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Everybody needs to calm down about the Blood Moon (especially Christians)

I didn’t really believe it at first, but there it was, right on my Facebook feed. Someone talking about how the lunar eclipse that happened on Tuesday. Or, in their terms, the “blood moon.” I don’t really blame them, there are people who like to stir up hysteria and they make very convincing arguments with nice rhetoric. But they are mistaken about it, and usually don’t really care how often they are wrong (and if you look at the track record of the sorts of people who cause these hysterias they are almost always wrong). Nor was simply talking about the moon a problem. I mean everybody was talking about it. This was one of the clearest and fullest lunar eclipse of our lifetimes, and so it is a rare opportunity to view the moon looking almost entirely red. No, the problem was that the talk focused entirely upon a discussion of how the end of the world is about to happen at any minute. Now it may be the case that the end of world really is about to happen at minute, but it has nothing to do with the “blood moon” and here are three reasons why:

Someone get that moon a bandage. It's bleeding everywhere.

1. This is not the first lunar eclipse and it won’t be the last

This point is really pretty obvious. It is true that most ancients and medievalists thought the red moon or “blood moon” was a bad omen, but they thought that because it occurred periodically. However, when bad things followed such an event, it was really just a case of confirmation bias. That’s a phenomenon where you only pay attention to observations that confirm your already held suspicion. It’s not proof, it’s selective observation. “But this one’s different” I’ve heard and seen people say. Well…

2. This lunar eclipse is not really that different

It’s different in the sense that it looks a lot clearer and more obvious than most lunar eclipses we will likely witness in our lifetime. But it’s not different in the sense of paying attention to specific dates and times, etc. Do you know who set about creating calendars and such? People did. They are a social convention. Now, it is true that they’ve conformed generally to some external phenomenon, like the revolution of the earth around the sun, or the lunar cycle (note: the current Jewish Calendar is somewhere between the two). Still, it is ultimately a human invention. The Holy Days enacted in Scripture are an example of God accommodating his revelation to us. At least that seems to be the opinion of Paul in the 2nd chapter of Colossians (NIV):

16 Therefore do not let anyone judge you by what you eat or drink, or with regard to a religious festival, a New Moon celebration or a Sabbath day. 17 These are a shadow of the things that were to come; the reality, however, is found in Christ. 18 Do not let anyone who delights in false humility and the worship of angels disqualify you. Such a person also goes into great detail about what they have seen; they are puffed up with idle notions by their unspiritual mind. 19 They have lost connection with the head, from whom the whole body, supported and held together by its ligaments and sinews, grows as God causes it to grow.

In fact, the obsession with timing specific days and alignment with the planets as somehow an omen is not routed in Christianity. Instead, you would expect to find that sort of thing in Astrology and Paganism (both ancient and modern or neo-paganism).

“But” someone will object “what about those bible verses?”

3. Those Bible verses don’t necessarily mean what you think they do

There are, by my count, exactly three verses of the bible that refer to a red moon. And one of those is a New Testament passage explicitly quoting an Old Testament passage. So let’s look at that one first.

In Joel 2, it reads:

28 “And afterward,
    I will pour out my Spirit on all people.
Your sons and daughters will prophesy,
    your old men will dream dreams,
    your young men will see visions.
29 Even on my servants, both men and women,
    I will pour out my Spirit in those days.
30 I will show wonders in the heavens
    and on the earth,
    blood and fire and billows of smoke.
31 The sun will be turned to darkness
    and the moon to blood
    before the coming of the great and dreadful day of the Lord. (NIV)

Now that doesn’t sound so bleak. I mean, it does call it a “dreadful day of the Lord,” but the Hebrew text uses words in different ways than we do. I mean what’s with the prominence  of “Fear of the Lord” in Proverbs. Does that mean we should be scared and hiding from God, or does fear mean something else? Does “dreadful” mean something else? This becomes particularly clear in the context of the chapter. Immediately prior to this section, the prophet Joel describes the restoration of the land and provision from God, and immediately after Joel notes that all who call upon God will be saved. That’s not very bleak at all. In fact, if we look to the New Testament, we see how they understood its fulfillment.

At the beginning of Acts, immediately after the outpouring of the Spirit upon the Church at Pentecost, Peter gets up and starts shouting that this very passage has just been fulfilled. After all, the Spirit is being poured out on all of the church, not just an individual (as had been the case in the Old Testament). What’s more, he quotes the bit about the sun being black and the moon being blood during what, by all accounts, seems to be a pleasant day (people are outside celebrating this festival and no one is terrified). There’s no black sun and no red moon. What gives? It could be that the black sun and red moon mean something else entirely.

One more passage before I come back to that. In Revelation 6 we have the following appear:

12 I watched as he opened the sixth seal. There was a great earthquake. The sun turned black like sackcloth made of goat hair, the whole moon turned blood red, 13 and the stars in the sky fell to earth, as figs drop from a fig tree when shaken by a strong wind. 14 The heavens receded like a scroll being rolled up, and every mountain and island was removed from its place. (NIV)

It’s always interesting to me how different people treat the book of Revelation. (Sidenote: pet peeve of most biblical scholars: putting an “s” on the end of Revelation. If you know one, try it out and watch them squirm a little before apologizing). Everyone talks about taking it “literally” but what they mean by that varies.

-Revelation mentions that there will be two prophets against the city of Babylon? Well then, we better look for exactly two men who are prophesying against a pagan city, bonus points if that city is actually named Babylon.

-Revelation talks about a beast rising up out of the sea, a third of the stars falling from heaven? Well, I mean it’s not a “beast” but a person. And those stars are demons. Clearly a metaphor.

-Revelation mentions Jesus standing at the door and knocking? Well that is not bound to a specific time period in any way shape or form. Come on, give us some credit.

