The Jewish Paul: A Running Commentary on Galatians (Part 4)

As I indicated in the previous blogs, this running commentary on Galatians is designed to help demonstrate that Paul remained an observant Jew throughout his life. He neither advocated the abandonment of Judaism or Torah for himself nor for any Jew, whether they believed that Jesus was the Messiah or not.

This section of Galatians can be quite dense and requires our full attention to how Paul used the tools of Greco-Roman rhetoric and always remained focused on his intended readers, that is, Gentiles. This section of the letter should leave no doubt that Paul was writing exclusively to Gentiles.

3:16 Now the promises [3:8] were spoken to Abraham and to his seed [Gen. 17:8]. Scripture does not say, “and to the seeds,” referring to many [nations], but “and to your seed,” referring to one [Christ], who is Christ [Some think that Paul is saying that only through Christ may one become an heir to the promises, i.e., excluding Jews. That is nonsense. Paul said the exact opposite earlier. He is making the point here that the promises concerning the nations are not made to the inhabitants of the nations individually or to their leaders but to one Jewish gatekeeper for the nations: Jesus Christ.]. 17 What I am saying is this: The law that came 430 years later does not cancel a covenant previously ratified by God, so as to invalidate the promise [Get what Paul is saying? One covenant does not invalidate a previous one.]. 18 For if the inheritance is based on the law, it is no longer based on the promise, but God graciously gave it to Abraham through the promise [Inheriting the benefits of the promise to Abraham concerning the nations does not require Gentiles to get circumcised and become Jews nor is it earned through Judaizing. It is a matter of grace (unearned blessing by God). Paul is not saying that Jews have been disinherited.].

3:19 Why then the law? [Paul begins using the rhetorical technique called the diatribe, an invented conversation between the author and an imaginary interlocutor. The questioner, a Gentile, asks: If inheritance is by the promise, why was the law necessary?] It was added [a covenant made after the one with Abraham] because of transgressions [i.e., human sinfulness], until the arrival of the seed to whom the promise had been made [the seed = Christ. Remember, Paul was writing to Gentiles about their salvation. He was not writing to Jews. Christian interpreters should not keep reading Paul as if he were making universal pronouncements.]. It [the law] was administered through angels by an intermediary [Exodus 3:2 makes it clear that Moses heard God’s voice through an angel. Many Jews believed that no one could come into immediate contact with God. Instead, one would encounter the Angel of the Lord or some other representative of God.]. 20 Now an intermediary implies more than one, but God is one [Paul made this hair-splitting distinction to assure his Galatian Gentiles that, whatever the angel’s intent was, God is fully capable of making the Torah apply however God chooses, whether it is to Jews or Gentiles.]. 21 Is the law therefore opposed to the promises of God? Absolutely not! [That is why Paul clarifies that the law is not antithetical to the promises: both Jew and Gentile must remain obedient. But the new covenant will write the law on the hearts (minds) of God’s people. They will obey as the Spirit directs.]. For if a law had been given that was able to give life, then righteousness would certainly have come by the law [obedience to the law alone does not result in righteousness. Faith and obedience are both necessary ingredients. Gentiles who tried to pursue one without the other failed.]. 22 But the scripture imprisoned everything under sin [the law demonstrated how the world itself was under the power of evil forces (Sin). This is the standard apocalyptic view held by both Jesus and Paul.] so that the promise [Paul is specifically referring to the promise that included the nations] could be given [to redeem Gentiles from their enslavement to Sin] —because of the faithfulness of Jesus Christ—to those [Gentiles] who believe.

Continue reading “The Jewish Paul: A Running Commentary on Galatians (Part 4)”

The Passion of…Barabbas?

The springtime buds of Easter usually include a temporary bloom of articles and blog posts about the events of Passion Week. Television programs and movies recreate the story in dramatic fashion. And, despite the overwhelming number of retellings and analyses, I would like to add one of my own, from a somewhat different point of view.

Readers may find my reconstruction of the motivations behind the events surrounding the arrest, trial, and execution of Jesus to be somewhat speculative. But my hope is that it will stretch your minds as we imagine what took place during that fateful week. Before I begin my reconstruction of events, I want to lay out, from a historical perspective, which events from the gospel stories I consider historically likely and which I do not. These decisions are based on historical criteria that are well-established in New Testament research (the definitions for each appear at the end of this blog post).

