Thursday, March 24, 2016

Matthew 2

Another installment from reader David:

in which your humble commentator is confused for the first 17 verses, then gets very excited because he thinks he's starting to see the SHAPE of Matthew's logic vis a vis the selection of proof-texts; but alas, he is thrown into confusion again by the final verse.

1 After Jesus was born in Bethlehem in Judea, during the time of King Herod, Magi from the east came to Jerusalem
2 and asked, “Where is the one who has been born king of the Jews? We saw his star when it rose and have come to worship him.”
This seems like a good way to get your head chopped off. As such, it doesn't pass the sniff test at all. I'm skeptical that anything even remotely like this really happened.
Magi were Priest-Kings. They were very important in Persia, very rich, and very powerful. Herod (a two-bit underling to Augustus) would have been in big do-do if he had attacked them. This would have been like the president of one country visiting the president of another.
 Also, question. Evangelicals are, for the most part, pretty down on astrology, right? Well... why? If you believe the Bible, not only did it work out amazingly well for the Magi, astrology is a tool for knowing when the Messiah has come. That's powerful stuff!
Shouldn't Christian astrology be a thing? Are there warnings against it later in the New Testament, or is it frowned on for mostly cultural reasons, or what?
Yes, Christian astrology should be a thing. The aversion to it is cultural and ignorance for the most part; a desire to avoid the Satanic branch of star study. 

There are several, though, who have taken ancient culture's names and stories from the stars and seen the common thread throughout. "The Gospel in the Stars" by Joseph A. Seiss is one example. Now, he does get a lot wrong, in my opinion, but he gets a lot right too.

The Bible says that God named the stars. He let Adam name the animals, but He named the stars (Psalms 147:4, Isaiah 40:26). The stars do not control us or anything, but they do tell the Redemption Story. They are a Bible for those who don't have the written Word.
3 When King Herod heard this he was disturbed, and all Jerusalem with him. 
4 When he had called together all the people’s chief priests and teachers of the law, he asked them where the Messiah was to be born.
The modern Jewish answer, for the record, is “Who knows?” More precisely: there's a long-standing teaching that, in each generation, there's one person who COULD be the Messiah – one person who has the potential. And if both he *and the Jews of his generation* are righteous enough, then he'll go from “potential Messiah” to actual Messiah. But he's not required to come from any one specific place.
As with almost all Jewish teachings, this notion isn't universally embraced—and even among the streams of thought that believe this, there's a lot of quibbling about details. But, y'know, welcome to the religious marketplace.
I bet if you trace the origin of that tradition you will find it began sometime after the Jewish leaders killed Jesus. They refused their true Messiah and then had to come up with an excuse for why the biblical Messiah hadn't shown up.
5 “In Bethlehem in Judea,” they replied, “for this is what the prophet has written:
6 “‘But you, Bethlehem, in the land of Judah,
are by no means least among the rulers of Judah;
for out of you will come a ruler
who will shepherd my people Israel.’” [Micah 5:2,4]

