reconcile, if at all possible.” This fits with what Jesus says elsewhere: seek and employ forgiveness and reconciliation when possible.

Following this, Jesus and His crew enter a home. There, the disciples ask Him a question: “Jesus, when the religious leaders asked you about lawful divorce and you talked about valid/invalid divorce certificates, what exactly did you mean?” Jesus replies: “When I was speaking about valid/invalid divorce certificates and valid/invalid remarriage, I was saying that anyone who invalidly divorces his wife (like, the ‘for any little reason’ clause of the Hillel School) yet marries another woman, commits adultery against his wife and the same is true for a woman, if she invalidly divorces her husband or gives him an invalid divorce certificate and goes on to marry another man, she commits adultery too.”

It is here that the episode ends—on a note about divorce certificates. We would rather it have ended talking about faithfulness or something like that but it didn’t. Now, this was a lot to unpack, so, what I want to do right now is have you read these verses in your bibles one more time while I read the conversation with filled in gaps. I think this will really help us to get a better sense of what's going on here. So, start at verse 2:

1. The religious leaders ask Jesus: “Is it lawful for a man to divorce his wife for any reason as long as he gives her a valid divorce certificate?”
2. Jesus responds: “What did Moses command your ancestors—and by affiliation you—concerning the giving of valid/invalid divorce certificates?”
3. The religious leaders reply: “Moses permitted a man to write a certificate of divorce and send her on her way?”
4. But Jesus answers: “It was because some were stubbornly refusing to give divorce certificates in valid situations that Moses had to write a law commanding, not just permitting, the handing over of the certificates.”
5. Jesus then moves from dwelling on the negative aspect of marriage to the positive, saying: “You dwell so much on this one thing Moses wrote but let’s go back further. In the beginning, there was no need for such a thing. He then cites Gen. 2.24 and the Exodus and Deuteronomy passages, saying: “God’s intentions were for male and female to marry and become one. God’s intentions were not for them to leave their parents, get together and then some time later, leave one another. No, God wanted them to stay together. He never wanted it to get to the point where divorce certificates were used. So, what God has joined, let no other man separate.”
6. Focusing in on the husband, Jesus continues: “You made vows and God joined you together, so, don’t let anyone mess that up. If your wife messes up and engages in an adulterous act, if neither of you want a divorce, you don’t have to get one. And it is to that end that you should strive not to get a divorce; you should not let some man separate you two.”
7. Inside the house, the disciples dwell on the negative and ask: “Jesus, when the religious leaders asked you about lawful divorce and you talked about valid/invalid divorce certificates, what did you mean?”
8. Jesus replies: “When I was speaking about valid/invalid divorce certificates and valid/invalid remarriage, I was saying that anyone who invalidly divorces his wife (like, the ‘for any little reason’ clause of the Hillel School) yet marries another woman commits adultery against her (not just her husband) and the same is true for a woman, if she invalidly divorces her husband or gives him an invalid divorce certificate and goes on to marry another man, she commits adultery too.”

I hope that you see what these verses are really about and what they’re really saying. I could offer a number of applicatory points here but I’ll offer only two. Firstly, we must do the hard work of understanding the culture in its ancient context when we’re reading it. If we don’t do that, we will really misinterpret and misapply. Secondly, these verses in Mk. show that Jesus affirmed that there were both valid and invalid grounds for divorce and remarriage. What He doesn’t do is say exactly what those grounds are. The Bible doesn’t list “all” of those either. Sometimes we have to discern what is theologically correct and morally correct in light of our beliefs overall. And that is also the hard work of discernment on our behalf.

Jesus wants to focus, though, not on divorce but on faithfulness. Faithfulness and fidelity is what He points to. For Him, divorce does not adequately reflect the nature and character of God. No, fidelity and faithfulness does and as such, that’s what we should strive after. Lastly, I think these verses reveal that for Jesus, divorce was not the unforgivable sin and neither was remarriage. In fact, we’ve already seen in Mk. 3 what the unforgivable sin is: blaspheming the Spirit of God.

