Cheaper Than A Seminary Education! Faster Than A Masters’ Degree!

Trisha, a high school teacher who had been honored, recognized, and praised for her prowess as a teacher of American history, agreed to lead a small group of adults who wanted to read the entire Bible over the course of three years.  Trisha had grown up in the church.  She had heard and read the Bible since she was very young.  She knew where to find particular stories and could recite by heart several psalms and a large portion of the sermon on the mount and other sayings of Jesus.

“What I cannot do,” she told me, “is figure out the context of much of the Bible, especially the Old Testament.  When I assign a document for my students to read in American history, such as the Declaration of Independence, I can describe to them the events and conflicts that led up to the writing of that document.  I can describe to them the colonial culture and the literary style Jefferson adopted.”  She held up her well-worn Bible and said.  “I know what this says, but I often have no idea why it says what it does.”

I led Trisha down the hall to the church library where we have shelves and shelves of commentaries on each book of the Bible.  “Almost everything you want to know about the Bible, you can find here in one of these commentaries.”

IMG_2912Trisha frowned.  “If I start reading now, given the pace that biblical commentaries are being published, I’ll only be three years behind after my first week.”

I allowed as to how she was right.

“What I need,” Trisha said, “Is a concise book on context.  I want a list and a brief description of the major historical events, the major cultural differences, and the literary genres of the Bible.  That would give me something to grab hold of when I stumble across some obscure passage of Scripture we have never understood before.”

While I could find excellent commentaries on particular books of the Bible, several books on history, a few on culture, and books on particular genres of the Bible (the parables of Jesus, the Psalms, and the epistles of Paul, for instance) I could find no concise guide to biblical context for small group Bible study leaders.

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So, here it is.

Over the next nine or ten weeks, I will post 18 (give or take a few) blog entries on the basic historical, cultural, and literary elements of biblical context.  Many of you know more about it than I do, so feel free to chime in and correct my errors, add missing essential information, or tell a story that is apropos to the subject.

I’m a pastor, not an academic, so I’m not likely to use academic jargon; if I do, call me on it.  I am writing for small group Bible study leaders, both lay and clergy, who need an easy-to-understand handbook.  I value your thoughtful comments and they will shape the content of the final product.  At the end of our 18 weeks, I will post an e-book, (free to you, dear readers) with a clear and simple description of the basic contextual elements that seminary-trained clergy use in preparing to teach or preach the Bible.  And, it is much cheaper than a seminary education.  Like I said, it will be free to you.

There are, of course, many more than six elements in each category; but, with my purpose being to create a concise handbook, I have somewhat arbitrarily grouped historical events, cultural differences, and literary genres into broader categories and left out some that would be added in a more detailed study.

Whether you are a leader of a small group Bible study, or you want to read the Bible on your own with deeper understanding, I hope this blog will provide you with contextual landmarks to help you find your way.

Next post: Six essential historical events behind the Bible’s formation–the Most Important One–What would you pick?  My choice is Babylonian Exile; the floor is open for your nominations!

Roadrunner Cartoons, Sisyphus, and the Virgin Birth

One Christmas years ago, when our middle children were 3 and 4 years old, my family and I visited my parents for a few days.  I slept late on Saturday morning (I was on vacation) and awoke to the sound of the television, my daughters’ giggles, and my father’s very loud guffaws.

I went downstairs to find my children snuggled up with their Grandpa watching a Roadrunner cartoon.  I sat down.  Wile E. Coyote set a trap using Acme products.

blueprint

Roadrunner didn’t fall for it.  Wile E. Coyote checked on the trap to see what was wrong with itcoyote fail

and it blew him up.explosion

All four of us laughed.

“It’s the myth of Sisyphus, don’t you think?” Dad said.  “But lots funnier.”

“I was thinking it’s a commentary on our dependence on technology,” I said.  “He’s a coyote.  Why can’t he just pounce on that sucker and eat it instead of using all the Rube Goldberg Acme products?”

“Shhhh,” said the children.  They loved the colors, the action, the explosions.  They couldn’t read the signs Roadrunner held up, but they still laughed.  Not just because we did, but because it looked funny.  Philosopher, naturalist, and young children, Roadrunner spoke to all of us.

