CADRE Comments

A Rational Look at Christianity; Basing Reason in Truth

It had to happen. I am being sucked into the discussing what may well be the most worthless lawsuit in the history of mankind due to the unending press coverage. In case you haven't been following the story, Italian atheist, Luigi Cascioli, has sued the Roman Catholic church (and one of its local priests) for speaking about Jesus Christ as if he were (*gasp*) a real historical person when, as Sr. Cascioli's suit says, these "facts that are really just inventions." To its credit, the court sought to dismiss the case but finally set a hearing for last Friday.

I have taken the time to review some of the papers from Sr. Cascioli's website, and I have to say that I am not impressed. He has posted some of the pleadings(?!?) from the lawsuit on his site, and I think that some pertinent facts need to be pointed out.

First, what exactly is his claim? His complaint reads, in pertinent part:

After long and deep studies consisting of (and not only) textual exegesis of the Old and New Testament and other Sacred Scriptures, the undersigned has come to the conclusion that many of the facts produced and presented as if being true and historical in the so called "Holy Scriptures", are in reality false, first of all the historicization of the figure of Jesus Christ, for the most part based on the figure of John of Gamala, son of Judas, downright descendant of the Asmoneian stock.

The grounds that have led the undersigned to such conclusion are expressed in detail in the book that is alleged to the official complaint and of which is integrant and substantial part.

So, the judge has to read a book written by Sr. Cascioli which winds its way through the history of lands of Canaan making claims about the existence or non-existence of people from 2,000 years ago? In America, such a pleading would be laughed out of court on either a demurrer or a motion for judgment on the pleadings -- and I hope that it is ultimately laughed out of court in Italy.

But what do we know about this book? It appears that three things are true about this book:

1. The book is apparently not published by any major publishing house.
2. The book is not available to be purchased through Barnes and Noble, Borders or
3. The book is apparently not peer reviewed. (This last point ought to have all people who contend that Intelligent Design is not science because its books and essays are not peer-reviewed screaming that the book is an apparent fraud, to be consistent.)

So, what are we to make of the book? Should it be viewed as any type of academically sound work that is worthy of any real attention? How should we view it in light of such statements on his website as the following in his Open Letter to the Vatican:

The war from now on is opened and declared. On one side you with your conscience and your communions believers and saints, and on the other side me with my conscience, my book "The FABLE OF CHRIST" and the communion of the martyrs represented by all your victims of the past, like the Jews, Moslems, the heretics and the witches to whom the victims of the present are related and who are daily killed by your obscurantism generator of hunger and diseases. All are the victims to whom I join to shout with them: " Go to hell!! Cursed bastards! "

It seems apparent to me that what you have is a sour-pussed old man with too much time on his hands ranting and using invectives against God supporting his cockamamie views with his own "irrefutable" research. In all sincerity, his writings on his website read like the writings of any number of other conspiracy theory nutcases.

Of course, it is true that even a broken clock is right twice a day, so the question is whether there is any reason that he may have stumbled onto the truth. A couple of things should be pointed out in this regard. Here is what his complaint says:

That the figure of Jesus has been fully constructed over a certain John of Gamala, son of Judas from Gamala, known as the Galilean, is irrefutably known by such a great number of proofs as to remove whatever doubts about the falsifications carried out by the compilers of the Gospels.

Irrefutably known to be John of Gamala? Funny, but I don't think that any historical books that I have on the period mention John of Gamala, let alone make it clear that it is "irrefutably known" that he was the basis for Jesus of Nazareth. Doing a quick websearch, I find no mention of John of Gamala anywhere but in writings by or about Sr. Cascioli and this frivolous lawsuit. So, on what basis does he make the claim that it is "irrefutable"?

One proof that he provides is the location of Nazareth. In the words of one of his pleadings:

All four Canonical Gospels make the names Nazarite (Nazarene) come from the city of Nazareth stating that it was the town where Jesus grew up and studied during those thirty years that preceded his sermons. It is from Nazareth that we will obtain conclusive proof to show that Jesus is in reality John. Let's examine this town that in the gospels is described in a completely different way from how it actually was. Why was the town of Nazareth located on a plain far from the Sea of Galilee described in the Gospels as being built on a mountain overlooking a lake?

The answer is simple. The city on the mountain overlooking a lake is the real city where the Messiah reported by tradition lived and which the Gospels describe, whereas the town located on a plain forty kilometers from the Sea of Galilee is what the falsifiers used to justify why he was called Nazarite.

Actually, the answer is even simpler -- the reason that the town of Nazareth is described in the Gospels as being built on a mountain overlooking a lake is because it was located in a mountain, but the Gospels don't describe it as overlooking a lake. According to,

The small town of Nazareth is located at the southern end of the Lebanon mountain range, in the ridges which end at the plain of Esdraelon. The town is on a triangular plateau about 1200 feet above the Mediterranean, overlooking the plain to the south. The surrounding hills rise to 1610 feet, and Mount Tabor is prominent 5 miles to the east, with an altitude of 1930 feet. The plateau is on the southeastern slope of a ridge, which then drops in the south abruptly to the plain below. * * *

A mile to the south the hills making up the area around Narazeth ends abruptly in two small peaks which fall precipitous to the plain below. Above the town are several rocky ledges, one of which has a cliff of over 40 to 50 feet high. The western peak is called Jebel el Qafesh, or ‘Mount of the Precipice’, and it is these cliffs where the Nazarenes would have thrown the young Jesus to his death. * * *

The town of Nazareth is about 20 miles from the Mediterranean, and about 15 miles from the Sea of Galilee.

Having established that Nazareth is, as the Bible depicts, in the mountains, on what basis does Sr. Cascioli argue that it was by a lake? Here is his explanation (forgive the length, but I want to set forth his argument in full to show that I am not misrepresenting):

There are many references made to lake surroundings, boats, fishermen, and rough waves caused by storms. The apostles themselves are all fishermen that Jesus converted into disciples while they pulled in their nets: "...when Jesus had finished these parables, he departed thence And when he was come into his own country he taught them in their synagogue, insomuch that they were astonished, and said Whence hath this man this wisdom, and these mighty works". (Matt. 13:53-54). "When Jesus heard of it, he departed thence by ship into a desert place apart...Jesus healed the sick and multiplied the loaves of bread and fish. And when he had sent the multitudes away, he went up into a mountain apart to pray. From the mountain he saw below in the Sea of Galilee that the apostles' boat was in danger from the waves generated by the wind that had suddenly started blowing (Matt. 14). Luke also confirms that the city of Jesus was on a mountain when he speaks about a precipice: " Jesus went to Nazareth where He was brought up: and as his custom was, he went into the synagogue on the sabbath day, and he stood up to read...And all they in the synagogue, when they heard these things, were filled with wrath. And rose up, and thrust him out of the city, and led him unto the bow of the hill whereon their city was built, that they might cast him down headlong. But he passing through the midst of them went his own way." (Luke 4:14-30). In addition: "The same day went Jesus out of the house and sat by the sea (lake) side. And great multitudes were gathered together unto him, so that he went into a ship, and sat." (Matt. 13:1-2).

Mark also recounts (Chap. 3-4): "...a great multitude, when they heard what great things he did, came unto him. And he spake to his disciples, that a small ship should wait on him because of the multitude, lest they should throng him... And he goeth up into a mountain, and calleth unto him whom he would...and they went into an house. And the multitude cometh together again, so that they could not so much as eat bread... there came his brethren and his mother, and standing without, sent unto him, calling him..." After having explained who his real relatives were, "... he began again to teach by the sea side..."

At this point, we are aware that the town where Jesus was brought up could not be Nazareth, which is forty kilometers from the lake and situated on a plain. So through other sources we wanted to see how the real town was which is situated on a mountain near the Sea of Galilee and surrounded by precipices.

Sr. Cascioli makes a several critical errors. First, Nazareth was only 15 miles (aka 24 kilometers) from the Sea of Galilee -- approximately a three hour walk. Second, Sr. Cascioli misuses the references to Jesus. The Matthew 13:53-54 verses don't reference the sea or boats or fishermen in any way. Matthew 14 doesn't say he departed Nazareth by boat, but merely that he "withdrew" from wherever he was "by boat." (Matthew 14;13) The reference to Jesus going up onto the mountainside to pray (Matthew 14:22-25) does not say what Sr. Cascioli claims it says. Matt 14:22-25 reads:

Immediately He made the disciples get into the boat and go ahead of Him to the other side, while He sent the crowds away. After He had sent the crowds away, He went up on the mountain by Himself to pray; and when it was evening, He was there alone. But the boat was already a long distance from the land, battered by the waves; for the wind was contrary. And in the fourth watch of the night He came to them, walking on the sea.

Note, the Gospel does not say that Jesus started in Nazareth or went to Nazareth. Actually, if you read the verse prior, it appears that he started out from a "remote place" (Matthew 13:15) on the shores of an unspecified lake (where he fed the five thousand), and went up into the mountains around the lake. Note also that it does not say that "From the mountain he saw below in the Sea of Galilee that the apostles' boat was in danger. . . ." It does not say that Jesus saw them from the mountainside at all.

