“An Even Better Bible”

Title: Star of Bethlehem with Pomegranate Trees [Click for larger image view]

Christian friends, we are still (and will be right through February 19) in the season after Epiphany, during which we remember and celebrate the light of God’s revelation, symbolized by the Bethlehem star.  According to the old King James Version, the light of that star guided the “wise men” to the Christ Child (Matthew 2:1-12): a reading followed by the RSV, and the NRSV.  However, like the CEB and the NIV, the newly published NRSVue (that is, the Updated Edition of the New Revised Standard Version) more accurately reads “the magi“–a Persian clan of Zoroastrian astrologers.

To understand what the NRSVue is, we need to rehearse a wee bit of history.  The Revised Standard Version (1952) was a revision of the earlier American Standard Version (1901)–itself the American English form of a revision of the KJV undertaken by the Church of England in 1881.  The RSV was the work of a team of expert translators, including the legendary New Testament scholar Bruce Metzger, assembled by the International Council of Religious Education (one of the predecessors of the National  Council of Churches [NCC]).  The RSV was not intended to be an entirely new translation; the intent was to preserve the familiar rhythms and language of the KJV as much as possible “in the light of our present knowledge of the Hebrew and Greek texts and their meaning on the one hand, and our present understanding of English on the other”  (from the preface to the RSV).

The New Revised Standard Version (1989) was undertaken by a new committee formed by the NCC, this time chaired by Bruce Metzger.  One issue driving this call for a revision was the increasing recognition in many churches that our language should reflect more accurately the full inclusion of women in the community of faith.  So, in the NRSV, Genesis 1:27 reads, “So God created humankind [the NRSVue simply has “humans”] in his image, in the image of God he created them; male and female he created them.”  Here, the translation “humankind” is far better than the KJV and RSV “man”: the Hebrew word used, ‘adam, means “humanity” rather than “man.”   The NRSV renders the standard New Testament greeting to fellow Christians, “Brothers” (adelphoi in Greek; for example, 1 Corinthians 2:1), as “Brothers and sisters”–not a literal translation of adelphoi, but an accurate expression of the inclusion of women as well as men in those early Christian communities.

But the major reason that a new revision of the RSV seemed needed was that new texts continued to come to light–particularly, with the publication of more and more material from Qumran: the so-called Dead Sea Scrolls.  The NRSV translators paid close attention to the Qumran discoveries (look for a Q in the text notes), making this the best scholarly translation of the Bible to date, especially for the Old Testament.

The NRSVue, published in 2021, was begun about five years ago as a cooperative project of the NCC and the Society of Biblical literature (SBL).  According to an email from SBL Press and the Bible Odyssey team, “nearly seventy-five SBL members working individually and collaboratively over the course of four years” produced this “review and revision of the NRSV thirty years after its initial release.”  Much like its predecessors, the NRSVue is an updating and revision, rather than a fresh translation from scratch.  The NRSVue is readily accessible on the web, at Bible Gateway  and at Bible Odyssey.

The title of this blog is taken from a recent interview  with the two heads of the NRSVue project: Joseph Crockett, the (now retired) CEO of the NCC’s publishing house Friendship Press, and John Kutsko, then executive director of SBL (see Annelisa Burns, “An even better Bible,” The Christian Century [February 2023]: 62-65).  In that interview, John Kutsko observes,

We approached this project as if it were a regularly scheduled maintenance in light of new texts and understandings.  We believed from the start that its primary value would be in the review itself, regardless of the extent of revisions made to the text.  We did not know that we’d have 12,000 substantive changes. 

Most of these changes are minor, if significant: like the substitution of “magi” for the traditional reading “wise men.”  Just as the NRSV paid particular attention to gender, the NRSVue has paid particular attention to “ableist” readings that reduce people to their infirmity.  So, while the NRSV of Mark 1:40 reads, “A leper [Greek lepros] came to him begging him, and kneeling he said to him, ‘If you choose, you can make me clean’”, the NRSVue of this passage (like the CEB) has “A man with a skin disease.”  In addition to granting the sufferer his full humanity, this reading avoids the ready confusion of biblical “leprosy” (the Greek lepros and the Hebrew tsara’ath/tsara’ are catchall terms in Scripture for a host of skin diseases, not to mention molds and mildews [see Leviticus 13–14!]) with clinical leprosy, or Hansen’s disease.

Of course, as with the RSV and NRSV before it, the ready accusation is that the translators are watering down the Gospel with their liberal agenda.  In response to an interviewer who asked if the NRSVue was a “woke revision,” Kutsko said,

“[W]oke” is a mischaracterization of what we do.  While all scholarship, including translation, is socially located and can’t be completely objective, our book editors and the general editors were both diverse and specialized.  They strove for the ideal of representing the sources and meaning of the ancient texts.

In the Christian Century interview, when asked about controversial changes, Kutsko and Crockett noted in particular the decision in the NRSVue to render the Hebrew khattat as “purification offering” rather than “sin offering.”  This was not, they noted, an attempt to take “sin” out of the Bible (Kutsko: “I can assure your  readers that there is still a lot of sin in the Bible.” Crockett: “And it doesn’t stop with the Bible!”), but rather a reflection of the best scholarship on the meaning and use of this particular ancient Israelite ritual (as Jacob Milgrom’s footnotes to Leviticus in the HarperCollins NRSV Study Bible observe).

While I affirm most of the choices I have encountered in the NRSVue, I must confess that some took me by surprise.  To begin at the beginning, Genesis 1:1-2 reads,

When God began to create the heavens and the earth,  the earth was complete chaos, and darkness covered the face of the deep, while a wind from God swept over the face of the waters. 

I have no quibble with this translation–in fact, I affirm it, although it does represent yet another step away from the traditional language of the KJV.

However, I do differ with the NRSVue on Genesis 2:2:

On the sixth day God finished the work that he had done, and he rested on the seventh day from all the work that he had done (Gen 2:2).

This reading (also found in the CEB) is in keeping with the Samaritan Pentateuch, the Septuagint, and the Syriac, all of which read in Genesis 2:2 that God completed God’s work on the sixth day (see also Exod 20:11; 31:17; 2 Esdras 6:38-59).  The versions, influenced in particular by the Exodus passages, are making an understandable decision: after all, how can God be said to finish God’s work on God’s day of rest?  Indeed, since, in Genesis as we have it the seventh day of creation is placed in a different chapter than the first six (Gen 2:1-3), one could easily conclude that the seventh day comes after the work of creation is completed.

But the Hebrew Masoretic Text (MT) reads wayyikal ‘elohim bayom hashibi’i mela’kto [“God completed God’s work on the seventh day”].  The NRSV stayed with the MT here (as do the KJV, NJPS, and NIV).  I am persuaded that that is the better course.  The priestly writers in this unit pursue a sabbatical logic.  In Genesis 1:1–2:4a, each day is numbered, from One through Seven (1:5, 8, 13, 19, 23, 31; 2:2-3). Indeed, rather than using the word “Sabbath,” Gen 2:1-3 speaks only of Day Seven, to preserve that numbering sequence.  In this context, then, the seventh day is the day of completion, the climax of creation.  The NRSV had it right.

While the RSV remains available, the editors have chosen to let the NRSV go out of print (so, for example, it is no longer available at the Bible Gateway website).  I think this decision is unfortunate: I am certain that, as I use this new Bible, I will find still other places where I prefer the text critical decisions made in that earlier version to those in the NRSVue.  Still, so far as I can now see, in most places the Updated Edition has stayed with the critical assessments of the NRSV, which is all to the good.

Unfortunately, the NRSVue suffers from some of the same limitations as the NRSV.  It assumes a college-age reading level–a major barrier to many readers.  While excellent for study, this Bible is harder to use for devotional reading and spiritual reflection.  Those looking for a more accessible translation should try the Common English Bible.  Still, the NCC and the SBL must be commended for revisiting, and revising, their work.  Joseph Crockett puts it very well:

God deserves the best each generation can render, and the growth of information in the past 30-plus years makes Bible research, interpretation, and understanding an ever-changing enterprise.


