Saturday, April 23, 2011

The Horror of Crucifixion

Crucifixion has come to be identified with the person of Jesus to the point that we sometimes forget that Jesus was just one of many, many people that were executed this way. The gospels themselves provide this evidence for us when we are told that two thieves were also executed with Jesus.

But by making a mode of execution a central part of Christian theology, the horror of the cross is mitigated. We use crosses as jewelry, tattoos and wall hangings. But as I have heard people say from time to time, we would all look twice if we saw someone wearing an electric chair or a guillotine around their neck. The hangman's noose is not something that we normally would expect to see gracing the walls of our living room.

Over at the NT Pod Mark Goodacre has recorded an excellent little piece on the horror of crucifixion. Mark discusses the archaeological literary evidence that we have for crucifixion. And unlike the Lead Codices and the supposed nails from Jesus' cross, Mark provides you with information that is not only relevant to Easter season but can also be of some help in your preaching and teaching.

Listen to it here.

Friday, April 22, 2011

Resurrection: The Hope of Easter

Death and I have had a rather uncomfortable relationship over the years. How else does one describe their "relationship" with death?

I remember the first time I became aware of the concept of death. I was fortunate to know three of my great grandparents all on my father’s side of the family. When the first of them died I was probably no older than three or four. I remember that my parents dressed up and went to the city for the funeral, but I didn’t comprehend the idea of death. The only thing I knew was that I never saw mom-mom Byron again. Within the next seven years I lost my other two great grandparents. This was the first time I went to funerals. I understood a little better now that death meant an end, but I don’t think that I fully comprehended what it means.

When I was seventeen, my grandfather, my mother’s father, died. This time I became fully aware of death. I visited him regularly in the hospital during the summer of 1985 and drove my grandmother back and forth to see him each week. The cancer had taken such a hold on him that I prayed that God would take him quickly. Thus, my first encounter with death as an adolescent evoked from me a cry for mercy. Somehow I saw death as a merciful act for this man who was suffering so much.

But this encounter with death also yielded another realization. I was powerless to do anything. On the day of my grandfather’s funeral my father was a pallbearer. He told me “take care of your mother” as he walked the casket across the street from the funeral home to the church. I put my arm around her and walked her across the street. As I did so she began to cry. I wanted to do something to help, to comfort her, to dry up her tears. But there was nothing I could do. I was powerless.

The next time I encountered death was in 1991. Lori and I went to NYC and decided to visit a great uncle who lived alone in Queens. After several knocks on the door we let ourselves in. It was clear someone was at home, but no one was answering. I found my uncle lying on his bed. He had been dead probably for several days. I came downstairs and told Lori that he was sleeping, but she pressed me to make sure. I went back upstairs and with trepidation checked for a heartbeat and pulse. I remember the fear I felt when I touched him. I learned another feeling about death that day, fear. It was the fear of seeing the person there, but knowing they were not really there. It was a realization that it could happen to me and there was nothing I could do stop it.

When my father died in 1997 both of these feelings came crashing together. I remember putting his casket into the waiting car and watching my mother touch it one last time. She wept there and in our car. Once again I was powerless to do anything. And fear also rose up again, but this time in a slightly different way. I suppose anyone whose parent dies young lives with a nagging fear that they too will die at the same age. My father died at 51 and I will probably feel a lot better once I am a few years beyond that age. But in all honesty, I am a bit fearful and realize that I am powerless to do anything about it.

It is a realization that everyone comes to at some point in their life. No matter what I do I will someday face the same end that everyone does. Death is the great equalizer. No matter who you are and what you do you will die. We are powerless to stop it and the more we try to stop it the more we reveal our fear of it. We all have the same end.

I suppose this is why I hold onto the hope of resurrection. I realize that people coming back to life is impossible and unreasonable. But that is the hope of Easter. It is putting our hope in that which is unreasonable. Dead people don’t get up to live again. But it is the hope that I have. That this is not the end and that the fear and powerlessness I now feel will ultimately yield to God’s resurrection power.

So on this Good Friday I am reminded of the hope that this day holds. Just as we look through this day to the joy of Easter, I look through my experiences with death thus far with the hope that I will experience my own Easter. Hopefully I will be able to say with Paul: “Where, O death is your victory? Where, O death is your sting?”(1 Cor 15:55). And hopefully in that moment the powerlessness I feel will give way to the power of God and the fear that haunts me will be replaced with joy.

Thursday, April 21, 2011

Did Judas Repent?

Today is Maunday Thursday. Today the Church commemorates Jesus' Last Supper with his disciples, his moments of anguish in the Garden of Gethsemane and his subsequent arrest and trial.

But there is another part of this day that is just as important to all of these events. It is Judas' act of handing Jesus over to the authorities. Judas' act of betrayal is what starts the whole process leading to Good Friday, the day Jesus was executed.