It is a near certainty that Jesus was crucified (criterion of multiple attestation). Equally historical is the prefecture of Pontius Pilate (c. m. a.). He was ultimately responsible for sentencing Jesus to death. Likewise, Caiaphas was surely the sitting high priest (c. m. a.). I consider it probable that Jesus was crucified around one of the three pilgrimage festivals in Jerusalem since those were the only times Pilate would normally be present; otherwise he resided at Caesarea on the coast. I think it incredible, however, that Jesus was crucified either on the day of Passover (Matthew, Mark, and Luke) or even the day before (John) (criterion of contextual credibility). Pilate was shrewd as well as brutal. It is inconceivable that he would risk provoking a riot among the tens, if not hundreds, of thousands of Jewish pilgrims gathered in Jerusalem by ordering a bloody execution of a number of Jewish men on a nationalistic, high holy day. If Jesus was crucified around the time of Passover, it is more likely that Pilate waited to do so until after the week-long Feast of Unleavened Bread when the pilgrims would be departing and he himself was preparing to leave Jerusalem.

I consider it quite likely that a disciple of Jesus was involved in the conspiracy that led to Jesus’s arrest (criterion of dissimilarity). I also consider it likely that Peter, who was possibly detained for resisting the arresting party, was nevertheless released after feigning ignorance of Jesus (c. o. d.). It is highly unlikely that any convocation of the Sanhedrin occurred or that Jesus received any hearing before them of the type described in Matthew, Mark, and Luke (c. c. c.). The description of what happened in these gospels violates everything we know about the Sanhedrin and how it operated. Even the high priest would have been sequestered away for weeks to assure his ritual purity to be able to properly officiate at the Passover sacrifices. Caiaphas would hardly have risked coming into contact with a “blasphemer” (Mark 14:64; Matthew 26:65) as the gospels indicate. I do, however, consider likely some involvement by the high priest and some of other the chief priests in the plot to arrest Jesus (c. m. a.). Some scholars object to this notion but my reasons for accepting a modicum of involvement will become clear as we proceed. It also seems likely that Jesus was crucified along with some other Jews (c. m. a.) – how many is irrelevant although I consider the total number of three victims to be symbolic. Finally, although the evidence can go either way, I do consider the presence of the criminal (from the Roman point of view) Barabbas to be historical. Let’s consider that in more detail.

Continue reading “The Passion of…Barabbas?”

The Jewish Paul: A Running Commentary on Galatians (Part 3)

We continue here with Part 3 of my running commentary on Galatians, attempting to demonstrate that Paul remained an observant Jew throughout his life. He neither advocated the abandonment of Judaism or Torah for himself nor for any Jew, whether they believed that Jesus was the Messiah or not. We left off with Paul’s account of an earlier conversation with Cephas/Peter in Antioch. We pick up with Paul speaking directly to his Gentile readers in Galatia. He begins now to reiterate the content of his gospel message to Gentiles. This includes condemning as futile the effort of some Gentiles trying to achieve righteousness by acting Jewish, that is, by performing selective works (rules, laws, instructions) of the Torah. Paul also explains why Christ’s death is beneficial for Gentiles. [My comments in brackets in bold.]