What's really comical about his argument is the inconsistency between his discussions of Matthew. First, he argues that Matthew 13: 53-54 should somehow be seen as providing evidence that Nazareth was on a lake because it says (according to the NASB) that it was in his "hometown", i.e., Nazareth. But then he uses Matthew 13: 1-2 as further evidence that Nazareth is depicted as being situated on a lake because it says "The same day went Jesus out of the house and sat by the sea (lake) side. And great multitudes were gathered together unto him, so that he went into a ship, and sat." But Matthew 13:1-2 does not say that he was in Nazareth at that time. Moreover, it seems to say specifically that he wasn't in Nazareth because Matthew 13:1-2 begins a long series of parables and explanations by Jesus that end in verses 53-54 which say "When Jesus had finished these parables, He departed from there. He came to His hometown and began teaching them in their synagogue . . . ." Thus, it is almost certain that Jesus was not in Nazareth for the events in Matthew 13:1-2.

I could go on, but I think that I have shown enough to make the point that his claims are somehow irrefutable are, to put it mildly, laughable since a fair reading of the text would confirm that Sr. Cascioli is taking verses out of context.

His website also shows that he relies upon supposed contradictions between the Biblical texts which have been the subject of lengthy and reasonable explanations elsewhere, misrepresentations of the Roman Catholic Church's teachings, and other claims such as the claim by Brian Flemming in the film "The God Who Wasn't There" that Hebrews 8 teaches that Jesus was never a real person (debunked by myself in "Reefer Madness and a new Jesus Myth film").

For Sr. Cascioli to make these assertions, I infer that one of three things may explain his lawsuit:

1. He is on the verge of insanity.
2. He is a liar who will say anything because he hates the Roman Catholic Church.
3. He's trying to get his book picked up by a major publishing house to make some money.

While I don't rule out the possibility that either the first or second inferences are correct, I suspect that the third inference is the truth. I sure hope no one picks up this book without some serious evaluation because there is no reason to give this guy any credibility in light of the quality of the material.

If he does not mind, I would like to build on BK's excellent post from yesterday on Jesus' self identification as God. I agree entirely with him that Jesus' self identification as God is central the Christian assertion, but there is more: namely, the witnesses to Jesus' life here on earth. If Jesus did not say He was God, then we are left with an even greater puzzle. After all, what would motivate people to ascribe divinity to a man who m they knew had been crucified (the worst form of death in that society at that time)?

There is a wonderful exchange in the book/movie "The Lion the Witch and the Wardrobe" where Susan and Peter are talking with the professor. They relate Lucy's "impossible" story of another world found through a wardrobe. The professor listens intently, thinks about it for a long time, and then the conversation went thus:

Professor: "How do you know that your sister's story is not true?"
Susan: "Oh but... But Edmund said that they had only been pretending."
Professor: "Does your experience lead you to regard your brother or your sister as the more reliable? I mean, which is the more truthful?"
Peter: "That's the funny thing about it, sir. Up until now I'd have said Lucy every time."
Professor: "And what do you think my dear?"
Susan: "Well, in general I'd say the same as Peter, but this couldn't be true-all this about the wood and the Faun."
Professor: "That is more than I know, and a charge of lying is a very serious thing; a very serious thing indeed."
Susan: "We were afraid it mightn't even be lying. We thought there might be something wrong with Lucy."
Professor: "Madness you mean? Oh you can make up your minds easy about that. One has only to look at her and talk to her to see that she is not mad."
"Logic... There are only three possibilities. Either your sister is lying, or she is mad, or she is telling the truth..."

And that is the crux of the matter. Do we believe the witnesses or not? Those witnesses tell us plainly not only about Jesus' miracles, teachings, death, and resurrection, they also tell us that He is God incarnate, the Word made flesh, the man who is in very nature God, the Lord of all whom all must, and will, worship forever. Behold, we hear John the Baptist say, the Lamb of God. Even if one doubts that the Baptist said this, someone did, and he did so within the lifetime of the first generation of believers. What are we to make of it? They are either lying, mad, or telling the truth. If they were lying, then they made up a story no one before them had ever made up about anyone whom they had actually known. If they were mad, then we must understand why their madness was so infectious and convincing to so many people who seem quite sane and rational. Or, alternatively, we must consider that they were telling the truth, regardless of how extraordinary and bizarre that story might seem.

This is the case for virtually everything we believe in life. It is a rare thing that we can test something that has been told to us no matter our resources, available time, and intelligence. At the end of the day we either believe those who talk to us, or we do not. And if we are to believe them, we must consider their character above all else, as it is there that we will know if a person is, at heart, an honest witness, or a false one.


All too often, I have entered a discussion with skeptics in which I have sought to defend the claim that Jesus is God. One thing that I always mention is that Jesus claimed to be the Son of God. Of course, this brings the same reaction from every skeptic (in varying language): "You cannot use the claim that Jesus is God to prove that Jesus is God -- that's circular reasoning." At least three things need to be pointed out in response to this assertion.

First, circular reasoning (or better known as "begging the question", aka petitio principii) is an argument that looks something like this:

Syllogism A:
A because B.
B because A

To give an example of begging the question straight out of the skeptics' argument handbook,

Syllogism B:
God exists because the Bible says so.
The Bible can be trusted because God exists.

In this type of argument, no argument exists because the proof of A is founded on B, but the proof of B is founded on A. As such, if the evidence for B is A, but the evidence for A is B, then there is no independent reason to believe either. Thus, I agree with skeptics that if the sum total of the Christian argument is Syllogism B, then there is simply no question that the argument is the the quintessential example of the begging the question fallacy.

But just as there is more to the argument for Christianity than Syllogism B, so too, the claim by Jesus is not an example of begging the question. Jesus is not saying "I am God because I say so, and because I am God you can trust my word." If that were Jesus' claim, I would agree that it is circular. But Jesus' claim of divinity was not made in a vacuum.

Jesus backed up His claim to be God with miracles. He backed up His claim with wisdom and insight. He backed up His claim with the testimony of others. Consider what Jesus answered the followers of John the Baptist when they came to ask Jesus if He was the one they awaited, i.e., the Christ. Jesus said, "Go and report to John what you hear and see: {the} blind receive sight and {the} lame walk, {the} lepers are cleansed and {the} deaf hear, {the} dead are raised up, and {the} poor have the Gospel preached to them." (Matthew 11: 4-5) Jesus' claim to being God had substance to it.

Looking at it from another angle, I wouldn't be inclined to believe my friend Greg if He claimed to be God because I have seen nothing in his life that would lead me to believe he is God. Perhaps if he performed a miracle or two, or showed signs of an uncanny depth of understanding of the ways of God, I may begin to consider the question, but absent such a showing, I respectfully decline to give it a further moment's notice. My friend Greg, good guy though he is, has not demonstrated that he is God in any substantive way. However, Jesus did make those demonstrations. He did perform miracles and showed an uncanny understanding of the ways of God. And He did so while claiming to be God which supported His claim. Thus, it is not begging the question to point to Jesus' self-identification as God as part of the evidence that He is God.

Second, I never use Jesus' claim as my only evidence for the existence of God. A great deal of evidence exists that can be used to establish that Jesus is God independent of whether Jesus ever made the claim.

Third, if Jesus didn't claim to be God, that also speak volumes about who He was . . . and who He was not. The history of the Christian church has hundreds of people who have performed miracles in the name of God, yet none of these people are claimed to also be the Son of God. Why not? Let's start with the fact that none of these others claimed to be God. In fact, if they had claimed to be God, chances are they would not be celebrated as saints of God but as heretics.

Jesus is different than the saints. Jesus' self-proclamation as being God gives us a basis for claiming that He really is God. If Jesus had never claimed to be God, on what basis would we have for claiming Him to be God? That would seem to be reaching conclusions about Jesus' nature and person that have nothing to do with what Jesus said about Himself. If Jesus hadn't claimed to be God, why would I want to believe that He is God? In such a case, wouldn't that really be putting a mantle on Jesus of "Godhood" that He never claimed for Himself? Fortunately, Jesus made it clear in a dozen different ways that He was God and that He was claiming to be God -- not a god, but the God almighty. He did so in deeds and words. Thus, we have a firm foundation for affirming what Jesus already told us.

You may object that I just said that a great deal of evidence exists that Jesus is God independent of whether Jesus ever made the claim, but now I am saying that the claim is necessary to conclude that Jesus is God. Let me clarify: the fact that Jesus made the claim is part of the overall evidence. If He hadn't made the claim, the other evidence might still lead one to conclude that He was God, but such a conclusion would have to be deduced without the benefit of Jesus confirming what the evidence already shows. If the evidence suggests that Jesus was the Son of God but He never claimed to be such, wouldn't that raise even more serious questions about whether it would be appropriate to make that claim in His place? Doesn't the fact that it was Jesus Himself -- the person who actually had the uncanny insight and performed the miracles -- who made the claim to be God greatly strengthen the conclusion reached from the remainder of the evidence? I think so.

The fact that Jesus claimed to be God, while not dispositive of the question, is certainly an important part of establishing His divinity, and it is a mistake to be cowed into thinking that it is a circular reasoning to include it as part of the case for the divinity of Jesus Christ.

