What is the New Covenant and Who is it with?

There is a presumption among many Christians today that the “new covenant,” one that supposedly came with the arrival of Jesus, was established between God and Christians. Is that what history tells us? If it does, then what does the new covenant entail? If it does not, then what is the new covenant and how did it come to be perceived as a Christian covenant? Let’s start our historical investigation with a bit about the terminology.

What is a covenant? The Hebrew term is beriyth (ber-REETH), the Greek is diathḗkē (dee-ath-AY-kay). Both refer to an alliance, settlement, pledge, treaty, arrangement, or agreement between two parties. The terms can also indicate a disposition or will, in other words, a testament. Thus, the Christian Old and New Testaments actually reflect a Christian belief in old (Jewish) and new (Christian) covenants. What is such a division meant to imply? Let’s begin to answer these questions by surveying each of the covenants enacted between God and humans that are recorded in the Bible.

The earliest covenant appears in Torah’s book of Genesis. There, God made a covenant with Noah (Gen. 6:18) which followed God’s instructions that Noah collect two of every species of living creature on earth and place them in the ark. God made this covenant not only with Noah but with his descendants and “with every living creature.” God agreed that “never again will all living things be wiped out by the waters of a flood” (Gen. 9:9-11). The sign of the ratification of this covenant was the rainbow. Note that this covenant is a “perpetual” covenant – that is, it has no end (Gen. 9:16).

The next covenant also appears in Genesis (ch. 17). This time it was made by God directly with Abraham but also applied to his future son Isaac as well as Abraham’s lineal descendants through him. In this covenant, God promised both land and people, that is the land of Israel and a multitude of descendants through Abraham’s wife Sarah. The sign of the ratification for this covenant was circumcision (Gen. 17:11-13). Note once again that this covenant is “perpetual”; it will have no end (Gen. 17:7, 19).

After a time, these covenant people, descendants of Abraham, found themselves enslaved in Egypt. Moses was chosen by God to liberate them and take them back to the land originally promised to Abraham and his descendants. Along the way, God gave the Torah, the “instructions,” to the covenant people through Moses. This Torah is also called the Book of the Covenant (Ex. 24:7). The sign of the ratification of this covenant was blood taken from a number of bulls which Moses took and splashed on the makeshift altar he constructed. In response, the covenant people chanted, “We are willing to do and obey all that the Lord has spoken” (Ex. 24:7). Moses then sprinkled the same blood on the people themselves saying, “This is the blood of the covenant that the Lord has made with you in accordance with all these words” (Ex. 24:8). An additional sign of this covenant was to be the keeping of the Sabbath (Ex. 31:13). Once again, this covenant is described as perpetual, that is, everlasting (Ex. 31:16). This newer covenant is between God and the covenant people (Ex. 34:27).

We should pause here and note that none of these covenants superseded or replaced previous ones. All remained valid. God is quoted as looking back and saying to Moses, “I will remember my covenant with Jacob and also my covenant with Isaac and also my covenant with Abraham and I will remember the land” (Lev. 26:42). After threatening punishment to those who might break the covenant, God assures Moses that God will always remember the covenant(s): “I will not reject them and abhor them to make a complete end of them, to break my covenant with them…I will remember for them the covenant with their ancestors whom I brought out of the land of Egypt” (Lev. 26:44-45). According to Deuteronomy, God “is a merciful God, he will not let you down or destroy you, for he cannot forget the covenant with your ancestors that he confirmed by oath to them” (Deut. 4:31). Remember: the covenants are perpetual. God keeps the “covenant faithfully with those who love him and keep his commandments, to a thousand generations” (Deut. 7:9).

There is yet one additional covenant that should be mentioned. When King David replaced Saul as the leader of the twelve tribes, a covenant was made between God and the new king concerning his dynasty. David said “my dynasty is approved by God, for he has made a perpetual covenant with me, arranged in all its particulars and secured” (2 Sam. 23:5). The Psalms, supposedly written by David, add emphasis to the “particulars.” Psalm 89 quotes God as saying “I have made a covenant with my chosen one; I have made a promise on oath to David…I will give him an eternal dynasty, and make his throne as enduring as the skies above.” Note the perpetual nature of this covenant as well: “I will give you an eternal dynasty…I will always extend my loyal love to him, and my covenant with him is secure.”

Why have we spent so much time reviewing these Biblical covenants? We have done so to establish certain consistent features among them. First, covenants are between God and the Jewish people or their forerunners (the people of the covenant): Noah, Abraham, Moses, David. Second, the covenants are perpetual; they do not end. Neither do they supersede or replace earlier covenants. The covenant with David, for example, does not invalidate those made with Noah, Abraham, or Moses. Third, each succeeding covenant can be called “new” without impacting negatively on the one(s) that went before. They achieve different ends but work together to achieve a more complete arrangement between God and God’s covenant people.