Oh boy! You may wonder: why was verse 3 omitted? Good question! Let me add another: why did Matthew stop at verse 4? And just for good measure, let's ask a THIRD question, though this is for the NIV translators and not for Matthew: why does this text not match your own translation of Micah 5?
Matthew would likely have been quoting from memory since the automatic press had not been invented yet. It is possible he got the gist right but not the exact wording. Those who translated the Bible into English chose to stay true to what Matthew wrote instead of changing it to match Micah.
Here's the NIV version of Micah 5:2:
“But you, Bethlehem Ephrathah,though you are small among the clans of Judah...”
The key difference here is “clans of Judah” versus “rulers.” FULL DISCLOSURE:I'm aware that the NIV gives “rulers” as another possible choice in place of “clans.” But I spot-checked with four other translations and all of them read “clan” without any footnotes for alternate renderings. So maybe Matthew's reference is slightly off from the Hebrew original? I couldn't say; you'll have to ask a local New Testament scholar. 
The NIV is my least favorite of the new translations, but honestly there isn't a lot of difference. 
I CAN answer the other two questions. Why did Matthew leave out verse 3? Because it's not a great fit for Jesus. Here's the missing verse:
“Therefore Israel will be abandoned until the time when she who is in labor bears a son, and the rest of his brothers return to join the Israelites.”
Seems enigmatic, doesn't it? But actually if you flip back a page, you'll find that Micah 4 talks about Zion as the “woman in labor,” in a passage that's just SUPER fun to read:
“Writhe in agony, Daughter Zion, like a woman in labor, for now you must leave the city to camp in the open field. You will go to Babylon; there you will be rescued. There the Lord will redeem you out of the hand of your enemies.” Is that vivid, or WHAT? (It's Micah 4:10, by the way.)
So when you put all this together, Micah 5 is predicting that the captives from Judah (or rather, their descendants) will be delivered from captivity and “return to join the Israelites.” And of course this DID happen. But the deliverer in question was Cyrus the Great, not Jesus.
Our second question – why did Matthew stop at Micah 5:4? – has a straightforward answer. If he'd gone any further, it would be obvious that this passage is NOT a good Jesus preview. Here's Micah 5:5-6:
“And he will be our peace when the Assyrians invade our land and march through our fortresses. We will raise against them seven shepherds, even eight commanders, who will rule the land of Assyria with the sword, the land of Nimrod with drawn sword. He will deliver us from the Assyrians when they invade our land and march across our borders.”
Aaaand we're back to the Assyrians, I see. This, again, is very hard to apply to Jesus. although it DOES show why so many Jews expected the Messiah to be a military leader.
I keep struggling with the verses Matthew chooses to cite. His claim is that Jesus is the Messiah and, therefore, the Messiah isn't going to free the Jews from foreign oppression. So why cite verses that, when you go back and check their context, undermine your position?
Honestly, this is a mystery and I'm not sure what Matthew's objective is; I'd welcome any thoughts or suggestions. I'm reluctant to conclude that it's JUST sloppy proof-texting, but right now, that's all I've got.
7 Then Herod called the Magi secretly and found out from them the exact time the star had appeared. 
8 He sent them to Bethlehem and said, “Go and search carefully for the child. As soon as you find him, report to me, so that I too may go and worship him.”
So – is this star visible ONLY to the Magi? Why does Herod need to consult with them specifically? I'm pretty sure he'd have people in his court who could tell him when a new star appeared. Astrology was serious business – omens and portents and prophecies were hugely important in the ancient Greco-Roman world – and a new star would be a BIG deal. Its arrival would be widely observed and discussed.
I think maybe the Jews were not as into stargazing as other nations. 

There are many theories regarding the Star of Bethlehem ranging from only the Magi could see it to it being a comet or supernova. 
My favorite theory is that is was a supernova in the constellation Coma Bernese. I understand the non Greek ancients pictured this as a virgin nursing a baby (the Greeks saw a woman holding her hair). There are records from the time of a new star (likely a supernova) appearing where the baby's head should be starting about 100BC, being its brightest at about the time of Christ's birth, and fading to invisibility by AD100. Some believe this constellation would have appeared directly over Bethlehem at midnight at this point in history, but I don't see exactly how that could be proved. 
Resting over the house itself? No idea. That does lend more weight to the comet theory or "magic," excuse me, "miracle" though. God can do whatever He wants so that's a possibility, but usually He obeys His own laws just tweaking them a bit to accomplish His will.
Also, some believe there were three important conjunctions the year before Christ's birth. Legend says there were two the year Moses was born and that was why Pharaoh chose that year to kill all the baby boys. Three would have alerted the Magi to the arrival of the King. 
As far as how they knew to be looking in the first place, the prophet Daniel became a Magi himself and he gave prophecy that just about labels the very year of Christ's arrival. And they may very well have had copies of the Jewish scriptures and been studying them for hundreds of years.
9 After they had heard the king, they went on their way, and the star they had seen when it rose went ahead of them until it stopped over the place where the child was.
Really, we need to talk about this star. What kind of star behaves like this? What does it mean for a star to be stopped “over a place?” How does one measure what place a star is “over?” How can we say the star is over one particular house and not its neighbor three doors down, for instance?
Again, I'm not being flippant; I really don't understand. When Matthew says the star “went ahead of them,” what does that mean?
Wish I could give you a better answer :-( Would love to know myself.
10 When they saw the star, they were overjoyed. 
11 On coming to the house, they saw the child with his mother Mary, and they bowed down and worshiped him. Then they opened their treasures and presented him with gifts of gold, frankincense and myrrh.
Why are pagan sorcerers worshiping the Jewish messiah? Why are they the FIRST to worship Jesus? Do they count as the first Christians? Do they come back into the story later? Is there any tradition that suggests that three of the apostles were actually the Magi in disguise, or something? If not, can we start one?
Daniel's prophecy tells us that the Messiah will end the need for sacrifice for sins. Isaiah tells us He paid the price due for all sins and many of the OT prophecies strongly imply that this payment applies to gentiles as well as Jews. Also, the Magi were monotheistic, possibly a corruption of Judaism. So Jesus was their Messiah also.