*Note: I hope to do a follow-up post on Marriage, Divorce and Remarriage soon. Because this post was getting quite lengthy, I was unable to say more about marriage, divorce and remarriage in Mk. overall and I would really like to. I didn't even get the chance, for example, to talk about how Jesus being in Herodian territory in Mk. 10 might have factored into the conversation. So, look for more on this subject in the future.

#1 Bible & Theology Blogs of 2008

I don't feel the need to say much about why I chose to award the Pisteuomen Bible Belt to the two following blogs, but I should say something. The reason I chose these two blogs is because 1) They post nearly every day, 2) Nearly every post is biblically or theologically substantive, and 3) They "actually" live up to the titles of "bible blog" or "theo blog" (because that's "actually" what they blog about). Using those criteria, here are my choices for the top bible blog and theology blog of 2009:

*Bible Blog: John Hobbins: Ancient Hebrew Poetry

*Theo Blog: Alan Knox: The Assembling of the Church

John and Alan, thanks for continually and perpetually writing biblically and theologically substantive posts! Keep up the good work!
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The Temptation Narrative & Mark's Gospel: Studies in Mark, Pt. 82

One question that has intrigued Gospels scholars for centuries, especially those with Markan affinities, is: Why is the wilderness temptation narrative so short (and pretty much absent) from Mark's Gospel? This is something that I have pondered for a while too and until now, I have not said much about it. Before I offer my thoughts on the matter, though, it might be best to say a little more about the subject.

Usually, this topic comes up when bible scholars are discussing the "synoptic problem" (a discussion that focuses on the order in which the Gospel accounts were written; for example, was Mk. written first or was Mk. based on Mt. & Lk.?). As I have said a number of times in this series and on this site, in my opinion, the so-called "synoptic problem" is not really much of a "problem" at all. Anyway, I won't get into that again in this post.

But in regards to the temptation narrative and the synoptic problem, text and literary critics often want to say that because Mark's narrative is pretty much absent of the wilderness events, it must have been written first. Why? Because if Mark had been using Mt. or Lk., for instance, he wouldn't have shortened such an important event. The converse argument says that the reason that Matthew and Luke wrote so much about the temptation narrative is because when they saw Mark's, they felt the need to elaborate on it. On a number of levels, these arguments go deeper but I do not wish to say more about that here. In the end, deeper or not, I stand convinced of neither opinion.

So, moving on, I can say that one of the most creative and unique approaches to this issue can be found in Richard Dormandy's article titled "Jesus' Temptations In Mark's Gospel". In sum, what Dormandy argues is that while Mk. 1 does not include the three wilderness temptations (as Mt. & Lk.), the rest of the text does. He argues that the Greek word for "test" or "tempt" (that is, πειραζω) shows up three times in Mk. Thus, the three tests are spread out over the course of the entire Markan narrative. Each of the three cases where this word occurs in Mk. are said to mirror the "tests" presented in the Matthean and Lukan temptation narratives. While I admire the creative presentation and exegesis here, in the end, I do not subscribe to this view either. Still, I highly recommend that you read the article!!!

Without delving into some of the other views that exist, I want to, at this point, go ahead and give my own view. I will say from the beginning that what is good about Dormandy's take is that it attempts to take Mk. as a whole document and read it that way. However, what makes that argument weak is that it stops short of seeing both the inner-textuality at play in the text as well as the socio-political / religio-political aspects of the first 3 chapters. From my perspective, these are things that must be considered. So, I will consider them here.

First, I think we need to make up our minds that we are going to take Mark on its own terms. This means, in terms of both inner-textuality and socio/religio-politics, we must read Mk. apart from other documents to begin with. When we do this, a few things become apparent. For instance, if we start at Mk. 3.6 and work backwards towards chapter one, we notice all of the conflict between Jesus and the officials (political/religious, etc.). In 3.6, they are so angry that they begin plotting to kill Jesus. Before that, they criticize Him for both healing and picking grain on the Sabbath. They also criticize Him for eating with sinners and saying that He can forgive sins. By the same token, Jesus arouses suspicion when He offers teachings that challenge the status quo. When people start paying more attention to Him than the religio-political officials, they become infuriated and frustrated. When Jesus is viewed in 1.1 and following as supplanting or challenging the emperor, well, that's not good for Him either. The same is true when He attracts attention for calling tax collectors and fishermen away from the Galillean pay-lake, a sure attention getter. Again, in 3.6, the Jewish and Roman officials are now teaming up to kill Jesus.