So.  What does this have to do with the virgin birth narrative?  Here goes:  The Gospel writers Luke and Matthew both wrote to diverse audiences.  Their original hearers (the Gospels would have been read aloud to groups in a culture where books were so expensive to produce) were diverse in age, but also in their backgrounds.

  1. Some of the Jews would have known the Scriptures (what we call the Old Testament) in Hebrew.
  2. Others (a. Jews who had been raised in a Greek-speaking culture and  b. Gentiles who had attended synagogue) would have known the same Scriptures from the Septuagint, the Greek translation of the Hebrew Scriptures.
  3. Finally, there were Gentiles who had come into the Christian community without any background in Judaism and little or no knowledge of the Scriptures in either language.

In the story of Jesus’ birth, Matthew cites, and Luke alludes to, the prophet Isaiah who told a nation under siege that the forces of evil would not win:  “Look, the young woman (Hebrew almah) is with child and shall bear a son, and shall name him Immanuel (God with us.)”  The Greek translation of this passage reads, “Look, the virgin (parthenos) is with child . . .”

Either way, Isaiah’s point, in 701 B.C., was that God had not abandoned Israel.  The king to whom Isaiah spoke, Ahaz, was a royal screw-up.  The people had every reason to believe that the siege of Assyria and Ephraim, teamed up together, would succeed.  Isaiah’s declaration gave hope beyond the immediate failure; that the child about to be born and called Immanuel, “God With Us,” would show the nation that God had not abandoned them.

So, what does this mean for Matthew and Luke?  And what does it mean for us?

Matthew, in his inimitable heavy-handed way, says, “Look!  We’re going through the same thing with this damned Roman occupation that God’s people went through with the Assyrian occupation in the time of Isaiah [700 years before.]  God was in charge then, provided a child, Immanuel, God with us (Good King Hezekiah) who saved God’s people.  God is still in charge, despite the brutal occupation of Rome, and is saving us through a child, Immanuel (God with us) named Jesus (God saves).”

Luke employs more subtlety, but he tells the story in a way that will call his original audience to remember God’s faithfulness and recognize it in the birth of Jesus.

And that is Luke and Matthew’s point:  God is faithful still.  Whenever you oppose tyranny and oppression, even when it feels like you are losing, you are not alone. You are doing the Lord’s work.  Whether you read Hebrew (almah, “young woman”) or Greek, (parthenos, “virgin”) does not matter to Luke and Matthew; they want Jew and Greek both to understand this.  What matters is that you know you are not alone when you suffer under Roman occupation, or apartheid, or tribal warfare, or addiction, or whatever evil haunts your life.  God has entered the world in Jesus, Immanuel, God with us.  We are not alone.

So, here’s the question:  When you have witnessed or experienced extreme injustice in the world, have you sensed God’s presence, or God’s absence?  Do you have a specific story you can share with us?

Megyn Kelly wins the &%#@ Idiot Award

One of these days, I’m going to start another blog and call it The &%#@ Idiot Award.  Every day, I will accept nominations, let my readers vote, and at the end of the week hand out the prizes.  This week, however, there is simply no competition.  Congratulations, Megyn Kelly.

Just to set the record straight:  The myth of Santa Claus has its origins with Saint Nicholas, who was Turkish.  Jesus of Nazareth was from, well, Nazareth.  If you want to know what color Jesus and Saint Nicholas were, get out of the studio and go make friends with some people from Nazareth and Turkey.

St_Nicholas

He just doesn’t look that white to me.

And now, I will do my best to put my evil snarky twin back behind the filter and return to my usual pastoral self.

Reza Aslan, author of Zealot, makes a distinction between the Jesus of history and the Christ of contemporary Christian movements.  He points out (with a smile) that the Jesus of history, being Galilean, would have looked like a Galilean; that is, the same hair, eye, and skin color as Reza Aslan.  The Christ of Christian movements, however, looks like whatever a particular Christian culture projects upon him.  In China, Jesus looks Chinese.  To Guatemalans, Jesus is a migrant worker, and to many white American suburbanites, the Christ of the prosperity Gospel is an affluent white man.

And, Aslan says, that’s O.K.

I have to disagree.  There is a third way.  Whereas the search for the historical Jesus has focused on the man from Nazareth who stands behind the scriptures, and the malleable Christ of culture takes the shape of wishful thinking of Christians, the Christian scriptures describe Jesus as the Jewish Messiah (Christ) with specific and uncompromising theological claims.  Whether those claims are believable or not, they are not malleable.  My agenda here at The Bible Is My Crazy Uncle is not to talk anybody into agreeing with any of these theological claims; rather, my agenda is to discern what those claims are and state them clearly.