The idea of yet another “new” covenant is broached by the mid-7th-century BCE prophet Jeremiah. It was during his lifetime that the Babylonians conquered the Kingdom of Judah, the southern kingdom of the land promised to Abraham that was formed when the twelve tribes broke apart following the kingship of Solomon. Eleven tribes combined to form the northern Kingdom of Israel, conquered in the 8th-century BCE by the Assyrians. One hundred and twenty-five years later, Jeremiah watched as the wealthy, educated leadership of Judah was taken into exile in Babylon. He saw how the Babylonians had destroyed Jerusalem and demolished the Temple originally built by Solomon. He bewailed what he considered the sinful (politically inadvisable) acts of the Judean leadership that he believed were now being punished by God. In that context he looked forward to yet another covenant, “a new covenant with the people of Israel and Judah” (Jer. 31:31). It would be issued differently from (but would not replace) the Mosaic covenant that he believed had been violated by the leaders. This new covenant would be made “with the whole nation of Israel after I plant them back in the land,” that is, when they returned from Babylon. With this covenant, God would put his Torah “within them and write it on their hearts and minds” (Jer. 31:33). In other words, God would “forgive their sin” and ensure that Torah would not be broken again. Just to be clear, Jeremiah quoted God as saying, “The Lord has made a promise to Israel…The descendants of Israel will not cease forever to be a nation in my sight…I will not reject all the descendants of Israel because of all that they have done. That could only happen if the heavens above could be measured” (Jer. 31:37), which of course they couldn’t be. In other words, the promises to Israel would never be forgotten.

That brings us to the first mention of the new covenant by a believer in the messiahship of Jesus: the apostle Paul. Yes, Paul. Paul’s letters are the earliest literature by a Christ-confessor yet discovered. They were written decades before the gospels.

Paul is often characterized as the “founder of Christianity,” and/or a “Jewish apostate” who found no absolution for his sins until the coming of Christ. This is all supersessionist nonsense and I have refuted these points in other posts. Paul was actually a faithful, observant Jew for his entire life, who, like all Jews, found forgiveness for his sins in the provisions of Torah. As an observant, Christ-confessing Jew, he brought to the pagan world what he believed was a divinely-instituted means by which Gentile sins could be redeemed enabling them to become children of God and be saved from the wrath that would soon accompany the end of the age. For now, let’s concentrate on Paul’s references to the new covenant.

Paul specifically mentions the new covenant twice. In 2 Corinthians 3:6 he speaks of himself and unnamed others as “servants of a new covenant not based on the letter but on the Spirit.” He adds that the “letter kills but the Spirit gives life.” It is important to understand that all of Paul’s letters are addressed to Gentiles and their particular needs in light of the coming “wrath” (Rom. 2:5; 1 Thess. 1:10, etc.). Much of Paul’s mission has been to correct the impression held by some Gentiles that merely by observing certain provisions of the Jewish Torah (“Judaizing”) they could be made righteous before God. As non-Jews, it is impossible to adequately follow Torah. Not only that, they did not have the proper faith (the faith of Abraham). Indeed, “the letter” of the law (written Torah) kills Gentiles.

Now that Christ has come and died to redeem their sins, Gentiles have a pathway to salvation. They can share in the faithfulness of Christ and obey the Torah as appropriate for them by the guidance of the Spirit (“the Spirit gives life”). How did this happen?

Paul believes that Christ announced the new covenant, the one prophesied by Jeremiah, that “writes” the Torah on people’s hearts and minds. In Paul’s view, the Spirit will now instruct everyone, Jew and Gentile, as to how best each group should obey Torah. Remember, Paul never invalidates the Torah in his letters (Rom. 7:12) and he demands obedience to elements of the Torah for his non-Jewish audiences (1 Cor. 5:11; 6:9-10; 2 Cor. 12:20-21; Gal. 5:19-21; Rom. 1:29-31; etc.). Paul’s formula for salvation for both groups is always: faith plus obedience equals salvation.

Paul refers to Jeremiah’s new covenant language again in Romans 11:27 directly quoting the prophet: “and this will be my covenant with them when I take away their sins.” Who is “them”? Note that this quotation of Jeremiah follows Paul’s declarative (and often ignored) statement: “And in this way all Israel will be saved.” Paul understood that the covenants are with the covenant people, not with non-Jews/Gentiles. The fact that Gentiles have now become eligible for redemption, as Paul proclaims, has nothing to do with their entering into a separate covenant with God. As Paul says earlier in Romans: “my fellow countrymen…are Israelites. To them belong the adoption as sons, the glory, the covenants, the giving of the law, the temple worship, and the promises” (Rom. 9:3-4). Paul also understood that additional covenants did not invalidate previous ones (Gal. 3:15-17). This new covenant, proclaimed by Jeremiah, was interpreted by Paul, at least, as one that would begin at the dawn of the new age (not at the return of the Jewish leadership from Babylon as Jeremiah anticipated). Paul knows that this new covenant is, like all the others, between God and “the nation of Israel” (i.e., Jews) as Jeremiah said; it is not between God and pagans, former or otherwise. The effects of the new covenant may impact non-Jews but they are not signatories to it. As John 4:22 makes clear, “salvation comes from the Jews.”