Now, the point that I'm trying to make here is that there are all kinds of social, reilgious and political things going on in the first three chapters and Jesus is in the midst of all of them. We have to see these social aspects. But we also have to see how all of these aspects connect with one another. They are all leading up to the eventual plot that begins in 3.6. The stacking of social issue upon social issue in 1-3 is no literary accident. There is a lot of literary structure or "play" going on here. One thing becomes increasingly apparent by 3.6: Jesus has clashed with the leaders of His day and they want Him dead because of it! To miss this, is, I think, to miss a great deal of what Mark is trying to accomplish in his story.

So, what does all of this have to do with the brief mention of Jesus' temptation narrative? Well, a lot actually! In my view, there is no temptation narrative because Mark is not concerned with showing a Jesus Vs. Satan fighting match. Instead, Mark wants to show a Religio-political Leaders Vs. Jesus match. To present a showdown with satan in the beginning would have stole the thunder of the point he was trying to make. However, in a roundabout way, I do think Mark suggests that the Religio-political leaders are in lieu with satan. And this is why Mark's first exorcism happens in a religio-socio-political setting: the synagogue. There, Jesus exorcises a demon! And what are demons doing in a synagogue anyway? Well, this is Mark's way of suggesting that the officials there stand in opposition to God's work and God-in-the-flesh. It is no accident that the first encounter with religious officials is in a synagogue and they are exorcised and then, a few chapters later in 3.6, in a synagogue, the officials are plotting to kill Jesus!!!

So, Mark doesn't include a temptation narrative because it would have foiled the point he was trying to make. It's not "missing" because of some text-critical matter or "synoptic problem". It's not absent because it is spread throughout the text or because it was already preserved in two other accounts and there was therefore no need for it here. No, the reason it is only mentioned briefly in Mk. is because at the beginning of his narrative, Mark goes his own direction. Mark starts off with an assault on the religious and political systems and persons of his day. This is why John the Baptizer is arrested in 1.14 (right at the start) and Jesus' death was being plotted so soon. Folks, Mark was making his own point and we need to acknowledge that for what it is! It's "tempting" to read Mk. out of context but we must do our best to resist such things.

The Greatest Scholar In The UK

A while back, I asked the question "Who is the greatest scholar in the United States?" The overall consensus seemed to lean towards Dr. Gordon Fee (even though he has taught and lived a great deal outside of the U.S.). So, I thought I'd ask a similar question about scholarship on the ohther side of the pond: Who is the greatest biblical scholar in the UK?
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Was Jesus' Birth Unique?: Jesus' Birth In Context, Pt. 4

In my previous post on this series (A Miraculous Conception?), I raised a number of questions that Christians must ask and attempt to answer when thinking about Jesus' birth in its ancient context. I also showed a number of ancient accounts of the births of prominent persons in antiquity. Those narratives had many elements in them that were similar to the story of Jesus' birth (dreams, visions, natural phenomena [stars, etc.], deities impregnating women, persons called 'son of god', etc.). *Note: If you have not read that post, please click the above link and do so, it will really, really help you draw out a fuller meaning from this post.

So, I should remind us here that in Jesus' day (both before, concurrent and after His time on earth), there were birth narratives of others that were considered "miraculous". Historically, we are not in a position to really ask whether any of these things "really" happened. Nobody in antiquity probably would have asked that question or one similar to it, so, maybe we shouldn't focus on it either. They knew that the "signs" or "miracles" in the stories were at the very least, narrative markers, meant to point to things beyond the supposed event itself. All of this should lead us to ponder whether or not and how or how not, Jesus' birth might be considered unique. This question, in my view, takes us beyond debating whether or not Jesus was born (let's just say, for the sake of argument, that He was and so were the others...e.g. Plato, Augustus, etc.) and gets us talking about what the first Christians understood His birth to be about and to mean!