Most believe the Shepherds mentioned in Luke were actually the first to worship Christ, but, yeah, I guess you could call the two groups the first Christians:-)

Unfortunately we never here from the Magi again. I don't think even secular history says anything about them. There are a couple of fictional works and legends with them as the main characters. Magi as disciples could be a cool story :-)

And though tradition says there were three, we really don't know that. There were three types of gifts, but the number of Magi is never really stated. There may have been quite and army showing up at Herod's doorstep here.
12 And having been warned in a dream not to go back to Herod, they returned to their country by another route.
The Escape to Egypt
13 When they had gone, an angel of the Lord appeared to Joseph in a dream. “Get up,” he said, “take the child and his mother and escape to Egypt. Stay there until I tell you, for Herod is going to search for the child to kill him.”
14 So he got up, took the child and his mother during the night and left for Egypt,
15 where he stayed until the death of Herod. And so was fulfilled what the Lord had said through the prophet: “Out of Egypt I called my son.” [Hosea 11:1]
Hosea 11:1-2:
“1 When Israel was a child, I loved him,
and out of Egypt I called my son.
2 But the more they were called,
the more they went away from me.
They sacrificed to the Baals
and they burned incense to images.”
Again: you go ONE verse farther on and it's clearly not about Jesus – “my son” would here be the Jewish people as a whole, it seems. Maybe this IS just sloppy proof-texting.
16 When Herod realized that he had been outwitted by the Magi, he was furious, and he gave orders to kill all the boys in Bethlehem and its vicinity who were two years old and under, in accordance with the time he had learned from the Magi.
Shades of Moses, again.
17 Then what was said through the prophet Jeremiah was fulfilled:
18 “A voice is heard in Ramah,
weeping and great mourning,
Rachel weeping for her children
and refusing to be comforted,
because they are no more.” [Jer. 31:15]
I just had an insight! I think Matthew is DELIBERATELY picking passages that talk about the return from the Babylonian Captivity, because, yes, this one does too (Jeremiah 31:16-17: “Restrain your voice from weeping and your eyes from tears, for your work will be rewarded,” declares the Lord. “They will return from the land of the enemy. So there is hope for your descendants.”).
So now I've got a thread to pull at. My first thought is that Matthew's arguing that the Jews of his age are being held in captivity by... well, by... well, gosh. Hm. It's hard to find anything going on in Jesus' day that would finish that sentence appropriately.
The Jews of that time were being oppressed by a force far more brutal, far more cruel than Egypt, Babylon, and Assyria combined. 


Maybe it's a different kind of parallel. Matthew has spent a fair amount of time linking Jesus to Moses; maybe he's also trying to link Jesus to Cyrus? (Again, remember that Cyrus delivered the Jews from the Captivity. Though honestly, that's a pretty Judeocentric way to look at events. It's more accurate to say that Cyrus conquered Babylon and eventually allowed all the captive peoples – not just the Jews – to go home.)
It is Judeocentric, but I bet the others countries worded it just as self centered.
But even this is difficult, because so many of the references so far have been to Assyria, not Babylon.
But still! I have a THEORY now: Matthew is picking his scriptural references in order to tell SOME kind of story, make SOME kind of connection. Maybe it's linking Jesus to Cyrus, maybe it's something else, but to tell SOME kind of I'll have to keep an eye on this and see if Matthew's citations *do* suggest that he's trying to link Jesus to Cyrus. Failing that, maybe there's some other story I can piece together from his scriptural references.
You have hit the nail on the head and worded it in a way I couldn't form; "Matthew is arguing that the Jews of his age are being held in captivity by..." Sin. 

And they need a Messiah that is Moses and Cyrus combined to rescue them. 

And the truth is that every human is under this same captivity and in need of a Savior.
The Return to Nazareth
19 After Herod died, an angel of the Lord appeared in a dream to Joseph in Egypt
Joseph can hardly get a good night's sleep, can he?
20 and said, “Get up, take the child and his mother and go to the land of Israel, for those who were trying to take the child’s life are dead.”
21 So he got up, took the child and his mother and went to the land of Israel.
22 But when he heard that Archelaus was reigning in Judea in place of his father Herod, he was afraid to go there. Having been warned in a dream, he withdrew to the district of Galilee,
See? Every time he lies down his head! Every time! Also: did the angel from verse 20 give him a bum steer, or what? “Wait, you BELIEVED me when I said you could go home?! You beautiful, gullible man! That's just ADORABLE. But listen, your family is in mortal danger here, and I mean it for real this time. My advice: keep walkin', chump.”
Luke's version of Jesus birth tells us Mary and Joseph were originally from Nazareth. They went to Bethlehem because of the tax commanded by Augustus. So here they were "returning" to Judah, but to Jerusalem, likely to provide Jesus with the better educational opportunities. But God wanted them back where they started from. They probably had extended family there, it was a small village, old friends, etc. Much more the kind of life God wanted His Son raised in.
23 and he went and lived in a town called Nazareth. So was fulfilled what was said through the prophets, that he would be called a Nazarene.
Here's an interesting fact: the NIV doesn't cite ANY verse here, which suggests that Matthew doesn't HAVE a verse to cite. I certainly can't think of one. Is he really just straight making this up? Help a brother out? 