The textile art at the head of this blog, “Star of Bethlehem With Pomegranate Trees,” was made by an anonymous quilter in 1850, and is at the Museum of Fine Arts in Boston.  This image comes from Art in the Christian Tradition, a project of the Vanderbilt Divinity Library, Nashville, TN. https://diglib.library.vanderbilt.edu/act-imagelink.pl?RC=56278 [retrieved January 30, 2023]. Original source: https://commons.wikimedia.org/wiki/File:Star_of_Bethlehem_with_Pomegranate_Trees,_New_York,_c._1850_-_Museum_of_Fine_Arts,_Boston_-_DSC02710.JPG.

I cannot let Ms. Burns’ interview go without noting these sobering words of warning from John Kutsko concerning modern seminary education:

I worry about the future’s ability to support scholars with sufficient language facility. We found it pretty difficult to find a team of people who had mastered Hebrew, Aramaic, Greek, and so on. Most Protestant denominations don’t require Greek or Hebrew for ordination, so faculty are teaching these languages less. I’m not optimistic that a review begun in 2050 will find the necessary scholars to do what we did in this updated edition.


What Everybody Knows

Ames trapezoid - Wikipedia

Just this week, I learned about the Ames Window: a visual illusion invented by American scientist Adelbert Ames, Jr. in 1951.  Seeing it here in two dimensions, the Ames Window appears unremarkable–we readily understand this image as a rectangular window with six panes.  Actually, of course, it is nothing of the sort: the shape is a trapezoid, not a rectangle.  But since in our experience objects appear larger when they are close to us, and smaller when far away, we readily interpret the drawing as a rectangular frame viewed from one end.

The Ames Window really comes into its own, however, when we cut it out and play with it in three dimensions.  This astounding video, from the Australian educational program “The Curiosity Show,” demonstrates the Window’s amazing properties.  Since we perceive the longer end as closer to us even when it in fact is not, when the window is spun on a string, it seems not to spin, but to oscillate back and forth.  A pen stuck through the window will clearly be seen to spin when the Window spins.  However, since we still perceive the Window itself as oscillating rather than spinning, the amazing result is that the pen appears to pass through the solid fabric of the cut-out design–even though we know that to be impossible.

Adelbert Ames was a pioneering figure in the physiological study of the eye, and particularly of binocular vision.  But that work led him into the psychology of perception.  We can readily understand how and why his illusion works.  Our brain makes sense of visual stimuli in three dimensions by interpreting objects nearby as larger than objects far away.  That is how we judge distances: how we can know how far away a target (say, a piece of fruit, or a prey animal) is, or whether (and how quickly!) a threat is approaching us.

What Do Panthers Eat? 15 Animals They Hunt For Food - AZ Animals

Those hard-wired perceptual cues usually serve us well.  But, as the Ames Window demonstrates, what we know to be true can lead us astray when reality does not, in fact, agree with our perception.

In a recent article intriguingly titled,”The Key to Success in College Is So Simple, It’s Almost Never Mentioned,” Jonathan Milesic writes,

In more than 20 years of college teaching, I have seen that students who are open to new knowledge will learn. Students who aren’t won’t. But this attitude is not fixed. The paradoxical union of intellectual humility and ambition is something that every student can (with help from teachers, counselors and parents) and should cultivate. It’s what makes learning possible.

I have found this to be true in my teaching–and also in my own study.  The necessary precursor to learning anything new is the humble acknowledgement that we do not know!  Yet, as Milesic goes on to observe, a major obstacle to learning is “knowingness”–our insistence that we do know:

Knowingness is everywhere in our culture. From a former president claiming “everybody knows” some conspiracist nonsense to podcasters smugly debunking cultural myths to your feeling you have to have read, heard and streamed everything, the posture of already knowing supersedes the need to approach new situations with curiosity.

Perhaps nowhere is this tendency so obvious, and so dangerous, as in those matters of faith that mean most to us.  Our certainties about what faith means, and what therefore the Bible must say, can easily prevent us from seeing what the text on the page actually says.  Milesic’s experience teaching theology in many ways mirrors my own experience teaching Bible:

Every semester during my years teaching theology, students would tell me on the first day of class that they knew they would get an A, because they’d already had 12 years of Catholic school. But often enough, they’d get a C. Their assumptions about the subject matter kept them from learning the more critical approach to the subject I was trying to teach.

Life-size Noah's Ark | Ark Encounter

To take one fairly trivial example: everybody knows that Noah took two of every kind of animal into the ark, and that with that menagerie and his family he rode out the flood.  But is that in fact what the Bible says?  Genesis 6:19-20 seems conclusive:

From all living things—from all creatures—you are to bring a pair, male and female, into the ark with you to keep them alive. From each kind of bird, from each kind of livestock, and from each kind of everything that crawls on the ground—a pair from each will go in with you to stay alive.

But what, then, are we to do with Genesis 7:2-3?

From every clean animal, take seven pairs, a male and his mate; and from every unclean animal, take one pair, a male and his mate;  and from the birds in the sky as well, take seven pairs, male and female, so that their offspring will survive throughout the earth.

I still remember, in my first teaching post out of grad school, seeing a young woman in my Bible course do a classic double-take when we read this passage!  After class, she asked me, “Why has no one ever told me about this?”  Of course, she didn’t actually need anyone to tell her anything: the biblical text was there to be read.  But it was only when she actually read the text, rather than reading over it, that she was able to see what it said, rather than what she assumed it said.

The conflict between Genesis 6:19-20 and 7:2-3, together with other tensions within the flood story,  strongly suggests that the final form of the text is not a single account, but an interweaving of two flood traditions.  One tradition assumes that Noah and his family are already eating meat, and that a clan leader like Noah is permitted to offer sacrifices (as he does in Gen 8:20-22)–hence the need for extra “clean” animals, suitable for altar and table.  The other evidently understands sacrifice to be the exclusive province of proper cult officials, and regards meat-eating as only beginning after the flood (see Gen 1:29-30; 9:1-6).  As a result, this tradition insists that no extra “clean” animals were required, and emphasizes that only two of every kind were taken on the ark.  The presence of two dissonant flood traditions, one of which seems to be correcting the other, complicates our straightforward assumptions about this text–particularly if we had assumed the text to be the factual account of an actual event.

George Bernard Shaw wrote, “No public man in these islands ever believes that the Bible means what it says: he is always convinced that it says what he means” (“Our Theatres In The Nineties,” 1930). Certainly, Shaw had a point!  It is far easier, and simpler, to stick with what “everybody knows” the Bible says than to wrestle with what Scripture actually means.

On the one hand, the Bible continually frustrates our attempts to turn it into an end in itself: whether as an infallible witness to history, or as a self-sufficient, internally consistent rule of behavior.  The Bible is far more complex than that, as an honest reading of the text on the page continually reveals. But on the other hand, reading the Bible brings us into an encounter with the living God.  Reformed theologian Daniel Migliore puts it very well: “Scripture is indispensable in bringing us into a new relationship with the living God through Christ by the power of the Holy Spirit.”  However, “Christians do not believe in the Bible; they believe in the living God attested by the Bible” (Daniel L. Migliore, Faith Seeking Understanding: An Introduction to Christian Theology, Second Edition [Grand Rapids: Eerdmans, 2004], 50). The distinction is vital, friends.  Can we lay aside our biblical “knowingness,” and allow the words of Scripture to bring us into a new experience of the living Word of God?


Merry Christmas!

Frontier Dreams: Rhythm In Our Home : The First Sunday in Advent “Sharon’s Christmas Prayer.”


She was five,

sure of the facts,

and recited them

with slow solemnity

convinced every word

was revelation.

She said

they were so poor

they had only peanut butter and jelly

sandwiches to eat

and they went a long way from home

without getting lost. The lady rode

a donkey, the man walked, and the baby

was inside the lady.