In other words, I am asking here: If we move beyond the issues of historicity to theology, what, to the first Christians, was theologically significant about Jesus' birth? What were they attempting to say by mentioning the traveling star, the magi, the singing angels, the attendant shepherds, etc.? And I would want to ask another question here too: If Jesus was still conceived of a virgin but the Gospel accounts of Matthew and Luke were embellished (perhaps, like the accounts of Plato, Heracles, Alexander the Great, etc.), does this affect your view of the importance of Jesus' birth at all? Also, just how central is a "virgin conception" to having a healthy Christian theology? Though Paul's (and other NT letter writers') correspondences were / are highly audience-contextualized, comprising 2/3 of the NT, why do they never ever mention this birth? It seems to me that if it were so central, they could have surely drew some theo-ethical principles from it.

I want to do two things at this point: 1) share a very short personal story, and 2) point you to a modern story book. The personal story comes from an encounter with the book I'm going to mention in a moment. I stumbled across this book last Christmas and after reading it was floored. For the last year, I have thought repeatedly about this text and what it might suggest about Jesus' birth narrative. Now, the text I'm referring to is a children's book by Nancy Tillman titled On the Night You Were Born.

Last year, during Christmas, I found myself reading this book to my daughter, who had just been born a few months earlier. As I read it to her, there arose a tension inside of me. On the one hand, I felt like I was lying but on the other hand, I felt like I was conveying to my daughter, with broken language and images, just how wonderful I thought she was. If you do not own this book, order or buy it. If you do own it, read it again. Either way, I want to supply you with some of the text here. And as you read this, please, put yourself in my shoes and imagine reading this to your newly born child:

"On the night you were born, the moon smiled with such wonder that hte stars peeked up to see you and the night whispered, 'Life will never be the same.' Because there had never been anyone like you...ever in the world. So enchanted with you were the wind and the rain that they whispered the sound of your wonderful name. The sound of your name is a magical one, let's say it before we go on (you are the one and only ever you). It sailed through the farmland high on the breeze (Who in the world is exactly like you, who, who, who), over the ocean (you are a miracle), and through the trees until everyone heard it and everyone knew of the one and only ever you. Not once had there been such eyes, such a nose, such silly, wiggly, wonderful toes...When the polar bears heard they danced until dawn. From faraway places the geese flew home. The moon stayed up until the morning the next day and none of the ladybugs flew away..."

Now, there's more to this great story but I will not reproduce it here (again, go buy it!!!). If you were sitting next to me while I was reading that to my daughter, what would you think, do or say? Would you call me a liar? Would you think less of me? Would you say I was ridiculous? Probably not! Why? Because you know that the story is not meant to have every single detail read wooden literally!!! Because your know that nature and animals do not actually react like that when a child is born. But because the birth of a child is so special, you know that using these images and metaphors to express it is not wrong! It is merely one way to convey to your child that they are of the utmost significance. This type of poetic licensing isn't a problem and it isn't "untrue". It is simply one way to talk about a great moment in time or the wonderful experience of childbirth.

In light of the fact that scores of ancient birth accounts from antiquity exist, accounts full of natural phenomena, miracles, grand imagery, etc., I don't think we have to debate over whether Jesus was born or whether or not certain events transpired "wooden literally" as they are spoken of. In fact, I wonder if we could read an account like Luke's, in a fashion similar to the way we read Tillman's book? The truth is, Jesus' birth account isn't all that unique; indeed, the Gospel writers' accounts are strikingly similar to those I mentioned above and in the previous post of this series. The other truth is, the Gospel writers (Mt. and Lk.) did think Jesus' birth has something unique about it. That's what we should focus on!!!

So, what did they think was so unique? It might well be the case that when it comes to Jesus' birth, we can't quite say. It seems to me that the point of the birth accounts are there mainly to, at the very least, put Jesus on par with, in the category of, or to surpass the births of other prominent people. In other words, all they are meant to do, from a literary standpoint, is to make it clear that Jesus is signficant, important and unique. Yet, where the significance comes to the fore and where it is found to be unique is not in the birth but rather, in the resurrection and ascension. Perhaps this is why the first Christians didn't really focus on Jesus' birth like we do during Christmastime or Advent but rather, on Him being buried, raised and ascended! To be sure, those are the things that, in the eyes of the Early Church, made Jesus unique. And those are the things that make Him unique still today!