The NIV doesn't have the reference because no one can find it! 

We just don't really know what in the world Matthew is talking about. There is no scripture in the OT that says this. Wikipedia.

The best explanation I could find was;

"First, Matthew does not say 'prophet,' singular. He says 'prophets,' plural. It could be that Matthew was referring to several Old Testament references to the despised character of Jesus (i.e., Psalm 22:6, 13, 69:10, Isaiah 49:7, 53:3, Micah 5:1). Nazareth held the Roman garrison for the northern areas of Galilee.1 Therefore, the Jews would have little to do with this place and largely despised it. Perhaps this is why it says in John 1:46, "And Nathanael said to him, 'Can any good thing come out of Nazareth?' Philip said to him, 'Come and see.'" So, it could be a reference not to an actual location, but the maligned character of the Messiah even as Nazareth was maligned for housing the Roman garrison, and Matthew was using it in reference to the implied hatred of Christ." Source

Just don't know on this one.  
(I'm having lots of fun though. Your insights are exciting:-)

So, what is the Jewish take on universal sin? 


  1. Oh boy! Love your comments. Let me roll my sleeves up to reply to - -well, to some of them. Lots to tackle here. (And yes, this IS very fun! You did a FANTASTIC job with the formatting, too. This looks way better than what I sent you.)

    Re: the Magi -- wait, they're *kings* and not wandering astrologers? And you think that makes the narrative *more* believable? Three pagan kings decide to leave their kingdoms in the hands of regents so they can come to Jerusalem and "worship the king of the Jews?" That REALLY doesn't pass the sniff test. I'mma be blunt: I'm very, very confident that none of this happened. It screams myth.

    Also, point of order: you claim that Herod was unwilling to kill them, but au contraire. When they're "warned in a dream not to go back to Herod," what do you think the warning is about? "Hey, guys, Herod's going to serve you tea and cookies?"

    Plus: what in the text suggests that they're equals to Herod? In verses 7 and 8, Herod summons them in secret, questions them, and gives them a mission; this is not how one ruler treats another. Also, you would think that a traveling king would have SOME kind of retinue (consider the Queen of Sheba); here, none is mentioned.

    Last but not least: if these are real kings, why doesn't Matthew name them and tell us what kingdoms they're from? Think how DELIGHTED you'd be if he /had/ named them, and the chronicles of each kingdom mentioned a regency at roughly the same time. That would be GREAT evidence! But he didn't, which is odd because he's certainly not shy about naming the kings of *Judea.* The Bible does a great job of naming *other* kings quite accurately too, doesn't it? So why the silence on the Magi? I mean, gosh, it's almost like they're not real and none of this happened.

    - David

    P.S. Herod *the Great* was a "two-bit underling"? Jeepers, what kind of nickname would impress you?

  2. UPDATE: Aw shoot, I just scrolled back up and saw you point out that we /assume/ there were three, but their number isn't explicitly stated. So a retinue is theoretically possible, if you're willing to read between the lines and invent elaborate new details. Mind how you go, though; that takes you into midrashic territory, which I think most evangelicals frown on. Their loss, though! IMO it's a much richer way to read scripture.

    On topic again: it's entirely possible the "one possible Messiah per generation" idea post-Jesus, sure. In fact, I strongly suspect that it did!

    But saying that "after Jesus = because of Jesus" is off base. The Jewish world does not revolve around Jesus and, to be frank, you guys spend *way* more time thinking about us than we spend thinking about you.

    Let me put it this way: the Talmud has a passage where several rabbis are discussing a group of heretics who certainly SEEM like they're a good match for Jesus et al (though with some key differences, too). The discussion lasts for maybe two paragraphs. Then they wander off and start talking about Zoroastrians, and that's that.

    For context, all of this is *part* of the commentary on *one* discussion question in *one* tractate. And there are 63 tractates in the Talmud.

