Monday, July 12, 2010

Breakfast With Zechariah

Several years ago I heard an elderly man tell how every morning, he and his wife would read a chapter of Scripture together during breakfast. This odd association of the Bible and food was appealing to me, and so for the next two weeks I tried it myself. Every morning I would get up early, make myself breakfast, and read a chapter from the Old Testament book of Zechariah. From that time forward, I have never been able to read Zechariah without craving scrambled eggs, sausage, and toast.

There are other books of the Bible I associate with food as well. I once spent an afternoon eating Taco Bell and reading First John. How, I now wonder, can people study First John without Taco Bell? It isn’t natural. The two go hand in hand.

One of my first encounters with the Book of Proverbs was in a hospital waiting room, where I read “The Thirty Sayings of the Wise” for the first time. The Thirty Sayings are now forever associated with hospital waiting rooms. And yes, hospital food.

And then there is the Book of Job. Well, not all of it, but that bit at the end, with the huge thunderstorm. A passage with such descriptive details of a thunderstorm cannot be fully appreciated unless you are actually reading it during a thunderstorm. It just makes sense.

I read an article several years ago about a custom of midnight Torah study at the traditional site of Rachel’s tomb. Ever since, I have been fairly certain that the best time to read Rachel’s story in the Book of Genesis is at the midnight hour.

And then, of course, there are other more well-known Scripture associations. For example, the nativity stories in Matthew and Luke are forever associated with a whole host of things that, in reality, have nothing to do with them: winter, Christmas trees, lights, candy, and basically all things December.

I’m not sure what good these odd associations really are. But connecting things together – even things that aren’t really all that related – seems to be a basic part of human nature. And I like thinking about breakfast when I read Zechariah. And I like thinking about Zechariah while I’m eating breakfast. They’re a good match.

I think the prophet would be pleased.

Monday, July 5, 2010

The Bible And Art

Perhaps no other work of literature has had such a profound impact on the arts as the Bible. It has inspired murals, mosaics, stained glass windows, sculptures, and probably works in every other medium known to man. The Bible’s impact on art is a subject so broad, it could scarcely be covered by a single article, or even a book.

I think that the best way to do this theme justice, is to simply explore a few examples of just such works. While they are merely representative, they can at least give a flavor of how the Bible has influenced art through the ages.

Example 1: Mosaics in the Basilica of San Vitale.

This Basilica was built in Ravenna, Italy, during the sixth century. It includes a wealth of stunning mosaics. Among these is a depiction of two scenes from the life of Abraham: The three visitors at Mamre, and the Akedah, or binding of Isaac.

Example 2: Annunciation and Visitation.

These figures, representing both the Annunciation and Visitation recorded in Luke’s gospel, date from the thirteenth century. They are located at Reims Cathedral, in France.

Example 3: The Gospel Writers.

This stained glass window, depicting the Four Evangelists, was fashioned during the nineteenth century. It is located in St. Andrew’s Cathedral, Sydney.

Example 4: The Black Hours.

This very unusual illuminated Book of Hours was created during the fifteenth century. Included is a depiction of the decent of the Holy Spirit on the day of Pentecost, as recorded in the Book of Acts.

Example 5: Paradise.

This painting, which depicts various scenes from the early chapters of Genesis, is the work of Lucas Cranach. It was created during the sixteenth century.

Example 6: Ruth Gleaning.

French artist James Tissot produced this watercolor near the end of the nineteenth century, during a journey to Palestine. It depicts Ruth gleaning in the field of Boaz.

These six samples of art span over a thousand years, and represent various mediums and localities. The one thing they do have in common, however, is that they were inspired and influenced by the written words of Scripture – words that continue to inspire and influence even today.

Monday, June 28, 2010

God’s Original Revelation

During my previous two articles, I explored questions concerning the number of books in the Bible. First, I looked at the number of books found in a typical Protestant canon. Then, last week, I explored the controversy surrounding the fringe-writings known as the Apocrypha, or Deuterocononical books. This week, I hope to complete this theme with what I consider to be a fascinating proposition: That there is, in fact, a sequel to the Bible. Or to be more precise, a prequel.