One question that rises to the top from time to time is: what happened to Judas? Did he repent? Was he forgiven? We can turn to the New Testament for answers, but the evidence is uneven.

In the KJV and NRSV translations of Matthew 27:3-10 we read that Judas "repented" and returned the money he had received in exchange for delivering Jesus to the authorities. The word for repent here, however, is not the typical metanoia but instead metamelomai which usually has the idea of "regret" or "remorse" (cf. Matt 21:29, 32; 2 Cor 7:8; Heb 7:21). With the exception of the KJV and the NRSV, "remorse" and/or "regret" is the translation adopted by most English versions. In my opinion, I think the KJV and the NRSV are correct, even though the typical word for repentance (matanoia) is not here. The story has all of the hallmarks of a repentant person. Judas shows regret/remorse, returns the money (v. 3) and confesses that he has sinned (v.4). Overcome with grief and guilt he goes out and kills himself (v.5). Although suicide is not a typical part of the repentance process, one could argue that it was an extreme example of his remorse that he ended his own life.

If this was the only witness to Judas' end we would be inclined to see him as a repentant conspirator. But Luke complicates the picture a bit for us.

Unlike Matthew, Luke mentions nothing about Judas' fate in the gospel. Instead, he reintroduces Judas in Acts and only after Jesus has ascended to heaven. We learn about Judas' fate as part of side note to the process of choosing his successor. Here we discover that Judas' act was a necessary part of the fulfillment of scripture (Acts 1:16-20). But unlike Matthew, Luke tells us nothing about Judas feeling remorse, confessing his sin and returning the money. Judas has no speaking part in this version of the story. Rather, the narrator tells us that he received a reward for his wickedness and that he committed suicide by falling on his head and spilling his innards.

If we only had Luke's version we would assume that Judas did NOT repent. But Matthew’s version seems to complicate that conclusion. Some will want to harmonize the two stories as a way to flatten out the rough spots, especially the two different descriptions of Judas' death. But even doing that makes it hard to overlook that in Matthew we have a repentant Judas who could expect forgiveness just as Peter did for denying Jesus.

It seems that we have two competing traditions. One knew a story that Judas repented and another that he did not. I sometimes think Luke uses sudden death as a way to prevent characters from repenting. Judas dies without a chance to voice remorse in 1:18-19; Annaias and Sapphira are both immediately struck without a chance to repent (Acts 5) and Herod Agrippa is struck by God and dies (Acts 12:20-23).[1] Perhaps Luke did not want to offer a traitor the status of repentant betrayer?

In the end, Luke's version seems to have won the consent of most. Here is an expanded second century AD description of Judas' death by Papias.

Judas walked about as a great example of ungodliness in this world. His flesh was so swollen, that when a wagon was passing through the street he was unable to pass through; there was only enough room for his head. The eyelids over his eyes, it is said, protruded so much, that he did not see light, and that a doctor could not make his eyes visible with optical instruments. To such an extent was the light shut out from outside. His genitals of indecency were more disgusting and yet too small to be seen. There oozed out from his whole bursting body both fluids and worms. After much suffering and agony, it is said that he died in his own place. And this place is out of the way and the piece of land is uninhabited until now. No one even to this day passes by the place without stopping up his nose with his hands. Such was the opinion spread about the country concerning his body.

Luke may have intended to keep Judas from repentance, but Papias turned it into an art form. Later, Dante provides Judas his own special place in hell with other traitors.

People usually have strong opinions and usually do not see Judas as being forgiven or finding eternal peace. I am not sure what the truth is since the witness of the New Testament is uneven here. I suppose only God knows.

What do you think? Did Judas repent?

[1] It is interesting the in Josephus’ version of this story Herod lingers a few days. Luke’s version would allow for Herod to linger but he uses one of his favorite terms here “immediately” (parachrāma) which suggests that Herod’s end was very swift if not immediate.

New report suggests that Americans are leaning more towards universalism

In light of all the controversy surrounding Rob Bell’s book, Love Wins (see my review), the following adds some interesting thought for fodder.

The Barna Group has released a new survey suggesting that many Americans, including those who identify themselves as “born again” are leaning more towards universalism and inclusivism.

What do you think these numbers are saying to us?

Most Americans believe they, themselves, will go to heaven. Yet, when asked to describe their views about the religious destiny of others, people become much less forgiving. Some people might be described as inclusive—that is, embracing the notion that everyone—or nearly everyone—makes it into heaven. Others possess a generally exclusive take on faith, viewing the afterlife in a more selective manner.

A new analysis of Barna Group trend data explores whether Americans embrace inclusive or exclusive views of faith as well as how they operate within a context of religious pluralism, or the multi-faith nature of U.S. society. The research examines what Americans believe, whether there have been changes over time, and the degree to which younger generations are different from older adults.