A final word about the new covenant and Jesus. Paul claims to recite words that he says he “received from the Lord,” words that were said “on the night when he was betrayed” (1 Cor. 11:23). Paul quotes Christ as saying “this cup [of wine] is the new covenant in my blood” (1 Cor. 11:25). Remember the signs of ratification of the covenants we looked at above: rainbow, circumcision, blood (of the bulls), an everlasting dynasty. This sign is also blood, the blood of Jesus sprinkled on the cross and symbolized (sprinkled among the people, as it were) through the wine served at the Eucharist. It signified (for Paul and others) Jeremiah’s new covenant in which the Spirit would instruct the faithful about the requirements of Torah. In Paul’s hands, Jeremiah’s prophecy has been fulfilled eschatologically, another indication that the new age was dawning (this, as we saw, was not Jeremiah’s thinking). Paul’s “words of the Lord” were later picked up in three of the four gospels and located in the story of Jesus’s last supper (John never uses the word “covenant” and does not feature Paul’s “words of the Lord”).

In short, the new covenant, whatever else Christ-believing Jews said it was, whether Paul or the gospel writers, was never suggested to be an agreement between God and pagans or between God and Christ-believing Gentiles. It did not supersede or replace any previous covenant. All remained operative working together according to God’s plan. The covenants remain with Israel. The Jewish messiah, according to Paul, announced a new covenant with the Jewish faithful, some of whom were seated around him “on the night in which he was betrayed,” to be ratified in his blood. It announced the coming of the Spirit who would write the laws of God on the hearts and minds of those who love God. Paul believed that Gentiles could be among them.

Was Christ Crucified for the Sins of the World?

Most Christians will answer this question with a resounding “Yes, of course.” Wasn’t that the entire reason for Christ’s suffering and death? Didn’t Christ die as a sacrifice to atone for sins that would have otherwise resulted in the death of the sinner? In some sense, the earliest Christ-believers, that is, mostly Jews and some Gentiles of the early-to-mid-first century, would have acknowledged that most of these questions could be answered affirmatively. What they would not have understood, however, was that Christ died for the sins of the world.

The problem here is not one of semantics but of supersessionism in disguise. It is a statement that preferences Christianity over Judaism by either ignoring Judaism or relegating it to nonessential status. How so? The interpretation of Christ’s death as having anything to do with atoning for sins was the unique contribution of the apostle Paul, the self-proclaimed apostle to the Gentiles (non-Jews). As an observant Jew, Paul was well aware of the various means of atonement for sin already available to Jews. Some of these are spelled out in the Torah, others in the prophets. Atonement was achieved, for example, through repentance, prayer, sacrifice, almsgiving and monetary contributions, fasting, suffering, and even one’s own death (if that death was offered as atonement for one’s own sins). The point is that Jews did not need or await a dying messiah to atone for their sins. There were many alternatives and provisions for atonement as part of Jewish obedience to their covenant requirements.

Beginning in the second century BCE, there did come to exist the notion in Judaism that some righteous Jews suffered and even died on behalf of the Jewish people. This idea arose most notably in the apocryphal/deutero-canonical books of the Maccabees. But this idea was not one in which a dying, righteous Jew atoned for the sins of other Jews. Rather, these Jews underwent the sufferings that were actually threatening all of the people; their deaths vicariously represented the possible fate of all righteous Jews. The historical background to these books of the Maccabees is that the Syrian king, Antiochus Epiphanes, had outlawed the practice of Judaism under penalty of persecution and even death. These books relate stories of righteous Jews who refused to give up their religion and way of life even if it meant death for them. They were not dying for Jewish sins. They were dying as representatives of all righteous Jews who were in danger of suffering the same fate. They were seen as martyrs and heroes for that reason. It had nothing to do with Jewish sins.

The work of John the Baptist is often seen by Christians as a response to the need for Jews to make atonement for their sins through baptism as if there were no available alternatives. In light of what was said above, this was hardly the case. Jews were not waiting on John or some other divinely inspired prophet for redemption. From a Jewish point of view, John served to encourage the people to make proper atonement for their sins at that particular time, before it was too late to do so. His ritual washings were either meant to signify the sincerity of the baptizand’s commitment to atone or were themselves meant as yet another means of atonement. In neither case did John bring atonement for sin because there was no means for doing so.