Other Posts (to date) In This Series:
* A Miraculous Conception?: Jesus' Birth In Context, Pt. 3
* Jesus & Prophecy: Jesus' Birth In Context, Pt. 2
* Born Of A Virgin?: Jesus' Birth In Context, Pt. 1
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Dreaming Of A White Christmas?

An seemingly neverending "winter storm" in southwest Michigan:


A Miraculous Conception?: Jesus' Birth In Context, Pt. 3

For a great majority of Christians, the "virgin conception / birth" of Jesus is a cherished belief. In fact, I recall stumbling across a poll a couple of years back which said that something like 91% of Americans believed that Jesus was conceived of a virgin (even though 91% of Americans aren't Christians). Of course, this teaching, doctrine, belief or whatever you want to call it, has, since its inception, not been without its critics. As early as the 2nd century, just a few decades after Jesus' death, we already have persons and groups denying that Jesus' birth was "miraculous". Some even suggested that Mary was raped. The rumor also flew around that Mary was promiscuous (perhaps, even sleeping with or cheating on Joseph).

Rarely discussed, especially in evangelical or conservative circles (perhaps liberal ones too) are some interesting pieces of literature. I don't know if it is because of the fact that persons have no idea that these texts exist, that they have purposefully been supressed or that they are irrelevant. I can't say for sure if the previous two answers have any bearing to them but I can say that the third one isn't correct. So, what texts am I talking about?

Well, I'm talking about the birth accounts of Plato, Alexander the Great, Augustus, Pythagoras, Heracles, etc. (by the way, David Dungan, a great scholar who passed away this week, his work, Documents for the Study of the Gospels should be consulted on this matter). It is intriguing to me (not scary) that in Mediterranean antiquity, the birth accounts of prominent persons, typically had what we could consider "miraculous signs", attached to them.

For example, Diogenes Laertius speaks of a vision surrounding the birth of Plato and also says that the philosopher was born of the deity "Apollo". Origen, in his "Against Celsus" (I.37) says (most likely to persons of Christian identity): "It is absurd not to use Greek stories (historia) when talking to Greeks in order that we might not seem to be the only ones using such an incredible story (paradoxes historia) as this one (e.g. Jesus' birth)."

If one reads about Alexander the Great's birth, as mentioned in Plutarch's "Lives", they find all kinds of "miraculous" things. There are visions (by both mother and father) accompanying the birth, strikes of thunder, lightning bolts hitting his mother's womb as well as a seal engraved on it, a great fire, encounters with animals (via dreams / visions), etc.

As for Pythagoras, like Plato, he was believed to be the product of Apollo. In Iamblichus's "The Life of Pythagoras", Pythagoras is said to have "sent down from heaven to be among men...having great wisdom in his soul". Iamblichus says that he was considered by many to be a "son of God". On a similar note, Diodorus says that Herakles was born of the great Greek god Zeus, who slept with Alkmene one night. Power and might were to go before and accompany this great being known as Herakles. Seutonius says that with Augustus's birth, there were natural phenomena like lightning, shooting stars and odd actions of the sun. Out of place things also happened in the temple and there were also visions and dreams. As Christians, I would submit that we must take such accounts seriously when thinking about the birth narratives of Jesus. When we do, suddenly, Jesus' conception begins to look a little differently...perhaps because it "looks" a little more contextual.

I would also point out here that in antiquity, the language of "son of God" wasn't uniquely applied to Jesus. Instead, it was applied to great persons, especially emperors. Thus, using it to attempt to draw some totally unique theory about Jesus is probably not the best way for us to go, especially in regards to the birth account(s). Instead, we should ask how the first Christians were using it and how they were understanding what they meant by it.