Galatians 2:16 (cont.) And we [Paul uses the inclusive “we” – an example of a Greek rhetorical device known as pluralis societatis, the social plural. He does this a number of times in his letters to better identify with his audience in an effort to persuade them. It does not mean that he considers himself a Gentile.] have come to believe in Christ Jesus, so that we [Gentiles] may be made righteous by the faithfulness of Christ and not by the works of the law, because by the works of the law no one will be made righteous [This makes perfect sense only in a Gentile context. Jewish faith and obedience include Torah and to suggest that it does not is to misunderstand Paul. Paul professes that the Torah is holy, righteous, spiritual, and good (Rom. 7:12-16). Gentiles, however, must stop “Judaizing,” that is, trying to attain righteousness through selective obedience to Torah’s instructions. It is no longer necessary (nor was it ever effectual, according to Paul) now that Christ has come. Remember, Jews do not have to be “made righteous” or “justified.” Jews are, from infancy, members of a righteous covenant; their obligation is to maintain that righteous status through continuing faith and obedience. Gentile lives are characterized by sin and so they must be “made” righteous (justified) to begin with.]. 17 But if while seeking to be made righteous in Christ we ourselves have also been found to be sinners [Gentiles seeking to be made righteous through Torah discover that they were condemned as sinners by Torah], is Christ then one who encourages sin [What Paul is probably responding to here is the accusation by some (in Galatia?) that by being made righteous in Christ, without becoming Jews, Gentiles were ignoring God’s will as presented in Torah]? Absolutely not! 18 But if I build up again those things I once destroyed, I demonstrate that I am one who breaks God’s law [Paul is reaffirming, using inclusive language (he is not talking about himself), that if the Galatians go back to Judaizing and reject the righteousness made available to them through the faithfulness of Christ, they will be returning to their flawed notion that they can earn righteousness by following a few rules of Torah. Such a process will fail, demonstrating that they are, once again, nothing more than faithless sinners who do not properly live according to Torah]. 19 For through the law I died to the law so that I may live to God [by living according to the law as the Spirit has directed them (new covenant provision – see below), Gentiles are no longer condemned by the Torah as people who do not adequately live by it. The Spirit makes it possible for Gentiles to live in obedience without becoming Jews.].

Continue reading “The Jewish Paul: A Running Commentary on Galatians (Part 3)”

The Jewish Paul: A Running Commentary on Galatians (Part 2)

As I indicated in the previous blog, this running commentary on Galatians is designed to demonstrate that Paul remained an observant Jew throughout his life. He neither advocated the abandonment of Judaism or Torah for himself nor for any Jew, whether they believed that Jesus was the Messiah or not. When we left off, Paul had laid out his Jewish credentials and described his call to mission to his pagan converts in the Roman province of Galatia. He hinted that there was someone in Galatia preaching a “different gospel” from his. What that alternative gospel was, he hasn’t yet said. He has been more focused on validating his gospel as the result of divine revelation. We resume our commentary at 2:1 with Paul describing his interactions with the founding apostles of Jerusalem over the nature of Gentile membership in the Kingdom of God.

2:2 Then after fourteen years I went up to Jerusalem again with Barnabas [identified in Acts 4:36 as a Hellenist Jew], taking Titus [identified below as a Christ-believing Gentile] along too. 2 I went there because of a revelation [additional evidence that Paul was a mystic] and presented to them the gospel that I preach among the Gentiles [re-read this; his is one form of gospel; it is the one he preaches to Gentiles. It is not one that is preached (by others) to Jews. Thus, there are, as Paul will admit again below, multiple, valid gospels or “good news” messages]. But I did so only in a private meeting with the influential people, to make sure that I was not running—or had not run—in vain [now Paul seems to want apostolic – human – validation for his mission and gospel]. 3 Yet not even Titus, who was with me, was compelled to be circumcised, although he was a Greek [Paul wants to imply that the main topic of the meeting was whether or not Gentile believers in Christ should be circumcised. However, it remains unclear whether the subject of Gentile redemption from sin without circumcision was raised although such a claim became a hallmark of Paul’s gospel. That Titus was not required to be circumcised was hardly novel – many Gentiles attended Jewish synagogues in the Greco-Roman world without having to be circumcised. It did not imply that attending Gentiles were redeemed from their sins. How the “influential people” regarded uncircumcised Gentiles when it came to entering the Kingdom of God is left unsaid by Paul.]. 4 Now this matter arose because of the false brothers with false pretenses who slipped in unnoticed to spy on our freedom that we have in Christ Jesus, to make us slaves [We cannot tell whether the “false brothers” were simply Jews or Christ-believing Jews. Paul says that “this matter” arose – is it the matter of Titus’s circumcision or Gentile circumcision as a whole? And if the “false brothers” insisted on circumcision for Gentiles, then to what end? If it is redemption from sin, then the “false brothers” are likely saying what was obvious to most Jews: if a Gentile male wanted to be in right standing with the God of Israel, he must be circumcised, that is, become Jewish and obey the law. There is no indication here that Paul argued for righteousness for Gentiles absent circumcision. He only says that Titus was not required to be circumcised. What “freedom” did Paul and his people have in Christ that was being threatened by the false brothers? Freedom for Gentiles to join in Christ-believing Jewish gatherings? Neither the freedom to enter the kingdom or freedom from sin is mentioned as part of the argument. And what is the “slavery” that Paul insists the false brothers want to shackle them with? Is it the freedom of Jews and Gentiles to associate together in communion? Paul speaks elsewhere of Gentile slavery to sin (Rom. 7:14). If this is what he means here, then he is saying in the letter that his gospel redeems Gentiles from sin without circumcision. But he is not presenting that as the argument made at the meeting. Yet Paul deftly places this gospel idea alongside the “false brothers’” insistence on Gentile circumcision without ever connecting the two. In any event, Paul is not saying that by getting circumcised and converting to Judaism Gentiles become slaves to Torah.] 5 But we did not surrender to them even for a moment, in order that the truth of the gospel would remain with you [Surrender what? By portraying this meeting as a single-topic discussion – whether Gentiles must be circumcised or not – Paul is using the event to support his battle with the opposing teachers in Galatia who advocate circumcision for salvation. Unfortunately for us, he nowhere specifies what impact the false brothers’ insistence on circumcision had on his “truth of the gospel.”].