Neither did Jesus’s death satisfy his Jewish followers’ need for a means of atonement. Again, Jews, even followers of Jesus, were not waiting for a messiah to redeem them from their sins. Many awaited a messiah who would triumph over God’s enemies, namely, those foreign oppressors who, for at least the past 500 years, had dominated the Jewish homeland once exclusively designated for them by God. Those Jews with an apocalyptic bent understood that those foreign oppressors were working, knowingly or not, for the leading enemy of God, Satan. The messiah would defeat Satan and all his earthly and non-earthly minions.

Paul, as a Jew, knew all this. He knew that Jews were not waiting for a messiah to bring liberation from their own sins. Remember that Paul did not declare himself apostle to the circumcised. The circumcised did not need the unique gospel message that Paul felt divinely called to bring to non-Jews (though he did believe Jews should acknowledge that his message was valid). Paul’s gospel to the non-Jews proclaimed that Gentiles now had available to them a means of atonement outside the provisions of the Jewish Law. That was a good thing for Gentiles, in Paul’s view, because, as things stood, they could not properly lead righteous lives according to the provisions of Torah without converting to Judaism. God was now calling Gentiles to join his family as adopted Gentile sons and daughters.

This difference in Paul’s message to Gentiles as opposed to Jews is, incredibly, missed by a whole host of mainstream scholars, not to mention most Christian theologians and ministers. One example will have to suffice.

For my Introduction to the New Testament course, I use as our textbook the otherwise excellent A Brief Introduction to the New Testament by Bart Ehrman. I don’t, however, use the chapters on Paul because of statements like this:

“Missionaries like Paul actively propagated the faith, converting Jews and Gentiles to faith in Christ as the Son of God, who was crucified for the sins of the world and then raised by God from the dead.” Bart Ehrman, A Brief Introduction to the New Testament, 4th ed., pg. 47 (italics added).

First of all, the word “converted” is entirely misleading and indicates to many readers that believers of Paul’s message were converting to Christianity. For one thing, Jewish believers in Christ were not converting to anything. They remained Jews even as they accepted Jesus as the Messiah or Christ. Ask yourself: What would they have converted to? There was no Christianity in the days of Paul. Christianity was a development of the second century though obviously having roots in the first. Paul himself did not convert to a different religion – the only alternative available to him was paganism. And, surprisingly to some, pagans did not convert to anything either, notwithstanding the fact that they came to express faith in the God of Israel and his Christ. They certainly did not convert to Judaism (Paul insisted they not do that) and, as we said, there was no religion known as Christianity at that time. They did, however, convert out of paganism – Paul insisted that his non-Jewish audience reject their ancestral and civic gods and worship only the God of Israel. This ambiguous condition, neither Jew nor pagan, eventually proved unsatisfactory and led to the creation of a stand-alone (mostly Gentile) religion we now know as Christianity.

Just as Paul insisted that idolatry had no place in the life of a righteous Gentile, neither did a past filled with unredeemed sin. These Gentile sins are the ones Paul insisted Christ died for (Gal. 5:2) not, as in Ehrman’s statement, the sins of the world. Note the Christian supersessionistic implications of that phrase which simply ignores the fact that Jews, too, are part of the world. It ignores the atonement provisions already available to Jews as if they were nonexistent or rendered meaningless now that Christ had come. It lumps Jews in with sinning Gentiles as part of a world that had no prior means of atonement. That was not Paul’s view.

Paul’s unique good news message, or gospel, proclaimed to his non-Jewish audiences was that God had made a way, through the crucifixion of Jesus the Christ, for non-Jews to be washed clean of their sins. If the non-Jew put his or her trust (Greek = pistis, sometimes translated as “faith”) in God’s plan of salvation for Gentiles, enabled through the faithful act of Jesus Christ who carried out his part by allowing himself to be crucified, they could be saved from the coming wrath by way mystically joining in that crucifixion with the hope of an afterlife like that experienced by Christ.

The messianic expectations of the Jews would be fulfilled, according to Paul, when Christ returned. The period of time between Christ’s crucifixion and parousia (return) was divinely designated as the time for the Gentiles to come to faith in God. Paul felt he was a vital cog in God’s plan to make salvation available to the rest of the world (not the world) in order to fulfill prophecy and validate God as the God of all people not just of the Jews.

Your Beliefs about the Afterlife: Are They Christian?

My summer reading program has essentially concluded with two recommended volumes that together cover much of the same ground. Bruce D. Chilton’s Resurrection Logic: How Jesus’ First Followers Believed God Raised Him from the Dead (Baker, 2019) was followed a year later by Bart D. Ehrman’s Heaven and Hell: A History of the Afterlife (Simon & Schuster, 2020). Both books explore ancient notions of what happens to people after death.