Image result for nativity icon


They had to stay in a stable

with an ox and an ass (hee-hee)

but the Three Rich Men found them

because a star lited the roof

Shepherds came and you could

pet the sheep but not feed them.

Then the baby was borned.

And do you know who he was?

Her quarter eyes inflated

to silver dollars.

The baby was God.


And she jumped in the air

whirled round, dove into the sofa

and buried her head under the cushion

which is the only proper response

to the Good News of the Incarnation.


This year’s Christmas card is a delightful poem by John Shea, from The Hour of the Unexpected (1977).  God bless you and Merry Christmas, beloved! Christ the Savior is born!





“I Will Tend My Sheep With Justice”

My old friend from grad school days, fellow United Methodist minister Frank Norris, posted this panel by Everett Patterson on Facebook. It is called “José y Maria.”  Frank invites us to look for the many allusions to Christian art and Scripture in this image.

I have seen this piece many times, and posted it before myself, but this time, for the first time, I noticed the graffiti on the phone: “Zeke 3415-16.”

Ezekiel 34:15-16 reads, I myself will feed my flock and make them lie down. This is what the LORD God says. I will seek out the lost, bring back the strays, bind up the wounded, and strengthen the weak. But the fat and the strong I will destroy, because I will tend my sheep with justice.

Greek orthodox icon of Christ the Good Shepherd – orthodoxmonasteryicons.com

The Hebrew Bible amply attests to the use of the shepherd metaphor for Israel’s rulers (for example, 2 Sam 5:2; Jer 3:15; Ezek 34:1-10; Mic 5:1-5a; Zech 10:2-3). By analogy, the LORD as king of the universe is also called a shepherd (see Ps 23; Ezek 34:11-16), an idea that lies back of the New Testament image of Jesus as the Good Shepherd in John 10  and (more disturbingly) Matthew 25:31-46, which begins,

“Now when the Human One comes in his majesty and all his angels are with him, he will sit on his majestic throne. All the nations will be gathered in front of him. He will separate them from each other, just as a shepherd separates the sheep from the goats.  He will put the sheep on his right side. But the goats he will put on his left.

 The specific source back of Matthew’s judgment scene is also the setting of that bit of graffiti in Patterson’s panel, Ezekiel 34:11-24.

This prophetic text from the Babylonian exile is reminiscent of the far better-known Psalm 23. Here as there, the LORD causes the flock to lie down in good pasture, beside streams of waters. But the mention of the settlements in the land (“inhabited places” in the CEB; 34:13) breaks up this pastoral imagery to remind the reader that this is about Israel after all, not about sheep: God will bring the exiles home, and repopulate desolated Judah.

The last verse of this section begins as a summary of 34:11-16, reiterating God’s determination to seek out and care for the scattered sheep. But then, abruptly, the image shifts: “I will seek out the lost, bring back the strays, bind up the wounded, and strengthen the weak. But the fat and the strong I will destroy” (34:16). This statement, like the mention of settlements in 34:13, explodes the metaphor: it makes no sense for any shepherd to destroy the strong and healthy sheep!

No wonder the Greek Septuagint (LXX), the Syriac, and the Latin Vulgate all read “I will watch over” instead, assuming an original Hebrew ‘eshmor instead of ‘ashmid (“I will destroy”). The two words are nearly identical in Hebrew, where vowels are not written, and the consonants d and r look a great deal alike. It is easy to understand a scribe mistaking one for the other. The reading followed by the LXX certainly seems a better fit with the context of 34:11-16, which stresses God’s care for the flock, in striking contrast to the cruelty of the false shepherds: that is, Israel’s kings. Numerous commentators on Ezekiel (for example, Walther Zimmerli, Ezekiel 2, 208; Daniel Block, Ezekiel 25—48, 287; Leslie Allen, Ezekiel 20—48, 157) therefore follow the LXX here.

On the other hand, not only the CEB, but also NIV, NRSV, and even the KJV all stay with the Hebrew Bible here, which reads ‘ashmid (“I will destroy”)– and they are right to do so. The next phrase in Ezekiel 34:16 makes the prophet’s meaning clear: “But the fat and the strong I will destroy, because I will tend my sheep with justice.” God’s justice was seen in 34:1-10 with the punishment of the false shepherds, Israel’s past kings. But while the shepherds had certainly been guilty, the sheep are not therefore innocent! Throughout this book, Ezekiel rejects the exilic community’s claim that they are innocent victims (see, for example, 18:1-4).

All Sheep Matter CARTOON | Etsy

In the next section, 34:17-24, God’s justice is visited on the sheep, just as it had been visited on the shepherds. Once more good theology trumps good animal husbandry, as God sides with the weak and injured over against the fat and strong (Christian readers may be reminded of the shepherd who leaves the ninety-nine unguarded in the fold to seek out the one lost lamb; Matt 18:10-14//Luke 15:3-7)! The startling introduction of this idea in 34:16 is in keeping with Ezekiel’s style elsewhere: this prophet loves to shock his audience.

God’s judgment upon the flock falls into two parts, the accusation (34:17-19), and the pronouncement of judgment (34:20-24). The accusation opens, “As for you, my flock, the Lord God proclaims: I will judge between the rams and the bucks among the sheep and the goats” (34:17)–words that directly call to mind the judgment scene in Matthew 25 (compare 25:32).

The Last Judgement by Michelangelo (Sistine Chapel, Rome)

In Matthew as in Ezekiel, the basis of the judgment is regard for the least (Matt 25:40, 45). So, in Ezekiel, the strong sheep are taken to task for selfishly and greedily trampling the pasture and muddying the water so that others cannot eat or drink (34:18-19). The point is expanded in 34:21: the strong are condemned for thrusting the weak aside.

In our own day, the gap between rich and poor is wider than it has ever been, as the lion’s share of the world’s resources is claimed by a diminishing minority of its people. The trampling of our earth and fouling of our water, through irresponsible use of this world’s resources, now threatens the entire planet through climate change, even as it robs opportunity from the most vulnerable. Ezekiel plainly states God’s place in this: on the side of the poor, and on the side of the abused land. God declares, “I will rescue my flock so that they will never again be prey” (34:22).

WAM Updates: Henry Ossawa Tanner's The Annunciation shines in the American  paintings galleries If you are wondering what any of this has to do with the season of Advent, or with the birth of our Lord, may I remind you that the alternate Psalm for this coming Sunday is Luke’s Song of Mary (Luke 1:46-55), often called the Magnificat after its opening in Latin, Magnificat anima mea Dominum (in the KJV, “My soul doth magnify the Lord;” the Presbyterian hymnal has a lovely and vigorous setting of this passage!).  Here is the whole song:

With all my heart I glorify the Lord!
    In the depths of who I am I rejoice in God my savior.
He has looked with favor on the low status of his servant.
    Look! From now on, everyone will consider me highly favored
        because the mighty one has done great things for me.
Holy is his name.
    He shows mercy to everyone,
        from one generation to the next,
        who honors him as God.
He has shown strength with his arm.
    He has scattered those with arrogant thoughts and proud inclinations.
    He has pulled the powerful down from their thrones
        and lifted up the lowly.
He has filled the hungry with good things
    and sent the rich away empty-handed.
He has come to the aid of his servant Israel,
        remembering his mercy,
    just as he promised to our ancestors,
        to Abraham and to Abraham’s descendants forever.

In many Christian traditions, Advent is a penitential season (Orthodox call it “Little Lent”!).  Certainly, it is right that, in preparation for Christ’s coming, we search our own hearts and lives.  Mary’s song, like Ezekiel’s, reminds us that God takes sides in our world, and challenges us to ask what side we are on.


Gaudete Sunday: 11 things to know and share . . .| National Catholic  Register

Having grown up in a non-liturgical church (I don’t believe I knew about the seasons of the church year, apart from Easter and Christmas, until college), I always wondered why, in some traditions, the candle for the third Sunday of Advent is pink, not purple.  