Broadly defined, universalism is the belief that all human beings will be saved after death. On balance, Americans leaned toward exclusive rather than inclusive views. For example, 43% agreed and 54% disagreed with the statement, “It doesn’t matter what religious faith you follow because they all teach the same lessons.”

Similar splits in public opinion emerged for the statements, “All people will experience the same outcome after death, regardless of their religious beliefs” (40% agreed, 55% disagreed) and the sentiment, “All people are eventually saved or accepted by God, no matter what they do, because he loves all people he has created” (40% versus 50%).

However, even as millions of Americans believe God saves everyone, most still place strong responsibility on human effort and choice regarding their ultimate destiny. Nearly seven out of 10 adults agreed with the idea “in life you either side with God or you side with the devil; there is no in-between position” (69% versus 27%). And about half of adults concurred that “if a person is generally good or does enough good things for others, they will earn a place in heaven” (48% agreed, while 44% disagreed).

One aspect of exclusion and inclusion is how Americans’ relate to faiths other than their own, which is particularly important in a pluralistic, multi-faith society. On the evangelistic side, a slim majority of Americans (51%) believe they have “a responsibility to tell other people their religious beliefs.”

At the same time, more than three out of every five adults (62%) said it is important “to have active, healthy relationships with people who belong to religious faiths that do not accept the central beliefs of your faith.”

In a mash-up of pluralism and universalism, 59% of adults believe that “Christians and Muslims worship the same God even though they have different names and beliefs regarding God.” Americans are less likely to endorse the idea that “the Bible, the Koran and the Book of Mormon are all different expressions of the same spiritual truths,” although 43% agreed, conforming closely to the percent of Americans who endorse inclusive ideas about faith.

One of the interesting findings regarding Islam was the fact that residents of Texas (62%) were equally likely as residents of New York (62%) to believe that Christians and Muslims worship the same deity. Florida residents (58%) were statistically similar. Yet, the inhabitants of the nation’s most populous state, California, were less likely than average to embrace this view (48%).

Christians’ Perspectives
When looking at the Christian community, born again Christians were more likely to be interested in sharing their faith with others as well as more likely than average to say they desire active, healthy relationships with people of other faiths. [Born again Christians are defined by Barna Group as those who have made a commitment to Jesus Christ and who believe they are going to heaven because of their confession of sins and accepted Christ as their savior. It is not based upon self-identifying with the label “born again.”]

Nevertheless, despite their own personal faith convictions, many born again Christians embrace certain aspects of universalist thought. One-quarter of born again Christians said that all people are eventually saved or accepted by God (25%) and that it doesn’t matter what religious faith you follow because they all teach the same lessons (26%). An even larger percentage of born again Christians (40%) indicated that they believe Christians and Muslims worship the same God.

See the full report here.

HT: Scot McKnight

Wednesday, April 20, 2011

Quote of the Evening: Doubt is a Part of Faith

John Calvin states that doubt is a part of the Christian faith.

“Surely, while we teach that faith ought to be certain and assured, we cannot imagine any certainty that is not tinged with doubt, or any assurance that is not assailed by some anxiety.”

John Calvin, Institutes of the Christian Religion. Book III, Ch 2.17 (Battles’ translation). Earlier, in Book III, Ch 2.4 he says “… unbelief is, in all men, always mixed with faith.”

Philip Davies Interview on the Lead Codices

The Telegraph has an interview today with Philip Davies, Professor Emeritus of Sheffield University. Actually, it is less an interview and more of a rehash of the story with what seems to be selectively chosen quotes from Davies.

Here is what Davies is recorded to have said according to the Telegraph. The italicized words in the quote are part of the article's narrative and NOT those of Davies.

“It is extremely exciting and a very curious case - it’s not normal for books to be bound on both sides,” said Philip. “They may be sheets of secret signs and people may have prayed over them.”

Tests suggest the scrolls date back to at least the first century AD but one of the books has a carved image of Christ with depth - an artistic feature not associated with anything as early as the first century AD.

“That looks too modern in style for my liking,” said Philip.

“I think some of them may be authentic, and as yet I can’t work out what sort of a hoax they might be.”

“At the moment the codices are hard to reach so it’s difficult for any of us to actually see them at first hand,” said Philip.

“At the moment there is every reason to be extremely cautious.”

Davies is certainly exhibiting the appropriate caution needed here, which has not been the case with the media. But there are still some important questions that need to be answered. Jim Davila asks some important questions in which he requests that someone please publish the tests that suggest that codices (they are not scrolls) go back to the first century. It seems like the story is beginning to die, but I suspect it will be even less interesting after Easter. Unless, of course, there some real evidence id produced demonstrating their authenticity.