People have wondered about, been afraid of, and looked forward to what happens after death since before recorded history. The very earliest textual remains, the Middle Eastern epic Gilgamesh account, tells a four-thousand-year-old story about a super-human demigod who sought, and ultimately failed, to find immortality in a life-giving herb. Along the way he encountered dead friends and family who lie without hope in the dust.

Over a thousand years after Gilgamesh visited the realm of the dead, the semi-legendary Greek author Homer similarly conceived of the afterlife as bleak and dreary in his two major works: the Iliad and the Odyssey. According to Homer, once the life breath is gone, disembodied souls with no hope of return live out an existence offering neither pain nor pleasure. Notably, however, semi-divine offspring, including Hercules, might expect to exist forever among the gods. Three other men who had angered the gods are damned to eternal torture in Hades. Starting to sound familiar?

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One God in Multiple Persons: A Christian Idea?

The notion of multiple persons in the godhead is normally thought to be a Christian innovative change to Judaism’s distinctive monotheism. But is it? UC Berkeley professor Daniel Boyarin, in his book The Jewish Gospels: The Story of the Jewish Christ, provides compelling evidence that the trinitarian, or at least binatarian, notion of God, has roots deep in Jewish history – virtually from its beginnings.

This should not be a complete surprise. Throughout the Torah, that is, the first five books of the Jewish Tanakh or Christian Old Testament, there are multiple references to a multipersonal God as well as a multiple number of gods. Most readers are familiar with God’s statement in Genesis: “Let us make humankind in our image, after our likeness” (1:26 NET). Later, “the LORD God said, ‘Behold, the man has become like one of us in knowing good and evil” (3:22). In the story of the tower of Babel, “the LORD said… ‘Come, let us go down and there confuse their language, so that they may not understand one another’s speech’” (Gen. 11:6-7). Who is us?

Nor is the existence of multiple gods contested in Torah. In the story of the Exodus, God tells Moses and Aaron that “I will pass through the land of Egypt…and I will attack all the firstborn in the land of Egypt… and on all the gods of Egypt I will execute judgment” (Exodus 12:12). Later, Moses and the freed Israelites sing, “Who is like you, O LORD, among the gods?” (Exodus 15:11). One of the ten commandments instructs God’s followers to “have no other gods before me” (Exodus 20:3). God declared to the Israelites that “the LORD your God is God of gods and Lord of lords” (Deuteronomy 10:17). This sentiment is echoed in other places in the Bible such as Psalms 136:2 and Daniel 2:47.

A divine council or heavenly host is mentioned several times in the Hebrew scriptures. “The LORD came from Sinai…he shone forth from Mount Paran; he came from the ten thousands of holy ones, with flaming fire at his right hand” (Deuteronomy 33:2). A vision granted to the prophet Micaiah revealed “the LORD sitting on his throne, and all the host of heaven standing beside him on his right hand and on his left” (2 Chron. 18:18). Job refers to “a day when the sons of God came to present themselves before the LORD, and Satan also came among them” (Job 1:6, cf. 2:1).

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Spirit-Possession: A Hallmark of the Earliest Church?

In his groundbreaking work, Jesus the Healer: Possession, Trance, and the Origins of Christianity, Stevan L. Davies makes the case that scholars have largely overlooked a major component of early Christian culture and ideology: that of spirit possession. Most readers of the gospels are familiar with Jesus exorcising demonic spirits from a number of victims but overlook the entire cultural predilection for belief in, and literary reflection on, spirit-controlling phenomena which are evident throughout the gospels and letters of Paul. These texts are, after all, the earliest written Christian material. Remarkably, the high valuation of spirit-possession quickly diminishes in later New Testament texts and, by the second century, such spirit-centered faith is largely deemed heretical.

If you tune your ears properly, references to spirit possession begin to reveal themselves especially in the Gospels of Mark and John and in the letters of Paul. But first, a bit of discussion about the phenomena itself. As Davies points out, spirit possession is a cross-cultural and timeless phenomenon not restricted to any particular faith system or geographical location. Modern Western culture is generally only familiar with the concept of demonic possession showcased in various popular books and movies. But the actual phenomena itself continues to exist. Though considered less common in the West, spirit possession is reported more frequently in cultures that are receptive to it as an explanation for certain behavior that Western culture describes scientifically. Virtually every contemporary religion acknowledges spirit possession, usually of the destructive kind, and exorcistic formulae and methodologies have been devised to deal with it. Western psychiatry subsumes these phenomena under the category of dissociative disorders and treats them accordingly. Usually, psychiatry focuses on treating what are usually destructive dissociative states (known in other cultures and in religious parlance as demonic possession). Rarely are positive, or beneficial spirit-possession events studied, treated, or even acknowledged. In fact, with this Western cultural bias strongly entrenched, modern readers fail to recognize the evidence for the belief in, and welcoming of beneficial, or holy, spirit possession that is reflected throughout parts of the New Testament.

