Book Review: 40 Questions about the Historical Jesus (Pate)

40 Questions about the Historical Jesus (Pate)Whatever you may think about him or his followers, Jesus of Nazareth continues to capture the attention of billions across the planet. From church-going Christians and New Atheists to the media and academics, Jesus remains a pretty popular guy, at least in terms of the time spent discussing this first century Palestinian Jew and his various views on contemporary issues. Amidst these ongoing conversations about what Jesus would think or say about the latest news cycle there are those who have proposed a quest (or, more accurately, quests) for the real Jesus of Nazareth, the Jesus of history who stands behind the Jesus of Christian faith. These voices—which are by no means new—have long influenced the popular understanding of the Nazarene and continue to shape how many people interpret the message of Jesus. However, many practicing Christians remain generally unaware of the divergent claims regarding the “Jesus of Faith” and the “Jesus of History” and are (understandably) concerned when they first encounter such statements. Continue reading

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Were the Gospel Writers Eyewitnesses? Mark

This post is part of an ongoing series examining whether or not the writers of the canonical gospels were eyewitnesses to the life of Jesus.

The Gospel of MarkWe begin our examination of the question “Were the Gospel writers eyewitnesses?” with consideration of may have been the earliest written record of Jesus’ life, that narrative referred to as the Gospel According to Mark. Many modern scholars believe that Mark’s gospel was written between 50-70 CE,[1] placing its composition within one generation of the life and death of the historical Jesus of Nazareth.  Mark’s Gospel does not explicitly profess to have been written by an eyewitness to Jesus, though some traditions and interpreters have understood Mark’s account to have been based primarily upon the theology and understandings of the Apostle Peter (who would have been an eyewitness to the accounts recorded therein). Continue reading

Book Review: Urban Legends of the New Testament (Croteau)

Urban Legends of the New Testament (Croteau)In an age of easily-accessible information, misinformation abounds. In a world with more books, peer-reviewed articles, and professionals dedicated to understandings the intricacies of the past, present, and future of the universe, many people (perhaps even most people) are shockingly uninformed. While this paradox of unknowing plagues almost every field of human interaction and learning, it is especially acute within large portions of the Christian Church. To the detriment of their faith and witness, Christians of all types know strikingly little about the Bible and history of their Church. Not surprisingly, then, Christianity has developed its own set of urban legends, those stories which are commonly circulated as common knowledge despite their inaccuracy. To dispel some of these myths, David A. Croteau has penned Urban Legends of the New Testament: 40 Common Misconceptions (Nashville: B&H Academic, 2015), a clear and straightforward work which begins the process of clarifying and explaining away some of the most common misrepresentations of the New Testament. Continue reading

Scripture in Ephrem’s Madrashe

This post is part of an ongoing series examining Ephrem the Syrian and early Syriac Christianity.
Ephrem the Syrian

Ephrem the Syrian

While most analysis of Syrian madrashe has focused on its metrical form, authorship, origins, and liturgical setting, comparatively little attention has been paid to the contents of the madrashe. To form a fully contextualized understanding of Syrian madrashe, additional attention should be paid to the theological nature and contents of madrashe, especially its relationship to scripture. Finally, the particular manner in which Ephrem “rewrites” scripture for his community of faith is worthy of additional attention, as this feature of his writing points to the need for study on how madrashe employ and co-opt scripture. The essay which follows reflects on the place and function of scripture in Ephrem’s madrashe. Continue reading

Numbering the Psalms?

Book of PsalmsThe Psalms have long been the hymnal of Christian worship. Jesus and his disciples sang the psalms of the Hebrew Bible and the practice continued with Paul and other early followers of Christ. In fact, insofar as we can tell, Christians of the first two centuries used the Psalm more than any other book of the Christian Old Testament.[1] As the Church continued to grow and other Christian liturgical materials appeared (for example, the Odes of Solomon and hymns of Ephrem and Ambrose), the Psalms continued to form the basis for much Christian worship. By the fourth and fifth centuries, numerous commentaries on the theological and historical meanings of the Psalms had appeared, further cementing the Psalms as the foundational source for Christian worship of God in Trinity. Continue reading

Five Things Everyone Should Know About the Bible

0abfb-bible_kjv_80123523_stdThe Christian Bible remains the most influential written work of Western Civilization, influencing language, government, economics, social groups, institutions, and culture. While many people own a Bible and some even read it on occasion, there are some things that you should know about the Bible that you might not have heard before.