Tuesday, April 19, 2011

When was the Last Supper: Wednesday or Thursday?

Tradition has long held that Jesus ate what we call the "Last Supper" on a Thursday, what we call Maunday Thursday or Holy Thursday. Indeed, three of the gospels suggest this to be the day. Mark 14:12-16 sets the stage by noting that Jesus' last meal with his disciples was a passover meal (14:12). After Jesus dies the next day, we read in 15:42 that "it was the day of preparation, the day before the sabbath, which of course is a Saturday. This easily leads to the conclusion that Jesus was executed on a Friday and thus ate the last supper the Thursday evening before. This schedule is also followed in Matthew (26:17-19; 28:1) and Luke (22:7-15, 23:54).

John's Gospel, however, does not follow this schedule. Instead the last supper is eaten the night before the Passover (John 13:1) and then Jesus is executed on the "day of preparation" for the Passover meal (18:28; 19:31).

New Testament scholars have long debated which, if any, of the schedules is correct. Did Jesus die before or after the Passover meal? Was the last supper on a Wednesday or a Thursday? The apostle Paul is of little help here since although he connects the death of Jesus with Passover in 1 Corinthians 5:6-8, he makes no mention of Passover when talking about the Lord's Supper in 1 Corinthians 11:17-34.

In a recent recorded interview on the BBC Colin Humphreys of Cambridge University presents one possible solution. In a new book, The Mystery of the Last Supper, Humphreys suggests that the apparent discrepancy between the synoptic gospels and John can be explained by examining different calendars that existed at the time of Jesus. Humphreys claims that the synoptic authors used an older Egyptian calendar that was handed down from Moses. John, on the other hand, was using a newer calendar. What this means is, that, following John's new calendar chronology, Jesus did eat the Passover, but did it a day earlier, on Wednesday, using the old style calendar.

This is not an entirely new suggestion. Some have suggested that John was using the Essene calendar which was a solar calendar while Mark and the synoptics followed the more common lunar calendar. Since the solar calendar only has 364 days, some have suggested that it why there is an apparent one day discrepancy between John and the synoptics. Adherents to this suggestion include Mile Annie Jaubert (La date) and Bargil Pixner.

I commend Humphreys and others who so diligently work at interpreting the scriptures. It is difficult at times to know what to make of some of the incongruities that are so evident between the four gospels. I think that when an answer from history or archaeology is forthcoming we should use those resources to help us to better understand the gospels. But I don't think this is the case here.

A more plausible, and indeed easier, solution might be to suggest that John has purposely altered the details in his gospel for theological rather than historical reasons. By having Jesus' execution take place on the "day of preparation" John is able to more fully portray him as the Lamb of God. This is how Jesus is identified in 1:29 and by having Jesus die the day before Passover John's Jesus dies at the same time that the passover lambs are being slaughtered in preparation for the upcoming feast. Thus in John, Jesus is the ultimate expression of what it means to be the slaughtered lamb of God. This is probably also the reason why John does not have an institution of the "Lord's Supper" at the last supper. Jesus is not eating passover with them, he is about to become Passover for them.

So in the end I think that, to the degree we can know, Thursday is still our best day for identifying when Jesus ate his last supper. And I think John knew exactly what he was doing when he altered the details to fit his theology. The challenge for us in this modern age is to appreciate what John did rather than try to make his gospel fit our 21st century ideas of what it means to "write history."

Monday, April 18, 2011

Reading Erased Texts

In Early February I posted a piece on the Sisters of Sinai. These two women discovered the earliest copy of the gospels in Syriac during a trip to Saint Catherine's Monastery on Mount Sinai. What they discovered is a palimpsest, a "washed" or "scraped" manuscript that had the original writing erased which allowed the parchment to be reused.

Today a story in the Daily Bruin details how a group of scholars from UCLA are going to the monastery to study another 125 palimpsests.

Leading a team of scholars and researchers, a UCLA professor has collaborated with the Early Manuscripts Electronic Library to begin a five-year project to study the erased layers of text in a collection of ancient manuscripts.

Claudia Rapp, a UCLA history professor, and Michael Phelps, executive director of the Early Manuscripts Electronic Library, will lead the Sinai Palimpsests Project. Together they will study a collection of more than 125 palimpsests, or recycled manuscripts, at St. Catherine’s Monastery of the Sinai in Egypt using imaging technology.

While ink residue from the old text often remains preserved in the manuscript, the human eye cannot perceive the original text as a whole, said Phelps, the project’s technical director.

Using multispectral imaging, a process that involves capturing images of the manuscripts under different wavelengths of light, researchers hope to reveal images of the original text underneath the upper layer of writing on each palimpsest, Phelps said.

You can read the rest of the story here.