Galatian 2:9, The Earliest Christian Church, Part II of IV

James, Cephas and John, those esteemed as pillars, gave me and Barnabas the right hand of fellowship when they recognized the grace given to me.

//According to Paul, the three “pillars” of the Jerusalem church were James (the brother of Jesus), Peter (known as Cephas), and John. James appears to have been the church leader at the time of Paul’s writing. The followers of these three “pillars” appear to have introduced distinct flavors of Jesus-worship, while still retaining their Jewishness. James, for example, favored a down-to-earth, practical approach to Christian practice (if the epistle attributed to James is any indication), and this fits the Ebionite philosophy we discussed yesterday very well. Indeed, the Ebionites held James in very high regard.

So these three pillars provide three different flavors of early Christianity. They seem also to represent three different locations: Jerusalem (James), Rome (Peter) and Ephesus in Asia Minor (John). Yet I have noticed in my studies some very curious commonalities between two of these groups: the Ebionites (James’s group) and the Johannine community, and I don’t quite know what to make of them. If the Ebionites are our best representatives of the earliest form of Christianity, might they have influenced Johannine theology too in some manner? If scholars are correct that Jewish Christians outnumbered gentiles in the Johannine community of Asia Minor, were these perhaps Jews that were displaced from Jerusalem by the war or 70 AD?

Tomorrow, I’ll discuss the similarities I’ve noticed between Ebionites and the Christians of Asia Minor.

Acts 4:32-35: The Earliest Christian Church, Part I of IV

All the believers were one in heart and mind. No one claimed that any of their possessions was their own, but they shared everything they had. With great power the apostles continued to testify to the resurrection of the Lord Jesus. And God’s grace was so powerfully at work in them all that there were no needy persons among them. For from time to time those who owned land or houses sold them, brought the money from the sales and put it at the apostles’ feet, and it was distributed to anyone who had need.

//In my books about John’s Gospel and Revelation, the main character, Matthew, flees Jerusalem as a baby in his father’s arms before it is attacked by the Romans in 70 CE. They travel through Pella–the location where it is said Jerusalem Christians escaped–and continue on in time to Ephesus, in Asia Minor (modern day Turkey). This fictional journey is not coincidental, though I never did find opportunity in my books to explain why I crafted it this way.

You may recognize Ephesus in Christian tradition as the home of John the Apostle, where he wrote his Gospel. A short distance from there, on the island of Patmos, John presumably wrote the book of Revelation. Ephesus was chosen as the background for my books for this reason.

On the other hand, the “Pella tradition” of Jewish Christians escaping the war is equally intriguing. It seems quite possible that this escape story is more than myth, and that many of Jerusalem’s Christians did indeed locate there. A sect of Jewish Christians known as the Ebionites soon clustered nearby, and in my research, it seems very likely that the Ebionites are the descendants of the Jerusalem church. The Hebrew name ebionim means “the poor,” and relates to the time when early Christians were sharing all their possessions and giving what they could to the apostles (see today’s verse).

Mark 6:22-24, Who Wanted John the Baptist Dead?

And when the daughter of the said Herodias came in, and danced, and pleased Herod and them that sat with him, the king said unto the damsel, Ask of me whatsoever thou wilt, and I will give it thee. And he sware unto her, Whatsoever thou shalt ask of me, I will give it thee, unto the half of my kingdom. And she went forth, and said unto her mother, What shall I ask? And she said, The head of John the Baptist.

//You’ve been reading the account of John the Baptist’s death in the book of Mark. John at this time was bound in prison, at the request of Herodias. In Mark’s story, Herodias wanted to kill John but could not because Herod “feared John, knowing that he was a just man.”

But when Matthew tells the story, it has a different flavor. It isn’t Herodias who wants John dead, it is Herod. Herod doesn’t fear John, he fears the multitude who consider John a prophet. Thus it’s Herod who fears to kill John, not Herodias.

Herod, in Matthew’s gospel, is a villain from the beginning. You may know the story of Herod sentencing all the young children to death, in hopes of killing the baby Jesus. That comes from Matthew. So when Matthew copies Mark’s story of Herod beheading John, he makes Herod one of the bad guys.