    Central to Judaism, Jesus is not.

    - David

    P.S. In fairness, I should mention that there are a decent number of references to early Christians scattered throughout the Talmud. But the Talmud is a pretty great source for what rabbis were talking and thinking about during the first couple centuries CE. And it's pretty clear that Christianity isn't a fundamental worry for these rabbis.

  3. Righto! Last comment: you ask, "What is the Jewish take on universal sin?"

    Counter-question: what do you mean by "universal sin?"

  4. By "kings" I mean "under-kings" in this case (governors would probably be a better term), much like Herod was under the real ruler Augustus. They were, traditionally rulers of sections of the Persian Empire (never conquered by Rome) answerable to the head king, and his chief advisors for hundreds of years. Very much astrologers, maybe the best in history, probably of the religion of Zoroastrianism. (I will note that there is some disagreement as to who they were. Above is my opinion, though I haven't really put a lot of study into it). Anyway, if the Queen of Sheba could travel to have a chat with Solomon a good 1000 years earlier, why couldn't these guys go on vacation? There are other samples in history of leaders and high order officials visiting other friendly rulers.

    Warning: "If you go back to 'Ole Herod he will find out too much about the new king and be able to track him down" I always thought.

    These guys were important enough to be able to get an audience with Herod in the first place. Surly that was a privilege reserved only for the very important, those equal or not much less than Herod himself.

    Retinues were not important enough to discuss generally (Genesis 20:1 "Abraham moved south to the Negev and lived for a while between Kadesh and Shur..." and what about the literal army he had with him? No mention because they weren't important.) I assume there were dozens of people with the Wise Men. Rich people would certainly not be traveling alone and unprotected. Sheba's retinue was part of the story and so important enough to mention. The Wise Men's weren't.

    Why weren't they named? It would have distracted form the main point- Jesus. As it is, there have been entire books written about them since Ad500, giving them names and back stories. I can't imagine the distracting mess if we had more info on them (though, personally, I certainly would like that. The more historical information the better!)

    What name would impress me? "Herod, Emperor of all Rome and its territory." Any two-bit idiot can call himself "the Great." Herod was answerable directly to Caesars governors, I believe, who were answerable to Caesar. Sure, he ruled Judea, as long as he didn't make the real king mad.

    1. You make good arguments, but I still think my wandering-astrologer reading makes much more sense than your provincial-governors one. Usually, if a king or governor or what-have-you visits a foreign ruler, it's a state visit, right? But none of the Magi's interactions with Herod /read/ like a state visit. Certainly not the part where Herod sends them out to do his bidding. (Bad move not to send a spy to follow them, Herod. F minus minus for effort; see me after class.)

      Re Herod-- it is of course true that he was a client king of Caesar's. But he was smart enough -- and ruthless enough -- to stay on the throne for *40 years*, which is remarkable in itself. He was a great builder, and I don't just mean at the Wall-- he created Caesarea out of basically nothing (I think it was a fishing village before) and turned it into a thriving port city *with a population greater than Jerusalem's*. Caesarea was so successful that it became the Roman administrative center for all of Judaea (thus letting Herod get on with his business away from the Romans; smooth move!).

      Building on that scale is neither easy nor cheap, which suggests that Herod was an able administrator with access to considerable amounts of wealth -- and that his preferred way of generating MORE wealth was to invest in infrastructure, rather than just raising taxes. Heck, I think Herod was VASTLY more accomplished than many, many, many Roman emperors. No one ever talks about Galba the Great, for example.

      So to call Herod a two-bit underling is grossly unfair. He was worth at LEAST 200 bits. :)

      Last point: off topic, but I'm confused -- what do you mean by Abraham's "literal army" being ignored in Gen 20:1? He's not a military leader. Doesn't he just have a household? Wife, kids, slaves, livestock, sure, but where are you getting an army? (This is a super low-priority question to answer; I hesitated even to ask it, because TOO MANY WORDS. By all means feel free to just skip responding.)

    2. OK, I'll settle at 200 bits, lol. He did accomplish a lot, granted. He just wasn't the head boss.

      Genesis 14:14 "When Abram heard that his nephew Lot had been captured, he mobilized the 318 trained men who had been born into his household. Then he pursued Kedorlaomer’s army until he caught up with them at Dan. 15 There he divided his men and attacked during the night. Kedorlaomer’s army fled, but Abram chased them as far as Hobah, north of Damascus. 16 Abram recovered all the goods that had been taken, and he brought back his nephew Lot with his possessions and all the women and other captives." Sounds like an army to me. Maybe not a very big one, especially by our standards, but still a trained army.

