Friday, December 17, 2010

Wiki Bible Commentary

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Congrats to Constance Gilbert!

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

Was Jesus Born in a Stable?

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

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

Thursday, December 16, 2010

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Read the rest of the article here.

Thanks to Derek Leman for the link.

Wednesday, December 15, 2010

Ephesians: A Participatory Guide

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Tuesday, December 14, 2010

Scot McKnight on the Gospel

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

The Story of the Nativity in the Digital Age

Thanks to Jim West for this.

Monday, December 13, 2010

Was Canada responsible for the worldwide flood?

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Read the full article here.