So, we have to ask the question now: Was Jesus' birth considered uniquely miraculous in antiquity or were the NT authors attempting to (as Origen alludes to) cast and tell it in such a way that Greeks could easily relate to and understand it? To answer that question, however, I think one must first answer the following query: How, in light of the other birth accounts of great personages in antiquity, is Jesus' birth similar or different, more legitimate or less legitimate, more contextually and culturally shaped or not?

In closing, I want to ask you, if you read this post in its entirety, to please read the next one all the way through too. In that forthcoming post, I am going to make a connection between the evidences I offered here, which are from antiquity, and a very important modern example. I do hope that you will read the next post in conjunction with this one. Blessings to you and yours this holiday season!

Midwest Region SBL '09

Is anybody attending the 2009 Midwest Region SBL (Olivet Nazarent University; Bourbonnais, IL) this year? The main date is Friday, February 13th.

Jesus & Prophecy: Jesus' Birth In Context, Pt. 2

A few years ago, I attended one of Ron Luce's "Acquire The Fire" events and quite enjoyed myself. I was a youth minister at the time and had taken my students to the event mainly because the renowned apologist, Josh McDowell, was speaking. Prior to attending, I had read through and referenced a variety of McDowell's books. I admired what he was doing; he helped me through some tough, searching and trying times. At the conference, he came out and just blew everybody away with this spiel he did on biblical prophecy. He claimed that there were hundreds of thousands of OT prophecies that came true in the NT. He even showed this great little video that argued that the statistical analysis of the number of fulfilled OT prophecies should leave nobody with any doubts about the veracity of the Bible.

I got into this for a while, I must admit. But there came a point in time, when, through a different, more critical approach to the biblical texts, I began to realize Mr. McDowell's approach was erroneous. Indeed, the cherished "messianic prophesies" view that I once clung to, now had to be relinquished or better yet, remodified. This was scary on the one hand but freeing on the other. What was freeing about it was that now, I could read the Bible with less of my expectations forcing interpretations out of it and more of encountering it on its own terms. I know why so many evangelical Christians are so reluctant to let their cherished views be dropped and/or modified: you feel like a turncoat, you realize you were wrong, and you are sometimes feel threatened or embarassed by it all.

I say all of that to say that when I read the Scriptures today, particularly things like NT passages where authors say "it was fulfilled", I no longer understand that the way that I used to. You see, before reading contextually, I was coming to verses like Mt. 1.22: "And this took place to fulfill what the Lord had said through the prophet" and reading that quite wooden-literally. In the comments section of my previous post (HERE), Jason asked me how I could see such a verse as not being "messianic prophecy". Well, there are a few things that contribute to my view:

1. As I have written about on Pisteuomen before, persons in antquity did not think of time like we do today. For starters, they thought in more of a circular fashion and not such a linear (timeline) way. Just as well, as persons in an agrarian civilization, they had little time to be preoccupied with the future. For them, the emphasis (as the Lord's Prayer suggests) was on "this day". While looking ahead was not totally out of question or view, looking further than the next season or two was a rare thing. So, understanding how the ancients thought about and lived in light of "time", really forced me to reconsider some of my views.

2. In addition to understanding time differently, I also had to understand things in their proper contexts. For example, when I read in Isa. 7, as I pointed out HERE, I must read in light of the context of Ahaz's socio-political situations. Then, when I read of something similar in Mt., I must also read in light of his socio-political situations too. Even more importantly, I must consider how Isa. 7-9 influences Mt. 1-4. As I have shown, the issue of "naming" there, is incredibly important. Thus, we begin to see that there is a reinterpretation and reuse of situations going on in Mt. This leads directly into my next point...

3. I realized that if I have to try to see things from an ancient, agrarian point-of-view, a non-linear view, I must reliquinsh my "linear" view of prophecy and fulfillment. Indeed, I would now suggest that thinking in those modes or categories is not all that helpful, in fact, it is quite distracting.

4. If I'm not thinking in terms of prophecy / fulfillment, then I must think in terms of reuse / re-application or re-implication. The truth seems to be that the NT writers often found similar situations to theirs in OT texts and then reused them. Paul's use of the muzzled ox in Lev. for instance, originally had nothing to do with paying missionaries. However, in Corinthians, Paul draws that analogy through creative interpretation. There is no fulfillment there, yet, there is reuse.

