Friday, November 4, 2011

Another reason why people should read the Bible before they quote from it.

Washington DC is burning while congress is fiddling and the White House Press Secretary thinks he is quoting the Bible.

In case you missed it, there has been quite a tussle in Washington this last week over who God likes more. The Republicans held a vote in the House on the so-called National Motto - "In God we trust." Apparently there is an overwhelming majority in the house who believes that the motto should be reaffirmed since only nine people voted against it. Of course, who in their right mind would vote publicly against God, and still want to get reelected?

The response from the White House was to mock the vote and suggest that God wants the congress to help people get jobs. On the same day during a press conference, White House Press secretary Jay Carney quipped:

"Well, I believe the phrase from the Bible is, 'The Lord helps those who help themselves,'"

The only problem is, that saying cannot be found anywhere in the Bible. In fairness to Carney, he is not alone. Many people think that saying is in the Bible. A 2000 Barna survey found that 75% of those questioned think that the saying is in the Bible. In fact, the saying has existed in a number of ways for thousands of years. Wikipedia provides a helpful overview of the saying's history.

This reminds me of another even more embarrassing time when a politician used scripture incorrectly. It took place at a time when there was much debate around a proposed law that would impact the services and education received by children. During an encounter with a reporter who asked the then Speaker of the House about opposition to the bill the then Speaker answered this way.

Jesus said "suffer the little children," well I say the children have suffered enough and we need to pass this bill.

In this case the saying is in the Bible, but it has nothing to do with suffering children. It is taken from Matthew 19:14 in the King James Bible where the old English means "allow the little children." Jesus was telling the disciples not to prevent children from coming to him. The Speaker not only misquoted the Bible, the Speaker also failed to understand the language of the passage.

We are entering the stupid season, sometimes described as the election season, which means that we will be hearing more of this type of silliness. I wish politicians would stop quoting the Bible. It rarely goes well with them.

One last thing, I remember a humorous quip from my grandfather about the National Motto. Because it appears on all money in the USA he would say: "In God we trust, everyone else pays cash."

Thursday, November 3, 2011

Sex and the Bible: Thoughts on the Song of Songs

The Song of Songs is one of those books in the Bible that we don't know what to do with. The book is a poem about two lovers and the way that they long for one another.It moves from courtship to consummation of the relationship. At times the language is very erotic, to the point of almost embarrassment. The only other piece of scripture that comes close to the erotic descriptions of Song of Songs is the allegory of the two adulterous sisters in Ezekiel 23.

Over the centuries it has been difficult to explain why this book is in the Bible since it does not provide any obvious basis for faith and practice. Both Jewish and Christian interpreters have traditionally seen it as an allegory; Jews see it as a description of God's love for Israel and Christians a description of Christ's love for the church. The book is not quoted in the New Testament and it is not until the the third century CE with Hippolytus that find the first Christian attempt to interpret it.

Over the last two centuries, however, it has become more common to interpret the Song of Songs not as an allegory, but a love poem.

The Scribal Pen, a new blog by my colleague Ramone R. Billingsley, looks at the Song of Songs and the way that it can make us uncomfortable. Here is a bit of what he has to say.

To describe desire, the Song uses a various images that are foreign to modern ears. For instance, the male persona in Song of Songs 2:9 compares his lover in this way: “I compare you, my love, to a mare among Pharaoh’s chariots.” (NRSV) I think many women would be upset if their significant other compared them to a mare! Also, the Song uses other startling images to express intimacy. For example, the male describes his beloved’s beauty in yet another way: “Your hair is like a flock of goats, moving down the slopes of Gilead. Your teeth are like a flock of shorn ewes that have come up from the washing, all of which bear twins, and not one among them is bereaved.” (Song of Songs 4:1c-2) On the other hand, some of the Song’s imagery is like watching a Rated R movie on Cinemax: “My beloved thrust his hand into the opening, and my inmost being yearned for him.” (Song of Songs 5:4) Hmm.

One of the things I like most about the Song of Song is its subversive nature. The Song is about two lovers who pursue their desire for sexual intimacy. It is an unrestrained, bold, risky and audacious desire. This desire is a seeking and finding that fulfills a lack. It is, in raw form, a full portrait of human love and sexuality. Yet, this is done in a very unconventional way.

You can read his full post here.

Wednesday, November 2, 2011

Could Jesus read?

It has become an axiom in New Testament studies that Jesus was illiterate. Based on studies of the social setting of Jesus and his family in rural Galilee, many scholars conclude that Jesus probably could not read or write. Some would point to Luke's description of Jesus reading the Isaiah scroll in the Nazareth synagogue (Luke 4) and his "writing" in the dirt in John 8 as evidence that he was literate. But the evidence is uneven for a number of historical reasons.

