Musings on the greatest set of books ever written, etc.

Month: May, 2013

“The Word became flesh and dwelt among us”

DISCLAIMER: The following blog post is geared toward an ongoing debate among Christians, and therefore it may seem tedious to others (yeah, yeah, even more tedious than usual, I know, I know). You have been duly warned!


I have been noticing something over the past few years, something which has concerned me more and more—Christians unthinkingly equating the primacy of Jesus (“the Word”), with the Bible (also colloquially known as “the word”). The first chapter of the Gospel of John declares in the very first verse, “In the beginning was the Word . . . and the Word was God”; and later on in verse 14 we read that “the Word became flesh and dwelt among us, full of grace and truth.” Christians will immediately recognize that both these references to the “Word” are references to Jesus of Nazareth, considered by Christians to be the Messiah and the Son of God. The reference to “the Word” therefore is to a person, not to a written book or part of a book. (What the Greek term “logos,” translated here as “word,” signifies theologically is more complicated—probably something like “first principle” or the like is in view—but that issue is beyond the scope of this post.)

Now it is common for Christians also to identify the Bible (and even more typically, the New Testament) as “the word.” Christians ask, “what does the word have to say about tithing/divine healing/church on Sunday/etc.?” They are urged to read “the word” in their devotional time every day. They are to compare any new or different theological idea with “the word.” You get the idea. And you also probably get the idea that “the Word” [Jesus] can be uncritically equated with “the word” [the Bible]. That equation is, of course, not accurate or precise theologically, as Christians would see it, but it still can become second nature to them. And then the Bible becomes divine—in some cases a collection of magical formulas which should be memorized so as to be recalled at a moment’s notice. Now don’t get me wrong: I love the Bible, and I have been led to spend my entire life (at no little cost to my immediate family) studying and proclaiming it. But the Bible is not divine—in fact, from a Christian point of view, the Bible, apart from the inspiration of the Holy Spirit, is just another collection of ancient books. For Christians, Jesus is divine; in fact, he is the center of all existence. We are to do nothing apart from his teachings and his example. We are even to read the Bible through the lens of Jesus. (Sorry to go all Dan Brown here with the italics.) 

So next time I hear the reverential intoning of “studying the word,” I might bring up this question: are you studying Jesus? (as all Christians at all times should), or are you studying the Bible? (which, apart from Jesus, spiritually signifies nothing). And as I blog with fellow Bible-readers on issues such as evolution or the age of the earth (believe it or not, in North America these are hot topics among quite a few Christians), I hope I both remember and remind my fellow bloggers that for Christian believers, it is Jesus who matters, not the six (or seven) days of creation week in Genesis chapter one, or whatever. “In the beginning was the Word.”



Next blog: back to a wider look at biblical topics. I think I will discuss “eye for eye and tooth for tooth,” both in Torah and also in the Code of Hammurabi.


“Render unto Caesar . . . “

In the United States, today is Memorial Day, a day dedicated to remembering those who have served and are serving in the Armed Forces, and especially those who gave their life (“their last full measure of devotion,” as Abraham Lincoln so memorably put it) in such service. The comment is often given that “freedom is never free,” and how true that is—we forget this at our own peril. It is of course altogether good that we devote a day to help ensure that such ultimate devotion not ever be forgotten.

As some of you know, I recently taught a lecture class at the University of Minnesota, one entitled “World of the Bible: Religions, Empires, and Discourses of Power.” I did not choose this title, but I liked it; it has the requisite academic colon demarking further definition of the original title, and delineating what particular direction the class will take concerning the overall subject. (And it also includes a nice usage of the Oxford comma.) I am mostly proficient in the Hebrew Bible, and it is an adventure when I venture into the Christian New Testament, but I think that out of the scores of bible references we consulted, the following quote (I want to say “quip,” but that might be too light-hearted for the original occasion) from Jesus of Nazareth says it best: “render unto Caesar [i.e., the foreign political power currently occupying the land] the things that are Caesar’s, and unto God the things that are God’s” (see Mark 12:13-17). Talk about “religions, empires, and discourses of power”!