Here’s the problem with the above. How literal one takes Revelation depends upon how literal the one doing the reading decides to take it. And it usually is a personal choice, with little to no respect (or even awareness) of the genre in which the book was written. It’s read like a modern book, and one that the reader knows based upon a gut feeling (that gut feeling is not the Spirit, by the way. The Spirit is expressed in the full body of believers known as the Church). So we read it “literally” when it is convenient, and dispense with literality any time it is convenient or interesting to do so. That’s a problem. Revelation is a hard book to understand. I don’t claim to fully comprehend it, but while I’m willing to admit that, I do understand it on some level.

So what’s going on here?

Well John, the author of Revelation, is very adept at blending into Revelation and referencing a wide variety of Old Testament symbols. He doesn’t do so explicitly (partly because that would violate the genre in which he’s writing), but it is permeating by the Hebrew Bible. Given that the only reference to a red moon found in the Old Testament is in Joel, we should probably see if there is any overlap. For Joel, the use of the images of a black sun and red moon were indications of the end of the world. Not because Joel thought there natural occurrences would actually foretell the end of the world, but because this was an already established motif. Other cultures sure seemed to think that, but Joel didn’t (or, at the very least, Peter quoting Joel didn’t believe that). They are merely a more poetic way of talking about the end of history.

That fits pretty well with Revelation, but it doesn’t explain why Peter references it in Acts.

It helps if we understand that Peter was a Jew, not a Gentile Christian. As such, he had certain expectations about how the world would end. During the first century, this included a belief in the “resurrection of the dead.” Peter, and all the early church, wholeheartedly believed that Jesus was raised from the dead. For the early church, then, that meant the end of history wasn’t only eminent, but already present. The end of the world had come. Indeed, one question that 1-2 Thessalonians and Revelation are all trying to deal with is how the end of the world could have so clearly arrived, and yet the world not be over yet. It is then that the church began to make sense of Jesus’ statements that “A time is coming and is now here.” This is two Kingdoms theology. The end of the world has come, it has come in the Kingdom of God, which is the Church as it should be. It is at war with the kingdom of the world. Yet, in light of the resurrection of Christ and Pentecost, the kingdom of this world has already lost to the Kingdom of God. The end of the world has already happened. It’s coming, yes, but it’s already here. Maranatha!


Jay-Z aint got nothing on me: Revelation’s use of language

Two weeks ago, I said that Revelation was written in an already dominate style of Jewish apocalyptic, which we see in Daniel, and last week I briefly highlighted those distinguishing characteristics. I didn’t mention nationalism, which is true of Daniel, because it’s not true for Revelation, which is concerned with a nation not [‘ek tos’] out of this world. However, despite taking up most of the other aspects of Jewish apocalyptic, Christian apocalyptic literature also adds its own flair: they use language differently; and I’m not talking about Greek versus Hebrew.

Throwing off oppression

If you don’t recall, one of the key elements of apocalyptic literature is that it is from the perspective of the oppressed. In many ways it seeks to throw off oppression. The ones who seem defeated are actually triumphant. Those who are weak now will be lifted up. Those being persecuted will overcome and endure, if they remain faithful. All oppression will be overthrown (and is, in a very real sense, already overthrown). One of the most interesting examples of this is how the book of Revelation uses its language.

It is no secret that the Greek of Revelation is some of the most difficult in the New Testament. What is surprising to many, though, is that many of the words in Revelation don’t show up anywhere else in the bible, many of them don’t even show up in the written record we have other than here or there (and often times only in other Christian apocalyptic literature). This kind of thing happened in the apocalyptic sections of Joel (we are guessing on the different types of locusts), but there, most scholars are pretty sure Joel is drawing on seldom used words. In Revelation, it seems like some of the words are just made up. In the early copies of the book, many of the words are misspelled. It’s not that the copyists and scribes were lazy or careless. They are intentionally misspelled. Not only is the language used symbolically, it is used to quite literally throw off oppression. The dominate language of the Roman Empire, the Empire that, with Nero, had begun to oppress Christians was being “flung off” through its intentional misuse. Even when they use standard language, though, these writers (including John) change what the words mean. Words of derision or things to be despised become badges of honor, or names they use in their community.

It’s like old school rap

A professor in college made this analogy once (Bobby Kelley), I was a bit incredulous, until he made me aware of the music of a group like public enemy (if you want to avoid offensive lyrics, stop the video at 1:30 because it starts the song “fight the power” which does contain some “course” language):

Now if we look at that we see a few things. Sirens blaring, a voice saying “this time the revolution will not be televised.” What revolution? People coming out in military uniforms. In 2008 it may be nostalgia for their older album, in the 70s, 80s and early 90s, (and in some places even today), this was an oppressed group (the African American population) taking back power. Even the next song is politically charged from a group who saw themselves as part of a struggle against those who would beat a man for being black (Rodney King). That’s why they “fight the power.”

In the same way, the members of Public Enemy (despite the behavior of Flavor Flav), are incredibly intelligent. They don’t use language in its nontraditional sense because they don’t know any better, but specifically because they refuse to talk like their white oppressors (this coming from a WASP). It is a power move. Giving power to the powerless. While later groups would take a more explicitly violent turn (the so-called “gangsta rap”) the early pioneers were more about gaining power now through rhetoric and political mobilization. Even the use of different words, like the N-word, a terrible insult in its initial intent, suddenly is adopted by some rappers and becomes “their word.” I can’t use it anymore (not that I ever did) because they’ve taken control of it. Let’s bring this more up to date.


While a lot of modern rappers don’t fit this same mode of giving power to the powerless, I think Jay-Z perhaps does so best (at least some times). Let’s take a few examples.