In the Roman Catholic liturgical calendar, the third Sunday in Advent is Gaudete Sunday, so called for the first word in the Latin introit for this day, “Gaudete in Domino semper“–from Philippians 4:4-5 (KJV): “Rejoice in the Lord always: and again I say, Rejoice.”

The website “About Catholicism” explains the rose-colored candle, and vestments, for this day:

Like Lent, Advent is a penitential season, so the priest normally wears purple vestments. But on Gaudete Sunday, having passed the midpoint of Advent, the Church lightens the mood a little, and the priest may wear rose vestments. The change in color provides us with encouragement to continue our spiritual preparation—especially prayer and fasting—for Christmas.

Gaudete Sunday means that the time of waiting and preparation is nearly over–that Christmas, and more importantly, Christ, is on the way!  The message of the rose-colored candle, then, is hope.  Hold on.


A Voice in the Wilderness

I love this meme, which comically demonstrates the importance of proper punctuation.  Intended, of course, was “Rachael Ray finds inspiration in cooking, her family, and her dog.”  For all I know, this meme has photoshopped out the punctuation for comic effect.  But without those commas, this cover announces a horror show!  On Facebook, I captioned this picture “Punctuation saves lives!”

But what about written languages–including our biblical languages!–which lack punctuation?  How are such confusions avoided?  The short answer is that, frequently, they are not.  Generally, the reader has to rely on context cues to the intended meaning of an ambiguous passage.

Matthias Grünewald: John the Baptist

Which leads us to the Gospel for this second Sunday of Advent, Matthew 3:1-12, concerning John the Baptist.  In all four Gospels, John is introduced by a quotation from Isaiah.  In the recent Updated Edition of the NRSV, Matthew 3:3 reads,

This is the one of whom the prophet Isaiah spoke when he said,

“The voice of one crying out in the wilderness:
‘Prepare the way of the Lord;
    make his paths straight.’ ”

However, if you look up the Isaiah passage quoted, you will find:


A voice cries out:
“In the wilderness prepare the way of the Lord;
    make straight in the desert a highway for our God” (Isaiah 40:3, NRSVUE).

You see the problem.  Where should the comma go?  Does Isaiah refer to a voice crying in the wilderness, “Prepare the way of the Lord,” or does the voice cry, “In the wilderness prepare the way of the Lord”?  Does the text of Isaiah give us any way to resolve this ambiguity?

Matthew (like Mark before him) is quoting directly from the Septuagint, the Greek translation of Jewish Scripture that was the Bible of the earliest church.  Although later Greek texts do use punctuation and capital letters to enable the reader to distinguish sentences and phrases, the original text did not–indeed, often there was not even a space between words!

Greek Bible - Leviticus | MS 2649

For the gospel writers, there would not have been any clear indication of where the break belonged–and in any case, motivated as they were to find texts foreshadowing and interpreting Jesus’ life and work, we can certainly understand why they would read Isaiah 40:3 as referring to John the Baptist, “a voice crying in the wilderness.”

Mark, likely the first Gospel writer and so the first one to make this connection, actually conflates Isaiah 40:3 with another text:

The beginning of the good news about Jesus Christ, God’s Son, happened just as it was written about in the prophecy of Isaiah:

Look, I am sending my messenger before you.
He will prepare your way,
a voice shouting in the wilderness:
        “Prepare the way for the Lord;
        make his paths straight” (Mark 1:1-3).

The first two lines of this quotation actually do not come from Isaiah at all.  They allude to two passages from Malachi.  The first is Malachi 3:1-4:

Look, I am sending my messenger who will clear the path before me;
        suddenly the Lord whom you are seeking will come to his temple.
        The messenger of the covenant in whom you take delight is coming,
says the Lord of heavenly forces.
 Who can endure the day of his coming?
        Who can withstand his appearance?
He is like the refiner’s fire or the cleaner’s soap.
 He will sit as a refiner and a purifier of silver.
        He will purify the Levites
            and refine them like gold and silver.
            They will belong to the Lord,
                presenting a righteous offering.
 The offering of Judah and Jerusalem will be pleasing to the Lord
        as in ancient days and in former years.

Malachi comes at the end of the Book of the Twelve, and in the Christian Bible, at the end of the Old Testament.   Far from being moved to repentance and change by Malachi’s call to reform, his audience says, “Anyone doing evil is good in the Lord’s eyes,” or “He delights in those doing evil,” or “Where is the God of justice?”(Mal 2:17).  In other words, Malachi’s community believes that either God does not see what they do, or that God does not care.

Malachi gives assurance that these questions and doubts are about to be addressed, for “suddenly the LORD whom you are seeking will come to his temple” (Mal 3:1).  Those who piously claim to delight in God’s covenant will soon have the opportunity to express their gratitude personally!

Malachi proclaims not only the advent of the LORD, but also of the LORD’s messenger.  In Hebrew, “my messenger” is  mal’akhi–the same word that appears at the beginning of the book (Mal 1:1), where mal’akhi is the one through whom this book’s message of judgment is communicated.  While we might expect a name like Malachiah (“the LORD’s messenger”), “my messenger” seems an unlikely name for any parent to give a child! Probably, then, the prophet is anonymous; but is called Mal’akhi by the book’s editors because of Malachi 3:1.

But already within the editing of Malachi, we see further reflections on the identity of this enigmatic figure.  The second Malachi passage to which Mark alludes in his quotation from “Isaiah” is the conclusion to this book:

See, I will send you the prophet Elijah before the great and terrible day of the Lord comes.  He will turn the hearts of parents to their children and the hearts of children to their parents, so that I will not come and strike the land with a curse (Mal 4:5-6 NRSVUE [3:23-24 in the Hebrew text]).

The prophetic forerunner of the day of the LORD has become Elijah, who was taken alive into the heavens in a chariot of fire (2 Kgs 2:11) and so could be called upon for this task!

In Christian Scripture, Jesus is the one who comes to cleanse his people from their sins (Mal 3:2-3), and John the Baptist becomes the “messenger” sent to proclaim Jesus’ coming (see the quotes of Mal 3:1 at Matt 11:10; Mark 1:2; Luke 1:76; 7:27), and “Elijah who is to come” (Matt 11:14; cf. Matt 17:10-11; Mark 9:11-12; Luke 1:17).  By linking these passages from Malachi to Isa 40:3, Mark laid the foundation for this reading.

Augustine too on the one hand describes John the Baptist as the “messenger” of Malachi 3:1 (Tractates on the Gospel of John 14.10.1), and on the other relates Malachi 3:1-2 to Christ: both his first coming (reading the Lord coming to “his temple” as a reference to the incarnation; see Matt 26:59-61; Mark 14:55-59; John 2:19-21, where the “temple” refers to Jesus’ body) and also to his second coming at the end of time (“Who can endure the day of his coming?,” Mal 3:2; cf. The City of God 18:35; 20:25).

Perhaps as you have been reading this blog, the musical setting of Malachi 3:1-3 from George Handel’s famous oratorio The Messiah has been playing in your head–as it has in mine.  Charles Jennens, who composed the libretto for this oratorio, doubtless picked this passage for inclusion because, like Augustine, he regarded it as a reference Christ’s first and second coming.


Coming back to Isaiah 40:3 in the Hebrew text: originally, written Hebrew recorded only the consonants, and lacked any system of punctuation.  However, a system of marks above and below the line developed in the scribal tradition, and was used by the scribes (called “Masoretes”) to record what they heard when the text was read aloud.  This included not only the vowel sounds (indicated by marks called “pointing;” these marks are still used, sparsely, in modern Hebrew), but also rising and falling inflections and pauses (indicated by accent marks)–even, some think, musical tones for chanting!

As this chart (from Choon Leong Seow, A Grammar for Biblical Hebrew, Revised Edition [Nashville: Abingdon, 1995], 65) shows, the accent marks are divided into conjunctive accents, which link a word to the word following, and disjunctive accents, which mark a break–acting like commas, semicolons, and periods in English.