Now, this is not to put down Caesar—or still less, Memorial Day. We must render (appropriately give) unto Caesar—the overriding political power in the land, whether chosen or unchosen—appropriate honor. “Caesar” contributes much to our own sense of peace and prosperity—“freedom is not free.” Jesus, in my opinion, is certainly not putting down the political status quo here. But he is reminding his audience (in this case a strange alliance between Pharisees (the religious moderates of the day, and no fans of the foreign occupying powers) and the Herodians (supporters of the political status quo) of proper priorities for his followers—for that matter, for anyone who must choose between important political and religious alternatives. (Most of my readers will not have to be reminded that political is religious—at least for their devoted adherents—and religious is often quite political as well!) So it is a reminder to us as well: Caesar deserves his due, how much more a republican form of government which tries to guarantee freedom for its citizens; and this support should be far more than grudging or formulaic. But for people of faith, such support will always, and necessarily, be secondary to the support they are to give to their God and to his/her human “kingdom” or realm.

So happy Memorial Day! Let us pause to remember—indeed properly memorialize—those who gave so much to keep us free. And let those of us who are people of faith also continue to remember—yes, properly memorialize—those faith perspectives we most hold dear. It is not “either/or” but “both/and.”


“The sun will not smite you by day . . . nor the moon by night”


Yesterday, I went “under the knife,” enduring what is called “Mohs surgery” for skin cancer on the face. This is not the first time I have had skin cancer—fair skin plus fifteen years of Florida sun, plus too many occasions of “sun bathing” (you know, to build up my Vitamin D) have taken their toll. So yesterday, the surgeon’s knife it was (in Mohs surgery, flesh is taken, then sliced [and diced?], stained, frozen, put under the microscope to see if all the cancer has been removed—with the procedure repeated as often as necessary). I really cannot say they took my pound of flesh—a tenth of an ounce is more likely—but it hurts enough today.

Well, pain gets a person thinking. One of my favorite psalms in the Hebrew Bible is Psalm 121, the one which starts off, “I lift my eyes up to the hills. / Where does my help come from? / It comes from the Lord [actually, “Yahweh,” the name of Israel’s God] who made heaven and earth.” The entire psalm is a psalm of praise, a psalm of confidence like the more somber Psalm 23 (“The Lord is my shepherd, I shall not want”). By the time we get to verse 6, we are reminded that even the sun will not strike or hurt us by day, nor the moon by night. Of course, the sun “strikes” people in the Middle East by its unrelenting heat and intense light, exposing hidden places for all to see—and skin cancer would only be a secondary effect of its burning rays. Now the moon—especially the full moon like the one I saw last night—can also expose hidden places and people by its light, but its effects are more psychological than physical (everyone knows someone who can act like a “lunatic,” literally “moon-struck”). Commentators differ on whether such conceptions existed in the ancient world, but Mitchell Dahood reminds us that “the notion that the moon beamed harmful influences was widespread in the ancient Near East” [Anchor Bible Commentary on the Psalms, 3:202], and Derek Kidner’s Psalms Commentary (Tyndale, 432) concludes, “on the effects of the moon on certain people, little is understood; but some kinds of mental disturbance vary with its phases. Not all popular belief on the subject is unfounded.” (I love his British understatement.)

I have taught the Hebrew Bible for years, and typically my classes include health care workers and police officers. Time and again they confirm what popular culture attests, people can act crazy  (a condition often called “lunacy”) when there is a full moon. I know psychologists often debunk such popular thought, so I don’t want to get loony on the subject, myself. Besides, I have digressed (another disease which often afflicts me); the subject is the sun, and skin cancer. Or more precisely, the reality that neither skin cancer nor lunacy need afflict the psalmist—or for that matter anyone who looks to the Lord for protection (or “shade,” either literal or metaphorical, from the elements—see verse 5).

So I will continue to wear my hat during sunny days, and will look for lunatics during the night; but not worry about the baleful effects of either the rays of the sun or the “beams” of the moon. For such “moonshine” (now I know why locally-produced liquor deserves such an epithet) pales into insignificance under divine protection, as does the “sunshine” which dries up the crops in the Middle East. May we all have a great day, with our “goings and comings” guarded by Yahweh no matter where what happens to us today or tonight.