Right from the start, the Gospel of Mark, the earliest gospel in the New Testament, describes as spirit-possession the events that transpire at Jesus’s baptism.

“Now in those days Jesus came from Nazareth in Galilee and was baptized by John in the Jordan River. And just as Jesus was coming up out of the water, he saw the heavens splitting apart and the Spirit descending on him like a dove. And a voice came from heaven: ‘You are my one dear Son; in you I take great delight.’ The Spirit immediately drove him into the wilderness. (Mk. 1:9-12 NET)

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Jesus and Paul Mention Them – But Who are the “Sinners”?

You might be asking why such an obvious question is being addressed in this post. Aren’t sinners just anybody since everybody sins? Well, not so fast. It turns out the Greek word for “sinner,” hamartōlos, had some specific meanings in the New Testament depending on how it was used. After we look at some examples from the gospels and the writings of Paul, this should become clear.

In the ancient Greco-Roman world, the stereotyping of other cultures and peoples were the norm. Romans, for example, divided the world into Romans, Greeks, and barbarians. Jews divided the world into Jews and Gentiles. These categories came replete with stereotypical characteristics that were often negative in nature. This is not surprising since these were dyadic cultures who measured self-worth in terms of how one adhered to group norms. Freedom of expression was much more limited than today. Being judged an honorable first-century, Mediterranean individual depended on how closely you complied with the norms expected for your group. There were gender norms, racial and tribal norms, clan norms, religious norms, social status norms, and so forth. Falling outside these expected norms resulted in being castigated by your group. You became “the other”, an outsider – a member of a group other than the one you were expected to belong to.

Paul is the earliest author represented in the New Testament. He was a Hellenistic (Greek acculturated) Jew and as such he shared ideas with other Hellenistic Jews of the Diaspora (the land outside Israel). He demonstrates his contemporary predilection for stereotyping “the other” as part of his recollection of a conversation he once had with the apostle Peter. Paul summarized the conversation in his letter to the Galatians. In speaking with Peter, Paul shared with him the notion that they were not members of “the other,” that is, the Gentiles. He pointed out that they were “Jews by birth and not Gentile sinners” (Gal. 2:15). Paul is not differentiating Gentile sinners from Jewish sinners; Gentiles as a group were categorized by most Jews to be irredeemable “sinners.” They did not have the Torah and so their overall behavior repeatedly violated it. Consequently, not having Torah, they had no means of atonement, a merciful feature of Torah for Jews. Gentiles were, as a class, “sinners.” According to most Jewish thought, there was no salvation outside Torah.

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“The Apocalypse is Coming!” But Where Did It Come From?

Even in the 21st century, we are not without our warnings about the end of the world – euphemistically referred to as “the apocalypse.” Cults continue to arise predicting the end and even forecasting specific dates as to when it will happen. Movies and TV shows offer fictional recreations of the apocalypse. The atom bomb was supposed to usher in the age of the apocalypse. Climatologists warn that life as we know it will end if certain changes to our behaviors are not enacted. Are fears of the apocalypse a modern phenomenon or do they reach back deep into our collective history?

Apocalyptic notions actually began within Judaism and came to full flower in the 2nd century BCE. The Greco-Roman world generally viewed history in cyclical patterns in keeping with their observations of the rotation of the stars and planets and the repetition of the seasons. Kingdoms rose and fell, life came and went, the sun appeared every morning. Jews of the Biblical age (the Old Testament period) also tended to see history in this way. Their past was marked by repetitive, covenantal milestones in which the Jewish people would at times be faithful to God and be rewarded with blessings, and at other times be disobedient to God and be punished with various calamities. This is sometimes referred to as a Deuteronomistic view of history, named for one of the books of Torah.

But things changed for the Jewish people while they were under the domination of the Greek successor-kings to Alexander the Great. In the 2nd century BCE, the Greek king Antiochus Epiphanes of Antioch, Syria, forbid Jews in Israel from practicing their religion under penalty of torture and even death. In this new situation, whenever faithful Jews tried to be obedient to Torah and to God, they reaped punishment instead of blessing. Only acquiescence to pagan Greek demands resulted in the cessation of punishment. Good was rewarded with misery; evil collusion with blessing. The world view, for these Jews, had been turned upside down.

This upside-down view of the world is at the basis of apocalyptic thinking. How could Jews reconcile the incongruency that resulted from the fact that obedience to God led to punishment? They began to accept the notion that the world was not under the direct control of God but of God’s evil opponents. These forces of evil were envisioned as being led by an anti-God figure, often identified as Satan. Satan’s dark forces were temporarily in charge of planet earth. Their own human minions, the pagans, were acting on behalf of Satan and against the will of God. The world was indeed turned upside down: evil (paganism) was rewarded with power and wealth, goodness (Judaism) with persecution and suffering. How long would God let this happen?