The most common Hebrew accent, called the zaqeph qaton, is essentially a Masoretic comma. In the Masoretic text of Isaiah 40:3, the verb qore’ (“cry, call out”) is marked with a zaqeph qaton, showing that the Masoretes heard a break here.  In the printed text of the Biblia Hebraica Stuttgartensia, the standard critical text of the Hebrew Bible, this disjunction is emphasized even more by a line break: qol qore’ (“A voice cries”) has a line to itself, while bammidbar (“In the wilderness”) opens the line following.  Even without those explicit markings, however, context clues would lead us to this reading.

Isaiah 40– 55 is addressed to exiles (Isa 45:11– 13), who now anticipate a return home— specifically, from Babylon (see 43:14; 48:20).  Jerusalem and the villages of Judah are described as abandoned ruins (44:24– 26).  Sarcastic reference is made to specific Babylonian rites, such as the cult processional of Bel Marduk patron god of Babylon and his son Nebo, scribe of the gods (46:1– 2); and the magical practice of astrological divination (47:12– 13).  Second Isaiah, as  Isaiah 40–55 is commonly called, can be dated to the mid- sixth century, shortly before the fall of Babylon—and about 150 years after Isaiah of Jerusalem.

An important theme in these chapters is the promise of a second exodus. Just as in the first exodus God delivered Israel from slavery in Egypt, so in this new exodus, God delivers the people from the bondage of exile in Babylon. Indeed, recollection of Israel’s deliverance through the Red Sea in the first exodus is supplanted by the new thing that God will now do:

I am the LORD, your holy one,
    Israel’s creator, your king!
The LORD says—who makes a way in the sea
    and a path in the mighty waters,
    who brings out chariot and horse,
    army and battalion;
    they will lie down together and will not rise;
    they will be extinguished, extinguished like a wick.
Don’t remember the prior things;
    don’t ponder ancient history.
Look! I’m doing a new thing;
    now it sprouts up; don’t you recognize it?
I’m making a way in the desert,
    paths in the wilderness (Isa 43:15– 19).

Just as in the first exodus, God had led God’s people through the wilderness (see Exod 13:21– 22), so now the prophet promises that God will make a way leading through the wilderness back home (Isa 42:15– 16; 49:8– 12; 55:12– 13). Indeed, in Isaiah 40:3-5, quoted in today’s Gospel reading, Second Isaiah declares that God will build a highway for the exiles’ safe return:

A voice is crying out:
“Clear the Lord’s way in the desert!
    Make a level highway in the wilderness for our God!
Every valley will be raised up,
    and every mountain and hill will be flattened.
    Uneven ground will become level,
    and rough terrain a valley plain.
The Lord’s glory will appear,
    and all humanity will see it together;
    the Lord’s mouth has commanded it.” 


The Gospel writers, by identifying John the Baptist as “The voice of one crying in the wilderness,” read Isaiah 40:3 differently than the Hebrew scribes who have given us the text back of our Old Testament.  From the best evidence, it appears that those scribes have accurately communicated the intent of Second Isaiah. Does this matter?  Only, I would suggest, if we insist on retrojecting the Gospel reading into the Hebrew Bible.  We can recognize Second Isaiah’s distinctive message and purpose, and still recognize that the purpose of this text in its historical setting does not exhaust its meaning.

Within Christian Scripture, this passage expressing God’s gracious concern and providential care of the Babylonian exiles has come to express God’s gracious concern and providential care in other ways, too.  By sending John the Baptist, God showed God’s care for Jesus, providing for him a support, and perhaps a mentor.

“The Crucifixion with Saints and a Donor” in comparison with “The Isenheim Altarpiece – First View” by Matthias Grünewald and Niclaus of Haguenau

But John also, as Gruenewald’s altarpiece at Isenheim concretely proclaims, points us to Christ, and models for us in this Advent season the path to Christian maturity and to faithful witness: Illum oportet crescere, me autem minui (“He must increase; I must decrease”).



Does It Matter Who Wrote Hebrews?

A 'Jeopardy!' Competitor Confused Jay Cutler for Tim Tebow During 'Tournament of Champions' - Trending NewsIf you are a fan of the television quiz show “Jeopardy,” a fellow Bible wonk, or just a person of faith on social media, chances are that you are aware of the recent flap over a “Final Jeopardy” answer in the recent Tournament of Champions.

Heading into Final Jeopardy!, Professors’ Tournament winner [Sam] Buttrey led with $14,800, with He at $13,200, and super-champ Amy Schneider trailing with $2,400. The final clue under the category “The New Testament” read: “Paul’s letter to them is the New Testament epistle with the most Old Testament quotations.”

Schneider’s answer, “Who are The Hebrews,” was deemed correct by host Ken Jennings, while Buttrey’s “Who are The Romans” was considered incorrect. Meanwhile, He answered incorrectly with “Philippiaes,” but after Buttrey’s wager, he ended up with enough earnings to win the episode.

Some fans were not happy with this outcome, as there is much debate over who wrote the biblical texts, including parts of The New Testament. As noted on the Jeopardy Fan website, there are “conflicting sources as to whether Romans or Hebrews contains more quotations. Secondly, there’s the more pressing question of authorship—specifically of Hebrews. There’s no dispute that Paul wrote Romans.”

To say that there “is much debate over who wrote the biblical texts” is true, but not really relevant to the authorship of Hebrews.  Our New Testament contains thirteen letters attributed to Paul in the Greek text: Romans, 1 and 2 Corinthians, Galatians, Ephesians, Philippians, Colossians, 1 and 2 Thessalonians, 1 and 2 Timothy, Titus and Philemon.  Indeed, the first word in all of these books is “Paul”!  But Hebrews is not one of them.  That book is anonymous: Hebrews never claims Pauline authorship, and indeed does not even sound like Paul.

The authorship of Hebrews was debated even in antiquity: Origen (185-254 CE) famously wrote, “God alone knows who wrote Hebrews.”  Still, in the King James Version, this book is titled, “The Epistle of Paul the Apostle to the Hebrews”–a double error (carelessly repeated by the editors of the “Jeopardy” team as well).  Even the Evangelical NIV does not follow the KJV here, but titles the book simply as “Hebrews.”  Hebrews not only is not by Paul, but also is not an epistle: the book only superficially resembles a letter in its close, where it also mentions Paul’s friend Timothy (Heb 13:23-25).  Rather, Hebrews is a sermon on selected Old Testament passages: the book contains 32 citations from the Hebrew Bible, including ten from the Psalms, particularly Psalm 110.  Accordingly, Hebrews refers to itself (Heb 13:22) as logou tes parakleseos: a “word of exhortation” (NRSV) or “message of encouragement” (CEB).

The Historic Importance of Saint Paul

By the fourth century, Christian teachers such as Jerome and Augustine were ascribing this book to Paul–hence, the title in the KJV.  Quite probably, Hebrews came to be attributed to Paul in the tradition because of that epistle-like conclusion mentioning Timothy, because it was anonymous, and because, without it, there would be thirteen letters of Paul–an inauspicious and unfortunate number!  Of those thirteen, Paul’s authorship of Romans, the bulk of 1 Corinthians (1 Corinthians 14:33b-36 is almost certainly a later expansion, as it conflicts with Paul’s statements about women elsewhere, even in this same book [see 1 Corinthians 11:2-16 ]), 2 Corinthians, Galatians, Philippians, 1 Thessalonians, and Philemon is unquestioned.   But since in the ancient world, writing in the name of a well-known and respected teacher was common (Plato’s Dialogues, attributed by him to his teacher Socrates, are a famous non-biblical example), it is no surprise to find examples of this phenomenon in the New Testament as well.