Now, before the orthodoxy-police take up their torches and pitchforks, allow me to be very clear what I am referring to: Nature, or “General Revelation.” Consider, for example, what Paul says about the matter:

“…since what may be known about God is plain to them, because God has made it plain to them. For since the creation of the world God’s invisible qualities—his eternal power and divine nature—have been clearly seen, being understood from what has been made, so that men are without excuse.” – Romans 1:19-20:

Psalm 19 is even more intriguing, in what appears to be a very deliberate contrast of these two primary modes of revelation. Notice the focus on nature in verses 1-6:

1 The heavens declare the glory of God;
the skies proclaim the work of his hands.
2 Day after day they pour forth speech;
night after night they display knowledge.
3 There is no speech or language
where their voice is not heard.
4 Their voice goes out into all the earth,
their words to the ends of the world.
In the heavens he has pitched a tent for the sun,
5 which is like a bridegroom coming forth from his pavilion,
like a champion rejoicing to run his course.
6 It rises at one end of the heavens
and makes its circuit to the other;
nothing is hidden from its heat.

Now compare the discourse on God’s law in verses 7-11:

7 The law of the LORD is perfect,
reviving the soul.
The statutes of the LORD are trustworthy,
making wise the simple.
8 The precepts of the LORD are right,
giving joy to the heart.
The commands of the LORD are radiant,
giving light to the eyes.
9 The fear of the LORD is pure,
enduring forever.
The ordinances of the LORD are sure
and altogether righteous.
10 They are more precious than gold,
than much pure gold;
they are sweeter than honey,
than honey from the comb.
11 By them is your servant warned;
in keeping them there is great reward.

Perhaps, then, it is no coincidence that the opening chapter of Scripture also details the opening days of Creation. They have their origins in the same place. They are tied together from their very inception.

Perhaps, furthermore, it is no coincidence that the opening chapter of Scripture has been the focus of so many attacks over the last century. Both of God’s great revelations rest on its foundation. If it is shown to be erroneous, then the divine origins of both nature and Scripture are in question.

I think that the best way to close this article is to simply let God’s original revelation speak for itself. Following are a few select facts about nature and the world we live in, which I have cleverly intermingled with Genesis 1:

And God said, “Let there be light,” and there was light.

We see over wavelengths at which the sun’s output is most prodigious. Nearly half its radiation lies between 400 to 750 nanometers, and our eyes are most sensitive in the yellow-green that is the most intense solar color. Experts in color reproduction estimate that we can discern up to ten million different shades.

And God said, “Let there be an expanse between the waters to separate water from water.”

Types of clouds: Cirrocumulus, Cirrus, Cirrostratus, Altostratus, Altocumulus, Cumulus, Stratocumulus, Nimbostratus, and Stratus.

And God said, “Let the water under the sky be gathered to one place, and let dry ground appear.”

The oceans of the world contain about 1.35 billion cubic kilometers of seawater.

There are seven large tectonic plates: Pacific (the only one not associated with a continent), African, North American, South American, Eurasian, Australian, and Antarctic.

Then God said, “Let the land produce vegetation: seed-bearing plants and trees on the land that bear fruit with seed in it, according to their various kinds.”

One Sequoia Semperviren measures 364 feet, making it the tallest living thing on earth. They are capable of living for over 2,000 years.

And God said, “Let there be lights in the expanse of the sky to separate the day from the night, and let them serve as signs to mark seasons and days and years, and let them be lights in the expanse of the sky to give light on the earth.” And it was so. God made two great lights—the greater light to govern the day and the lesser light to govern the night. He also made the stars.

The sun is 1,392,000 km. in diameter, and could engulf over 1 million globes the volume of the Earth. At its core it is 15,000,000 degrees Celsius.

There are 5,800 stars visible to the naked eye. Our galaxy contains about 100,000 million, and beyond that we come to other galaxies.

And God said, “Let the water teem with living creatures, and let birds fly above the earth across the expanse of the sky.”

False Clownfish live inside giant stinging anemone, and spend their entire life with their chosen anemone, which can only be one of three species. A special slime covers the fish’s body and prevents the anemone from recognizing it as food.

The Toco Toucan is the largest of all toucan species. Its bill is 7 ½ inches.

And God said, “Let the land produce living creatures according to their kinds: livestock, creatures that move along the ground, and wild animals, each according to its kind.”

European Pond Turtles are just one of two freshwater turtle species that live in Europe. They spend most of their time basking on logs or rocks.

Then God said, “Let us make man in our image, in our likeness…”

The human body has 206 bones, over 600 skeletal muscles, a circulator system that is over 90,000 miles long, and a brain composed of 12 billion neurons and 50 billion supporting glial cells.