I want to run
I want to hide
I want to tear down the walls
That hold me inside
I want to reach out
And touch the flame
Where the streets have no name

-- Bono, U2, "Where the Streets have no Name"

Regardless of anyone's personal like or dislike of their music, there is no denying that U2 is one of the premiere rock and roll bands of all time. Part of their success is fueled by the great lyrics of frontman and one of Time's 2005 Person of the Year, Bono. Bono has worked diligently on helping the poor of the world, and his efforts are fueled by his belief in the person of Jesus Christ. As he told Christianity Today Magazine:

Christ teaches that God is love. What does that mean? What it means for me: a study of the life of Christ. Love here describes itself as a child born in straw poverty, the most vulnerable situation of all, without honor. I don't let my religious world get too complicated. I just kind of go: Well, I think I know what God is. God is love, and as much as I respond [sighs] in allowing myself to be transformed by that love and acting in that love, that's my religion. Where things get complicated for me, is when I try to live this love.

But his Christianity is not only reflected in his work with the poor, but has been reflected throughout his life in the lyrics of his songs. The first big U2 hit was "I Will Follow" -- a phrase that doesn't need much elaboration for a Christian. While the song is primarily about the relationship between a mother and son, it contains allusions to following God as well when Bono laments, "I was blind, I could not see" (a reference to John 9:25), and later rejoices, "I was lost, I am found" (a reference to Luke 15).

One of my favorite songs is from The Joshua Tree entitled "Where the Streets have no Name". The song is a masterpiece of suggestion that seems to have three levels of interpretation. The first level is about poverty in Africa. As I understand the story, Bono wrote the song after 6 weeks working onsite as a volunteer with World Vision in Africa. The streets that have no name refer to the tent cities in the poorest parts of Africa where people were starving. "I want to run, I want to hide" may reference the frustration of either the citizens of these tent cities or Bono's own frustration over his inability to help so many hungry people. (Note, according to Beth at U2 Sermons, the trip was occasioned by the specific Ethoipian famine/drought/ refugee crisis of that era, and she thinks that I should not refer to it as the poorest parts of Africa. Since she is more of an expert on this than I am, I bow to her superior knowledge on this point.)

A second level was suggested by Bono himself who described the song as being suggested by the social standing in Belfast -- a place that was so segregated between Roman Catholics and Protestants and rich and poor at the time that you were able to tell a person's religious views and income simply by what street upon which they lived. Bono's desire to end the bloodshed in his beloved Ireland (as also reflected in the earlier U2 anthem "Sunday, Bloody Sunday") is shown in this dream of a place where the streets have no name, i.e., they are places where all people live without the walls that otherwise divide us. Couple this experience with the visit to Africa, and the song takes on a deeper meaning.

But like J.R.R. Tolkein's great Lord of the Rings trilogy which was not meant to be a Christian allegory, Bono's underlying Christian beliefs provides even a deeper level of interpretation regardless of Bono's intention. The streets that have no name can be seen as an unintentional allegory for heaven. In visiting the destitute streets of the tent city and feeling the deep compassion that must follow from anyone who has a heart for his fellow man, Bono reflects in the song:

The city's aflood and our love turns to rust.
We're beaten and blown by the wind; trampled in dust.
I'll show you a place high on a desert plain,
Where the streets have no name

Again, I am not denying the more obvious reference to the dusty nameless streets of the tent cities of Africa, but just as there exists a deeper allusion to Belfast, so there exists a still deeper reference to heaven. The first two lines are references to the inability of man to make the world a perfect place. Looking at the poverty, he notes that our love (mankind's love for its fellow man) cannot cope with the scale of the poverty. The city is aflood, i.e., buried, in poverty, and our love is not big enough to cope with it and is, in fact, overwhelmed in the same way the metal turns to rust in the presence of too much salt water. Humanity is at the mercy of the world, and despite all we do we are "trampled in dust." (compare, Ecc 3:20 --"All go unto one place; all are of the dust, and all turn to dust again").

Yet, despite our own inability to love our fellow man enough to bring the destitute out of poverty, there is a better world coming. It is a place high on a desert plain where the streets have no name. The heavenly city is often portrayed as being "up high" in its descriptions as the city on the hill or as Mount Zion (Isa 24:23). The streets have no name which refers, in part, to the fact that those who are saved will be able to sit down with the greats of the faith as one people, with no separation between us (See, e.g., Matt. 8:11, where Jesus says that "many shall come from the east and west, and shall sit down with Abraham, and Isaac, and Jacob, in the kingdom of heaven"), which hearkens back to the earlier reference about "tearing down walls" that "hold me inside."

Probably the most compelling evidence that the song contains an allusion to heaven is the fact that Bono himself explicity recognizes the connection between his place "where the streets have no name" and heaven. According to Jonas Steverud (Maintainer of U2MoL),

In the Popmart Tour the song ends with then there will be no toil or sorrow, then there will be no time of pain, then there will be no time. This is a clear reference to heaven - no work, no tears, timeless. Revelation 21:4 He will wipe every tear from their eyes. There will be no more death or mourning or crying or pain, for the old order of things has passed away.

(Again, Beth at U2 Sermons says that the quote is from U2s song "Playboy Mansion". She is correct, of course, but I it appears to me that Jonas Steverud claims that Bono says much more than is stated in "Playboy Mansion", and either way there are clear references to the Bible.)

Is this understanding obvious? No, not on first reading. It requires peeling back the layers of song to the deep core of the being of the writer -- a Christian who cares compassionately for Jesus, the poor, and who looks forward to heaven. As Bono said in the afore-mentioned interview:

I love the idea that God says: Look, you cretins, there are certain results to the way we are, to selfishness, and there's a mortality as part of your very sinful nature, and, let's face it, you're not living a very good life, are you? There are consequences to actions. The point of the death of Christ is that Christ took on the sins of the world, so that what we put out did not come back to us, and that our sinful nature does not reap the obvious death. That's the point. It should keep us humbled. It's not our own good works that get us through the gates of heaven.

I never thought I'd say this to a rock and roll frontman, but "Amen."

(A big thank you to Beth at U2 Sermons for some factual errors I made in this post as originally written.)

Edited 2/18/06

There have been some good additions to the Christian Cadre site over the holidays through January. You can check for updates at the What's New section.

Just a few days ago, I wrote a brief blog about the new South Africa movie entitled "Son of God" that seeks to retell the life of Christ in a modern setting. Apparently independently, the BBC has now announced that it will do its own modern retelling of the story of Jesus, but instead of being set in South Africa, the setting will be Manchester, England. Moreover, the film will be backed using songs by New Wave musicians such as the Smiths, New Order and the Buzzcocks.

While I had some reservations about the South African movie, I have even more reservations about this "Manchester Passion." It is not due to a lack of love for the music. I have a couple of Smiths albums in my collection, and several New Order albums ("Shellshock" is one of my favorite songs). Thus, my concern is not the result of being a fuddy-duddy about music. Rather, my concern is actually over which songs will be used and the context of their use.

The BBC press release is pretty innocuous, and actually sounds pretty hopeful. It says:

Manchester Passion is a contemporary retelling of the last few hours of Jesus' life using popular music from the cream of Manchester bands.

This contemporary Passion follows key moments in the Gospel story and unfolds in a procession through Manchester City Centre. * * *

The event will mix the words of the Bible with versions of classic popular songs by Manchester bands from the last 30 years.

The music will be given a vibrant new twist and is performed by the characters in the drama, accompanied by a string band and well known local musicians.

It takes its inspiration from the way Bach and other composers fused music and the Passion story.

All fine and good so far, but it made me wonder what songs would be used, and whether the "versions" would be altered in any way to make them more suitable for the story being told. After all, some of the songs by these bands are not exactly "Christian" in nature.

An article about this "Manchester Passion" at entitled "Buzzcocks, New Order Featured In BBC Passion Play" suggests that some of the musical choices are not only inappropriate, but would tend to say things about Jesus that would give people the wrong idea of what type of person He was. The CMJ article reports "[s]ome of the sure-to-be-unmissable musical moments include Jesus singing the Smiths' 'Heaven Knows I'm Miserable Now' as he is being lashed by Roman soldiers, and Mary Magdalene, accompanied by a string quartet, asking the Buzzcocks' immortal question, 'Ever Fallen In Love (With Someone You Shouldn't Fallen In Love With)?'" Now, I don't know if CMJ has inside information about what songs will actually be played or whether the author is merely speculating on the song choices, but if it is correct, then I have some serious problems with the songs.

Jesus sings "Heaven Knows I'm Miserable Now"? Consider the lyrics which begin:

I was happy in the haze of a drunken hour
But heaven knows i'm miserable now

Jesus was happy in a drunken haze? Again, while I personally like the Smiths' song that Jesus sings, I don't think that having Jesus say that he had been in a drunken haze would give anyone a favorable or accurate depiction of the type of person He was. Likewise, Mary Magdalene is reported as singing "Ever Fallen in Love (With Someone You Shouldn't Fallen In Love With)?" concerning her relationship with Jesus (taking a page from all of those horrible novels that suggest that Jesus and Mary Magdalene had a romantic relationship). This Buzzcocks song begins,

You spurn my natural emotions
You make me feel like dirt
And I'm hurt
And if I start a commotion
I run the risk of losing you
And that's worse

So, Jesus made Mary Magdalene feel like dirt? As near as I can tell, the Jesus of the Gospels gave those around Him reasons for living -- not a reason to feel like dirt. I suppose it is possible that Mary Magdalene developed a crush on Jesus, but the Gospels don't record such a relationship, and even if such a relationship would have been portrayed, I don't think that Jesus would have let her feel like dirt over his lack of desire for a romantic relationship.