In his song “Brush your shoulders off,” Jay-Z takes the word “pimp” a derisive term referring to criminal activity and often used tovia Wikimedia Commons via Flickr by ThaCreator [mm.art] from Chicago and NYC, USA demean the style of clothes some African Americans wore, and redefines it (or builds on earlier redefinitions):

If you’re feelin’ like a pimp,

Go on brush your shoulders off.

Ladies is pimps too.

Go on brush your shoulders off.

This is crazy baby, don’t forget that Jay told ya

Get/ that/ dirt off your shoulders.

In the song, he is telling people to stand tall. To let the insults and problems of the world roll off because they are a “pimp” which has suddenly (or rather, over the years) become a positive term. One more example, but I won’t quote the lyrics.

In “99 problems,” Jay-Z relays a variety of problems he is having, mostly related to being poor, young, or black. The tag line, which is catchy, is in effect that despite these problems he feels bad for those whose “girl problems” are so bad they feel they need to insult and demean the women in their life.

His point is not to say that he has his woman in line (like a dog), or has no girlfriend, but to say that he doesn’t view his relationship as a problem. It’s a wake-up call to say, in effect, “quit complaining about minor things, or insulting each other, we have real genuine problems that need addressing,” though delivered in a much more catchy way than that.

The Point

This is how Revelation should be read. As though you are a young black man in the early 80s listening to a rap record for the first time. Revelation was written to and for an oppressed people group (Christians) to show them that they weren’t really oppressed, they needed to stay together, and that they were winning the fight (which is not against flesh and blood). The analogy doesn’t carry all the way, but it does at key points.

Disclaimer: If you look up the lyrics to these songs, be warned they are very crass and use a lot of foul language. I am not saying they are “Christian” musicians, per se, but trying to give a more contemporary example of how a medium was used in order to help give a better picture of what John’s intent was with the book of Revelation.

What do I mean by “apocalyptic”? Revelation (Difficult Passages)

Quick Review

Last week, I stated that the book of Revelation (like other Christian Apocalyptic literature, which is not in the biblical canon) is actually an attempt, in many ways, to imitate the earlier Jewish form of apocalyptic. The reason I am taking the time to talk about the genre of Revelation is that it can too easily be misunderstood or misinterpreted if we don’t take that into account. To be sure there are other examples of Jewish Apocalyptic, also non-canonical, that help us to see the characteristics of the genre. Next week I’ll talk about the uniquely Christian contribution to the genre, but this week I want to focus on the characteristics of Jewish apocalyptic, most of which we find in Daniel and Revelation. (Well, not the first one)

The Characteristics

  1. Pseudonymous: This one really doesn’t apply to either Revelation or Daniel in my opinion (I explain in a sec). Most Apocalyptic literature is written under an assumed name (such as “The book of Enoch” for Jewish literature, or “The Apocalypse of Peter” for Christian Literature). Usually the idea was that it had been written long ago and was only just now being discovered. Because it deals with events at the end of the world, this gives it an additional sense of urgency because the end could be closer at hand. The fact that the authorship was false (and usually known to be false) is likely why other examples were excluded from the canon. However, usually there is a phrase where the writer is supposedly told to “seal these things up” until the time is much closer. No such phrase appears in either Daniel or Revelation. In fact, John is specifically told not to seal them up because they will soon take place.
  2. It is something hidden now revealed: This is accomplished by some of the rejected apocalyptic literature by claiming the message was sealed until now (while in Revelation it’s very heavily against “sealing” things, often breaking seals). The point is that the message is so beyond the speaker/author it could only come by supernatural means. One could not look around and see that this was the case (while other prophets often condemn the people for not already knowing the content of their message from what God had previously told them).
  3. Future orientation: Isn’t this just prophecy? Well yes and no. Prophecy technically refers to someone with a message for a people right then and there, and the prophet is just the person who relays the message from God. Sometimes this includes a future element, but usually there isn’t one at all. (For instance, in Jonah where is the future element?). Even when there is a future element, though, it is usually very vague and can easily be applied to the present situation of the author/prophet as well. The one exception is Isaiah who, after chapter 40 delivers a message to Israel in exile (though it applied to his audience then), and eventually gives a specific message relaying the identity of the historical redeemer (Cyrus/Darius). However, his reason for doing so is not to give a message about the future. Rather, he is demonstrating how the God of Israel (Yahweh) is the only genuine god and that other gods and idols are silly. Thus the specific future is offered as evidence (because only the true God could do that). Contrast that with Daniel and Revelation, though, who talk about future events, for the sake of talking about future events. They want to relay what will happen.
  4. The future is set: While the intervening history may be a little more open, in both Jewish and Christian apocalyptic there is a sense that certain key events, particularly those at the end of the world, are set in stone. They are going to happen. God, Yahweh, is going to come back and establish his throne. It is inescapable.
  5. The message is mediated: In contrast to the prophets who receive their message direct from Yahweh, the writer of Apocalyptic literature receives his message indirectly. While this may come in the form of a vision, it also occurs via an Angel, something not previously seen as a bearer of a lengthy message. While Ezekiel, in particular, utilizes the concept of vision, in the book it is clear that the vision is direct from God (and other times, Yahweh speaks directly to Ezekiel). On the other hand Daniel either receives his vision from an Angel or just says he had a vision, without relaying the source.
  6. Use of fantastical imagery: There is imagery that seems to clearly not belong to this world. Animals of a kind never seen before. Statues too massive to be real. This is common place in apocalyptic literature. Again Ezekiel shares some of this (which has led some to argue sections of Ezekiel should be apocalyptic not prophetic), but on the whole it doesn’t fit the genre.
  7. Contrasting “Present” with “The End”: There is a sense of a huge disparity between now and then (the end of the world). What is happening now will be destroyed (often violently) and give way to what happens at the end, usually God acting as King in a more explicit visual than is seen throughout the rest of the bible.
  8. Intentional obscuring of the message: The use of symbolism is not meant to convey multiple connotations necessarily (though it may do that), as in other biblical literature, but is intentionally done to obscure the meaning. There are a few reasons for this: 1) To intentionally give a sense of uncertainty to the reader so they don’t rely exclusively on that writing, but look to other literature (Gospels and Torah). 2) To add to the otherworldly sense of the writing. 3) To ensure it could only be completely understood by those who were part of the “in crowd.” That is, only the community to which it was intended would have the necessary information to understand what was being written. This was important because…
  9. It is written from the perspective of the oppressed: The writers are generally writing from a position of powerlessness, and speaking to a time when God will reign in power. There is coming a great upheaval. This perspective of oppression is likely the most important feature. Think about Daniel, which was written from those in the exile. Revelation was written either in the reign of Nero (early date) or Domitian (later date) both of whom began a massive campaign against Christians. This will also play into the unique features of Christian Apocalyptic I’ll get into next week.