My boredom with the quest for the historical Jesus, from the Jesus Seminar to Reza Aslan, grows out of its speculative conclusions.  While it would be fascinating to travel back in time to the first century, shoot a lot of video, audio, and photos, maybe take a selfie with Jesus and a few of the disciples, that’s science fiction.

Once we move upstream from the collection of manuscripts we have inherited, we have to make a huge leap to get back to the historical Jesus.  Though there may be only 30 years between the earliest Christian texts (1 Thessalonians, for example) and the death of Jesus, those 30 years incubated a radical transformation.  A small community of Jews who believed that Jesus of Nazareth was the Messiah transformed into a multicultural community of Jews and Greeks and North Africans spread out over a huge geographic area.

The New Testament authors wrote to particular communities of Christians with particular concerns about how to live and die as disciples of Jesus.  None of the New Testament authors wrote with the agenda of describing what Jesus looked like, or describing accurately or exactly by contemporary standards what Jesus did, or even exactly what he said.

Here’s the question of the day:  Do the words of the historical Jesus, to the extent we can discern them, hold more importance for you than the words of New Testament writers?

The Crazy Uncle Examines Mary’s Virginity

Thanks to those who commented on this post from my Facebook page; I’m still figuring out how to make the comments from FB available to all readers of the WordPress blog.  If there’s a way to make them migrate, maybe somebody will take pity on this tech-challenged crazy uncle and let me know.  For those of you who don’t know me on Facebook, I’ll figure out today or this weekend how to make these blog posts and their comments public on my FB page.  Or, just friend me.  Neill Morgan is my real name.

Roman soldier

Here is an authentic photo from the first century of a Roman soldier.  Great resolution for the time, don’t you think?

Roy put forth the hypothesis that Mary’s pregnancy was the result of a rape by a Roman soldier.  To fill out this hypothesis a bit, a New Testament scholar would point to the Roman occupation.  Rape by soldiers was common and unpunished; that is, the soldier was not officially punished for his crime.  The girl or woman who was known to have been raped, especially if she became pregnant, would have received dishonor, insult upon injury from at least some of her community.  So would her family.

If it is the case that a rape haunts the historical backdrop of Mary’s pregnancy, we would have to assume that Luke expected his first readers to understand his subtext.  The theological claim in this context is consistent with Luke’s explicit agenda:  that God takes the power of evil and oppression (especially the power of the Roman government) and turns it against evil.  The crucifixion leads to resurrection, the destruction of the temple leads to the spiritual temple of Jesus’ resurrected body and the spread of the good news to every corner of the world.  A rape by a Roman soldier leading to the conception of God in human flesh fits in nicely with Luke’s theology of the cross, of God taking injustice and, in a kind of spiritual jujitsu, turning it into a powerful good:  “We are getting what we deserve,” says the criminal crucified next to Jesus, “but this man has done nothing wrong.”

Ultimately, however, I am skeptical.

I’m partly skeptical because I don’t want to do unto others what I would not want done unto me.  I don’t buy it when someone else begins with his or her own theology and works backward into the text.  If I do that to someone else, someone who does not share my theology, it will feel forced, like retrofitting:  “If God didn’t mean for us to have iPhones, God wouldn’t have given us thumbs!”

I’m also skeptical because I can’t find any textual evidence that Luke intended in this story to address the issue of the rape of Jewish girls and women by soldiers.  Luke explicitly places his story in the context of the Roman occupation, when Herod was the puppet king, Augustus was Emperor, and Quirinius was governor of Syria.  He often addresses the issue of the confiscation of property and injustice perpetrated by Herod’s puppet regime.  But, he never addresses the rape issue.  Luke can be subtle, but he’s never opaque.   

Primarily, I’m skeptical because I don’t see any evidence that plausibility was a priority for Luke.  The historical explanation of rape by a Roman soldier, or a scientist’s explanation of natural parthenogenesis, reach for plausibility.

 Luke’s agenda was not plausibility, but meaning through mystery.  

Christine’s comment, “Why does everything have to be about science?” gets to this issue.  I love science.  Science helps me make sense of this world.  Evolutionary Science has helped me eat healthier and find an exercise program that works for me.  Medical science saved my life at least once.