Perhaps I am looking at this too critically. Perhaps I should be looking at this more like Canon Robin Gamble of Manchester Cathedral who CMJ reports as saying, "I wouldn't know a Buzzcock from a ballcock so I couldn't really comment on the music. All I can say is that they are not doing a Christian service, it is a piece of contemporary theatre and that is going to get people to think about the story in modern terms." Yes, I am always happy to have people thinking about the story, but I am also concerned that if we take too many liberties with the story, people will think that the story says something it doesn't and draw the wrong conclusions about Jesus, His purpose and His diety.

In an earlier post, Theologician questioned Richard Carrier's use of the so-called Assumption of Moses as apparently referenced by Clement, to advocate his "two body" theory. Theologician correctly notes that although Mr. Carrier claims that it refers to Moses having "two bodies," the actual excerpt from Clement only refers to one body. Moses' body is seen on earth while one person, gifted with spiritual sight, sees Moses ascending into heaven. As Theologician notes, this simply confirms what we already know, many Jews believed that the spirit survived death and awaited the resurrection of the body in an intermediate spiritual state.

Stephen Carr, however, apparently believes that the Assumption of Moses must be referring to two bodies, despite the fact that only one body is mentioned. This has raised the question of just what is the Assumption of Moses and what did it say about Moses' body. Unfortunately, the version of the Assumption of Moses, if that is what Clement used for this reference, is unknown to us.

The Assumption of Moses is related to the Testament of Moses, with the former likely being a revised version of the latter. In any event, there is no evidence at all that either the Assumption of Moses or the Testament of Moses included Moses' body ascending into heaven. In fact, it is clear that both versions include an elaborate story of the conflict of Satan and Michael over the dead body of Moses. Jude 9 recounts this, as well as other writings. See, e.g., The Slavonic Life of Moses 16, Psuedu-Oecumenius, In Jud. 9, Origen, De Princ. 3:2:1. Michael was sent to ensure Moses received an honorable burial and Satan sought to block him. Michael, appealing to God, prevailed and ensured Moses' honorable burial.

The account in Clement's Somata is therefore best understood as a reference to the soul of Moses ascending into heaven while his body remained on earth. This would fall into place next to similar, related Jewish literature that narrates the burial of the man of God and the soul's trip into heaven.

In the Testament of Job:

And after this he came He who sitteth upon the great chariot and kissed Job, while his three daughters looked on, but the others saw it not. And He took the soul of Job and He soared upward, taking her (the soul) by the arm and carrying her upon the chariot, and He went towards the East. His body, however, was brought to the grave while the three daughters marched ahead, having put on their girdles and singing hymns in praise of God.

In the Testament of Abraham:

And immediately the archangel Michael came with a multitude of angels and took up his precious soul in his hands in a divinely woven linen cloth, and they tended the body of the just Abraham with divine ointments and perfumes until the third day after his death, and buried him in the land of promise, the oak of Mamre, but the angels received his precious soul, and ascended into heaven, singing the hymn of "thrice holy" to the Lord the God of all, and they set it there to worship the God and Father.

The Testament of Isaac also narrates the separation of Isaac's body from his soul and the latter's ascension into heaven accompanied by angels.

As Richard J. Baukham states, "the combination of the burial of the body and the assumption of the soul is paralleled in other Hellenistic Jewish testaments: T. Job, T. Abr. (citing J.D. Purvis, 'Samaritan Traditions on the Death of Moses," in Studies of the New Testament 1973)." Jude, 2 Peter, page 76. Note especially the similarities with the Testament of Abraham, where the soul of Abraham "ascended" into heaven while Michael attended to the body and its burial. Note too that Origen calls the "Assumption of Moses" the "Ascension of Moses."

It seems pretty clear, therefore, that the Assumption of Moses, which is most likely a modified version of the Testament of Moses, included a dispute over the body of Moses, that the body received an honorable burial, and that Clement knew of a version that also narrated the assumption of Moses' soul into heaven, just as was narrated in the Testaments of Job, Abraham, and Isaac.

By God I understand a being absolutely infinite, i.e., a substance consisting of an infinity of attributes, of which each one expresses an eternal and infinite essence.

-- Baruch Spinoza

This month's God or Not Carnival's topic is "Definition of God." I find efforts to define God to be generally a waste of time for various reasons. To understand my reasoning, we need to be clear on the definition of "definition". According to Merriam-Webster's On-line Dictionary, "definition" is "a statement expressing the essential nature of something." With that understanding, here are some of the reasons I have difficulty with seeking a "definition of God."

First, the definition of God at which one arrives is often colored initially by the thinker's theological base. For example, if I were an atheist, the definition of God that I would devise would be rather simple: "God is a fictional being that is treated by many religious people as being real and worshipped by them, but who is supposed to have been the ultimate creator." To me, that would be a good definition of God if I were of that mind since it captures the essential elements of who God: the creator worshipped by religious people who is fantasy. This definition will obviously be rejected by those who don't believe that God is a fantasy.

Second, to define God requires that we consider the "essential nature" of God. On what basis does one decide what attributes of God are essential to His nature? Francis Schaeffer argued that if God were not a trinity he would not be worthy of worship because it would meant that God, being love, would have been required to create man to love. But if God were a trinity, then he would not need to create man as an object of love because the three persons of the Trinity could have been loving each other since time immemorial. Regardless of whether such rationale is compelling, it demonstrates that what one person considers to be essential to God's nature may not necessarily be seen as essential to another.

Third, definitions of God are often the result of logical/philosophical endeavors that lead one to a conclusion about God's nature, but which, necessarily, are extremely limited. Aristotle, for example, reasoned that the universe shows signs that each moving object requires a mover, but that ultimately there must be an unmoved mover. Thus, Aristotle reasoned that God is the "unmoved mover" -- not a particularly thorough definition, in my eyes, since God has been philosophically reasoned by other means to be definable as the "noncontingent being", the "uncreated creator" and the "source of all being". God, it seems, is all of these things and much more.

Fourth, God has a dual nature as both a specific and a category. A category can have a definition, but a specific may not be definable. For example, desks are a category. I can define (and Merriam-Webster has defined) the category of desk as "a table, frame, or case with a sloping or horizontal surface especially for writing and reading and often with drawers, compartments, and pigeonholes." This seems perfectly adequate as a definition since it does not apply to a particular desk, although all desks share these attributes. Also, I can define (and Merriam-Webster has defined) dolphins as "any of various small toothed whales (family Delphinidae) with the snout more or less elongated into a beak and the neck vertebrae partially fused." However, if the dolphin being defined is a specific, such as Flipper, there appears to be no adequate definition. Likewise, I can define "dog" but I cannot define my old dog, Heidi. Heidi was a dog, but the essential nature of Heidi was not fully defined by the definition of "dog" because she was more than a general description of dog. Perhaps I can describe enough of the attributes of Heidi that you would have recognized her if you had seen her, but I doubt that I would have been able to capture her essential nature in words.

Fifth, by the same token, defining God denies His personal nature. For example, I cannot define my Aunt Martha. Aunt Martha is a human being (definable), a woman (definable), an octogenarian (definable), a wife (definable), but she is also so much more because she is a person who has a particular personality and hopes and dreams and virtues and flaws and interests and all types of other things that each of us, as human beings with personalities, hold, but which differ for each of us. If we were to try to define a particular person, such as Aunt Martha, we would have to write a book about her and still could not get all of her essential attributes in writing. To attempt to define God necessarily treats God like an object instead of a person (or, more accurately, a Trinity of three persons) because God, being a personal being, has a particular personality and virtues and interests and all types of other things that come from being a person and not a thing. How does one gather all of those particulars about God into a general definition?

Sixth, following on the fifth, any definition of God necessarily is convoluted or overly simplistic, and in either case lead to problems in theology. The definition of God by Baruch Spinoza, above, is an example of a rather convoluted definition. To understand his definition would require reading his works. But Spinoza, following his definition (or perhaps, because his definition was informed by his prior theological base as described in point one) developed a concept of God that was untrue to his Jewish roots. Aristotle's idea of God being the "unmoved mover" is overly simplistic, and if accepted leads to a God who is probably limited to being the "clockmaker god" of deism.

I am sure that there are other difficulties, and I expect readers can develop them more thoroughly than I. But I don't want to leave readers with the idea that it is impossible to define God. Such a definition is possible, even if it can be frustrating to those who are looking for a definition similar to the types that Spinoza or Aristotle set forth. The definition I propose is necessarily incomplete, but is much more complete than Spinoza's, Aristotle's or any other one or two line definition. It is an "ostensive definition", i.e., "of, relating to, or constituting definition by exemplifying the thing or quality being defined." An example of an ostensive definition would be asking a person what a dog is, and having that person point to a dog and say "that's a dog." In the case of God, the best definition is to point to the Bible, ask the person to read it, and say "that's God."