(1) The writings of Christian Bible were originally composed in at least two different languages: Hebrew and Greek. Most of the books of the Jewish scripture making up the Christian Old Testament were composed in Hebrew, although some of the later writings (Daniel and Ezra, for example) may have been composed in Aramaic (a sort of “modernized” form of ancient Hebrew). The writings of the New Testament were originally written in Koine Greek, the common language of the Roman Empire during the time of Christ (also noteworthy are the claims of some scholars who argue that the Gospel According to Matthew was originally composed in Aramaic). Continue reading

Book Review: Forgotten Gospel (Bryan)

Forgotten GospelFor nearly two thousand years, the Gospel has stood at the center of the Christian faith. This is especially true for a certain segment of American Evangelical Christianity, which remains committed not only to the proclamation of the Good News of Jesus Christ, but also to the careful definition of the meaning and implications of the term “gospel.” It is this conversation that Matthew Bryan engages in Forgotten Gospel: The Original Message of a Conquering King (Selmer, TN: Greatest Stories Ever Told, 2014). Continue reading

Philo and the Gospel of John

Dionysus

Dionysus

While reading Joseph Ratzinger’s Jesus of Nazareth, I came across a couple of interesting passages which I felt were worth reflecting on and sharing here.

“The historical study of comparative religion likes to claim the myth of Dionysus as a pre-Christian parallel to the story of Cana. Dionysus was the god who was supposed to have discovered the vine and also to have changed water in wine–a mythical event that was also celebrated liturgically. The great Jewish theologian Philo of Alexandria (ca. 13 BC- AD 45/50) gave this story a demythologizing reinterpretation: The true giver of wine, Philo says, is the divine Logos; he is the one who gives us the joy, the sweetness, and the cheerfulness of true wine. Philo then goes on to anchor his Logos theology onto a figure from salvation history, onto Melchizedek, who offered bread and wine. In Melchizedek it is the Logos who is acting and giving us the gifts that are essential for human living. By the same token, the Logos appears as the priest of a cosmic liturgy.

“Whether John had such a background in mind is doubtful, to say the least. But since Jesus himself in interpreting his mission referred to Psalm 110, which features the priesthood of Melchizedek (cf. Mk 12:35-37); since the Letter to the Hebrews, which is theologically akin to the Gospel of John, explicitly develops a theology of Melchizedek; since John presents Jesus as the Logos of God and as God himself; since, finally, the Lord gave bread and wine as the bearers of the New Covenant, it is certainly not forbidden to think in terms of such connections and so to see shining through the Cana story the mystery of the Logos and of this cosmic liturgy, which fundamentally transforms the myth of Dionysus, and yet also brings it to its hidden truth.” (253-4)

Continue reading

Luther and Erasmus: Erasmus on Scripture, Canon, and Authority

This post is part of our ongoing series comparing Martin Luther and Erasmus of Rotterdam’s perspectives on scripture, canon, and authority during the Age of Theological Reformations.
De libero

De libero

Written in 1524 as a response to Martin Luther’s Assertio omnium articulorum, in which Luther wrote that “everything happens by absolute necessity” (Watson, 13), [1] Erasmus’ De Libero Abritrio Diatribe Seu Collatio offers Erasmus’ fullest treatment of his theological anthropology, namely that human freedom must coexist with the divine will in matters of salvation.[2] As much has been written on this topic, our purpose here does not include considerations of Erasmus’ arguments concerning the will. Instead, by our review of Erasmus’ theological construction in this work we hope to demonstrate his perspective on scripture, canon, and authority. He begins this work by noting his limitations, immediately noting the difficulty in examining difficult passages and concepts, arguing that extreme care must be demonstrated in the interpretation of scripture (Diatribe, 35-7). Appealing to the “inviolable authority of the Holy Scriptures” and “decrees of the Church,” Erasmus nonetheless concluded that there are “secret” places in the scriptures that God has not wished men to fully understand, and that attempts to understand such passages lead to confusion of human minds (Diatribe, 37-8). While allowing for a certain degree of probability in the interpretation of scripture, Erasmus made clear his understanding that uncertainty does not necessarily undermine Christian faith, instead functioning as a means of humility and caution (Diatribe, 39). Continue reading

Church Search: Greek Orthodox Church

This post is part of our ongoing Church Search. For more information on our search and the churches we have visited already, please click here. During the “First Exposure” phase of our search, we are visiting different churches to gain a basic understanding of their doctrines and practices. Following these visits, we will post some of the basic doctrinal and practical considerations of the church we visited, as well as some thoughts on our experiences.