Those letters attributed to, but likely not written by, Paul are called Deuteropauline Epistles.  Very few scholars accept Paul’s authorship of 1 and 2 Timothy or Titus (letters very similar in style to one another but unlike Paul’s certainly authentic writings, commonly called, collectively, the Pastoral Epistles), or of 2 Thessalonians (although I believe that Paul may have written this one!)  Paul’s authorship of Colossians and Ephesians can be, and is, debated, although most scholars hold that they are different enough from Paul’s theology, vocabulary and style elsewhere that Paul likely did not write them

The authorship of Hebrews, however, and its identification as a letter are (the unsupported claims of Augustine and Jerome not withstanding) non-controversial: despite the title page of this book in the KJV, Hebrews is not an epistle, and was not written by Paul.  This time, clearly, “Jeopardy” got it wrong.

But–does this matter?  Clearly it matters to Mr. Buttrey, as it was the difference between winning and losing the match.  It also ought to matter to the producers and researchers on “Jeopardy,” if they care about the integrity of their quiz program.  Whoever was responsible for this gaffe simply dropped the ball–a modicum of research would have told them that the answer was, at best, badly worded.  But whether Paul wrote Hebrews or not, it is part of the Christian canon.  Recognizing that Hebrews does not claim to be by Paul, or that it is not in fact an “epistle,” has nothing to do with the status of this book as Scripture.

Indeed, I am persuaded that Hebrews may be particularly relevant to our contemporary American church.  Consider the clues this book offers as to its context and audience.  Hebrews is written in excellent Greek–indeed the best Greek in the New Testament!  That suggests not only an educated author, but a highly cultured, well educated audience.  The community is well off: although they have known robbery (Hebrews 10:34), they are still able to help others in trouble, and do so.

The Great Awakening and the American Revolution - Journal of the American Revolution

In the past, this community had seen signs and wonders–their conversion had been marvelous (Hebrews 2:4)!  But those glory days are long past.  Now, the preacher of this extended sermon declares, they have grown complacent and  content.  They are dull of hearing. Although they ought to be teachers themselves, they instead need instruction in the very basics of the gospel (Hebrews 5:11-14).

Some in this community have experienced conflict and trouble because of their faith (Hebrews 10:32-34), but they have not known real, bloody persecution (Hebrews 12:4).  Yet, despite their privileged position, the community is weak, ineffectual (Hebrews 12:12).  Their problem is not persecution, or even sin, but indifference: indeed, some no longer even gather for worship (Hebrews 10:23-25)!

Worshipping at a country church | Minnesota Prairie Roots

Doubtless, this is the reason for the preacher’s terrifyingly harsh words in Hebrews 6:4-8 and 10:26-31.  Reading those passages as a young believer, I became for a terrible few days convinced that I was damned–for I knew full well that I had sinned since I believed, and Hebrews 10:26 plainly states, “If we make the decision to sin after we receive the knowledge of the truth, there isn’t a sacrifice for sins left any longer.”  It took me awhile to realize that these passages are not the entire Bible, and to hear the assurance of forgiveness in other texts, notably 1 John 1:8-9

If we claim, “We don’t have any sin,” we deceive ourselves and the truth is not in us.  But if we confess our sins, he is faithful and just to forgive us our sins and cleanse us from everything we’ve done wrong.

The author of Hebrews was railing at this community, trying desperately to break through their comfortable, casual Christianity and rouse them again to passionate faith.  Does this sound familiar, friends? I am convinced that we twenty-first century American Christians in particular may find challenge and power in these ancient words!

So far as its status as Scripture goes, it does not matter who wrote Hebrews.  But for students of the Bible who want to dig deeper, to understand the message and meaning of Scripture, it does matter that we pay close attention to what the texts of Scripture actually say.  Hebrews does not claim Pauline authorship for itself.  If we try to shoehorn this book into Paul’s writings, we may be misled.  For example, there is no mention of justification by grace through faith in Hebrews.  Its absence may prompt us to downplay the importance of this teaching in Paul’s writings (for example, Romans 5:1-10).  The author of Hebrews, evidently addressing a committed Jewish Christian audience, draws heavily on the imagery of priesthood and sacrifice (and particularly, of Jesus as both king and high priest “according to the order of Melchizedek;” Hebrews 7:17; Psalm 110:4).  Paul uses sacrificial imagery in very different ways.  It would be a mistake to try collapse these two understandings of the cross of Christ into one another.

As Origen observed nearly 1800 years ago, we do not know who wrote Hebrews.  We may never know.  That does not in any way devalue the message and power of this book.  However,  pretending that we know more than we do cannot possibly help us understand this book any better.




“An Opportunity to Testify”

The Peaceable Kingdom | CMOA Collection

The lectionary readings for Sunday seem to present two radically different visions of the future—and contrary to common presumptions, the positive one is from the Old Testament!

Isaiah 65:17-25 presents a vision of transformation and healing: a new heaven, a new earth, and a new Jerusalem, without sorrow or sickness or fear, in which

Wolf and lamb will graze together,
    and the lion will eat straw like the ox,
    but the snake—its food will be dust.
They won’t hurt or destroy at any place on my holy mountain,
    says the LORD (Isa 65:25).

It is a return to the natural paradise described in Genesis 1:29-30:

Then God said, “I now give to you all the plants on the earth that yield seeds and all the trees whose fruit produces its seeds within it. These will be your food. To all wildlife, to all the birds in the sky, and to everything crawling on the ground—to everything that breathes—I give all the green grasses for food.” And that’s what happened.

Jesus’ words in Luke 21:5-19, however, are a grim warning of natural and social collapse, of a time of suffering and persecution when

You will be betrayed by your parents, brothers and sisters, relatives, and friends. They will execute some of you. Everyone will hate you because of my name (Lk 21:16-17).

However, as a consideration of the broader context of each passage reveals, these are not two different visions of the future, but two sides of the same end-time vision.  The “new heaven and new earth” of Isaiah’s vision requires that the present reality be cleared away; the new Jerusalem is necessary because of the corruption, injustice and sheer disappointment inherent in the “old” Jerusalem.

So too, the culmination of natural and political violence in Jesus’ vision is the inauguration of a new reality: “Then they will see ‘the Son of Man coming in a cloud’ with power and great glory”(Luke 21:27, NRSVUE; quoting from Daniel 7:13-14).

Geza Vermes | The Times

Jewish New Testament scholar Geza Vermes noted that Jesus’ teaching regarding the end was typical Jewish apocalypticism with a twist: fervent, imminent expectation of the endtime, joined to an absolute refusal to specify dates and times!  So, Jesus warns,

Watch out that you aren’t deceived. Many will come in my name, saying, ‘I’m the one!’ and ‘It’s time!’ Don’t follow them (Luke 21:8).

Jesus words were a rebuke to end-time prophets of his  own day–as well as a needed riposte to those in our own who confidently claim knowledge of God’s future!  Jesus’ teaching will result in a lifestyle of perpetual expectation:

“Be alert at all times, praying that you may have the strength to escape all these things that will take place, and to stand before the Son of Man” (Luke 21:36, NRVSUE)

Jesus places an intriguing face on the hard times to come upon his followers: “This will provide you with an opportunity to testify” (Luke 21:13)!  In that witness, we are given an extraordinary promise: we need not be afraid, for Jesus himself will PROVIDE our testimony: “I’ll give you words and wisdom that none of your opponents will be able to counter or contradict” (Luke 21:15).

It is important not to take this too far: this does not mean that we should go into the world, or into the pulpit, unprepared!  Still, it certainly does mean that we need not be anxious—we can enjoy our ministry, even in the midst of struggle and pain.

Our church still lives, and must minister, in places of need, trouble, struggle. How are we to respond?  We could despair—give up on our search for peace and justice on this side of glory.  Or, we can remember, as texts today affirm, that there is no birth without birth pangs, no Easter without Good Friday: that God is present precisely in the midst of our world, working to accomplish God’s purpose. We can see, in our struggle, an opportunity to testify to the presence and transforming power of Christ!

Knowing that the culmination of history is in God’s hands, and not our own, enables us face the future with confidence.  As Archbishop Desmond Tutu said “The texture of our universe is one where there is no question at all but that good and laughter and justice will prevail.”