That's the best definition I know.

In its effort to be controversial, Hollywood has been unable to resist being somewhat liberal in their treatment of the person of Jesus. One of the more notable mistreatments was The Last Temptation of Christ which, if I recall correctly, had Jesus tempted about having sexual relations with Mary (never mind that according to the Bible, Jesus said looking at a woman with lust is a sin). Soon upcoming will be The Da Vinci Code (which I am in the process of reading -- dull, dull, dull) which, as seems to be well-known, portrays a secret group which knows the secret life of Jesus -- that he actually had married Mary Magdalene who was pregnant with his child, etc., etc.

At the same time, there have been at least a couple of films that have come out of Hollywood that have attempted to be fair in their treatment of Jesus as seen in the Bible. Among the more notable in this group are such movies as The Greatest Story Ever Told (even though I hated Max Von Sydow's portrayal of Jesus as a distant, unlovable character), Jesus Christ Superstar, and most notably, Mel Gibson's The Passion of the Christ (which was shunned by the mainstream critics in Hollywood).

Given the dual-track of good and bad movies about Jesus, I am always a little apprehensive, if hopeful, when I see that a new film has been made that takes a twist on the story of Jesus as found in the four Gospels. That is how I feel about a new South African movie entitled Son of Man. In this version, the story of Jesus is moved to modern day Africa where he is a black revolutionary who preaches peace in a land of violence. According to the article published January 23 in the New Zealand Herald:

Billed as the world's first black Jesus movie, Son of Man portrays Christ as a modern African revolutionary and aims to shatter the Western image of a placid saviour with fair hair and blue eyes.

The South African film, which premiered at the US Sundance festival in Utah, transports the life and death of Christ from first century Palestine to a contemporary African state racked by war and poverty.

Jesus is born in a shanty-town shed, a far cry from a manager in a Bethlehem stable. His mother Mary is a virgin, though feisty enough to argue with the angels. Gun-wielding authorities fear his message of equality and he ends up hanging on a cross.

"We wanted to look at the gospels as if they were written by spin doctors and to strip that away and look at the truth," director Mark Dornford-May said.

"The truth is that Christ was born in an occupied state and preached equality at a time when that wasn't very acceptable."

By portraying Jesus as a black African, Dornford-May hopes to sharpen the political context of the gospels, when Israel was under Roman occupation, and challenge Western perceptions of Christ as meek, mild and European.

"We have to accept that Christ has been hijacked a bit - he's gone very blonde-haired and blue-eyed," he said.

"The important thing about the message of Christ was that it is universal. It doesn't matter what he looked like."

The article goes on to say that the Jesus in the film is shown as a divine being who rises from the dead, but the point isn't quite the same as the New Testament writings suggest. Instead of coming to redeem humanity from a sinful existence, the resurrection of the Jesus of Son of Man "is meant to signal hope for Africa, the world's poorest continent, which is sometimes dismissed by foreigners as a hopeless mess of conflict and corruption."

I'm personally not troubled by Jesus being portrayed as a black man instead of a white man. I remember that there has always been talk that Jesus may have had a much darker complexion than most of our artwork of Jesus suggests, and that certainly doesn't bother me in the least. After all, as the article says (I think correctly), "it doesn't matter what he looked like."

I am also glad that the movie seems to accept the ideas that Jesus was born of a virgin woman in poverty, was divine in nature and actually resurrected from the dead. All of these are points in favor of the treatment the film gives to the New Testament account. To the extent it stays faithful to these ideas, I tend to think of the film like I think of West Side Story -- an excellent adaptation of William Shakespeare's Romeo and Juliet which manages to faithfully observe the most important parts of the underlying story.

I am, however, troubled that the film may be focusing too much on the "Jesus the revolutionary" idea. I don't think that the focus of Jesus' ministry on earth was to be a revolutionary, but that is the image of Jesus that is presented by some of the so-called scholars in the Historical Jesus movement. I wonder if the image of Jesus portrayed in the film is going to be overly informed by this brand of scholarship. If it is, then this film may be very bad indeed.

I would be interested in hearing if anyone knows anything more about this movie than is stated in the article. Which way does the movie lean? Does it pervert the person of Jesus in its effort to portray him as a revolutionary or does it portray him more as the divine God-man whose primary mission was to save humanity from sin, and it was just his very presence and teachings that led to a revolutionary view of the world? Anyone know?

In ch. 5 of The Empty Tomb: Jesus Beyond the Grave, Richard Carrier seeks to argue that Paul’s conception of the resurrection body of Jesus was a newly created body, not continuous with his earthly body. In the beginning of a section on the diversity of Jewish beliefs, he tells us that “at least one Jewish text imagines two bodies for Moses, one in a grave and one in heaven". (p. 107) He cites book VI of the Stromata by Clement of Alexandria:

When Moses was taken up to heaven, Joshua saw him twice: one Moses with the angels, and one on the mountains, honored with burial in the ravines.(Stromata
Clement of course wrote in the late second century. In a footnote, Carrier tells us that this passage about Moses is believed to trace back to the first century pseudepigraphon The Assumption of Moses. Aside from brief mentions in Clement, a quotation in Jude 9, and Gelasius’ Historia Ecclesiastica, the original text of The Assumption is now lost to us.

The extent to which Carrier seeks to use this passage is not clear to me. This quotation of Clement comes immediately after an argument to the effect that Jews believed in a postmortem existence of some sort outside the primary body, which is something I would not disagree with. But this entire chapter is an argument for his “two body” theory of Pauline resurrection. Perhaps Carrier seeks confirmation here for his view on the resurrection, in the sense that he supposes Moses was actually resurrected in a newly created body in this text. Perhaps he merely feels that it shows bodily survival outside the primary earthly body. If the latter is the case, the ambiguity here could be construed as misleading. Regardless, the reference in Stromata does not support either of these views.

The full text of book VI of the Stromata is available here. We will quote a larger portion of the section than Carrier did:

Rightly, therefore, Jesus the son of Nave saw Moses, when taken up [to heaven], double, -- one Moses with the angels, and one on the mountains, honoured with burial in their ravines. And Jesus saw this spectacle below, being elevated by the Spirit, along also with Caleb. But both do not see similarly but the one descended with greater speed, as if the weight he carried was great; while the other, on descending after him, subsequently related the glory which he beheld, being able to perceive more than the other as having grown purer; the narrative, in my opinion, showing that knowledge is not the privilege of all. Since some look at the body of the Scriptures, the expressions and the names as to the body of Moses; while others see through to the thoughts and what it is signified by the names, seeking the Moses that is with the angels.
Right from the start we have an interpretive problem as the text of The Asssumption is no longer available for us to check the context of this obscure reference in Clement. But in Clement’s writings, this incident from The Assumption is quoted within the wider context of a section about hidden or sacred meaning in scripture, that is perceived only by some. The assumption of Moses before Joshua in which Joshua sees two of Moses - one with angels, one being buried - is read as an allegory of those who perceive the true or hidden meanings and those who do not. Joshua sees these things in some state where he and Caleb are "elevated by the spirit". It was a special revelatory privilege of the spirit realm granted to him, but not granted to Caleb who accompanies him and who merely saw Moses' earthly burial.

The main problem with Carrier’s use of this passage to support his “two body” theory, is that the text clearly does not say Moses had two bodies and it is entirely compatible with Moses going on to an intermediate spiritual state prior to the resurrection. The Moses "with the angels" that Caleb could not see, but that Joshua saw while they were "elevated by the spirit", is just as easily read as the spirit of Moses awaiting the resurrection of his body that has been buried, or, if the writer prefers immortality of the soul, just the mere ascending soul or spirit of Moses. It is not another “body” in the sense of Carrier's newly created resurrection body, or in any other sense. The last sentence of the above paragraph contrasts the "body of Moses" seen buried with "the Moses that is with the angels", neglecting to mention that the latter is a bodily state. So this passage offers no support for Carrier’s theory, does not imply a bodily existence outside the earthly body, and is very easily reconciled with the common scholarly notion of two-stage Jewish resurrection belief that Carrier is arguing against.

In a recent post, I pointed out that Richard Carrier, in his chapter in The Empty Tomb, erroneously concluded that the Sadducees did not believe in angels. In that same chapter, Mr. Carrier also appears to get it wrong about the Herodians. According to Carrier, “there was even a sect called the Herodians, who appear to have believed Herod the Great was the Christ.” The puprose of the reference is apparently to show just how religiously diverse Jews were in the first century.

As an initial matter, we will review the relevant New Testament references:

The Pharisees went out and immediately began conspiring with the Herodians against Him, as to how they might destroy Him.

Mark 3:6.

Then they sent some of the Pharisees and Herodians to Him in order to trap Him in a statement.

Mark 12:13.

And they sent their disciples to Him, along with the Herodians saying, "Teacher, we know that You are truthful and teach the way of God in truth, and defer to no one; for You are not partial to any.

Matthew 22:16.

From these verses, there is no hint that the Herodians believed that Herod the Great, or any other Herod, was the messiah. Nor is there any indication that Herodians were a religious sect. All we get is that they had some reason to oppose Jesus and some connection with the Herodian family. The Herod relevant at that time was not Herod the Great, but Herod Antipas.