Basic History

Assumption Greek Orthodox Church, Long Beach

Assumption Greek Orthodox Church, Long Beach

Much like our previous post on the Roman Catholic Church, the Orthodox Church claims a history as long as the history of the Christian Church itself. Thus, we again note that this brief summary of Church History is something of an injustice. The Orthodox Church has long claimed and studied the earliest writings of the Christian faith, most often termed the “Church Fathers.” Of great importance in the earlier Church were the Seven Great Ecumenical Councils (from the fourth through eighth centuries), all of which took place in the Eastern Roman Empire. The growing divide between Eastern and Western Empire played a role in dividing the Byzantine bishops from the West, as did Western claims to papal supremacy (more on that below), the filioque clause, and the sack of Constantinople during the Fourth Crusade in 1204 CE. The Orthodox Church remained the official religion of the Eastern Roman Empire (often called the Byzantine Empire) until the Fall of Constantinople until its fall in 1453 to the Ottoman Turks. Orthodoxy remained alive and well, however, in eastern Europe, especially in Moscow, where Russian Orthodoxy remained a strong presence until the Bolshevik Revolution in 1917. However, Orthodoxy remained throughout Greece and much of Eastern Europe and the Middle East, and with the fall of the USSR has continued to grow abroad. There are between 225 and 300 million Orthodox today belonging to 14 autocephelous (administered separately but in communion with each other) churches around the world.

Doctrinal Considerations

Annunciation Greek Orthodox Church, Winston-Salem

Annunciation Greek Orthodox Church, Winston-Salem

Orthodox Christians practice what they understand to be the faith handed down from the Apostles, which “has been believed everywhere, always, and by all”, though not without unaltering development of doctrine and cooperation with local traditions compatible with the faith. Of central importance for Eastern Orthodox faith is the Holy Trinity,  Father, Son, and Holy Spirit, one God, three-persons, co-eternal, and whom Christians are brought into union. Additionally, of great importance are the Nicene-Constantinople Creed (as originally written, that is, without the filioque clause), the canons of the Seven Ecumenical Councils, the Holy Scriptures (Septuagint and New Testament), the writings of the Church Fathers, and the Sacraments, especially Holy Communion (which is believed to be the real presence of Christ, but often differentiated from Roman Catholic transubstantiation, and is in reality closer to the Lutheran teaching on consubstantiation, though not expressed in those exact terms). Perhaps the first thing that one notices upon entering an Orthodox Church is their use of icons, pictorial representations of Biblical scenes, the history of the Church, and the lives of the Saints. Orthodox also affirm that church leadership should include bishops, and though they affirm that the bishop of Rome (the Pope) should be viewed as “first among equals,” they do not affirm his premiership and infallibility. Since Roman Catholic and Orthodox Churches are not currently in communion (which may change by 2025), the Orthodox look to the Ecumenical Patriarch of Constantinople (currently Bartholomew) as the head of Orthodox conciliar leadership.

Local Church Experience

Annunciation Greek Orthodox Church, Interior

Annunciation Greek Orthodox Church, Interior

This past Sunday we visited The Annunciation Greek Orthodox Church in Winston-Salem, which is an absolutely beautiful house of worship. Some might find icons distracting, but we found them to increase our sense of awe and assist greatly in approaching God in worship. If the first thing one noticed upon entering were the icons (and the iconostasis), the second was the language being spoken. Or rather, the languages  being spoken, namely Greek and English. Even as someone trained in Koine Greek, it took some time for me to adjust to the service (and poor Hayley was lost much of the time). We followed the Liturgy of St. John Chrysostom, as well as a separate memorial liturgy for a member of the congregation who had passed away. Apart from the repetition of these liturgies (we often would say something in Greek and then again in English, the scripture readings, Creed, and Lord’s Prayer, for example), the most notable thing was the lack of a sermon as part of the liturgy, with a homily only coming at the end of the service. One thing I wasn’t entirely satisfied with was the level of congregational involvement in the service, as all the music was sung by the choirs/priests, and there were not even many opportunities for liturgical responses from the actual laos (people). Of final note were (again, like our visit to the Catholic Church) the number of children, teens, and young families present, which was very encouraging. Overall, despite the new-ness of this church experience, we greatly enjoyed our visit to the Greek Orthodox Church and look forward to returning.

This visit marks the scheduled end of the “First Phase” of this church search. Over the next few weeks we will be beginning the “Second Phase,” and we invite you to follow along with us. Thanks for reading!