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Did Paul Think Jesus was Pre-existent?

This may seem like a question with an obvious answer to many Christians who have grown up believing in the Trinity. Trinitarian doctrine was developed after decades of debates over the nature of Christ and the Godhead in the early church beginning in the second century. But Paul lived in the first century and wrote his letters around the middle of that century. He was an observant Jew who came to have trust in Jesus as the Jewish Messiah. What did he think about the Messiah/Christ’s origins?

To understand the question adequately, one needs to review the beliefs of first-century Romans and Hellenized (Greek-acculturated) Jews with regard to the divine and earthly realms. Unlike the pervasive opinion today, the dividing line was rather porous between these two realities. Gods often crossed over into the mundane world of humans and humans were often known or believed to have been elevated into the divine realm. Their presence in the divine realm did not turn these beings into God (with a capital “G”). They may have been considered as gods or lesser divinities but they did not take on the identify of Zeus, Jupiter, or Yahweh. Daemons, angels, and other beings existed in the divine realm, according to common belief, without being God.

When early Jewish believers in Jesus the Messiah claimed that he had risen from the dead and was now seated at the right hand of God, they did not mean to say that he was God/Yahweh. They could not do so without violating their monotheistic, or better, henotheistic, beliefs. To say that Jesus was now divine, however, was not a violation of Jewish faith in Yahweh. Jews believed that a number of humans had been divinized in the past. Torah described Enoch as going to heaven (Gen. 5:24); 2 Kings 2:11 tells of Elijah’s ride into the next realm. Later Jewish traditions spoke of Moses ascending to heaven (Babylonian Talmud Yoma 4a; Pesikta Rabbati 20:4; Josephus, Antiquities 4:325-6). Jesus spoke of Abraham as residing there (Luke 16:19-31). This relocation did not make any of these patriarchs God. Neither was Jesus, strictly speaking, God, according to Paul.

Continue reading “Did Paul Think Jesus was Pre-existent?”

Was Jesus Born on December 25?

The Christmas season often leads to many questions about the historicity of events surrounding the birth of Jesus. In this post, I would like to survey the historical evidence for the celebration of Christmas and the establishment of its date which did not necessarily happen at the same time. It may be surprising to learn that the Eastern and Western Churches initially recognized Christ’s birthday on different days! But in both regions of the church, the feast of Christmas only began to be celebrated in the fourth century.

Christmas was not immediately seen as important to the earliest Christians as Easter was. Debates about the date of Easter ran throughout the second century. Some in the early church celebrated Jesus’s resurrection on the first Sunday after Passover (based on New Testament gospel accounts) while others focused on the death of Jesus and celebrated it on the night of Passover, whatever day of the week it occurred.

The earliest evidence for dating the birth of Christ by members of the Eastern Church (going clockwise around the Mediterranean from Greece to Asia Minor, Syria, Palestine and Egypt) can be traced to the second century as well. Christian theologian Clement of Alexandria, Egypt (c. 150-215), believed that Jesus was born on November, 18 in 3 BC (more about how Christ can be born “before Christ” later). In his book Stromata (“Miscellanies”) Clement also noted that followers of the Gnostic heretic Basilides chose May 20 as Jesus’s birthday. As we will see below, Clement may have confused the Basilidean’s reckoning of Jesus’s conception (the incarnation) with that of his birth.

Epiphanius, the fourth-century bishop of Salamis on the island of Cyprus, wrote in his book Panarion (“Medicine Chest”) that a group of heretics called the Alogoi (“anti-logos”), opponents of the theology expressed in the Gospel of John, thought that Jesus was born in the year equivalent to 9 AD! Nevertheless, they dated Mary’s conception to either June 20 or May 21, the latter in agreement with the date given by the followers of Basilides for Jesus’s birth according to Clement but probably misunderstood as the date of his incarnation. Epiphanius himself accepted June 20 as the date of Mary’s conception. To arrive at the date for Christmas, he followed a tradition in which it was said that Mary’s pregnancy lasted seven lunar months less four days (202 days). An inclusive count results in Jesus’s birth being on January 6, the most popular date in the East for this event. Epiphanius accepted the year of Jesus’s birth as equivalent to 3/2 BC.

The Christian theologians of the western church (going clockwise around the Mediterranean from North Africa to Spain, Gaul, and Italy) also accepted the year of Jesus’ birth as 3/2 BC (Irenaeus, Tertullian, Origen, Eusebius). The Christian-generated Roman City Calendar (Chronograph) of 354 AD (probably reflecting the situation from as early as 336) gave the accepted birth date of Christ as December 25.