Rather than classify the Herodians as a religious sect, most other scholars (all, in fact, that I have found who comment on them) have concluded that they were mostly likely supporters – slaves, relatives, courtiers, political supporters -- of the Herodian ruler of Galilee at the time, Herod Antipas, or more generally of the Herodian dynasty. See, e.g., James R. Edward, The Gospel According to Mark, page 102 (“[T]he Herodians were not a distinct sect or political party as were the Pharisees or Sadducees or Essenes, for example, but rather sympathizers and supports of Herod’s cause and the Herodian dynasty.”); Robert Gundry, Mark: A Commentary on his Apology for the Cross, page 153 (“The Herodians are probably supports of Herod Antipas, who under Roman aegis rules Galilee at the this time.”); Everett Ferguson, Backgrounds of Early Christianity, page 499 (“They evidently were supporters of the Herodian dynasty. There is nothing to indicate that they were other than political partisans.”); The New Standard Jewish Encyclopedia, Dr. Geoffrey Wigoder, ed., page 436 (“Their identity is uncertain, the most acceptable theory holding that they were members of Herod’s party who conducted propaganda among the masses in favor of the hated king and continued their work after the death of Herod [the Great].”). Notably, the term used in Mark and Matthew is Latin, whereas Josephus uses a similar Greek term when referring to supporters of Herod the Great.

John P. Meier, based on the Latin construction of the word used for Herodians by the Gospels, concludes that “the most likely meanings of Herodianoi would include the household servants or slaves of Herod, his officials or courtiers (high officials sometimes being ex-slaves), and more generally all the supporters of Herod’s regime, whether or not they belonged to an organized group or party.” A Marginal Jew, Vol. III, Companions and Competitors, page 561. William Lane explains more:

Apart from the one reference in Josephus, the Herodians are not mentioned in any other ancient source, a fact which indicates that they were not a sect or an organized party. The word is of Latin formation (Herodiani), designating ‘adherents’ or ‘partisans’ of Herod; in Galilee this would mean Herod Antipas. Their name suggests a common attitude of allegiance to Herod in a country where large numbers of people chafed under his rule. In Josephus the term clearly denotes those who were sympathizers and supporters of Herod the Great. It is reasonable to understand Mark’s term in the same light: in Ch. 3:6 and Ch. 12:13 the Herodians are, apparently, influential men of standing who loyally support Herod Antipas.

William Lane, The Gospel According to Mark, pages 124-25.

Likewise, in an endnote, Richard Carrier admits that the two secondary sources he relies on for his description of the Herodians doubt that the Herodians really believed Herod was the messiah. Carrier nevertheless writes that his sources “give no sound reason” for their skepticism because “many sources make the claim.” Given William Lane’s statement that there is not “any other ancient source” that mentions the Herodians, to which sources is Carrier referring? The answer is that Carrier uncritically accepts the statements made by Christian sources about Jewish beliefs over 200 years after the time of Jesus.

The earliest source that describes the Herodians as believing Herod was the Messiah is the spurious Against All Heresies, Ch. 1. But no one knows who wrote this treatise or when it was written, though odds are it was the mid-third century at the earliest. All that is said is that, “the Herodians likewise, who said that Herod was Christ.”

The rest of the sources are all from the late fourth century. Jerome’s Dialogue Against the Luciferians was written in 379 AD. When writing about “Jewish heretics who before the coming of Christ destroyed the law delivered to them,” Jerome mentions “the Herodians who accepted Herod as the Christ.”

Writing at about the same time was Epiphanius of Salamis, of whom it is said he “let his zeal come before facts.” In Panarion 20, he lists 80 heresies and when describing the Herodians states “Herodians, who were Jews in all respects, but thought that Herod was Christ, and awarded the honor and name of Christ to him.”

Last of all is Philaster, who also describes the Herodians as believing Herod was the messiah. Liber de Haeresibius 28. But Philaster also did not write his description until the later fourth century.

Did these late fourth-century Christian writings have special access to heretofore undiscovered Jewish sources about messianic sects in Palestine during the time of Jesus? That seems unlikely. What is more likely is that they rely, directly or indirectly, on the spurious Against All Heresies or on each other, depending on the exact order in which they wrote. Even if we assume that Against All Heresies itself relied on an earlier source, we have no way of knowing how accurate it was or where it got its information. There is no indication that the author of Against All Heresies had access to reliable Jewish sources about first century Messianic sects. All in all, one mid third-century source and three late fourth-century sources is very shaky grounds upon which to argue that the Herodians were a religious sect who affirmed belief in Herod as messiah. It is also misleading for Carrier to assert that “many sources make” this claim without acknowledging the poor condition of the evidence; namely that at least two hundred years of silence passed before the first spurious mention of this belief and another hundred years of silence passed before any other reference. The long silence was not about the Herodians, who are mentioned by Mark, Matthew, and Josephus, but about the later reported messianic beliefs.

Additionally, it seems odd though perhaps not conclusive that Josephus – who otherwise spends plenty of time discussing the Herodian family and messianic claimants in the first century – gives no indication of a religious or messianic bent to the Herodians. Mark and Matthew also fail to respond to such an idea, when they might have been expected to respond more directly to a competing messianic sect conspiring to kill Jesus.

Now, it is possible that, as my friend Roger Pearse allowed, that this was a bit of “court flattery,” that got passed along. Slightly more likely seems that as part of their propaganda efforts on Herod’s behalf, the Herodians “tried to spread the idea that Herod was the embodiment of the Messiah,” though – as J.P. Meier concludes – “this is highly speculative.” Meier, op. cit., page 612. But to go any further is to go too far. Apparently, as with his comments about the beliefs of the Sadducees, Carrier has let his eagerness to find examples of first-century Jewish religious diversity carry him beyond the evidence.

One argument that arises in the issue of apologetics is the extent to which the Old Testament Law is still binding on us. One area that it arises is in relation to the area of homosexuality and the Bible. (Let me once again stress that the CADRE as a whole is of different minds on a number of issues, and the nature of homosexuality is one of them. As always, I speak only for myself when discussing this issue.) For example, in a piece entitled "The Six Bible Passages Used To Condemn Homosexuals", Robert Truluck argues:

The use of Leviticus to condemn and reject homosexuals is obviously a hypocritical selective use of the Bible against gays and lesbians. Nobody today tries to keep the laws in Leviticus. Look at Leviticus 11:1-12, where all unclean animals are forbidden as food, including rabbits, pigs, and shellfish, such as oysters, shrimp, lobsters, crabs, clams, and others that are called an "abomination." Leviticus 20:25 demands that "you are to make a distinction between the clean and unclean animal and between the unclean and clean bird; and you shall not make yourself an abomination by animal or by bird or by anything that creeps on the ground, which I have separated for you as unclean." You can eat some insects like locusts (grasshoppers), but not others.

Leviticus 12:1-8 declares that a woman is unclean for 33 days after giving birth to a boy and for 66 days after giving birth to a girl and goes on to demand that certain animals must be offered as a burnt offering and a sin offering for cleansing. Nobody today who claims to be a Christian tries to keep these laws, and few people even know about them! Why do you think that most people don't know about them?

Obviously, some of the Old Testament Law is still binding on Christians today. For example, "Thou shalt have no other Gods before Me" seems to be binding without discussion. The laws against murder, theft and adultery, I am sure, would be largely agreed as binding regardless of your approach. Of course it is true that even if these laws are violated, God's love and forgiveness is expansive enough to not result in condemnation, but that does not mean that we are free to engage in these acts. Even laws found outside of the ten commandments, such as the restriction on child sacrifice and bestiality also found in Leviticus 20, would seem to be binding. So, on what basis can we differentiate between those that are binding and those that are not?

I have found that there is an analogy that is helpful in differentiating between binding and non-binding laws, and it is as follows: Any reader who lives in the United States is familiar with the Internal Revenue Service (the IRS) which collects the income taxes for the government. Income taxes are able to be collected by the federal government because the Sixteenth Amendment to the Constitution makes the collection of these taxes constitutional (please, no theories about how the Sixteenth Amendment was not properly passed -- that is irrelevant for purposes of this post). The Congress is able to pass laws (in this case, the Internal Revenue Code) based on this general grant of authority in the Constitution, and it has done so. Finally, the Treasury Department takes the laws passed by Congress and writes volumes and volumes of regulations attempting to flesh out and fill in the gaps in the law. With me so far?

Suppose that someone comes along who is a multi-multi-trillionaire. This multi-multi-trillionaire decides that he will undertake paying the money that would otherwise be collected by the federal government through taxes, and the federal government, in turn, agrees to amend the Constitution to do away with the Sixteenth Amendment. Thus, the federal government no longer needs to collect income taxes and the legal right to collect income taxes has been removed from the Constitution.

If such a thing were to come to pass that the underlying taxes were paid by someone else, what becomes of the obligation to file the forms or do any of the other reporting requirements in the Internal Revenue Code (IRC)? If there are no taxes owed and no Constitutional right for the federal government to even collect income taxes, there is no longer any need to comply with the regulations under the IRC. In fact, there is no reason to follow the IRC itself because the underlying ability of the government to collect income taxes no longer exists. The laws would still be there, but they would be of no continuing force or effect.