Monday, June 21, 2010

The Question Of The Apocrypha

I thought that it might be interesting if I took on a more controversial topic this week. I don’t normally like controversy – it seems to leave a bad taste in the spirit, if you know what I mean – but in light of last week’s subject matter, it seems mildly justifiable.

The Apocrypha. In certain circles, the mere mention of this phrase can send emotions sky-high. Indeed, it is a subject so controversial, that even the phrase itself is hotly debated: Supporters often insist that it be referred to as The Deuterocanonical Books.

To be sure, the words carry different connotations. “Apocrypha” comes from a Greek word meaning “hidden.” It is most often used to refer to the Apocrypha proper, included in many Bibles, but can also refer to any number of other early Jewish or Christian writings found outside the Bible. “Deuterocanonical,” also Greek in origin, means “second canon,” and is much more specific in referring only to the disputed books.

So what exactly is the Apocrypha? It all goes back to the ancient translation of the Old Testament known as the Septuagint. This Greek translation of the Scriptures, created during the second and third centuries, contained several additional books not found in the traditional Hebrew Scriptures. Because the early church was largely Greek-speaking, the Septuagint became its de-facto Old Testament, and many came to regard the additional books as Scripture, while others saw them as sub-par to the traditional books. Today, this debate continues.

It might be beneficial to get a feel for what this collection actually includes:

• Tobit – a rather quirky narrative about a pious Jew named Tobias, son of Tobit.

• Judith – a narrative about a beautiful Jewish girl who rescues her people, often compared to Esther.

• Additions to Esther – an heavily expanded version of the Book of Esther.

• Wisdom – a philosophical book.

• Sirach – a book of sayings, sometimes compared to Proverbs.

• Baruch – a rather short book, claiming to be written by Jeremiah’s scribe.

• The Letter of Jeremiah – a warning against idolatry.

• Additions to Daniel – a collection of appendices to the Book of Daniel, including The Prayer of Azariah and Song of the Three Holy Children, Susanna, and Bel and the Dragon.

• First and Second Maccabees – narratives dealing with the Maccabean Revolt.

There are, in my opinion, a good number of reasons to exclude these books from the biblical canon. Among them:

1. They never were, and never have been accepted into the Jewish canon. This seems rather significant in light of the fact that they are, after all, Jewish books.

2. With very little exception, we don’t have the original Hebrew text of these books – only the later Greek translation found in the Septuagint. Not only does this leave us relying on a translation of a translation, but it also reveals that these books weren’t considered worthy of preservation in their original languages in their early history.

3. These books are never explicitly quoted in the New Testament, while nearly every book of the Hebrew canon is. There may be a few places – notably in Hebrews 11 – where the Apocrypha is alluded to, but even there it isn’t addressed as Scripture in the normal fashion (“it is written”). In any event, the New Testament also quotes the non-canonical Book of Enoch and Assumption of Moses, as well as the Greek poets Epimenides, Aratus, Cleanthes, and Menander.

4. Jerome, translating the Bible into Latin in the fourth and fifth centuries, explicitly rejected these books as non-canonical, stating that they “are not in the canon” and that the church “has not received them among the canonical scriptures.”

5. One of the arguments usually given in favor of the Apocrypha is its inclusion in the Septuagint, the standard Greek Old Testament of the early church. However, there is some considerable inconsistency in this argument, as the Septuagint also includes a number of other books which are rejected by nearly everyone. The Prayer of Manasseh, Third and Fourth Maccabees, and Psalm 151 are good examples.

6. These books are not universally accepted by the church. Of course, what constitutes “the church” is open to its own set of debates, but that may be beside the point!

I doubt that this article will do much in the way of settling this age-old dispute. Perhaps this is a debate none of us are likely to resolve – a debate that must be ultimately settled by the Author of Scripture himself. Until then, our best course of action will be to remain civil, and explore this – and other controversial topics – with a good dose of level-headedness and Christian charity.

Monday, June 14, 2010

I Was Never Any Good At Math

How many books are in the Bible? The question seems straightforward enough. But, as is often the case with the Bible, this question proves more difficult upon closer examination.

At this point, I suspect that at least someone reading this will suppose I’m going to launch into an article about the differences between the Jewish, Catholic, Orthodox, and Protestant canons. While that might make an interesting discussion – and one I do hope to come back to in the future – for the purposes of this article, I’m strictly referring to a standard sixty-six book Protestant Bible.