Future Eastern bishop of Constantinople, John Chrysostom, wrote in 386 that within the previous ten years, his church and others in the East had begun to follow the Western dating of Christmas as December 25. He supported his conclusion based on details he derived from the Gospel of Luke, chapter 1.

Chrysostom misinterpreted Luke 1:9 as indicating that Zechariah, the father of John the Baptist, was the Jewish high priest at the time of the announcement of John’s conception. This was because only the high priest could enter the Holy of Holies, the innermost and holiest part of the Jerusalem Temple. This entry could only be done on the Day of Atonement (Tishri 10; see Lev. 16, Num. 15:25, Heb. 9:7). Since Zechariah “had entered the temple of the Lord” when the angel announced John’s conception, Chrysostom concluded that Zechariah was the high priest and that Tishri 10 was the date of John’s conception. (In Chrysostom’s time, Tishri 10 fell on September 20.) Six months later, according to Luke 1:26, Mary received an angelic announcement that she would conceive. Chrysostom resolved that she had conceived the following month (April). Counting nine months out, inclusive of April, he affirmed that the month of Jesus’s birth was December. This was enough for Chrysostom to accept December 25 rather than January 6 as Jesus’s birth date.

Both dates, December 25 and January 6, were important in the ancient world. Both were variously given as dates of the winter solstice, the time when “the sun stands still” and the days begin to grow longer (today the solstice is calculated as December 21). Important pagan festivals were celebrated on these dates including Isis festivals in Rome. In Egypt, on January 5/6, a ceremony was held to mark the day of Kore, the virgin, who gave birth to Aion, a Hellenistic deity associated with time. Similar ceremonies were held at Petra and Elusa in Arabia according to Epiphanius. December 25, on the other hand, was the date of the pagan festival honoring Deus Sol Invictus (“the Unconquered God of the Sun”) who had been the official deity of the Roman empire since 274 AD. There were even Biblical allusions to the Messiah arising during the solstice according to some.  Malachi writes (4:2), “And for you who fear my name a sun of righteousness shall rise, and healing is in its wings.” As the December date gained supremacy throughout the Christian church, the January date, called the Epiphany, was kept to honor the coming of the magi, that is, the “manifestation” of Christ to the Gentiles, among other things.

Back to the question of how Christ came to be born “before Christ” (BC). This difficulty began with the method by which time was calculated in the ancient Roman world. In Jesus’s time and place, dates were reckoned with respect to the founding of Rome. The death of Herod the Great, for example, was recorded as occurring in 750 AUC (Anno Urbis Conditae = “from the founding of the city” of Rome). The year is equivalent by our modern reckoning to 4 BC. According to the Gospel of Matthew 2:16, Herod began looking to kill infants in Bethlehem who had been born within the previous two years (obviously, before Herod’s death). Thus, Jesus is reckoned by most scholars to have been born about 748 AUC (6 BC). But that still doesn’t answer the question of how Jesus came to be born “BC”.

After the advent of the Roman Emperor Constantine (r. 324-337), many Christians began to calculate time from the date of the greatest persecution to have ever been launched against them. This occurred under the former Emperor Diocletian who was crowned emperor on September 17, 284. Egyptian Christians, for example, began to calculate the “Diocletian era” as beginning on New Year’s Day of that year: August 29, 284. It was also known by some as the “Era of the Martyrs” and was a widely used dating method until the 8th century. Abyssinian and Coptic Christians still use it.

In the 6th century, a Scythian monk, Dionysius Exiguus (Dionysius “the short”), attempted to reconcile a number of different tables that were used for calculating future Easters. He ignored dates that had been calculated based on the era of the “tyrant” Diocletian, but began to number the years from what he considered to be the “Year of our Lord Jesus Christ,” that is, from his incarnation. Unfortunately, Dionysius ignored earlier attempts to date Jesus’s birth (as we saw above, many had concluded that it occurred in years equivalent to our 3/2 BC) and reckoned the birth of Jesus as occurring on December 25, 1 BC or 1 AD (scholars are divided on this point).

Dionysius’s efforts have resulted in the peculiar situation in which Jesus’s birth is now reckoned to have occurred “Before Christ” and, according to Dionysius, after Herod’s death despite New Testament evidence to the contrary. It is clear, however, based on the best evidence that Herod died in 750 AUC (in our reckoning 4 BC) and Jesus was born shortly before that.

Are either the dates January 6 or December 25 historically probable as the dates of Jesus’s birth? The oldest traditions agree that Jesus was conceived in the spring and born in the mid-winter. But we cannot say with certainty when or especially on what date Jesus was born. January 1 and December 25 have just as much chance as any of being historically correct. We can never know for certain, so maybe it is best not to worry about it and just enjoy the season. Merry Christmas.