I think we should look at the Old Testament Law the same way. Those things that were in place to act as a "ritual cleansing" were there to act for our atonement. Things like eating clean and unclean animals seem to be that type of thing. The laws about the priests having to be in the Levite tribe were also part of that system (see Hebrews 7), and so they are no longer valid or binding. But the fact that these types of laws were completely set aside in no way effects the moral laws, in the same way that the IRC being set aside would in no way effect the restrictions on the government required by the freedoms spelled out in the First Amendment.

So, is homosexuality a "ritual cleansing" law or a "moral" law. I leave that for another time to answer. However, if it is a moral law, then it remains binding on us as Christians in our quest to become more like Jesus since Jesus never, ever broke a moral law.

Rodney Stark is a sociologist who has made a well-earned name for himself in studying religion. His book, The Rise of Christianity, is an informative exploration of the reasons behind Christianity's growth to prominence in the Roman Empire. He has also, more lately, been probing Christianity's role in the development of Western Civilization. His latest offering is The Victory of Reason: How Christianity Led to Freedom, Capitalism, and Western Success. I have not had occasion to purchase this book yet, but did run across World Magazine's interview of Professor Stark about his new book. Here are some highlights:

On how Christianity is distinct from other religions.

The other great faiths either taught that the world is locked in endless cycles or that it is inevitably declining from a previous Golden Age. Only Christians believed that God's gift of reason made progress inevitable—theological as well as technical progress.

On the myth of the so-called "Dark Ages."

The Dark Ages have finally been recognized as a hoax perpetrated by anti-religious and bitterly anti-Catholic, 18th-century intellectuals who were determined to assert their cultural superiority and who boosted their claim by denigrating the Christian past—as Gibbon put it in The Decline and Fall of the Roman Empire, after Rome came the "triumph of barbarism and religion." ... This always should have been obvious since by the end of the so-called Dark Ages, European science and technology had far exceeded that of Rome and Greece, and all the rest of the world, for that matter.

On Christianity's promotion of liberty.

The admonition "Go and sin no more" is absurd if we are mere captives of our fate. Christianity teaches that we have free will and therefore must be relatively free of compulsions. This theological insight led directly to doctrines that opposed repressive states, slavery, and other forms of exploitation and in favor of private property and freedom of conscience. These freedoms often were not achieved, but their clear basis in Christian doctrines did result in some relatively free, early European societies....

On the future of Christianity.

By then Christianity may well be the dominant religion in China. Latin Americans probably will be as churched as North Americans. Africa will be more than half Christian. As for Europe, it will be well along in a major revival of religion, one way or the other: Christian or Islamic.

The latest issue of the Journal of Biblical Literature includes an 18-page critique of the work of Dennis R. MacDonald comparing the Gospel of Mark (and also the Acts of the Apostles) with Homer's writings: Karl Olav Sandnes, Imitatio Homeri? An Appraisal of Dennis R. MacDonald’s “Mimesis Criticism,” JBL 124/4 (2005) 715-732. It is MacDonald’s theory that Mark and parts of Acts are “conscious imitations of incidents, characters, and plot patterns in the Illiad and the Odyssey.”

One of the supposed emulations between Homer and Mark that Sandnes selects for criticism is MacDonald’s use of the “hero returning home motif” to equate Odysseus’ infamous and troubled trip home and Jesus’ cleansing of the Temple. As Sandnes points out, it is not really accurate to portray Jesus’ visit to Jerusalem and the Temple as a recasting of Odysseus returning home and confronting the suitors there. Among other differences, Mark views Jesus as coming to replace, not revive, the Temple. It is certainly not his home nor the site of his ministry or greatest triumphs. MacDonald is not oblivious to the incongruences but attempts to explain them as a form of “emulation,” the modeling of another with a rivalry that causes the secondary writer to have his character or story “out do” the earlier one. But as Sandnes explains, the use of emulation in the literature of the time “is certainly more modest than the replacement of the Homeric heroes that MacDonald claims to find in Mark’s gospel.”

Other emulations of Homer found in ancient literature are quite different than what we find in Mark. While “subtle emulation” (reworked similarities that may not on their face appear to be derivative) is found it is accompanied by what we could call “obvious emulation.” Lucian, for example, uses "subtle emulation" but also explicitly uses characters and places from Homer’s poems and incorporates them into his True Story. Mark makes no such obvious use of Homer. What he does use explicitly, however, is the Old Testament which is much more likely to be a literary influence. Ultimately, Sandnes concludes that MacDonald’s central case for dependence on Homer fails because he 1) focuses on subtle emulation without coping with the fact that in other ancient literature it was conjoined with overt emulation, which is completely absent from Mark (or Acts for that matter); and 2) neglects the overt and subtle Old Testament emulations that abound in Mark.

Overall, Sandnes’ critique seems well taken and could have been strengthened even more had he delved further into Mark’s literary relationship with the Old Testament. One other point that Sandnes made that I appreciated was that while knowledge of Homer generally was likely widespread in the ancient Graeco-Roman world, extensive knowledge of Homer’s writings likely was not: “Knowledge of the Homeric poems in their entirety is not easily demonstrated. Some authors quoted Homer abundantly, but they had probably never read the Iliad and the Odyssey. A Homeric interpretation of Mark’s Gospel should account for a more critical use of the literary sources of the elite.”

You may have heard about the latest Supreme Court ruling on abortion: Ayotte v. Planned Parenthood of Northern New England. Unusually for an abortion case, the decision was unanimous.

New Hampshire had passed a law requiring that minors seeking to obtain an abortion notify their parents in writing that they intend to do so. The law does not require parental consent. Nevertheless, the First Circuit Court of Appeals struck own the entire statute as unconstitutional under existing Supreme Court precedent. The Supreme Court reversed, but on a limited basis.

Signaling from the beginning that it was not going to be upsetting any apple carts, the opinion -- penned by Justice O'Connor begins, "[w]e do not revisit our abortion precedents today." Rather, the only issue considered by the Court is the "remedy." That is, the Supreme Court considered whether striking down the entire statute was necessary because some parts of it were deemed unconstitutional. The unconstitional part of the statute as the First Circuit saw it was that the statute failed to create an exception to protect the health of the minor mother seeking the abortion. Because Supreme Court precedent requires a health-exception, the First Circuit struck down the entire statute. Not so fast, Justice O'Connor wrote (in what is likely her last vote on an abortion case), that is too drastic. The solution must fit the "problem." So, the Supreme Court has sent the case back to the First Circuit so it can craft a "remedy" that fits the problem. In other words, it will be the job of the First Circuit to strike down the statute only as it would apply to minors seeking abortions who may have some health issue that waiting for consent may exacerbate. As for minors seeking abortions who do not have a health crisis facing them, they will be required to provide written notice.

We will see what the First Circuit does with this issue, but the Supreme Court certainly suggests that the consent requirement should stand for the vast majority of cases and that it is only a "very small percentage of cases" that is constitutionally problematic.

On a whole this is at least a minor victory for pro-lifers. The Court affirmed the state's strong interest in requiring parental consent for minors seeking abortions. Moreover, practically speaking, the effect of this ruling may eliminate some of the back-and-forth gamesmanship between the courts, litigants, and legislatures. Because the statute will likely apply to most of the minors seeking abortions, the legislature is unlikely to revisit the issue and past a more targeted statute intended to fix whatever constitutional defect the federal court had previously found to strike down the entire statute. In circumstances where a statute is struck down in its entirety because only some parts of it are constitutionally problematic legislatures often have to guess how and whether the new legislation they pass fix the problem. If the new legislation gets something wrong, the federal courts may strike it down too and the entire process would have to begin anew. The problem with the back-and-forth that this new case may remedy is, as the Court now recognizes, that if and until the state passes a new statute that meets all possible objections, the state is prevented from doing something that it has a very good reason to do -- require that minors not faced with a health crisis notify their parents that they are thinking of undertaking a very serious and life-changing medical procedure. As a result, state will likely have a freer hand in passing abortion legislation, perhaps even prohibitions on partial-birth abortions, that has been deemed legitimate by the Supreme Court in other cases.

Trying to read anything else into the opinion would be like trying to read tea leaves. But I will say that one reason the Supreme Court may have taken this technical approach is because Justice O'Connor will soon be replaced by Justice Alito (barring some huge political upset). It may surprise some to learn that the Court can be so practical, but such considerations are part of their proceedings. So, I would say that the Court's reluctance to "revisit [its] abortion precedents" may only be for a time.

No question about it, theology begets controversies. Parting a fragment of historical evidence such as the Council of Nicea is a clear case example of this. Arguments between parties are inevitable when theology is discussed. Our current state in America promotes tolerance and non-confrontational relationships marked by peace, religious pluralism and individual rights. The Bible teaches us to avoid a quarrelsome spirit and from being hypocritically judgemental, divisive, and contentious. Instead, we are told to bear the fruit of the Spirit, which includes kindness, gentleness, reverence, meekness, and patience.

Most people read those two teachings and conclude that the study theology must be avoided at all cost. I'm sure you've heard of the saying, "Never discuss religion and politics." The American banner of tolerance has elevated itself as the Golden Rule in conversations. Do not be alarmed, though, because America has faced this idea before. We are now all to exhausted from wars being triggered by theological controversy.