…or is it sixty-six books? Let’s take a closer look.

We’ll begin with something easy. We have two books of Samuel, right? Well, not exactly. In fact, Samuel is a single book, and is still treated as such by the Jews today. The idea of “First” and “Second” Samuel is an unfortunate result of the book’s length – it’s so long, that the translators of the Septuagint divided it into two volumes. But a second volume isn’t a second book – it’s simply a second volume of the original book. And so it goes with the books of Kings, Chronicles, and Ezra-Nehemiah.

Ah, but there’s more! Next we turn our attention to the twelve minor prophets. Twelve little books? Maybe, and maybe not. In fact, they were considered a single book in ancient times, and continue to be considered a single book by the Jews today: Trei Asar, or “The Twelve.” And yet, clearly, they were written as separate compositions. Surely it’s fair to think of them as twelve individual books, then…right?

Not really. By that same logic, the book of Psalms will become 150 little books! So what shall we do about The Twelve? How should they be numbered?

Perhaps for now, it’s best to think of them as a library of books within the greater library of books we call the Bible. Getting confused yet?

So far we’ve discussed several sets of books that later translators divided into multiple books, but what about the opposite effect – are there examples of times when we’ve combined books? There might be.

The book of Psalms is probably the best example. It is, in fact, five volumes in the Jewish tradition. But are they five volumes, or are they five individual books? The end of the second volume seems to indicate that it’s the latter:

Psalm 72:20: This concludes the prayers of David son of Jesse.

The book of Proverbs also seems to be a collection of earlier books. Consider its self-imposed titles:

1:1: The proverbs of Solomon.

10:1: The proverbs of Solomon.

22:17: The sayings of the wise.

24:23: These also are sayings of the wise.

25:1: More proverbs of Solomon.

30:1: The sayings of Agur.

31:1: The sayings of King Lemuel.

If all of this isn’t enough to make your head spin, I’ll take this opportunity to point out that many see in Genesis a collection of ten earlier books, perhaps brought together as a single book by Moses. This is not, of course, to be confused with the Documentary Hypothesis, which is a different theory altogether.

Genesis 2:4: This is the account of the heavens and the earth.

Genesis 5:1: This is the written account of Adam’s line.

Genesis 6:9: This is the account of Noah.

Genesis 10:1: This is the account of Shem, Ham and Japheth.

Genesis 11:10: This is the account of Shem.

Genesis 11:27: This is the account of Terah.

Genesis 25:12: This is the account of Abraham’s son Ishmael.

Genesis 25:19: This is the account of Abraham’s son Isaac.

Genesis 36:1: This is the account of Esau. (See also 36:9).

Genesis 37:2: This is the account of Jacob.

So how many are we at now?

Lest I leave the New Testament out of it completely, I will point out that many scholars see 2John and 3John as cover letters for 1John, which could bring our count down by another two. Depending, of course, on how you want to treat a cover letter.

It seems that what we really have, then, is a book that is really a collection of books, some of which in turn contain yet smaller collections of books – collections within a collection – and some of which should actually be thought of as single books, or perhaps multiple volumes of a single book, or perhaps multiple books that were once a single volume, while others may be single books, may be collections of smaller books, or may be single books that resulted from earlier collections of smaller books.

Maybe giving a definite answer to the question, “How many books are in the Bible?” is a lost cause. Maybe, in fact, we would be wise to simply remember that, in one way or another, it doesn’t really matter. It is, by its very nature, one book. It is the Word of God. Does that sound like a cop-out? Perhaps it is. But at this point, I see little other recourse.

Monday, June 7, 2010

The Way Of The Lector

If there’s anything that I envy about those who attend more “liturgical” churches, it’s the opportunity to serve as lectors. In fact, the more I think about this, the more convinced I become that the office of lector is the single greatest honor that could be bestowed upon a Christian.

For starters, the position is relatively safe. A preacher or teacher, for instance, must be constantly on the guard against speaking error. Not so the lector! What could be safer than proclaiming the Scriptures directly? How could the Word of God speak more clearly, than on its own terms?

