Friday, December 21, 2012

O Little town of Bethlehem: A City Hoping for Peace

In 1997 we spent Christmas Eve in Bethlehem with another couple. We spent the day wondering the town and the church of the Nativity  We had been there many times before, but this was Christmas Eve. Where else would one want to be on this day? We were even interviewed by a reporter from a Denver newspaper. Later that night the various Christian groups would hold services in the church to celebrate the birth of Jesus.

But the town was surprisingly empty. I had expected large crowds to be flocking to the place of Jesus' birth, but the Israeli's had enforced a closure that day and many of the tourists were unable to get in. In fact, the annual Bethlehem Christmas parade was delayed for quite a while because the Israelis would not allow the Catholic bishop past the check point. In the end, the parade went on without the bishop. It consisted of about 30 Palestinian Boy Scout and Girl Scouts banging drums and carrying flags without the guest of honor.

So how did we manage to get in? We went in the back way. Elias, a friend of ours, lived in Bethlehem and came to Jerusalem to get us. He knew the back way and we were able to avoid the Israeli check points. 

The below video is from modern Bethlehem and talks about the story of Christ's birth interwoven with the Palestinian peoples hopes for peace this Christmas season. One of the men, Zak, is a friend of mine from the Old City of Jerusalem. 

May God grant peace to all people in that part of the world.

Thursday, December 20, 2012

Is the Virgin Birth based on a bad translation?

In an interview on BBC 5 today Francesca Stavrakopoulou claimed that the Virgin Birth is based on a mistranslation of Isaiah 7:14. This is not an uncommon claim and is often used to make it sound like Matthew and the early Christians didn't know what they were talking about. 

Well the response has been quick. Timothy Michael Law explains why Professor Stavrakopoulou is overstating the case for mistranslation. Not  far behind him is Mark Goodacre with an epsidoe of the NT Podcast. Mark suggests that calling Matthew's understanding of Isaiah 7:14 a mistranslation fails to appreciate the complex exegesis Matthew is doing. 


Wednesday, December 19, 2012

An obituary for American Evangelicalism?

I don't usually wade in on topics like this on my blog, but I found this op-ed piece in the New York Times to be interesting. 

John Dickerson, pastor at Cornerstone Church, has written about what he perceives to be the decline of Evangelicalism in America. In the piece he demonstrates that the movement doesn't seem to have the influence it once did, but he also holds out hope. Here is a part I found most interesting, if not prophetic. 

How can evangelicalism right itself? I don’t believe it can — at least, not back to the politically muscular force it was as recently as 2004, when white evangelicals gave President George W. Bush his narrow re-election. Evangelicals can, however, use the economic, social and spiritual crises facing America to refashion themselves into a more sensitive, spiritual and humble movement.
We evangelicals must accept that our beliefs are now in conflict with the mainstream culture. We cannot change ancient doctrines to adapt to the currents of the day. But we can, and must, adapt the way we hold our beliefs — with grace and humility instead of superior hostility. The core evangelical belief is that love and forgiveness are freely available to all who trust in Jesus Christ. This is the “good news” from which the evangelical name originates (“euangelion” is a Greek word meaning “glad tidings” or “good news”). Instead of offering hope, many evangelicals have claimed the role of moral gatekeeper, judge and jury. If we continue in that posture, we will continue to invite opposition and obscure the “good news” we are called to proclaim.

I agree with the above diagnosis, but I am not sure if Evangelicalism is worth saving. The term and the movement have become associated with so many things that stand in opposition to the traditional meaning of "evangelical" that it is probably time to recognize that we are better off without it. 

Tuesday, December 18, 2012

Fabricating Jesus: Craig Evans on what we know about Jesus

Over the years there have been a number of books that claim to help us find the "real Jesus".  Sometimes these claims are made by scholars, often not. Craig Evans wrote a book a couple of years back entitled Fabricating Jesus (IVP, 2008). The below video from St. John's Nottingham features an interview with Craig about his book and those who "fabricate" Jesus.

HT: Brian Leport

Monday, December 17, 2012

Have doctors discovered what killed Herod the Great?

Petere Ustinov as Herod the Great
This being Christmas time, the name of Herod the Great will be mentioned many times in church services and Nativity plays. Herod, of course, is the infamous king of Judea who, according to Matthew 2:1-18 ordered the killing of all the children two years old or younger living in Bethlehem. The story presents Herod as attempting to wipe out a potential rival to his throne. 

Although we have no corroborating evidence for this story, it does fit into what we know about the man. He was responsible for killing his own wife and several of his sons. He even ordered that, upon his death, all of the leading figures of Judea be executed so that there would be some level of mourning when he died, even if not for him. Herod was a nasty piece of work and was clearly not a very popular person. Caesar Augusts is supposed to have once said " I would rather be Herod's pig than his son."