5. The Greek word for "fulfilled" is pleroo. It has multiple meanings: to make full, to fill fuller, to be filled, to complete, etc. Now, when Mt. says in 1.23 (and this goes for those other places he says it too!), that the "prophet said...and it was fulfilled", what he's really saying is: "the prophet said ____ in his context and now, in my context, I'm reusing it, attaching new implications and applications to it and thereby imbuing my current situation with a fuller meaning." There is no Sensus Plenoir reading or interpreting going on here! Matthew is simply filling out the meaning of his present context more than he already had, by injecting it with more meaning. The example of Civil Rights leaders quoting Scripture at rallys is something very similar. By invoking the Bible, they were filling the present situation even more full with meaning...namely, social and spiritual meaning!

6. It has taken me some time to own up to it, but at this point, as an honest interpreter, I must acknowledge that there were predictive items in the Bible that never came to pass (see Goldingay's commentary, which Greg Boyd recently mentioned and ingeniously expounded on HERE) and that sometimes, the prophets themselves disagreed (which I have written about HERE).

So, what does all of this have to do with the context of Jesus' birth? Well, a lot, really. It has a lot to do with it because in places like Mt. 1.22, we are now able to see what Matthew was actually doing (and what some have suggested he was doing, but wasn't). Matthew wasn't suggesting that messianic prophesy was being fulfilled! (And by the way, it is high time for Christians to stop making people-groups like Jews feel stupid because they don't believe in messianic prophecy! Why should they when that's not what the NT writers believed either!?) What he was suggesting, however, was that the contexts and situations surrounding Jesus' birth, can be imbued with more ethical, social and spiritual meaning when some imagery and language from Isaiah's text is borrowed. You can read about that in the previous post, or HERE.

So, when it comes to Jesus & prophecy in light of the infancy narratives, let us read the texts anew and with more clarity. Indeed, let us be "filled" with more meaning than we have ever been filled with and let us see things we have never seen before. If that is accomplished, then this nativity story is truly one that can be life-changing and prophetic! More on Jesus' birth in context to come, stay tuned!!!

Born Of A Virgin?: Jesus' Birth In Context, Pt. 1:

On the heels of a brief discussion that yesterday's post brought up, namely, controversies surrounding the birth of Jesus, I thought I'd start a brief series during Advent that explored, in context, that very subject. Since I was asked to decipher some of the language pertaining to the nativity story, particularly that of the "virginal" conception / birth, I am going to start there. I should say here that I am very excited about this series and that I have already made a lot of headway on it. I hope some of the posts provoke good discussion (and, perhaps, debate).

So, here, I want to start by addressing the use of Isa. 7.14 in Mt. 1.23. No doubt, scores of scholars have spent much time on this very issue throughout history. The majority of the conversation has focused on whether or not the Hebrew term 'almah, found in Isaiah, rendered "parthenos" in the Greek LXX (Septuagint, that is, the first Greek translation of the Hebrew Bible) and subsequently in Mt., mean "virgin" or not? Not to burst anyone's evangelical bubble, but the truth is, the term 'almah, has a wide range of meanings. For example, the term is used in the OT many times in reference to music! It can also mean "to conceal". Just as well, it can be used in a masculine sense, as it was of King David and Jonathon, and thus, have no sexual connotations attached to it whatsoever. In Isa. 54, it used to speak of widows who are barren. Thus, even the Isaianic author(s) can use it differently.

What, then, are we to make of its use in Isa. 7? Well, as I have already said, it does not have to be translated as "virgin"; even extra-biblical resources prove this to be the case. However, it can be translated that way, as many OT examples prove (if you want all of these Scripture references just ask for them and I will provide them, otherwise, I'm not going to cite a verse here every time I mention something; that gets tedious.) I should also say that there are other terms denoting virgin too! Thus, Isa. could have readily used different, and less ambiguous words.