  5. Of course the Jewish world doesn't revolve around Jesus. If it did we would call them "Christians" ("Followers of Christ") That's the difference.

    However, I believe scripture does revolve around Him. The Jews missed/rejected their Messiah and so of course don't think of Him or let Him influence them. Why would they?

    As for why so many Christians are so focused on Jews, the majority of American Christians believe prophecies tell us the Jews will play a major role in the future of the world (I believe they are very much mistaken, personally. Jews are no more or less important than any other ethnic group. Precious souls who need Jesus, certainly, but not central to God's plan since the Cross.)

    Also, Christianity is a descendant of Judaism. We accept both the OT and NT as equally "The Word of God" (though if you can only have one, take the NT). This means Judaism is part of our religious history. The authors of the NT were almost all Jews who accepted Christ, and I believe we would all understand our own Christianity better if we knew more about the culture and history of the Jews.

    So, yeah, Christians pay a lot of attention to Jews but I would have been surprised to find out Jews paid one lick of attention to us.

  6. :-) Universal sin- the belief that all humans have sinned and deserve eternal punishment.

    Psalms 14:1-4 "The fool has said in his heart, There is no God. They are corrupt, they have done abominable works, there is none that does good.

    2 The LORD looked down from heaven on the children of men, to see if there were any that did understand, and seek God.

    3 They are all gone aside, they are all together become filthy: there is none that does good, no, not one."

    1. OK, so! I'll try this new thing called brevity. If you have follow-up questions, ask!

      "The belief that all humans have sinned and deserve eternal punishment" just isn't a thing in Judaism at all -- not in any strain of thought that I'm aware of, anyway. In general, the belief is that almost all Jews will have a share in the world-to-come -- you'd have to be very wicked indeed not to merit one -- and the "righteous Gentiles" will have a share as well. Gentiles are held to /lower/ standards of behavior than Jews, mind you, so pretty much everyone gets into the nice afterlife.

      And the bad afterlife isn't held to be eternal, at least for most of its occupants; I think traditionally it only lasts for 11 months and may serve a role analogous to purgatory rather than Hell, but I'm fuzzy on the details.

      Bottom line: it's not a big point of emphasis; ours is not a fire-and-brimstone religion.

  7. Oh, and thank you about the formatting. This is the way I handle long term, rambling conversations in email often and I thought I'd try it out here.

  8. Got to thinking and I want to make something clear; many, many common Jews did accept Jesus as their Messiah. The church in Jerusalem alone is believed to have had a membership of 50,000. It was the leadership that rejected Him. In fact, they had Him crucified because of jealousy over His popularity. Then after their country was destroyed and they were totally dispersed, I believe they had to come up with some way to explain away the whole Messiah thing. Thus the belief in many Messiahs.

    (I assume, by the way, mention of the Crucifixion isn't a spoiler. If is, I apologize.)

    1. Yeah, Betty, SPOILERS! Gosh. >:-( (No, obviously you're fine.)

      Re: messianic claimants: see, you're saying the right things above, but you're still putting Jesus at the center of your explanation here.

      So may I point you to Wikipedia for a second?

      There were a LOT of widely supported messiahs running around during the period we're talking about. A LOT.

      In fact, by the time of Jesus' death, there had been /such/ a string of false Messiahs -- whose movements, naturally, tended to dwindle away after their deaths -- that it's easy to imagine the disciples getting together right after Jesus died and asking, "How can we stop OUR movement from going the way of all the others?"

      Well, if you're brainstorming that, the problem statement is: all these movements are dealt a fatal blow when their messiah dies. So clearly, what they need is a messiah who /didn't/ die. Since that isn't available, how can they show that Jesus isn't /really/ dead? Well, hm. An empty tomb might do the trick, especially if they all swear they DEFINITELY saw Jesus again, and he told them to keep on keepin' on and then ascended to Heaven.

      The "ascended to heaven" bit is an important point. Without it, they'd have to answer the question: "So where IS the resurrected Jesus? Can we go see him right now in the flesh?" This would be a difficult question -- a bit like asking Joseph Smith if you could see the golden plates.

      The golden plates, of course, were /also/ taken up to heaven when their earthly work was done, which is why no one else can see them now.