You think you’ve got it bad, don’t talk to Athanasius

Today’s church history minute is about Athanasius

Who was he? Athanasius was a fourth century bishop in Alexandria. He is famous for his opposition to the Arians. Arianism revolved around a controversy with respect to who Christ was. It amounts to a denial of the full Trinity. While Arius said Jesus was divine, he claimed Jesus had been created (not eternal) and was not of equal status with God the Father. Athanasius, a fairly young bishop, was a leaders (or possibly the leader) at the First Council of Nicaea, an ecumenical (all the churches) council to decide the issue. The Nicene creed became the standard of orthodoxy, affirming the Trinity, including the full divinity and humanity of Christ, and still the final document accepted by East and West

There’s Athanasius, clearly having been able to escape earlier attempts on his life. Fear the Beard. (image public domain, obtained via Wikicommons)

(although the introduction of “Filioque” (and the Son) was the last straw in the divide between the two). After the council, though, Athanasius returned to his home in Alexandria to find a less-than-welcoming welcome. He spent the majority of the next few years on the run from supporters of Arius and political opponents, often fearing for his life. More than once he made daring “Hollywood-type” escapes. On one occasion, he came to preach at a church and, knowing his enemies were waiting for him, he held the prayer a bit longer and turned the service over to a fellow priest while he slipped out the back and hopped on a boat in the nick of time.

Why was he important? Eventually Nicene Christianity (that is, the Christianity you know) prevailed. This is in thanks, in no small part, to Athanasius. In case you are wondering whether your orthodox belief was just an accident of history, it certainly was not. Athanasius, who was instrumental but not final in the formation of canon as well, was able to provide something of an objective criteria for the biblical books. While the core of the New Testament (the 4 gospels) was never genuinely challenged, the other books were frequently debated about (see my series on where our bible came from). Athanasius was able to provide criteria that included books which made sense with the gospels and the Old Testament (unlike competing criteria). It is doubtful Christianity would have survived had it taken another form (one that contradicted itself openly), and personally I think it struck the truth of the matter.

Fun Fact: Because he was so frequently on the run, he was given the nickname “Athanasius contra mundum” or “Athanasius against the world.” Doesn’t he sound fun?

Where might I have heard of him? Aside from the Athanasian Creed (which he didn’t write), he is known for writing many important works. The most well known and frequently read probably being On the Incarnation, which was a personal favorite of C. S. Lewis (who wrote the introduction for most English translations).

The Bible used in the Bible

Today’s Church history minute is all about The Septuagint (or LXX).

A portion from a copy of the Septuagint

What is it? The Septuagint was the first comprehensively translated AND widely used translations of a religious text from a source language into a cultural language. It was a translation of what we know as the Old Testament (or Hebrew Bible) into Koine (or Hellenistic) Greek, and included additional works that likely only ever existed in Greek, much of which makes of the deutero-canon or apocrypha of the Roman Catholic Church and various Eastern Orthodox churches. It was not the first translation from Hebrew to Greek, but may have been the most comprehensive and was certainly the most pervasive of the pre-Christian translations. The legend is that it took seventy scribes seventy days to translate the Torah (the first five books), and that they each worked independently producing identical translations, demonstrating that the translation was divinely inspired. In truth, this is very unlikely, and the only evidence for it is a letter written centuries after the appearance of the work. (Considering that there is variation within copies of the Septuagint, it only compounds the unlikely-ness of the story). Nevertheless, from that story the version takes its name.

Why is it important? Well, for starters, it was the bible that was primarily read during the time of Jesus. Most Jewish people (and gentiles, realistically) did not read or speak Hebrew. Instead the common language was Greek (not Latin, despite their Roman rule). When the New Testament was being written down, it is now clear that when they decided to quote the Old Testament, they usually used the Septuagint, similar to how we would quote an English translation rather than providing our own. Now on occasion Paul would not do this, but provide his own translation or, somewhat less likely, use a competing translation that is now lost. Yet its significance is also in aiding us getting to a more original Hebrew Manuscript. While the Masoretic Text (the primary Hebrew text used) is excellent, it does, on occasion, differ decidedly and strangely from the Septuagint. After the discovery of the Dead Sea Scrolls in particular, scholars have been able to approximate what the original text likely was.

Fun Fact: Most Eastern Orthodox churches prefer to use the Septuagint (or translations from it) rather than the Hebrew Bible, which is more common in Western churches. While this rarely makes a difference, it may on occasion color the interpretation offered of a passage.

Where might I have heard of it? Unless you know someone who is either a) a member of an Eastern Orthodox church or b) a bible nerd, you have probably only heard about it in passing. If you are not a seminarian, pastor or scholar and heard about it in more depth before today, congratulations, you’re probably a bible nerd (it’s ok, really. Nerds are cool now).