But the rewrite is awkward; it doesn’t really work. Herodias asks for the head of John the Baptist, and King Herod commands it, but the story goes on:

And the king was sorry: nevertheless for the oath’s sake, and them which sat with him at meat, he commanded it to be given her. –Matthew 14:9

This is copied from the gospel of Mark, but here Herod’s grief over John’s death makes no sense. After all, it was Herod who wanted John put to death according to Matthew (verse 14:5)!

This is an example of what Bible scholars call editorial fatigue, and it’s one bit of evidence that Matthew copied from Mark, not vice versa. Matthew copied the story and put his own spin on it, but botched the retelling by not being careful enough to edit out all the details that don’t fit the retelling.

Matthew 22:7, The King’s Wedding

But when the king heard thereof, he was wroth: and he sent forth his armies, and destroyed those murderers, and burned up their city.

//One day, Jesus told a parable about a king who planned a wedding feast for his son. He sent his servants to gather those who had been invited. But nobody wanted to come; they made light of the wedding and continued on with their lives.

So, says Jesus, the king sent his armies and destroyed the “murderers” (why were they called murderers?) and burned up their city. Then, the king told his servants to go out into the highways and find other people to be the guests.

What is this story about? I don’t mean to harp so much on this theme, but once again, it’s about what happened to Jerusalem in 70 A.D. The gospels must be read in a first-century context to be understood. God (the king in this story) sent his armies (in this case, the Roman troops) to destroy Jerusalem, and gather instead the Gentiles out in the “highways.”

This verse in the next chapter will make it clear why those who rejected God are called murderers:

O Jerusalem, Jerusalem, thou that killest the prophets, and stonest them which are sent unto thee, how often would I have gathered thy children together, even as a hen gathereth her chickens under her wings, and ye would not! –Matthew 23:37

Matthew 9:7, New Wine in Old Bottles

Neither do men put new wine into old bottles: else the bottles break, and the wine runneth out, and the bottles perish

//For readers of the King James Version (which I grew up on), this verse can be confusing. Why would wine burst the bottles, whether old or new?

Answer: Think not of glass bottles, but wineskins. Most translations preserve the original message, such as the NIV:

Neither do people pour new wine into old wineskins. If they do, the skins will burst; the wine will run out and the wineskins will be ruined. No, they pour new wine into new wineskins, and both are preserved.

Wine ferments, and as it does, it expands. Wineskins that are old and brittle cannot grow to contain the expanding wine. Thus, the wineskins burst.

Mark 10:18, Why do you call me good?

And Jesus said to him, “Why do you call me good? No one is good except God alone.”

//Every now and then this verse comes up in a conversation.  It’s from the gospel of Mark, a gospel that is often gritty, giving Jesus a more human face than the other three. In this verse, Jesus seems to be denying that he is good … and certainly denying that he is God.

Seldom will a conservative Christian read this verse straightforwardly. Instead, they see Jesus as presenting a sort of puzzle. “You say I’m good? Well, there’s only one who is good, and that’s God. So what does that make me?”

It’s interesting to me that Matthew, who wrote his gospel with Mark in hand, was equally disturbed by the ramifications of this saying. Matthew did not hold to a high Christology; he never imagined that Jesus was God in the flesh. Yet Mark’s story nevertheless disturbed him. He couldn’t accept Mark’s wording, in which Jesus claimed not to be good, but he also couldn’t think of Jesus as God. So what did he do?

He changed the wording just slightly, toning down the message. Be sure to read this verse in a more accurate translation than the King James, and you’ll see the difference:

And he said to him, “Why do you ask me about what is good? There is only one who is good. If you would enter life, keep the commandments.”

Exodus 20:26, Beware the Stairs!

‘Nor shall you go up by steps to My altar, that your nakedness may not be exposed on it.’

//In Israel in the temple courtyard was an altar for sacrifice. Have you ever seen pictures of this altar, artists’ imagination of what it must have looked like? Have you ever seen a picture without stairs going up the altar?