Continue reading “The Jewish Paul: A Running Commentary on Galatians (Part 2)”

The Jewish Paul: A Running Commentary on Galatians (Part 1)

The writings of the Apostle Paul are recognized by everyone as of major importance to the origins of Christianity yet his statements can often seem contradictory, confusing, and even impenetrable. This perceptual problem has existed since the earliest centuries of the church when educated Christian theologians wrestled with Paul’s letters often trying to untangle or reinterpret Paul’s meaning for a new generation. Much of this struggle with Paul’s writings, however, derives from a basic misunderstanding of Paul that has by now become common: as a frustrated Jew who came to understand how Judaism had not only failed him but was, in fact, a failed religion and how only Christianity could offer him salvation from his sins and freedom from the Law, a thing Judaism could never do.

After nearly two-thousand years, a growing number of scholars are rising up to challenge this Christian supersessionist model of Paul (supersessionist = the assertion that Christianity supersedes and replaces Judaism as God’s favored religion). These scholars come armed with a much fuller and more sympathetic understanding of first-century Judaism. They study intently how Jewish-pagan relations actually worked in the ancient Roman world. They are beginning to read Paul as he seems to understand himself: as an observant Jew accepting a calling to become a (or the) apostle to the Gentiles (non-Jews). Paul’s letters are, in fact, written to this very target audience: non-Jews. The issues he deals with in those letters concern Gentiles and the brand-new offer that he brings to them: to become justified (or, better = to be “made righteous”) before the God of Israel. They can be righteoused so that they, too, might share in the glorious benefits of the coming Kingdom (which Paul believed was due at any moment).

When reading Paul this way, with Judaism and not against it, many seeming inconsistencies and contradictions melt away. There is of course no way to completely understand anyone from remote antiquity whose thoughts are only revealed in a limited number of one-sided correspondences. Yet, it is amazing how well this approach makes intelligible and consistent so much of Paul’s thought. There is perhaps no better (or shorter) way to demonstrate how this works than to take up a very important letter, the one he wrote to the Gentiles in Galatia, and offer a reorienting, running commentary on it.

In the next series of blog posts, I will present the text of Galatians (generally following the New English Translation though modifying the translation where necessary based on an alternative reading of the Greek original) along with intertextual comments in bold and in brackets [] that will help readers come to know Paul as a Jewish apostle to the Gentiles, which is, after all, what he claimed to be. Nearly all of the text of the letter will be presented omitting only some biographical material in chapter 1 and some prayers and good wishes in the closing chapters. We will avoid none of the so-called “difficult” passages. However, one must read this commentary from the beginning in order to understand certain basic concepts that follow throughout the letter, concepts that, due to space limitations, will not be continually repeated throughout (though some will bear repeating).