Well Herod didn't escape life without a painful death himself, at least according to Josephus. And the Montreal Gazette has an article today that explains the kind of death Herod suffered and asks medical experts: "what killed Herod?" Here is a bit of what the article has to say.

“He had a fever, though not a raging fever, an intolerable itching of the whole skin, continuous pains in the intestines, tumours of the feet as in dropsy, inflammation of the abdomen and gangrene of the privy parts.” He also suffered, according to Josephus, from “limb convulsions, asthma and foul breath.”
The doctors of the day were, not surprisingly, flummoxed by this combination of symptoms. They used the contemporary therapeutic armamentarium, including immersing the patient in a bath of hot oil. But Herod received no relief, and the bath burned his eyes.
The clinically curious of today can turn to the more modern Historical Clinicopathological Conference put on by the University of Maryland, which brings experts together periodically to examine the death of a famous personage, and which recently tackled Herod’s case. The combination of symptoms was a challenging one, especially the presence of gangrene of the genitalia — something one does not see every day. The scientists used a clever bit of clinical reasoning and came to a tentative conclusion: chronic kidney failure of unknown cause complicated by the rare (thank God) Fournier’s gangrene of the testicles. There are other candidates, of course, such as syphilis or other sexually transmitted diseases, but the kidney diagnosis seemed to fit the symptoms best.

All very interesting, but I am not convinced. Without some type of forensic evidence, I am not sure we can really know how Herod died. Moreover, I think Josephus' description of Herod's death is colored in such a way as to communicate to his readers that this is the way that evil people die. It was a common literary motif in ancient literature to describe the death of the wicked in very gruesome details. Here are two examples in Acts. 

Acts 1:15-19

15 In those days Peter stood up among the believers (a group numbering about a hundred and twenty) 16 and said, “Brothers and sisters, the Scripture had to be fulfilled  in which the Holy Spirit spoke long ago through David concerning Judas, who served as guide for those who arrested Jesus. 17 He was one of our number( and shared in our ministry.” 18 (With the payment  he received for his wickedness, Judas bought a field; there he fell headlong, his body burst open and all his intestines spilled out. 19 Everyone in Jerusalem heard about this, so they called that field in their language  Akeldama, that is, Field of Blood.)
Acts 12:21-23
21 On the appointed day Herod, wearing his royal robes, sat on his throne and delivered a public address to the people. 22 They shouted, “This is the voice of a god, not of a man.” 23 Immediately, because Herod did not give praise to God, an angel of the Lord struck him down, and he was eaten by worms and died.

It seems that having problems in the bowels was commonly understood as a painful way to die, and just the way you would like to see your enemies die. Look at these other examples from antiquity, one a very graphic description of the death of Judas.

Papias Tradition concerning Judas (early 2nd Cent CE). 

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.

Antiochus Epiphanes the infamous persecutor of the Jews in the 2nd century BCE recorded in a 1st century BCE (2 Maccabees 9:5-7, 9-10, 28): 
 ‘But the all-seeing Lord, the God of Israel, struck him with an incurable and invincible blow.  As soon as he stopped speaking he was seized with a pain in his bowels, for which there was no relief, and with sharp internal tortures – and that very justly, for he had tortured the bowels of others with many strange inflictions.  Yet he did not in anyway stop his insolence, but was filled even more with arrogance, breathing fire in his rage against the Jews, and giving orders to drive even faster.  And so it came about that he fell out of his chariot as it was rushing along, and the fall was so hard as to torture every limb of his body..... and so the ungodly man’s body swarmed with worms, and while he was still living in anguish and pain, his flesh rotted away, and because of the stench the whole army felt revulsion at his decay.... so the murderer and blasphemer, having endured the more intense suffering, such as he had inflicted on others, came to the end of his life by a most pitiable fate, among the mountains in a strange land.  

King Joram, who had caused the people of Judah to turn away from God (2 Chronicles 21:18-19):

‘And after all this the LORD smote him in his bowels with an incurable disease.  In the course of time, at the end of two years, his bowels came out because of the disease, and he died in great agony.  His people made no fire in his honor.... he departed with no one’s regret.  They buried him in the city of David, but not in the tombs of the kings.’

I could provide more, but I think you get the point. Besides, it is a bit early to be reading this type of material. I once had a student leave my class very white from reading some of the above descriptions. But in any case, I am not sure that we should accept Josephus's testimony about the type of death Herod experienced. It follows too many of the literary conventions used to describe the death of evil people, which is what most of Herod's subjects thought of him.