Archbishop Tutu is exactly right: our ministry can be, indeed must be, not only a ministry of goodness and justice, but a ministry of joy. May the spirit of the living God fill you, friend, and may Christ’s peace be channeled through you in your ministry.  May you love, and laugh, much! And in the times of trial that will certainly come, may God grant you the strength to square your shoulders and say, “Well, this will give me an opportunity to testify.”


Happy All Hallows Eve!

Halloween: Origins, Meaning & Traditions - HISTORYHere we go again!  The Jack o’ lanterns, spooks, giant skeletons, and other holiday decorations in lawns and department store windows, the heaps of candy in grocery stores, the perennial return of pumpkin-spice-EVERYTHING–all presage the approach of Halloween: after Christmas, the biggest commercial holiday of the year.  But what many will not realize is that, like Christmas, Halloween is a Christian celebration.

On All Saints Day we remember those who have gone before us in the faith. "All-Saints" 15th century. Public Domain via Wikimedia Commons. October 31 is called Halloween (properly “Hallow E’en”)  for the same reason December 31 is called “New Year’s Eve,” or December 24 “Christmas Eve.”  It is, of course, the night before November 1, which is All Hallows Day–hence, All Hallows Eve.  All Hallows, or All Saints, Day was first celebrated on May 13, 609, when Pope Boniface IV declared a feast day for all martyrs.  Pope Gregory III (731-741) shifted the focus from the martyrs to the celebration of all the saints who lack a feast day of their own, and as such All Saints Day was declared an official holy day of the church by Pope Gregory IV in 837.

The feast was shifted from spring to fall in response to the Celtic celebration Samhain (pronounced “SOW-en”), an ancient festival of the quarter-year, falling between the autumnal equinox and the winter solstice. In Celtic culture, Samhain was believed to be a night when the borders between this world and the next became particularly thin, so that the unquiet dead could cross over and molest the living. Food offerings, lamps, and even the severed heads of enemies (grimly recalled, perhaps, by jack o’lanterns) were set out to appease or turn aside the ghosts.

When the Celts became Christians, this grim night too was transformed.  As the Epistle for All Saints Day (Ephesians 1:11-23) affirms,

In Christ we have also obtained an inheritance, having been destined according to the purpose of him who accomplishes all things according to his counsel and will, . . . so that, with the eyes of your heart enlightened, you may perceive what is the hope to which he has called you, what are the riches of his glorious inheritance among the saints, and what is the immeasurable greatness of his power for us who believe, according to the working of his great power. God put this power to work in Christ when he raised him from the dead and seated him at his right hand in the heavenly places, far above all rule and authority and power and dominion and above every name that is named, not only in this age but also in the age to come.  And he has put all things under his feet and has made him the head over all things for the church, which is his body, the fullness of him who fills all in all. (Eph 1:11, 18-23 [NRSVUE])

Jesus Christ has triumphed over sin, death, hell, and the grave–so death, and the dead, no longer need to be feared!

The separate Roman Catholic celebration of All Souls Day on November 2 is down to Odilo, abbot of Cluny, who died 1048. Having remembered all the saints in heaven, Odilo thought, it was only right that on the following day we remember all the faithful dead, and pray for their release from purgatory.   But for many Christians, All Saints Day celebrates the lives and anticipates the resurrection of all believers.

All Saints Day was John Wesley’s favorite Christian celebration.  Joe Iovino writes:

John Wesley, founder of the Methodist movement, enjoyed and celebrated All Saints Day. In a journal entry from November 1, 1767, Wesley calls it “a festival I truly love.” On the same day in 1788, he writes, “I always find this a comfortable day.” The following year he calls it “a day that I peculiarly love.”


Disney tried to trademark 'Day of the Dead.' They make up for it with Pixar's 'Coco' | America MagazineBecause of its association with Samhain, some Christians argue that we should not celebrate Hallowe’en at all–that to do so is to flirt with the demonic, and to open the door to evil influences.  I disagree.  I think it is fitting that this night, which used to be a grim and grisly night of fear, has become a night of laughter and joy, when it is little children who come to our doors for treats!  As the Reformer Martin Luther once observed, “The best way to drive out the devil, if he will not yield to texts of Scripture, is to jeer and flout him, for he cannot bear scorn.”

Happy Hallowe’en, friends!  A joyous All Saints Day to you all–and to my Dad Bernard Tuell, the best saint I know, a happy 88th birthday too!


The Mexican Dia de los Muertos (or Day of the Dead), delightfully depicted in the Disney movie Coco, shows some influence from both Celtic Spain, and from the Christian All Saints and All Souls days.  However, its roots are not only pre-Christian, but pre-European, going back to indigenous Meso-American cultures such as the Aztecs.  Significantly, while this festival also involves belief in the dead crossing over to the world of the living, the dead are not feared: their families remember, celebrate, and welcome them.


Good Guys in Black Hats


Randolph Scott - Turner Classic MoviesWhen I visit my father, who turns 88 this month (Happy birthday, Daddy!). we often watch old movies together–especially old Westerns.  You never have to wonder who the good guys are in those old oaters! They are always dressed the part: clean-cut, clean shaven, and wearing white hats.  The villains by contrast are scruffy, mustachioed, and wear black.

Another classic TV western, 'Have Gun-Will Travel' | News, Sports, Jobs - News and SentinelSo, when “Have Gun, Will Travel” appeared on television in 1957, it was something of a shock.  Its main character, Paladin (expertly portrayed through its six-year run by Richard Boone), wasn’t a sheriff or a cowboy, but a gunfighter for hire.  Paladin wore black.  He looked, dressed, and often talked like a villain—yet he was the hero.  Sometimes, in those short, often very well-written episodes, Paladin would wind up changing sides–fighting for the people he believed to be in the right, rather than the ones who had hired him.


The Gospel for this Sunday (Luke 18:9-14) is the short, very familiar parable of the Pharisee and the tax collector:

Jesus told this parable to certain people who had convinced themselves that they were righteous and who looked on everyone else with disgust: “Two people went up to the temple to pray. One was a Pharisee and the other a tax collector.  The Pharisee stood and prayed about himself with these words, ‘God, I thank you that I’m not like everyone else—crooks, evildoers, adulterers—or even like this tax collector. I fast twice a week. I give a tenth of everything I receive.’ But the tax collector stood at a distance. He wouldn’t even lift his eyes to look toward heaven. Rather, he struck his chest and said, ‘God, show mercy to me, a sinner.’ I tell you, this person went down to his home justified rather than the Pharisee. All who lift themselves up will be brought low, and those who make themselves low will be lifted up.”

When we read the gospels, we are already primed to believe that we know who the good guys and the bad guys are—and the Pharisees, who frequently appear as the opponents of Jesus, are definitely the bad guys!  Indeed, in modern English, “Pharisee” can be a synonym for “hypocrite.”

But this was certainly not the case in Jesus’ day.   In first century Palestine, the Pharisees were the advocates for the common people.  Indeed, the differences between Jesus and the Pharisees are so intense in the Gospels because they are, in essence, family quarrels: in many ways, Jesus was closer to the Pharisees than to any other Jewish party in his day.

Unlike the priestly party, the Sadducees, the Pharisees were famous for tolerance and mercy in their court rulings.  While the Sadducees were biblical literalists, the Pharisees held that the “oral Torah”–the teachings of the rabbis that interpreted and applied Scripture to life–also needed to be considered.  As a result, the Sadducees rejected both belief in the afterlife and in the coming of the Messiah, as they saw neither explicitly stated in the Torah. Pharisees embraced both of these ideas.  When the Pharisee describes his personal acts of piety, fasting and tithing, he is not exaggerating or boasting–this actually would have been his lifestyle.

Zacchaeus the Tax CollectorLikewise, in the first century, the tax collector most definitely would have been seen as the villain.  Tax collectors were collaborators with the Roman military occupation.  They were famously corrupt, typically collecting from the people far more than the Romans actually demanded, and living well off the proceeds (Zacchaeus being a familiar biblical example).  That is why people are so scandalized by Jesus eating and drinking with tax collectors (Matthew 9:9-12)

The surprise twist for the original audience of this parable, as for the television audience of “Have Gun, Will Travel,” would have been that the “hero” of the story is the bad guy!  One lesson of this parable, then, is that we shouldn’t assume we know who the good guys are!  As frequently happens in Jesus’ stories, things are not as they seem on the surface.