      If you think that's awfully convenient for Mormons, then surely you have to admit that the Ascension to Heaven is awfully convenient for the Christians, right? (This parallel is actually something I JUST NOW REALIZED and I'm very excited about it! You, uh, may not share that same sense of discovery here, I'm aware. :) )

      ****BULLETIN BULLETIN BULLETIN**** Somehow I got sidetracked again! Amazing how this keeps happening. Feel free to take a meal break at this point in the lecture. :)

      Anyway, where do I think the "one potential messiah per generation" idea comes from? Well, it's not like false messiahs /stop coming/ at any point in history. And they've fooled some very learned men. For instance, Rabbi Akiva -- the father of the Talmud -- thought the leader of the Bar Kochba Revolt was the Moshiach; this was a fatal mistake. There are some Jews today who think the Lubavitcher Rebbe was the Messiah, even though he's been dead for lo these many years. And between the 2nd and 20th centuries, I PROMISE there was no shortage of claimants.

      So what rabbinical Judaism needs to do is to find some way to make sure people /do believe/ that the Messiah might indeed come in their lifetime, but they have to temper that belief with awareness that, on the whole, it prrrrrrobably won't happen. Hence the impossibly high standard of righteousness required of /the whole People of Israel/ before the Messiah arrives. We know we won't really reach that level, but we can always dream -- next year in Jerusalem, right?

    2. Joseph Smith was a fraud in so many ways you don't even need the whole golden tablet thing to discredit him.

      Yes, there were very many false Messiahs. Jesus warned His disciples about it in fact.

      Now, we are getting ahead of ourselves here and I'm not quite sure the best path :-P The Bible gives us details about the crucifixion that make the absence/ ascension of Jesus less of an issue, but you aren't there in your reading yet (and some of it is in the book of John, so it will be a while). Should we go ahead and discuss this now or wait?

      I will say that the disciples were for the most part not all that educated. If they were just smart PR agents why didn't the followers of other messiahs do the same? How come Jesus is the only one everyone knows about? Why is it only Jesus' followers who have changed the world?

    3. I should probably at least *get to* that part in the Bible before I speculate about it. Fair point! Let's put it on the shelf for now and revisit it when I have, y'know, /some/ information beyond that-which-is-absorbed-from-the-culture.

      On your last paragraph: would you accept this line of reasoning for any other religion's claims? "There were lots of philosophers in India. How come the Buddha is the only one everyone knows about? Why is it only his followers who have changed the world? Therefore, all the scriptures about the Buddha's deeds are true, no matter how implausible they sound." I suspect you would say, "Hang on now -- even if the premises were true, I don't think the conclusion follows. Neither success not staying power is a measure of truthfulness, is it?"

      Last question: you mention there's a difference between good astrology and Satanic star study. How might one tell which is which? (For the record, I'm not teasing; it's a genuine question. There's no "gotcha" here. I just wanna grasp how you understand Satanic influence to work. Feel free to use examples that have NOTHING to do with astrology if that makes it easier to explain. :) )

  9. One difference between Buddha and Jesus is that Jesus himself claimed deity and his followers who knew him personally made the same claims. Buddha's claims to deity did not come in his life time but a good long time after his death. So would I accept the same claims from a Buddhist? No. Their claims don't even begin until a good long time later, past the time of eyewitnesses, and Buddhism has not changed the world. Influenced a bit here and there maybe (and to a good way which is why it has survived more than his contemporaries). But in no way to the extent Christianity has. And I realize this is a bit of circular reasoning, but Jesus told us to judge by the fruits. You know it is an apple tree when you see apples on the branches. You know it is a work of God when it promotes the things of God; love, joy, peace, goodness, patience, etc. Everywhere Christianity is introduced cannibalism ends. The African cultures that had the most Protestant missionaries 100 years ago are the free-est today with the most opportunities especially for women. Christianity ends wars and oppression. Yes, I know some commit crimes against humanity in the name of Christianity, but over all it has been a tremendous influence for good.

    On the second question, the standard is "Does it agree with the Bible." The Christian astrology shows the Gospel story, telling about bondage to sin, redemption, and ultimate judgement. The satanic one tells about magic, multiple gods, and putting your trust in the creation instead of the Creator. This standard applies to everything, including, by the way, preachers with "christian" in their title but who are preaching New Agey stuff instead of Christ. If it disagrees with the Bible it is a false prophet and a false teaching.

  10. Re: Jesus and deity -- actually I'm not yet sold on the idea that Matthew thinks Jesus is God. But you'll see why in a bit! :)

    "The African cultures that had the most Protestant missionaries 100 years ago are the freest today with the most opportunities especially for women." Assuming this is true (and I have no particular reason to /doubt/), are you sure it's capturing the impact of missionaries? I have my doubts.