But, I don’t think Luke, even though he was a physician according to legend, had a scientific world view.  He lived in a pre-scientific age.

The crazy uncle approach to scripture attempts to understand the biblical writer’s agenda by entering into his or her context to the extent that we can.  That’s where I’m going in my next post, taking a look at Luke’s historical, cultural, and literary context.  From there, we will have a clearer view of the meaning of Luke’s theological claim in this story of Jesus’ conception and birth.

Here’s my question for you:  To what extent does it matter to you whether Luke intended to tell the story of Jesus’ birth as an accurate historical account, or intended to tell this story as it was shaped by his experience of faith and his desire to share that faith with his readers?

If You Break the Sabbath, God Will Punish You. And Everyone Else, Too.

The week before his ninth birthday, my father realized something terrible, awful, and almost unbearable.  The next installment of King of the Texas Rangers, a serial western, would open in his home town movie theater on his birthday.  The unbearable part? “I realized,” he told me, “my ninth birthday would fall on a Sunday.”

Dad telling a story

Here’s Dad, in 1988, telling us a story.

In the Morgan household of my father’s generation, Sabbath law held an iron grip.  Remember the Sabbath and keep it holy translated into Thou shalt not do anything fun on Sundays.  So, Dad said, “I came up with a plan, a pretty smart plan for a nine-year-old; or so I thought.”

At this point in the story, Dad would open his Bible if it was nearby and point to the verse:  “I decided to take Jesus’ advice and ‘count the cost.‘  Seeing the next installment of King of the Texas Rangers on the day it arrived at The Texan Theater was worth getting a whipping.  In fact, it would be worth two whippings, and I knew my father well enough to know that’s what I would have to pay in addition to the dime it cost to get into the movie.”

On Monday, with six days to go, Dad popped the question to his father.  “After church next Sunday afternoon, since it’s my birthday, could I go to see the movie with my friend Joe?”  Joe’s parents were heathens, so there was no question that he could go.  Sure enough, my grandfather gave my father a spanking with his belt. “Just a couple of whacks,” Dad said.  “Definitely still worth it.  It quit stinging by Wednesday.”

And Wednesday, he asked him again.  “Dad, I know it’s Sunday, but it’s my birthday, too, and I think God would be O.K. with me going to the movie if I listen real careful in church.” His father narrowed his eyes.  “You do, do you?”  This time, Dad had to go cut a switch off of the pomegranate tree.  “Getting whacked with a switch hurt worse, but I just kept thinking about how great the movie would be and eventually my bottom would quit stinging.”

On Saturday, still having a hard time sitting down because of the last whipping with the pomegranate switch, Dad made his final gambit.  He told his father, “I would like to observe the Sabbath on Saturday this week, like Jesus did.  I’ll just stay in and rest today, and go to church tomorrow like the first Christians did.” His father narrowed his eyes again and Dad worried for a few seconds that his plan had failed.  “And then, I suppose,” Grandfather said, “you’ll want to go see the movie after church.  Just like the first Christians did.”

“When he cracked a joke, I knew I had him,” Dad said.  “I just had to smile appreciatively and then wait.”

“I guess,” Grandfather said, “if you want to go to the movie on Sunday, it will just have to be between you and God.  If you can live with that, I’ll let you go just this once.  But you’ll have to walk.  Don’t expect me to drive anywhere but church on a Sunday.”

After church on Sunday, Dad turned on the radio in the car, despite the fact that listening to entertainment on the Sabbath was generally frowned upon.  But, there was no entertainment on the radio that day, December 7, 1941.  “The Japanese have attacked Pearl Harbor, Hawaii by air,” the radio announcer said.

As the implications sunk in, and the announcement continued, that President Roosevelt would declare war, Grandfather’s words echoed in my father’s nine-year-old mind, “It will just have to be between you and God.”

“I knew,” Dad said, “that I was guilty.  God punished the whole country for my intent to break the Sabbath and go to a movie.”

“And that,” Dad said, “is why the attack on Pearl Harbor was all my fault.”

Dad would have turned 81 years old today.  I still miss him, I still hear his voice every time I remember one of his stories.

Some people say there's some resemblance.  I can only hope to tell a story as well as Dad.

Some people say there’s some resemblance. I can only hope to tell a story as well as Dad.