So, open your minds, put aside everything you thought you knew about Paul, and follow along as the apostle to the Gentiles responds (rather angrily at times) to a problem that has arisen in his community of Gentile converts in the Roman province of Galatia. Some members of that community are accepting if not advocating a change in the way that Christ-believers practice their faith, a change Paul vigorously opposes.

The Letter to the Galatians

1:1 From Paul, an apostle (not from men, nor by human agency [Paul will explain below that he received his “gospel” from a revelation, not from human transmission], but by Jesus Christ and God the Father who raised him from the dead) 2 and all the brothers with me, to the churches of Galatia [it is vital for the proper reading of this letter to understand that these churches are composed of Gentiles – everything Paul says in this letter is directed to and about Gentiles – we will demonstrate this as we move along]. 3 Grace and peace to you from God the Father and our Lord Jesus Christ, 4 who gave himself for our [Paul uses the inclusive plural (“our,” “we”) many times in this letter in order to rhetorically identify himself with his audience using a common Greek rhetorical device known as pluralis societatis] sins [these are Gentile sins; until now, Gentiles had no access to atonement or redemption – Jews had been provided the means of atonement for sin since the reception of the Torah] to rescue us [inclusive language but meaning the Galatian Gentiles] from this present evil age [a Jewish apocalyptic view that demonic forces were currently in charge of the world] according to the will of our God and Father, 5 to whom be glory forever and ever! Amen.

1:6 I am astonished that you are so quickly deserting the one who called you [this could refer to them deserting Paul or the Spirit which Paul says was active in their community] by the grace of Christ and are following a different gospel— 7 not that there really is another gospel [Paul initially admits that there are multiple gospels – he will say so again below – but then retracts the statement upon further reflection, perhaps to avoid giving his opponents any credence], but there are some who are disturbing you and wanting to distort the gospel of Christ [that is, the gospel Paul brought to them]. 8 But even if we (or an angel from heaven [Why an angel of heaven? Many apocalyptic Jews like Paul believed that angels influenced much of human and world activity. Some believed that angels were assigned to oversee the nations and watch over them (c.f. Acts 7:38, 53]) should preach a gospel [here he admits again that there were other gospels] contrary to the one we preached to you, let him be condemned to hell! 9 As we have said before, and now I say again, if anyone is preaching to you a gospel contrary to what you received [from Paul], let him be condemned to hell! 10 Am I now trying to gain the approval of people, or of God? Or am I trying to please people? If I were still trying to please people, I would not be a slave of Christ! [Paul’s audience understood that he was frequently persecuted for his teachings. He would not be so persecuted, he insists, if he taught a more popular gospel. How could it be more popular? Paul will say below that he once taught that Gentiles needed to be circumcised (essentially converting to Judaism) in order to be made righteous. Circumcision was part of what his opponents were advocating, though not, apparently, for full conversion to Judaism. They were advocating this, Paul insists, to line up better with current social expectations (pleasing people). Paul’s teaching counters social expectations: his Gentiles stop worshiping pagan gods in order to exclusively worship the God of Israel yet they do not convert to Judaism. Paul often uses slave language as he does here. Slavery was ubiquitous in the Roman world – the institution touched nearly every soul in some way.]

1:11 Now I want you to know, brothers and sisters, that the gospel I preached is not of human origin. 12 For I did not receive it or learn it from any human source; instead I received it by a revelation of Jesus Christ [In this way, Paul differentiates himself from those who walked with Jesus and taught a “good news” message to other Jews in Palestine. Paul insists that what he teaches did not originate with the historical Jesus or his apostles but came to him via divine revelation. This claim would leave Paul vulnerable to obvious skepticism.].