    I suspect there's a strong correlation between "parts of Africa that were ruled by England" and "parts of Africa with a strong Protestant missionary presence." French possessions probably had more of a Catholic flavor to their missionary activities.

    So couldn't you be capturing, say, the impact of English governance? Or of England's mostly hands-off approach to its former colonial possessions, as contrasted with France's long history of intervening in affairs in Francophone Africa?

    And so far we haven't even discussed any explanations that involve *the Africans themselves* as the primary actors! Which would seem IMO to be the most obvious place to look, since your starting observation is "Hey, some African countries have more political liberty than others. Better women's rights, too." If you're trying to explain that, why would you jump straight to "I BET IT WAS MISSIONARIES FROM A CENTURY AGO?" Many, many steps are missing from your chain of logic there.

    Also: are the "freest countries in Africa" as free -- or as woman-friendly-- as, say, Estonia? Estonia is a former Soviet republic and is AFAICT the least religious country in the European Union (see the Wiki page on religion in Estonia for some really neat details -- seriously, there's a lot to dig into). It's becoming more secular by the year. But it's also a thoroughly democratic state with an OUTSTANDING human-rights record --its residents enjoy a free press, freedom of assembly, freedom of religion, freedom of speech, and they have real and meaningful elections. How many of these statements are true for the African countries most visited by missionaries?

    Should we conclude that the fruits of secularism are WAY better than the fruits of Christianity? Or should we say that the "fruits" test encourages us to see what we already wanted to see?

    P.S. You can reasonably protest that of COURSE African countries will look bad next to an EU member. I should at LEAST compare Estonia to someone from the same neighborhood. That's completely fair! So let's look at one of Estonia's neighbors. In this country, unlike Estonia, a majority of the population identifies as Christian. How does it stack up with Estonia in terms of liberty? Well, the country in question is Russia, so... you tell me.

    To be clear, all I'm saying is that I'm not convinced by the claim that "more Christianity" = "more liberty." I make no claim in the opposite direction. :)

    1. Well, I haven't personally studied Africa, but I have read articles by some who have. Their conclusion was it was the Protestant Missionaries that made the difference. These men were, by the way, atheists, but their results were so overwhelming they have made a call for more protestant missionaries to be sent to Africa.

      Yes some steps are missing, but a brief glance at the rest of the world and it's history appears to support the basic conclusion- the more a government is founded on biblical, especially NT, principles the freer and more prosperous that country is.

      Estonia: One does not make a valid study. Many does. And if we were to make conclusions about the affects of secularism we need to include Soviet Russia, China, Cuba, etc. All of these countries had/have secular governments and have some of the worst records in history for human rights. The worst oppression has occurred in either Islamic or officially atheist countries. The best countries to live in are those founded on Christianity (Sweden, Switzerland, the US, Canada, etc.) Catholicism, overall, appears to fall somewhere in the middle.

  11. Also, I wanted to add: I think the idea of religious liberty is *profoundly* unbiblical. What part of the Bible suggests that a wise ruler lets foreign religions be practiced *at all*? Can you name any kings who come off sounding *good* because they chose to let idolatry flourish?

    I mean, I know the HISTORICAL reasons that we prize religious liberty. But what's your biblical model for it?

    1. The Bible, especially the NT, teaches personal responsibility before God. It is not the president's job to make sure I have a good relationship with God. In fact, no other human on planet earth can do that. It is just between God and me. The NT teaches us to treat others the way we want to be treated and I don't want anyone to force their religion down my throat. So I don't support laws that do that to others.

      Now, the government officials of any country will have to answer to God for how good they do their God-assigned job. Romans says that job is to punish wrong doers. Protection of a general morality, then, is the government's job (plus military protection). I believe this morality can be summed up as 1)Do all you agree to do and 2)Do not infringe on the person or property of others. This about covers half the 10 commandments, right? The first part, the parts that focus on God, can only possibly be handled on a personal level. You simply can't legislate "Love the Lord God with all you've got."

      If I did pass a law that everyone must spend two hours every Sunday morning in a church that believes exactly like mine, it wouldn't even begin to touch the hearts. In fact it would make more people rebellious to God. And it is only the heart that matters, so such laws would be counter productive to the Kingdom of God.


Thank you so much for commenting! I love to talk to my readers.

I do ask that there be no anonymous commenters, though. If I am brave enough to put my name on this blog, you should be too:-)

Please keep it civil. Remember we are all human and make mistakes, and that since we can't see each other's faces or hear each other's tone of voice, it is very hard to get the emotion in what we are saying each other. Use lots of emoticons! :-) And show grace and love to each other.