Book Review: The Bible is Beautiful

This is a review of a book The Bible is Beautiful which you can get from Amazon by clicking the title over there. Before I begin, I should note a few things, in the interest of transparency:

1) I know Brett Davis (the author) personally and we went to Beeson Divinity School Together

2) This is not an academic book. If that’s what you’re looking for, ask in the comments and I may have some more “academic” oriented works

3) I was provided a free electronic copy of the book for the purposes of review.

With that said:

Brett Davis’s book The Bible is Beautiful sets out to demonstrate just that; it seeks to help the reader recapture, or grasp for the first time, the wonder and joy of reading the bible anew. At its root, the book is primarily what you might call a general “biblical theology,” though to read it only as that would be a mistake.

Admittedly, at the beginning, the writing style has a certain level of inexperience (not that I’m one to talk) and unfamiliarity with these type of writing projects, a fact that he readily acknowledges in the introduction and that one would expect from a first book. It does take him a few pages to “get his footing” so to speak. Despite that, though, his self-aware inexperience brings a certain humility and approachability to his writing. You don’t feel like he is talking at you, but going on this journey with you. He is enamored with the bible, and it comes through in his writing. And then, once he seems to feel a bit more comfortable with his writing, things really take off, and in a very good way.

I think the book is worth a look if only for the introduction. In it, Davis makes some really good points about how we have approached the bible, and how we should. Seriously, this is not one to skip past. The rest of the book goes through the story of the bible, following the traditional Western Church’s ordering of books.

The pace is both blistering, yet easy to follow. Davis’s writing is remarkably readable and relatable. The scope is the entire bible, no easy task, yet at no point did I feel especially rushed. Also, to his credit, while he could have easily skipped some of the more difficult passages of the bible, he doesn’t. He dives right in. Rather than explaining them away or giving trite answers, Davis acknowledges the problems and embraces them. The bible is messy at times. Its story is messy. As well it should be. Because it is our story and God’s story. And we are messy and God continually comes into our messy story to inject his beauty. The way Brett Davis handles these portions is some of the best work in biblical theology I’ve seen in a while.

There is a certain pastoral sense to reading as well that really comes across. As a reader you can sense that Davis isn’t concerned with the finer theological debates that have split and divided denominations for centuries. He’s concerned with the story of the bible, and what it says then and says to us now. That’s a very good thing.

One of the key values in the book is its versatility. While it will not likely bring any earth shattering revelations to the seasoned academic, the way in which Davis tells the story nevertheless should make anyone who wants to be obsessed with the bible rediscover some of that passion. The new Christian, or even someone whose never been to a church, need not feel intimidated either. In fact, I’d recommend it most especially for those who have no background with the bible as he does a wonderful job of setting the various biblical passages within the framework of the greater story being told. Although a quick read through is done easily enough, I’d encourage readers to use the footnotes. While they occasionally act primarily as references, the scripture references can help to be jumping off points for more in depth studies, and his humor does show up occasionally in them.

I’d certainly recommend this book for anyone wanting a better grasp of the bible and especially for those wanting to see the bible from a different perspective and see it, as Davis puts it, as the beautiful story it is. As my final recommendation for those a bit more advanced, let me put it this way. When I taught Biblical Perspectives (a rather sweeping survey course), I would recommend for those interested in a biblical theology the work of Graham Goldsworthy. I still think I’d do that today, but I’d probably also add this book to the list, and be sure to tell students that if Goldsworthy seems a bit too intimidating, The Bible is Beautiful, is a much more accessible starting point for seeing how a linear biblical theology is done, and a good introduction to reading it through.

Well done Brett, and thanks for a truly enjoyable read.

Again to buy it (or if you are on Amazon Prime, get it for free) go here.

If you want to go to the author’s blog, it’s here, though it’s been stale since October (but I wouldn’t know what that’s like)

Where did our Bible come from? Part 11: Inspiration of Scripture

This is part of a series. Click here for parts 1, 2, 3, 4, 5, 6, 7, 8, 9, and 10, especially because it has been a while and you might like a review.

So when I left off the series I had given five of the six major criteria the early church had for determining canonicity. These were not criteria that were arbitrarily selected, but upon examining those writings that unquestionably functioned as Scripture, they noticed these criteria in common and they were held exclusively by these canonical Scripture. While books outside the canon may have held one or even a few of these criteria, only those within the canon held them all. However, the one criteria that only Scripture held and all Scripture held is the final, and most important, criteria: Inspiration.

The word “inspiration” is used in a variety of ways in our world today, so perhaps we should be more clear about what we mean. As best as I can tell there are seven ways that inspiration can be used to talk about the bible, six of which assume some sort of divine place and one of which does not. We might think of them as on a scale. I’ll list them below with the top assuming that God is the sole author of the writing and the bottom assuming man is the sole author of the writing. I’ve given them the standard label in theological language here and discuss them below.

1)    Dictation

2)    Verbal Plenary

3)    Dynamic

4)    Neo-Orthodox/Witness view

5)    Spiritually Illuminated Human

6)    Limited Inspiration

7)    Just Inspiring

Now, I should mention that there can be a significant amount of overlap between some of these groups. I also think that one can be perfectly justified in saying different sections of scripture were inspired differently, at least with the ‘dictation’ view. Let me explain. It seems pretty clear that portions of the Torah, the first five books of the bible, were dictated from God to Moses, who spoke with God face to face. Still, it seems unlikely that the same could be said for other portions of Scripture, such as some of the psalms, where the writer is asking God to do rather ungodly things (“Happy be they who dash their infants heads against the rocks”). Still, even with that diversity, I’d maintain that the early church stayed in the top part of that list, and that the contemporary church would do well to do the same, or else risk losing any real sense of authority beyond itself. Let me briefly explain each of these views.

The dictation view states that God wrote the Scripture in its entirety and the human writer functioned merely as a sort of Scribe.