It’s Monday . . . once again

The science prof at a school where I used to teach reminded us from time to time that one-seventh (14%) of our life is a Monday. I would add that this melancholy observation is true, but I presume medical science is working hard on the problem, even as we speak. But imagine, 14% of our life wasted on “Mondays.” (I know, Mondays are often days of rest for pastors and other full-time church workers, but still . . . )

Years ago I had the privilege of digging in Jerusalem (yes, “digging in the dirt,” that is how my three year old daughter described it). Of course, that was for an archaeological dig, in this case the “City of David” dig, under the late Yigal Shiloh. We dug just south of the present Old City of Jerusalem; I personally did not find much in the ground there, but I had a great time in the “City of Gold.” I stayed in an Anglican hospice, just within the Jaffa Gate (I believe it is still there); and we had chapel on the premises—I remember the British singing that great song from Psalm 118, “This is the day, this is the day that the Lord has made / let us rejoice and be glad in it.” But of course, they sang “Lohd,” dropping the “r” as Englanders (and New Englanders—at least in Boston) are wont to do (or, I guess, not do, in this case). It makes a great memory, but it wasn’t until years later that I actually looked at the Psalms text in the Hebrew Bible, and was reminded that not every day is necessary “the day the Lord [or Lohd] has made,” when we are exhorted by the psalmist to “rejoice and be glad in it.” Take a look at the two verses preceding the “day of the Lord” reference:

The stone that the builders rejected

has become the chief cornerstone.

This is the Lord’s doing;

it is marvelous in our eyes. [vv. 22, 23]

Now, think about this. Maybe it was a Monday (or a Sunday, since Sabbath was on a Saturday), but “the builders” (the experts) had rejected a stone as entirely worthless for the building of a wall (or possibly the capstone for an arch). But they had made a major mistake, for later that same stone was chosen as the most important stone of all: “the chief cornerstone” for the wall (or possibly “keystone” for the arch). In other words, the human experts had got it all wrong: what they deemed worthless, was in God’s eyes the most worthwhile, the most important of all. And THIS is the special day the Lord has made: when what was worthless becomes (or is finally recognized) as the most significant of all. THIS is the day the Lord has made, let us rejoice and be glad in it—even if it is a Monday. In fact, Monday, the most despised of days, maybe should be seen as the most important? Nah, that is too trivial for these sublime verses—God can pick any day he wants to do whatever he wants. But what he does will NOT accord with the status quo—that is for sure!

Christians will recognize that the New Testament quotes these verses from Psalm 118 rather often, and they apply them to the elevation of Jesus as the Messiah. What the world (and especially the religious experts of the day) rejected as beneath consideration, God elevated to the highest position of all. But you do not have to be a Christian to recognize the underlying reality represented in this psalm—so often God’s ways are not our ways—and to take great delight when God confounds the human experts in whatever situation they (or we) may find themselves. “This is the day the Lord [God] has made; let us rejoice and be glad in it.”

Even if it is on a Monday!

It’s Friday, Friday . . . (but Sunday’s coming)

NCU Office with Olive Tree

With Rebecca Black’s song in my mind, and a full academic year as “University Professor” at the University of Minnesota just completed, I think I will try my hand (actually two hands, since I touch-type) at blogging.

We ended the year at the “U” (of Mn) with a look at “Peter, Paul, and Mary,” and some musings on their various roles in the New Testament (NT). (“Mary” here refers to Mary Magdalene, which in some circles is considered to be the wife of Jesus—not his mother, the Virgin Mary, about whom quite a number of blog entries could also be posted!) As for Mary Magdalene, I suggested the following epithet, which many have embraced: Mary, “the Apostle to the Apostles.” Mary, you see, was according to NT tradition, the first to discover the empty tomb of Christ, the first to be directed to tell the apostles about his resurrection, and according to John ch. 20, the first to meet the risen Jesus. So she was indeed “the apostle to the apostles.” (Commentators have often noted the incongruity of trusting such a tremendous message to a woman—women were considered untrustworthy witnesses back then—but God’s ways are not the same as human ways of that, or any, time.)

These observations, however, got me to thinking. There was another time, according to tradition, when God entrusted a simple message to a man. Back in the Garden of Eden (see Genesis chs. 2-3), God told Adam not to eat of a certain tree, the tree of the knowledge of good and evil. Evidently, however, after Eve (the first woman) was created, she apparently “did not get the memo,” for she ate of that very tree, and she gave some of its fruit to Adam “who was with her” at the time (see Genesis 3:6). Well, as you know, that was the end of their stay in the garden. Maybe, just maybe, God should have told the woman directly, not trusting the man to pass the message on to her.

Be that as it may, in the NT, God took no such chances—he told a woman, not just any woman, but a very close companion of Jesus, and in later tradition, possibly his wife! Anyway some musings about husbands and wives, life-changing messages, and the like.

[For further information concerning evidence that Mary Magdalene was Jesus’s special companion, and possibly his wife, check here:]