Additionally, it seems worth mentioning that Jesus himself served as a lector in his home synagogue. Luke 4:16-21 relates:

He went to Nazareth, where he had been brought up, and on the Sabbath day he went into the synagogue, as was his custom. And he stood up to read. The scroll of the prophet Isaiah was handed to him. Unrolling it, he found the place where it is written:

“The Spirit of the Lord is on me,
because he has anointed me
to preach good news to the poor.
He has sent me to proclaim freedom for the prisoners
and recovery of sight for the blind,
to release the oppressed,
to proclaim the year of the Lord’s favor.”

Then he rolled up the scroll, gave it back to the attendant and sat down. The eyes of everyone in the synagogue were fastened on him, and he began by saying to them, “Today this scripture is fulfilled in your hearing.”

Likewise, in 1Timothy 4:13 Paul urges Timothy, “Until I come, devote yourself to the public reading of Scripture.”

Justin Martyr, writing about 155 AD, relates how each Sunday “The memoirs of the apostles and the writings of the prophets are read, as much as time permits.”

The Scriptures, of course, were written in a highly illiterate society, and only in recent centuries have Bibles become available to the masses. For the better part of history, Scripture was received almost exclusively through oral proclamation. In light of this information, how important is the office of lector! What a privilege, to be the mouthpiece of God! What an honor, to convey his very words to his people!

Of course, it isn’t likely that my church will be instituting lectors anytime soon. They are, it would seem, a dying tradition of the church, being quickly discarded by today’s literate world. Even so, we might all do well to pray:

Lord, anoint me to preach good news, to proclaim freedom, to proclaim the year of the Lord’s favor!

Monday, May 31, 2010

Bibles And Lightsabers

I once heard someone jokingly state that if God were so inclined, he could file the mother of all copyright infringement lawsuits against George Lucas. I’m not certain that the original Bible is covered by any sort of copyright, but I understand the sentiment behind the statement just the same.

Perhaps some would begin by comparing the general themes of these two great works. Both contain stories of good versus evil. Both center around epic heroes, including at least one born of a virgin. And both propose the possibility of redemption for the fallen sinner.

I, on the other hand, am more inclined to look for the quirky similarities. A short list might include the following:

1. Much like the Jedi, the Christian missionaries in the book of Acts tend to travel in pairs. Consider, for example:

Acts 14:1: At Iconium Paul and Barnabas went as usual into the Jewish synagogue.

Acts 15:27: Therefore we are sending Judas and Silas to confirm by word of mouth what we are writing.

Acts 19:22: He sent two of his helpers, Timothy and Erastus, to Macedonia.

Of course, the seventy-two disciples in Luke 10 were also sent out in pairs.

2. Like Jedi, Christians are provided with a “sword” as their primary weapon. Much like the lightsaber of Star Wars, this weapon is useful only in the hands of one correctly in tune with “The Force.”

Ephesians 6:17: Take the helmet of salvation and the sword of the Spirit, which is the word of God.

Hebrews 4:12: For the word of God is living and active. Sharper than any double-edged sword, it penetrates even to dividing soul and spirit, joints and marrow; it judges the thoughts and attitudes of the heart.

The weapon in Genesis 3:24 sounds eerily similar to a lightsaber, in any event: “After he drove the man out, he placed on the east side of the Garden of Eden cherubim and a flaming sword flashing back and forth to guard the way to the tree of life.”

3. Similar to Obi Wan Kenobi, we observe Elisha performing something akin to a Jedi mind trick upon the men sent to capture him. Compare the relevant quotes:

Obi Wan: These aren’t the droids you’re looking for.

2Kings 6:18-19: As the enemy came down toward him, Elisha prayed to the LORD, “Strike these people with blindness.” So he struck them with blindness, as Elisha had asked. Elisha told them, “This is not the road and this is not the city. Follow me, and I will lead you to the man you are looking for.”

I’ll leave you with these final two comparisons:

Anakin Skywalker: The Jedi are selfless. They only care about others.

Paul (Philippians 2:3-4): Do nothing out of selfish ambition or vain conceit, but in humility consider others better than yourselves. Each of you should look not only to your own interests, but also to the interests of others.

Luke: I can’t believe it.
Yoda: That is why you fail.

Matthew 17:19-21: Then the disciples came to Jesus in private and asked, “Why couldn’t we drive it out?” He replied, “Because you have so little faith. I tell you the truth, if you have faith as small as a mustard seed, you can say to this mountain, ‘Move from here to there’ and it will move. Nothing will be impossible for you.”