The verbal plenary view states that God fully inspired every word of Scripture completely. It is sometimes taken to the extent that it was inspired beyond what would have been possible for the human author to have known, particularly in stretching to areas beyond theology. For instance the view that Genesis 1 is not only saying something theologically, but is also saying something about history and science is an example of a verbal plenary view of inspiration.

The dynamic view of inspiration indicates that the human author and divine author have a kind of partnership; not in the sense that each does a portion, but that the Holy Spirit works together with the human author to produce something unique to both.

The neo-orthodox view makes an interesting move. Associated largely with Karl Barth (though arguably going back as far as Martin Kähler), this view says that the written Scripture we have is not, itself, the Word of God. Instead the Word of God is God’s activity in history. As such, Scripture is merely the witness to the Word of God and not the Word itself. Jesus is the Word of God. Divine action is the Word of God. Even preaching may function as the Word of God. It is for this latter reason that this theology also began to be called ‘kerygmatic theology.’

The spiritually illuminated view of inspiration is the position that inspiration just means that the human author received some additional divine insight, but that the writing (scripture) is still essentially human.

The limited inspiration view is the position that only some areas of scripture can really be described as inspired and much likely isn’t inspired divinely.

The final view is a non-religious view. It simply states that if something is somehow uplifting it is, therefore, inspired.

As I’ve said, it seems best to keep to the top half of the list, but I wanted to put all these views out there so that you were informed (if you hadn’t been). What do you think? Do you think we should only keep to one particular view of inspiration? Which one?

Where did our Bible come from? Part 10: the next three criteria

This post is part of a series, click back to the home page to review any part of it you may have missed.

Last time I talked about two (of six) criteria that were used, though likely not consciously, by the early church to determine which books, letters, and other writings would be considered part of Scripture. This time, I’m going to talk about the remaining four. As a reminder, I’ve based these criteria (though slightly modified) off of F. F. Bruce’s found in The Canon of Scripture.


While this seems to put the cart before the horse (doesn’t Scripture establish what is, in fact, orthodoxy), it is a useful criteria. In this case, what it means is that nothing that directly contradicts another section of already accepted Scripture could be included in the final product. This is a way to explain why Marcion’s canon, which wanted to pit the Old Testament against the New Testament, failed: Marcion contradicted what was already accepted as orthodoxy.

Also keep in mind that the Scripture were written as a response to the actions of God as they were observed. First and foremost in the writers’ minds was that Jesus was truly God, and truly human, and that he really died and was raised from the dead. Anything that contradicted that (as many of the “Gnostic” texts did) could not be considered part of the canon. Again, this wasn’t something they decided to sit down and apply, but came about likely due to common sense.


This should be understood in terms of “universality.” In other words, the only things that were considered part of the canon were things that could be (or had been) accepted widely. An example might help.

The letters of Clement were widely accepted and highly praised in parts of the Roman Empire, particularly near Rome. However, they did not enjoy much acceptance in other parts of the Empire (and beyond) where the Church was well established. In short, these letters didn’t seem to apply to everyone. That is an important criteria for the Scriptures: they are universal in their scope. That also means that the Scriptures we read today are, in that same way, timeless. Yes they may have been written for a specific situation at a specific time, but early on people recognized that they could apply well beyond that narrow purpose to the broader purpose of Scripture.

Use as Scripture

I’ve argued this a few times already in this series so I won’t belabor the point. The main thing I want to keep in mind here is that before any Church council acknowledged what was, in fact, already Scripture, these documents had already begun to function in that way. These books showed evidence of all of these criteria mentioned so far and had already begun to be used with some authority. The final criterion, though, is probably the most significant. Because of that, I’m giving it its own post.

So come back next time as I talk about the many nuances behind what we mean when we say Scripture is “inspired.” Yes, the next post will be all about Inspiration.

Where did our Bible come from? Part 9: The first two Criteria for Canonicity

This post is part of a series. To catch up you clan click to read parts 1, 2, 3, 4, 5, 6, 7, and 8

As I’ve already mentioned, following the Diatesseron (which wasn’t itself really a controversy), there no real major controversies surrounding the acceptance what we now take to be the bible. While there may have been minor disagreements, these gradually faded and by the time of Eusebius, the Murotorian Fragment and Athanasius most of these had dissipated to the point where the council that finally approved the canon was merely confirming what the churches had already decided was authoritative. The books that were accepted all seemed to meet the same criteria, which, while never formally written down in this period, can help to shed light on why these books were seen as somehow authoritative. In the following list, I’ll follow, more or less, the scheme laid out by F. F. Bruce in his book The Canon of Scripture which I would highly recommend if you want to read more about this history.


For the New Testament, one of the most important factors seems to have been that the book in question had some direct link to an apostle. By this, apostle should be understood in the sense of someone who saw the risen. Paul could lay hold to this claim because he saw Jesus on the road to Damascus before beginning a period of instruction in the dessert.

This means that anything written by an apostle would meet the criteria. Paul’s letters therefore fit the bill, as do the gospels of John and Matthew, along with the letters of John. This idea of a link also seemed to have included those who studied directly with an apostle. For this reason Luke and Acts (Luke was known as Paul’s companion and seems to have accompanied Peter for a time) could be included as could Mark (who, it is believed, was collecting stories recounted by Peter), as well as Hebrews, if it wasn’t written by Paul (I personally like Martin Luther’s argument that Apollos wrote it). And it seems every book in the New Testament would meet this criteria.

Early Composition

It seems that this served more to eliminate certain books than include others. For instance, the Sheperd of Hermas was very well received for a long period of time, and could have been written by someone who knew one the apostles. However, it was written very late relative to when the rest of the New Testament was written. Why, however, is this important?

As I’ve mentioned a few times, the New Testament was written in an incredibly narrow period of time. While the Old Testament took centuries, if not millennia, the New Testament was written in a matter of a few decades. That, together with apostolicity, serves to highlight two points.