Nonetheless, I have always suspected that we too quickly dismiss the evidence. The amount of inscriptions in Hebrew and Greek in Palestine suggests that someone was reading them, and not just a handful of elites. On the other hand, I also wonder if we are measuring levels of literacy in antiquity too closely to our own period. The levels at which we identify someone as "literate" today may not have been at the same level in antiquity.

I bring this up because Ben Witherington is starting a series on reading and writing in Herodian Israel. I think he makes some interesting points. Here is a portion of what he has to say.

Of course it is true that a person may be able to speak more than one language and not be able to read or write any of them. So what Jesus could have spoken is one issue, his literacy, as we would call it, is another. Unfortunately, the question of Jesus’ literacy is clouded by modern definitions. Literacy in antiquity could involve just the ability to read a language, without also being able to write it. Writing was a specialty skill, and usually scribes were the ones who undertook it. I am not particularly concerned with whether Jesus could have written anything, though I suspect he could have done, but what I am concerned with is his ability to read things. And here we are on firmer grounds.

Let us first eliminate the old canard, which suggests ‘since Jesus was a peasant, he was very likely to be illiterate’. First of all, Jesus was not a peasant. He was an artisan, a ‘tekton’ which means one who carves and molds stone and wood, more often stone than wood in many cases in the Holy Land. Jesus’ family had a trade. They had a home in Nazareth, and in the town just over the next hill, Sepphoris, you have a ton of building going on.

Jesus’ family were engaged in a trade, had a home, and so far as we can tell should not be classified with landless peasants, or tenant farmers. But there is another reason not to call Jesus a peasant. His family was not merely pious, they were devout, and the evidence we have suggests that devout Jews especially insisted that their sons learn to read so they could take their turn reading Torah in the synagogue. Here’s where we are helped by Alan Milliard’s recent study on Reading and Writing in the Time of Jesus . It will take a few posts to consider all the factors in assessing the issue, but let’s make a start.

You can read the full post here.

Tuesday, November 1, 2011

Ancient Christian Prayer Box Discovered in Jerusalem Parking Lot.

The Israel Antiquities Authority has announced the recent discovery of a Byzantine era prayer box found in the City of David excavations. The box is about the size of a matchbox, is made of bone and has two figures carved on it. Here is part of the IAA report.

The box is 2.2 cm long by 1.6 cm wide and is made of a bone taken from a large animal (steer, camel or horse). The box slides open. When doing so it includes two flat parts, each of which bears a colored drawing. According to Yana Tchekhanovets, director of the excavation together with Dr. Doron Ben-Ami of the Israel Antiquities Authority, “The use of icons (cultic objects portraying sacred figures) for prayer outside the church is a phenomenon known in the Christian world already in the fifth century CE. However, the painted holy relics that date to the Byzantine period which were discovered here, in the Holy Land, are extremely rare, thus making this an exceptionally important discovery. Folding icons for personal use are known to this day in modern Christendom, especially in the East. The box was discovered intact, apart from a small crack, and the fact that it was hermetically sealed ensured the preservation of the drawings on the relic’s inner panels”.

The image of a bearded man against a gold background is portrayed in the drawing at the bottom of the box. His face was only partially preserved, although it is possible to discern its general shape, the dark shade of his hair and his left eye. The details of his garment can be identified, which include a white cloak with a pink spot located on its right shoulder – almost certainly a white tunic and purple stripes. The preservation of the drawing on the inside of the box’s lid was even more fragmentary. From the remaining details it is possible to reconstruct the shape of a smaller figure, probably a female, draped in a blue garment, against a gold background. The face of the figure was not preserved; however, we can discern the lines of hair (or a head scarf?), chin, neck and part of the left shoulder.

You can read the rest of the report here and an article in Ha Aretz Here.

Monday, October 31, 2011

Lindisfarne Gospels

One of the places that Lori and I enjoyed visiting when we lived in the North of England was Lindisfarne Island, also known as Holy Island. The Island is home to a now ruined monastery that was built in the 7th century. Besides the ruins the island is also known for being a tidal island. This means that you can only get on and off the island when the tide is low. And woe to those who miss that chance and attempt to cross while the tides is rising. There are pictures!

The island was also home to Saint Cuthbert and the Lindisfarne Gospels. The Gospels are well known for being some of the most beautiful illuminated manuscripts. The original Gospels were penned in Latin in the third century and an English translation was added in the 10th century. The Gospels (and the remains of Cuthbert) were eventually moved from Lindisfarne to Durham Cathedral as the island's inhabitants fled a viking invasion.

For quite a while the Gospels were held by the British Library, but there is a movement to return, them at least part time, to Durham Cathedral. In the mean time, you can view them online now that they have been digitally photographed.

Sunday, October 30, 2011

Friday Book Giveaway Winner

Congrats to Craig W. Beard! He is the winner of this week's book giveaway is True to our Native Land: An African American New Testament Commentary (Fortress, 2007).

Craig, please send me your mailing details at and I will send the book out this week. Remember, you have five days to claim the book or it goes back on the shelf.