As most (sadly, not all) Isaianic scholars have noted, the socio-political conext of Isa. 7 is important to consider when reading and interpreting it. In short, the social circumstances are that Syria is about to wage war on God's people, of whom Ahaz is king. The prophet Isaiah is sent to Ahaz to tell him that if he trusts in God, there will be no reason to worry, however, he should not trust in Assyria as an ally (thereby, eschewing God). He even tells Ahaz to ask for a sign (though Ahaz is reluctant). Isaiah suggests that a woman, known both to himself and Ahaz, will bear a "sign" (Hebrew "ot"). Isaiah says, in the verse in question (7.14): "The Lord Himself will give you a sign: Behold, an 'almah will concieve and bear a son and she shall call his name Immanuel."

So, should the term 'almah be translated there as "virgin" or "young woman"? Well, let me posit that, at this point, that's not the right question to ask or to focus on. What is important, however, is the "sign". What is the sign? Is it something natural or super-natural? Does it have to be one or the other? Well, the text doesn't suggest that it has to be one or the other, so, it could be either. In my view, the sign, according to the verse (and context) is the "naming" of the child. Of course, in OT times, names were often very important. Indeed, in Isa. 7-9, we notice that 3 children are named and that each of those children have names that reflect the socio-political climate of the time.

Now, if you read Mt. 1-4 (NOT JUST MT. 1.23!!!), you will notice that Isa. 7-9 is cited twice. The point is: Mt. is not simply citing Isa. 7.14 as a lone verse, no, what he is doing is importing the entire conext of Isa. 7-9 into Mt. 1-4. In other words, Mt. is not suggesting that something akin to a "messianic prophecy" is being fulfilled. Instead, what Mt. is doing is comparing his current socio-political situation with that of Isaiah and Ahaz's. To put it more succinctly: Just as the 3 children and their names are of paramount importance in Isa. 7-9, reflecting their current socio-political climaxes and what will become of them, the same is true of Jesus, who will be "called" Immanuel.

In Isa., the name Immanuel was representative of a child that would be born at a time concurrent with the overthrow of Ahaz's enemies. In short, the current political regime was to fall. In Mt., the same thing is being suggested. But here's another link: Just as in Isa., where if God is rejected, there will be judgment, the same is true in Mt. It's up to Matthew's hearer's to figure out which side they are on (e.g. the judgment side or the deliverance side). Thus, the opposite of "God with us" must be "God not with us" or "God against us". Taking all of this into consideration, it seems clear to me that the most important reason for Matthew to draw on Isaiah was to make a connection between how the "names" were representative of the current socio-political contexts. And for both Isaiah and Matthew, it appears that they believed God was very involved in those contexts!!!

In my view, this type of contextual reading does a few things: 1) It properly orients us as to Matthew's reasons for using Isaiah, 2) It shows the similarities between the socio-political contexts, which readily allowed Mt. to draw on Isa. (because there were so many similarities), 3) It moves the discussion away from debates over 'almah and parthenos (among other terms), 4) It reminds us that there is an immediate context in both stories and that this is not "messianic prophesy", and 5) That God, in a major way, is involved in the situations of His people and is more than willing to be such. For me, the last supposition (#5) is of paramount importance, especially if we are going to use this narrative during Advent.

We cannot miss the larger and more important point (that God is for His people) at the cost of talking only about a "virgin" or "young woman". But then again, that very issue is probably why you've read this far. So, to take up that question in light of all of the contextual information above, Was Mary a virgin and Was Jesus conceived of virginally? To that, all I can say is that according to Matthew, that sure is a possibility. But for him, the bigger picture is that in some way, similar to that of the past, God is going to deliver His people from an oppressive empire if they trust in Him, an oppressive spiritual evil (satan) if they hope in Him and final judgment if they call on Him. If they don't, they face impending judgment. So, what Matthew is doing in the infancy narrative is laying out a choice for his hearers: Which side are you choosing to be on, "God with us" or "God against us"? It seems like a no-brainer! Which side do you find yourself on this Christmas season?

Now, I should note before I totally end this post that I purposefully did not answer the question of the title fully here because I hope to make my view on the issue more clear with subsequent posts. So, I hope you will continue reading and discussing this matter. Please, feel free to discuss these things here at Pisteuomen by clicking on the "comments" link below".