First, what we have in the bible is first hand accounts or the record of first hand accounts. In dealing with history, these are people who saw something and wrote as a response to what they saw. In short, they were true witnesses. This lends their statements a certain (high) amount of credibility. While most ancient sources may have long periods of history between when the events they describe occurred and when it was written down, no such historical gap exists for the bible. Although it may seem like a long time to us now to have a distance of 30 or 40 years between the resurrection and the emergence of the four written gospels, in ancient terms this was an incredibly short distance. Additionally, it can be argued that this time was needed both for the early work of building the church and so that the events could adequately be processed. It seems very clear from the gospel accounts that at the time the events happened the disciples didn’t really grasp the full weight of what they had seen. It took time to process this before they understood it. The resurrection made them realize that it was important, but only time spent with the Holy Spirit could make them realize why and how it was important.

Second, this brief period of time during which the New Testament was written highlights the true impact of the resurrection. The resurrection, like the incarnation and crucifixion, was a game changer. Unlike those other events, though, the resurrection could not be explained away as simply coincidental phenomena. This was something unique. Not only was it unique, though, it also fundamentally changed the nature of God’s relation with man, both in our direct relationship with him as adopted child to father or bride to a groom, and also in our relation with his self-revelation. Here, as had never before occurred, in Jesus people saw God unmediated. There he was as a person. In the resurrection, the limitation of human flesh was stripped away and we caught a glimpse not only of God the Son, but of the heavenly reality of the Kingdom of God. So impactful was this encounter that it demanded a huge explosion of writing. Not only that, but the writing could not even keep up, prompting John to note that we would never be able to write down everything Jesus did.

The resurrection, along with the ascension and then the receipt of the Holy Spirit at Pentecost, also meant that the nature of revelation had changed. No longer would revelation be of this authoritative sort. This doesn’t mean that God isn’t active or even that he doesn’t reveal himself today. Instead, it means that Jesus was the apex of revelation. Not until his return will anything be close to the level of revelation witnessed at the resurrection. Thus the New Testament, in a way, is more important than the Old Testament because it bears witness to this height of revelation. Let me just add the caveat, though, that without the Old Testament as a backdrop, the New Testament makes very little sense to us. Not only that, though, now through the Holy Spirit the Church has a sustained direct access to God that was not available prior to the Incarnation of Jesus. This access is available to everyone allowing us to have an intimate relationship with God and, as the New Testament makes clear, the primary means the Holy Spirit guides us is through this already established revelation (though I would admit not exclusively).

Since that is the cases we can say that the canon is closed, even ignoring these other criteria. However, it may still be fruitful to explore these other criteria and since I’ve gone on for so long about these two, I’ll have to come back to them next time.

Where did our Bible Come from? Part 7: Marcion

This is part of a series. You can go back and read parts 1, 2, 3, 4, 5, and 6 if you feel like you’ve missed something.

Emerging from Conflict

Last time I established the window during which the New Testament went from non-existence to formal acknowledgement of the 27 books we know as the canon. There I framed this process largely in terms of a response to Gnosticism (I’ll have to do a posts on the Gnostics at some point). In the comments a former classmate of mine noted that this category of Gnosticism might not be very helpful. While I agree that we should avoid viewing it as a monolithic group, and we should avoid too much of a dualistic distinction between them and Christianity, at least historically, I nevertheless still feel it is a valid and useful category. However, what this revealed was a presupposition that I had neglected to state from the beginning of my dialogue on the New Testament.

While I believe that the canon was formed and began to function as authoritative for one set of reasons, I believe that the formal recognition of this canon by the Church was due to an entirely different set of reasons. Essentially, it is my contention that the Church developed a formal recognition of the biblical canon in response to conflict.

To a certain extent, this makes sense. Think of morality. There are certain things we just instinctually know are wrong, things that make the blood boil: like murder. However, there are other things that are only wrong insofar as they lead to other wrongs. For instance, there is nothing in traffic regulations that makes obeying them inherently good or disobeying them inherently bad. However, their function in keeping other individuals safe is what makes them appropriate rules. In the same way, the gospel is Christ Jesus. That is he is inherently the person (and God) whom you put your trust in, follow, rely upon for salvation, and look to as a source of authority. There is nothing in particular words on a page that make them in favor of that or against that. However, in distinction from traffic laws, what we consider Scripture is not arbitrary. There is this thing, we call it inspiration, that Scripture has and non-scripture doesn’t (and so maybe there is something to these words on a page). So we don’t create the Scripture (as with traffic laws), but we identify what is Scripture. However, there is no need to distinguish between the two on a day to day basis if there is nothing else pretending to hold the same claim as Scripture: namely that it points to Christ Jesus. Therefore, it is only in the presence of conflict, when other people suggested limiting, adding to, or changing the Scriptures in such a way that they no longer pointed to Christ, that it becomes necessary to come up with a rule (greek: kanon, it’s the same word that we use for canon of Scripture) for determining what will count as Scripture.

So, while Scripture itself, being inspired, is distinct from other claims to authority, it is only in the face of conflict that there is a need to distinguish between what is actually Scripture and everything else. In the last post, I mentioned the conflict between what I consider the orthodox church and the Gnostic pseudo-church. However, it is likely that a large chunk of the New Testament began to be recognized as canonical in large part due to a very early controversy. Specifically, I’m talking about Marcionism.

The Marcion Controversy

While Eusebius claims that Marcion was a Gnostic (I should really do that post), this seems incredibly unlikely because, given what we can reconstruct from his critics, he would have had little tolerance for many of their myths. Still, given some other aspects of Marcion it is possibly an understandable mistake.