The Parable of the Pharisee and the Tax Collector” by Julius Schnorr von  Carolsfeld (1794–1872).

The Pharisee in this story may be looking up, and the tax collector looking down, but it is the tax collector who seeks, and finds, God. In the end, the Pharisee sees only himself–and does not even see himself clearly!  The honest penitence of the tax collector, on the other hand, leads him past self-examination to a true insight into God’s character.  It is he, Jesus says, who “went down to his home justified” (Luke 8:14).

Kallistos Ware: Theologian Who Explained the Orthodox Way to Oth... |  Christianity Today

Regarding repentance, Metropolitan Kallistos Ware, who died this past year, wrote

[Repentance] is not self-hatred but the affirmation of my true self as made in God’s image. To repent is to look, not downward at my own shortcomings, but upward at God’s love; not backward with self-reproach, but forward with trustfulness. It is to see, not what I have failed to be, but what by the grace of God I can yet become.

God grant that this may be so for all of us, friends: that we may become, not what the world sees when it looks at us, or even what we ourselves see, but what God sees.


At One-ment

September 22 was the autumnal equinox, and sundown Sunday, September 25 Rosh Hashanah, the Jewish New Year.  I have always resonated with beginning the year in the fall–since for most of my life I have been in school, as a student and as a teacher, September rather than January has always been my time of new beginnings!  Now that I am retired, it still feels a bit strange to be able to vacation and travel in this time, as Wendy and I did again this year.  As I write this, the ten Days of Awe following Rosh Hashanah have just ended, culminating yesterday in Yom Kippur, the Day of Atonement.

In Judaism, Yom Kippur is a fast day, on which one reflects upon the sins of the past year, repents before God, and resolves to live differently in the year to come.  In Scripture, both the rite for Yom Kippur and its significance are quite different from the day as it developed in Jewish life and practice.  But those ancient rites, and what they might mean for how we think about God, have a great deal to teach us about the ways that we read, and sometimes misread, Scripture.

First, take that word “atonement.”  Look it up in any dictionary, and the first definition you will find will be something like, “reparation for a wrong or injury.”  I recently encountered just that meaning in a word puzzle.

Growing up as a young Christian, that was certainly the way that I saw Christ’s atoning death on Calvary: as Jesus making reparation to God for my wrong.  The only way of understanding the cross I then knew was that Jesus had taken on himself God’s wrath, and the deserved punishment for my sin, so that I could be forgiven–an understanding of the atonement called “penal substitution.”  I grew up singing “There Is a Fountain Filled With Blood” and “Jesus Paid It All.”

However, like many believers, I have grown concerned about what this language says about God.  Do I really believe that God’s wrath can only be assuaged by blood, even the blood of his innocent Son?   Further, if it is solely the death of Jesus that atones for our sins, doesn’t that make his life and teaching irrelevant?

The history of our English word “atonement” suggests a different original meaning for this term, which may broaden our understanding of God, Christ, and the cross–as well as our reading of Yom Kippur.  The Oxford Dictionary dates “atonement” to the early 16th century, when it was coined out of  the phrase “at one”–influenced by the Latin word adunamentum  (“unity”), and an older word, “onement:” from the obsolete verb form, “to one,” meaning “to unite.”  The word was particularly used to talk about the reconciliation of God and humanity accomplished by Christ.

The King James Bible

When the King James Version of the Bible was translated in 1611, the relatively new expression “make atonement” was used for the Hebrew verb kipperparticularly in connection with Yom Kippur (see Leviticus 16).  That word apparently had the original meaning “cover.”  However, kipper came to be used specifically for rites of cleansing and purification.

In ancient Israel, Yom Kippur was the day when all lingering defilement from the previous year, either accidental or deliberate, was expunged, making full access to and communion with God possible in the new year.  The Common English Bible, which translates Yom Kippur as “Day of Reconciliation,” captures both the meaning of this ancient rite and the older meaning of the word “atonement” as dealing, not with reparation or punishment, but with communion restored.

The centerpiece of the ancient ritual for this day involved two goats.  One was selected by lot as the goat to be offered as the sin offering (the most familiar translation of the Hebrew khattat; the CEB reads “purification offering,” which better catches the significance of this sacrifice in ancient Israel).  The second goat was given to Azazel.  We have no idea what this means; perhaps Azazel was a monster or demon believed to live in waste places, or perhaps Azazel is an old word for “wilderness.”  The KJV read “scapegoat,” which has entered our language as a person or group blamed for wrongs done by others.

In Leviticus, the goat for Azazel is not a sacrifice, nor is it killed.  It is driven out into the wilderness, symbolically carrying away the defilement of the people.  The other goat, selected by lot as belonging to the LORD, is sacrificed.  Its blood is taken by the high priest into the inner room of the shrine, called the Most Holy Place, where God was believed to be specially present.  This inner chamber held a golden box, called the Ark (the Hebrew word for the Ark, ‘aron, simply means “box,” or “chest”).

File:Benjamin West - Joshua passing the River Jordan with the Ark of the Covenant - Google Art Project.jpgThe lid of the Ark was a slab of gold, molded in the image of two cherubim: terrible semi-divine heavenly beings like winged sphinxes.The cherubim‘s inner wings overlapped to form a throne: the divine title “the LORD, who is enthroned on the cherubim” (for example, 1 Sam 4:4Ps 80:1) recalls this connection.  The Ark itself served as the LORD’s footstool, making this golden box the intersection of divine and human worlds.  In the days of Israel’s wilderness wandering, Moses and Aaron encountered the LORD at the Ark (for example, Exod 25:22).

On Yom Kippur, the blood from the people’s purification offerings was applied to the lid of the Ark (kapporet in Hebrew; translated as “mercy seat” in the KJV and the NRSV, but best rendered, as the CEB has it, simply as “cover” or “lid”).  This meant that, once a year, the blood of the purification offering was brought to the very feet of God.

In Romans 3:23-25 (NRSV), Paul seems to use the rite of Yom Kippur as a way to understand the work of Christ on the cross:

since all have sinned and fall short of the glory of God; they are now justified by his grace as a gift, through the redemption that is in Christ Jesus, whom God put forward as a sacrifice of atonement by his blood, effective through faith.

The Greek word translated “sacrifice of atonement” in the NRSV (the KJV has “propitiation”) is hilasterion.  But this Greek word is used in the Greek translation of Jewish Scripture, the Septuagint, not for either the sin offering or the scapegoat but for the lid of the Ark: the kapporet.  The CEB translation “place of sacrifice” is a little better, though still misleading.  Paul’s point appears to be that the cross where Jesus’ blood was spilled has become the kapporet: the point where divine and human worlds intersect, and so the place where reconciliation–atonement–happens.

Reading the Bible in English, we are likely to miss all of this.  We may assume that, in Leviticus, Yom Kippur is the day of atonement in our relatively modern sense: referring to a reparation for sins, made in blood to an angry, judging God.  We may assume that the death of Jesus too must be read it this same way: as Jesus taking the punishment, or paying the price, for our guilt.  The meaning of the Hebrew words  kipper and kapporet, the Greek hilasterion, and even the history of the English word “atonement,” may well pass us by.

This is, of course, an argument for learning the biblical languages, so that subtleties and nuances often lost in translation can be recognized.  Even for those of us without access to the Hebrew, Aramaic and Greek texts of Scripture, it means learning to read the Bible carefully and prayerfully, making use of commentaries , study Bibles, and other resources that will “complexify” our plain reading of the text.  For all of us, it means remembering that the Bible was not written in English.  We need always to be aware of the bones beneath the flesh of the translation, and to resist the temptation to see our own surface reading as what the Bible “plainly” says.