Anyone who reads the Bible can see Old Testament prophets, New Testament Apostles and Jesus himself almost could not avoid daylight without a controversy. The Apostle Paul told of his daily debates in the marketplace. R.C. Sproul, in his book Essential Truths of the Christian Faith, stated "We are called to avoid godless controversies. We are called to godly controversies." Sproul later concludes, "It is the immature student of theology who is the nitpicker. It is the half-trained theologian who is brittle and quarrelsome. The more one masters the study of theology, the more one is able to discern what issues are negotioable and tolerable and what issues demand that we contend with all our might.

Ironically, pop-American culture thrives and seeks to create controversies from thin air. Notice the difference, though, in the type of controversy sought: unsubstantiated opinions motivated to put one person down so that another may gain popular likeness. The godly disputes inevitable in Christianity mentioned earlier concern matters of Truth. I admit, some of historical theological debates included political power and demand for social approval. But regardless of these few instances, the axiom and goal for disagreements were to seperate the wheat from the chaff, to discern falsehood from true biblical teachings. The focus was grounded in the Scripture, not the people and their social status. In other words, the objective claims could be reasonably debated while not debunking the character of subjective matters, such as the people.

Before a person's soul can be passionate for the living God, the mind of that person must be informed about the character and will of God (theology). The heart cannot act upon that which does not first exist in the mind. Here is where I've heard objections such as, "What about those who seem to have grasped a great understanding of theology and yet still live blatantly sinful lives without evidence of change?" To explain the reasoning behind this case, the distinction between necessary conditions and sufficient conditions. R.C. Sproul writes:

"An intellectual understanding of doctrine is a necessary condition for spiritual growth. It is not, however, a sufficient condition for such growth. A necessary condition is a condition that must be present for a desired result to happen. Without it, the result will not be forthcoming. For example, oxygen is a necessary condition for fire. However, the mere presence of oxygen is not enough to guarantee that a fire will occur. That is fortunate for us, since the world would be in flames if oxygen automatically produced fire. Oxygen is therefore necessary for fire, but in itself is not sufficient or enough to make a fire. As oxygen is necessary but not sufficient for a fire to ignite, so doctrine is necessary but not sufficient to light a fire in our hearts. Without the gracious operation of the Holy Spirit in our hearts, the mere presence of doctrine, even sound doctrine, will leave us cold."
God commands us in Scripture to be diligent in our study of Him and his Word. Theology comes from two Greek words that when combined mean "the study of God." Apostle Paul says, "put away childish things" (1 Corinthians 13:11) that we might grow in our goal of Christian understanding. The reason Paul exhorts us to follow these words is not to become arrogant in our knowledge, but that we might grow in grace. The study of theology, in principle and application, yields mature understanding that produces the building blocks for mature living.

Sproul ends his discourse with these remarks, " is possible to have a sound theology without having a sound life. But we cannot have a sound life without having a sound theology. In this sense, theology must never be viewed as an abstract science. It is a matter of life and death, even eternal life and eternal death." What you believe about God matters. It shapes your worldview and cashes out in your daily actions and decisions.

Cross-blogged at Apologia Christi

I have just finished reading, for the first time, The Great Divorce by C.S. Lewis. In the forward, Lewis says that the book is intended to have a moral, but cautions it should not be read for its speculation about the nature of the after-life. He says,

I beg readers remember that this is a fantasy. It has of course -- or I intended it to have -- a moral. But the transmortal conditions are solely an imaginative supposal: they are not even a guess or a speculation at what may actually await us. The last thing I wish is to arouse factual curiosity about the details of the after-world.

I quote all of this because I think that his caution should be accepted before reading this book. The point of the book is clearly not about the conditions of what heaven and hell will be like in fact, but some of the mind sets that we may have in heaven and the mind sets that will send us to hell. His speculations about heaven being a pastoral plane which is deathly hard for the spectres of humans who live in hell is simply intended as setting a scene for the story and should be understood as such.

This book is filled with great thoughts about the nature of people and their own self-desires that get in the way of getting into heaven. For example, one poor woman refuses to leave hell and enter heaven because of her concern over her looks. She is so self-absorbed in how she looks that she will not venture out among the spirits of the saved for fear of being ridiculed by them. Another man used pity to emotionally blackmail his friends and family as a way of life, and when he gets an opportunity to get into heaven, he cannot let it go. He tries to blackmail the saved into feeling sorry for him as a condition to his entering into the heavenly realm, but his nature as an emotional blackmailer fails to permit him to see that the offer to enter is free. I could spend hours writing about some of the thoughts expressed in this book, most of which I find compelling but a few of which I find to be somewhat questionable.

When I was reading the book, I saw something that condemned me as a person practicing apologetics. I don't think that I am the person that Lewis describes, but I can see clearly where I -- or any other apologist, for that matter -- could easly become that person if I lose focus on Jesus. Here is what one of the characters (George MacDonald) says about a type of person he meets who won't enter heaven.

There have been men before now who got so interested in proving the existence of God that they came to care nothing about God Himself . . . as if the good Lord had nothing to do but exist! There have been some who have been so occupied with spreading Christianity that they gave a thought to Christ. Man! Ye have seen it in smaller matters. Did ye never know a lover of books that with all his first editions and signed copies had lost the power to read them? Or an organizer of charities that had lost all love for the poor? It is the subtlest of all the snares.

A chilling thought. It hearkens back to the chilling words of Jesus Himself in Matthew 7:22-23:

Many will say to Me on that day, 'Lord, Lord, did we not prophesy in Your name, and in Your name cast out demons, and in Your name perform many miracles?' And then I will declare to them, 'I never knew you; DEPART FROM ME, YOU WHO PRACTICE LAWLESSNESS.'

"Lord, Lord, did I not argue for the truth of the Gospels and the existence of God in Your name?" And the Lord answered . . . .

We saw in that Schweitzer article that people were trying to do biologically based ethics even in Schwetizer's day. But I recently saw a lecture on SCTV in which a professor proclaimed that "Socrates Kicked the ass of moral philosophy." Of course she was quoting her student, but she clearly agreed with him. Her solution was to replace "Moral philosophy" as religiously based, with biologically based social contract theory. Unfortunately I never did catch the woman's name or what the lecture series was. But please bear with me, as these are commonly held opinions anyway.

First let's consider the idea that "Socrates kicked ass on moral philosophy." How did he do this? He supposedly did it with an argument that atheists sometimes use on message boards called "The Euthephro Dilemma." It goes something like this:

Socrates asks Euthephro (who is of course, an idiot and a priest--thus giving Soc religious people to be his foils) "Is the good good, because the gods say it is? Or is the good good because there's some reason beyond the gods?" Euthephro knows he can't say the good is good just because the Gods say it is, that will never work, the gods might change their minds tomorrow. This would leave morality as totally arbitrary, it wouldn't be really good and it could change daily. Today it's wrong to torture babies for fun, tomorrow it might not be. So Euthephro says there is something that makes it good apart form just the gods word that it is good. Then Socrates says that something is higher than the gods. So this is supposedly the ass kicking for moral philosophy, morality can't be based upon the word of God, because it would either be arbitrary (God says so) or based upon something higher than God.

To answer this problem the professor on TV said that we should ground our understanding of ethics in our own biology. We are geared as biological organisms to help the group, to share the load and to be part of the team. So being part of the team becomes our highest value because we are geared biologically to be part of the team. We will consider this in a minute.

The problem with the Euthephro dilemma as it has been so defined above is twofold:

(1) It seeks to ground morality in contingent gods who are not the basis or ground of being and who could never ground moral axioms to begin with.

(2) In this pre Christian paganism the Greeks did not have love as the background of the moral universe, precisely because they didn't have a single all pervasive God who was the ground of being and whose character defined reality.

The Christian God not only creates all that is, but is also the fountainhead of all potential being as well. Not even the possibility of being can exist apart from the mind of God. That means that no standard could be higher than God. Thus if good is good because the Christian God says so it is, it is both grounded upon the word of God, and based upon a timeless principle that establishes the good; God's character. Augustness tells us that love is the background of the moral universe. Thus all moral axioms that are truly good are grounded in the notion of love, they all relate back to it and seek to fulfill it. That means God's character is the basis of moral axioms. Thus, the standard of the good is not independent of God, but based upon God's very character. The Greek gods were not capable of this, the Christian God can provide this basis in the ground of being.

In any case, what about the biological part? What this professor overlooks is that there is no moral axiom attached to genetics, nor can there be. As Hume said "you cannot derive an ought from an is." Just telling us the facts about our genetic structure can never tell us that we should, or should not accept any particular axiom, no matter how scientifically it may be grounded in our genetic heritage. She is also overlooking the fact that humans are bundles of competing drives and interests. We are genetically predisposed to pull with the group, but we are also genetically predisposed to betray the group and seek our own way when it serves our interest to do so. Who is to say that this is not the true moral stance, after all this is also biologically based. Thus a biological basis for ethics is a pipe dream.

Did Socrates actually kick any asses? Too back we can't ask him, I'm sure he knows better now.

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