1:13 For you have heard of my former way of life in Judaism [It is important to read this passage as it is translated here which refers to Paul’s former way of expressing his Judaism. That is, by his zealous claim to understand Jewish faith and follow it better than other Jews. There were many forms and expressions of Judaism at this time. Paul is not saying that he once was a Jew and now he is not.], how I was savagely persecuting the church of God and trying to destroy it. 14 I was advancing in Judaism beyond many of my contemporaries in my nation, and was extremely zealous for the traditions of my ancestors [These words offer a small window into how Paul was expressing his Judaism – he was “advancing,” that is, in knowledge and understanding, more than other Jews that he knew. Paul was zealous, that is, he was forceful in decrying other forms of Judaism than his own. This included that form of Judaism which claimed that the crucified Jesus was the messiah and, most likely, their belief that Gentiles now had some means other than conversion of entering the coming kingdom.]. 15 But when the one who set me apart from birth and called me [Paul was called to a vocation, not “converted” to Christianity, in the same way that the prophets of old were commissioned – Isa. 49:1; Jer. 1:5] by his grace was pleased 16 to reveal his Son in me so that I could preach him among the Gentiles…. [Paul then goes on to say that he did not stop to confer with anyone but traveled about. Nothing in these lines suggests that Paul stopped being Jewish. He came to another understanding of Judaism which required him to stop persecuting at least one form of it, Jewish messianism focused on Jesus. This change came about, he says, as the result of revelation. Such claims identify Paul as an apocalyptic mystic, one who believed in a variety of cosmic beings, divine revelations, and portentous notions of a coming end to the age.]

Come back soon for Part 2!

Was Jesus Born on January 6?

Some ancient Christians thought so. In fact, other dates were considered as well.

A heretical Christian group (known as the Alogi) located in Asia Minor (modern Turkey) apparently dated Jesus’s birth on (what would for us be) either June 20 or May 21 (depending on the reading) in the year 9 CE. An unrelated group of Christian Gnostics in Egypt (followers of the Gnostic teacher Basilides) gave a similar date for Jesus’s birth: May 20. They also believed that Jesus’s baptism occurred on this same date exactly thirty years later.

Early Christian theologian and historian, Epiphanius of Salamis (315-403 CE), claimed that the May date was actually the date of Jesus’s conception rather than his actual birth. Was this what the heretical groups noted above originally intended? Epiphanius wrote that the actual date of Jesus’s birth was on January 6, a winter solstice date (when one of the Earth’s poles has its maximum tilt away from the Sun), and he cites a number of traditions to prove it. This date became known as Epiphany, which comes from the Greek word for “the appearing” as it is used in 2 Timothy 1:9-10:

He is the one who saved us and called us with a holy calling, not based on our works but on his own purpose and grace, granted to us in Christ Jesus before time began, but now made visible through the appearing (epiphaneias) of our Savior Christ Jesus. (1 Tim. 1:9-10 NET)

Thus, many early Christians thought that January 6 was the date that Jesus, the glory of God, appeared on earth and the same date that, thirty years later, the Spirit appeared to Jesus as a dove as it entered him during his baptism.

Another tradition understood that Mary’s pregnancy lasted “ten months less fourteen days and eight hours,” or, put another way, “nine months plus fifteen days and four hours.” Those Christians, counting backward from Jesus’s presumed birthdate of January 6, derived the date of Mary’s conception as March 20. Coincidentally, that would be the same date that they also believed Jesus was crucified. Therefore, some Christians claimed that Jesus both came into the womb of an earthly, human woman and left the earth as a human being on March 20.

Scholar Jack Finegan notes that the birth date of January 6 may have been chosen to supplant a popular, pagan religious ceremony dedicated to the goddess Kore that was held on that date in such locales as Egypt and Arabia. On the night of January 5 and the morning of January 6…

“The participants stay awake all night…making music to the idol with songs and flutes. In the early morning at cockcrow they descend by torchlight to a subterranean shrine and bring forth a wooden image, marked with the sign of a cross and a star of gold on hands, knees, and head. This image they carry in procession to musical accompaniment, and then return it to the crypt. They explain the meaning of the ceremony to the effect that in this hour this day Kore, the virgin, gave birth to the Aion.” (Handbook of Biblical Chronology, pg. 325)

December 25 was also a winter solstice date as well as the date of another pagan festival. It has equal claims on early tradition as being the date of Jesus’s birth, deriving from at least the second or third century. Unfortunately, December 25 has no greater claim to authenticity than January 6. Nevertheless, fourth-century theologian John Chrysostom defended this date by claiming that, since John the Baptist, in his view, was conceived between September 25 and October 1 (the Feast of Tabernacles), then Mary would have conceived Jesus six months later (Luke 1:26) in April. Nine months after that (counting inclusively), Jesus was born on December 25.