Marcion started out as a Bishop in the early church. However, he began to teach, and advocate, a very specific limitation of the biblical canon. Marcion seemed to believe that the God of the Old Testament (YHWH) was not the same as the Father of Jesus. Instead, he argued that the Old Testament God was a wicked God, who was vengeful, demanded bloody sacrifice, created the material world (which he believed was evil), and generally angry. He believed that the true God was the “unknown” or “alien” God who was different from the Old Testament God. Jesus’ resurrection, according to Marcion, proved that the God of Jesus was superior to the Old Testament God and that is whom we follow.

While most of this comes from his critics, most notably Tertullian, my homeboy (not really), we nevertheless have good reason to believe it is accurate. This is, in part, because the dualistic understanding of the world, like the Gnostics after him, is rooted in religious Platonism that was common during this time. And the exact same controversy that happened with Marcion occurred again in the tenth and thirteenth century.

In order to make the evidence better fit his vision, Marcion compiled the first canon of what he considered Christian Scripture. In it he included a single Gospel, most likely Luke’s Gospel, heavily edited to remove Old Testament references and (it seems) any of the birth narratives. Then he included ten of Paul’s letters (not the pastorals), also heavily edited. The Old Testament was completely removed. As a result of his teaching and his decision to limit the canon to these books, Marcion was told to stop teaching these doctrines and stop promoting this far too limited canon. He refused and became one of the earliest heretics, subsequently pushed out of the mainline church (often called the “proto-orthodox” church because Orthodoxy came to be associated with adherence to the Nicene Creed which had yet to be written). Rather than keep quiet, though, Marcion instead established his own church against the Christian church, though it eventually dwindled and disappeared, with almost all evidence of its existence being removed.

Oh, and all of this happened before 160 (around the time Marcion died)! That’s incredibly early. Marcion was likely born around 85, during which time the New Testament had either just been written (by the most conservative accounts) or was still being written down. I say this now so you don’t get the idea that the Christian church was going around for centuries without any clear decisions on canon, some of the earliest decisions had be made almost immediately after the writing of the New Testament.

The Reaction

In what is an incredibly rare occurrence, I find myself in (qualified) agreement with Bart Ehrman, along with other scholars. The majority of scholarship argues (rightly I think) that the Marcionite Controversy was probably one the most, if not the most, significant moment for identifying the New Testament canon. Ehrman is again likely correct when he identifies the story, circulated by Epiphanius, of Marcion attempting to “seduce a virgin bride” prior to his excommunication not as Christian slander (as other scholars had argued), but as a metaphor for Marcion trying to seduce the church (the virgin Bride of Christ) (don’t get used to my agreeing with Ehrman, it’s not likely to happen again). What this reveals is that the majority of the church, and not just bishops but congregants too, recognized that there was something wrong not only with Marcion’s theology, but with his canon.

The church decided a few things as a result of this. First, the Old Testament could not be dispensed with. It was, instead, integral and foundational to the understanding of God. Jesus was not preaching about a different God than the one in the Old Testament, Jesus was the God of the Old Testament and in relation with that same God as Son to Father. Jesus, and Paul, quoted the Old Testament at length, not to dispute it, but to affirm it and use it authoritatively, the Old Testament could not be expunged.

Second, the Church decided that they need all four gospels, as they were written. No harmony of the gospels that unified them into a single document would be appropriate. Keep this in mind, incidentally, when people point out any supposed “discrepancies” between the four gospels. The early church was not ignorant of these, but they neither considered them genuine contradictions, nor particularly troubling. What was important, it seems, was that all four voices (Gospels) were permitted to speak.

Third, the Church felt the early canon beyond the Old Testament and the Gospels should include more than just the ten letters of Paul that Marcion noted (and, if it is correct he included things like the letter to the Laodecians, we might be able to surmise that some of the letters where either considered inauthentic or inappropriate for the New Testament canon). Thus, while the four Gospels and the Old Testament were accepted, the Church was still trying to identify what else could validly be considered Scripture. This process we’ll keep talking about in the next post(s).

Sidenote: I’m going to skip talking in depth about the Ebionites, who would be the polar opposite of Marcion. In short, the Ebionites believed Jesus was the Jewish Messiah, and that all of Judaic law still remained. Thus they were essentially Jewish with a few Christian elements. As such they accepted the Old Testament, an edited version of Matthew’s Gospel, parts of James and (possibly) Hebrews in an edited form. I am not going to talk about them in depth because 1) very little beyond that is actually known about them (this may be due to the fact that they were even earlier than Marcion), 2) they were never really Christian, and were more likely Jews who were pushed to Jewish fringe (yet failed to accept the full gospel, and 3) they were never large enough to create the same level of conflict that Marcion did. Finally, they were rejected for essentially the same reasons that Paul gives for rejecting the Judaizers (see the Galatians series on this blog for more on that).

Things to Keep in Mind Today

Today, although most Christians outright reject Marcionism in name, they nevertheless function as followers of Marcion. Two-thirds of the bible is Old Testament, and, within the New Testament, slightly less than a third was written by Paul. Why, then, does the preaching in most churches limit itself largely to Paul, and when it does deviate from that it remains mostly in the New Testament. If we accept the full canon of Scripture we should preach all of it (pastors), and read all of it (everyone).

Second, theologically we need to avoid Marcion thinking as well. The Old Testament God and covenant is not in conflict with the New Testament. It is the same God, and he covenants with his people in much the same way (though obviously the incarnation changes that in a radical manner). If we ever find ourselves setting up a dichotomy between a God of grace and a God of works, we have failed to read the bible properly. Let me be very clear: God has always been a God primarily of grace. This grace has never negated the requirement for good works. Instead, the grace of God should always be understood as the foundation for all good works. Good works are neither superfluous, nor the way we receive grace. Instead we receive grace and that has the result in us of good works and seeking to maintain continued relationship with God.

What do you think: Do you sometimes find yourself slipping into the line of thinking of Marcion? What can be done to avoid this?

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