As many readers will already know, December 25 was the date of the pagan festival of Sol Invictus, the “Invincible Sun.” As Finegan points out:

“The cult of Deus Sol Invictus was still at its height in the time of Constantine and the portrait of the sun god was on the coins of the emperor, but with his rise to sole rule of the empire (A.D. 323-337) Constantine was free to accept Christianity openly. Thereafter his coins and inscriptions were no longer offensive to Christians and Dec 25 was freely the birthday of Christ, as attested in the Roman city calendar in A.D. 336.” (pg. 328)

Regardless of the date chosen, ancient Christians seemed to agree that Jesus was conceived in the spring (shepherds abiding in the fields?) and born in the mid-winter. Whether either of these choices are historically accurate is debatable. Each has a 1/365 chance of being right! The Feast of Epiphany is still celebrated in Christianity either as the day of the visitation of the Magi to Jesus’s crib (Western tradition) or the date on which Jesus was baptized (Eastern tradition). While most churches continue to celebrate Epiphany on January 6, others do so on January 1 or even January 19. Some call it Twelfth Night, Three Kings’ Day, or Little Christmas. Whether or not Jesus was born on this date, it remains a prominent festival in the Christian calendar.

Did Baby Jesus Go to Egypt?

As many readers know, there are two stories of Jesus’s birth and childhood in the New Testament. They are told in the Gospels of Matthew and Luke but the stories are quite different. Beyond the core themes shared by both authors (Mary becomes pregnant but not by Joseph; Jesus is born in Bethlehem) the stories feature differing details and emphases. It is the Gospel of Matthew, for example, that relates such unique narrative elements as the moving star, the arrival of the magi, the attempt by King Herod to execute the baby Jesus, and the family’s brief trip to Egypt to escape Herod’s wrath. Why Egypt? Is such a trip even historical? We may never know the answer to the second question but we can offer quite a bit of insight into why Jesus and his family might have been portrayed as going to Egypt.

The Gospel of Matthew is considered by many scholars to be the most “Jewish” gospel of the four New Testament gospels although others have debated this assessment. Either way, the author is unique in crediting so much of Jesus’s activity to the fulfillment of Jewish prophecy. Multiple times we encounter such explanations for the things Jesus does as taking “place to fulfill what was spoken by the prophet” (Matt. 21:4 NET). If we read the gospel with this in mind, we can assume that the author wanted Jesus’s trip to Egypt to fulfill a scriptural prophecy. In fact, the author is quite clear about this. He wrote, “In this way what was spoken by the Lord through the prophet was fulfilled: ‘I called my Son out of Egypt.’” (Matt. 2:15 NET). The “prophecy” in question is from the Book of Hosea (11:1 NET): “When Israel was a young man, I loved him like a son, and I summoned my son out of Egypt.”

The Gospel of Matthew is concerned not only with providing evidence that Jesus was God’s son in a unique way (Israel, too, is often characterized as God’s son in the Jewish scriptures) but that he is a new, updated Moses. Like Moses, Jesus was saved from a wrathful potentate who wanted to destroy Israelite/Jewish babies. Like Moses, Jesus/Israel comes out of Egypt (as Moses and Israel did in the Exodus). And like Israel itself which followed the patriarch (ancient father) Joseph, Jesus initially goes with his “father” Joseph into the land of Egypt.

It is a theological question, and thus a matter of faith, whether Jesus actually fulfilled all of the prophecies Matthew suggests or whether the author searched for prophesies in the scriptures in order to place them into the context of Jesus’s life. Was the prophecy about Egypt so important that Matthew felt compelled to write a story to show that Jesus fulfilled it? Or did Jesus actually go to Egypt and Matthew later found a prophecy that fit the circumstances?

Continue reading “Did Baby Jesus Go to Egypt?”

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?

Continue reading “Your Beliefs about the Afterlife: Are They Christian?”