One wonders if all these renditions of the Temple are accurate. Presumably, the priests–who wore robes, not slacks–were not to approach the top of the altar by stairway. It was apparently immodest, too much risk that their nakedness be exposed to those below.

Is there a lesson here for Christians today? Should we ban stairways in public buildings?

Exodus 32:14, God Repents

And the LORD repented of the evil which he thought to do unto his people.

//Here’s the story: Moses goes up on a mountain to talk with God, and while they’re busy up there, Israel turns to idolatry. Their leader and their god have gone missing, so a golden calf becomes their new god. When God quits talking to Moses and notices what is going on down there, he threatens to destroy everyone by fire.

But Moses talks gently with God, appealing to God’s reputation and sense of honor. If God gives in to his wrath, says Moses, the Egyptians will hear about it and God will lose face.

So God repents. He’s not happy at all about it, but he tells Moses to go ahead and lead them into the promised land.

Now let’s talk about heaven and hell. To hear some tell it, eternal fiery torment awaits anyone who finds God distant and chooses another deity. But if Moses could talk God out of vengeance once, can it be done again? Might the point of life be that we would spend our lives in prayer, begging God to be merciful, to turn away from the evil he has planned?

For those who believe in hell, this would seem like a worthwhile pastime.

Proverbs 10:15, Wealth is our Fortress

The wealth of the rich is their fortified city, but poverty is the ruin of the poor.

//It’s easy to feel this way, isn’t it? If I just had a little more money, I’d be safe and all would be well. My fortress would be impregnable. I fall into that line of thought at times, as I’m at the point in life where I’m saving frantically for my own retirement.

But a few chapters later, we find a different opinion. Note that this verse starts out identical to the first but then changes direction:

The wealth of the rich is their fortified city; they imagine it a wall too high to scale. –Proverbs 18:11

So we have a delicate balance. Wealth can provide protection, but can also be the source of pride, leading to downfall.

Luckily, wealth is something I’ll never have to worry about.

2 Samuel 7:16, David’s Throne becomes God’s Throne

And thine house and thy kingdom shall be established for ever before thee: thy throne shall be established for ever.

//The four books of Samuel/Kings and the two books of Chronicles cover much the same time period and tell many of the same stories. But Chronicles was written a couple hundred years later than Samuel/Kings. It therefore sometimes portrays a little different perspective. Consider today’s verse, in which King David is promised in the book of Samuel that his dynasty (his house and kingdom) would continue forever.

Except that it didn’t. Oops! The Davidic kingdom didn’t last much longer than the date the words were written. So what to do about this promise?

The author of the Chronicles rewrites this story to emphasize not David’s kingdom but God’s kingdom, like this:

But I [God] will settle him in mine house and in my kingdom for ever: and his throne shall be established for evermore. –1 Chronicles 17:14

David’s dynasty is thus allowed to perish, while the slightly-rewritten promise remains intact.

Genesis 9:25, Canaan’s Destiny

And he said, Cursed be Canaan; a servant of servants shall he be unto his brethren.

//The Bible tells us the story of a disgruntled nation of slaves (Israel) who escape from Egypt and head to a promised land named Canaan. There, they encounter inhabitants in their way. So what do they do? They slaughter them, in a shocking genocide that apparently has God’s blessing.

Now read today’s verse. It is a precursor to the conquest, cursing Canaan. Except that it’s not cursing a nation, but a person…the father of the nation named Canaan. The descendents of this person, then, become rightfully exterminated when God is ready to move his people into the land of Canaan.

Who is Canaan the person, who cursed him, and what did he do that was so evil? He was the son of Ham, the grandson of Noah, and he did nothing wrong. One day, Noah drank a little too much and flopped down in a drunken, naked stupor in his tent, and his son Ham happened to stumble in inadvertently seeing Noah’s nakedness. So what does Noah do? Why, he curses Ham’s son Canaan forever, naturally.

It is, of course, a mythical story written to justify the invasion of Canaan after the fact.

John 20:29, Blessed are the Blind Believers

Jesus saith unto him, Thomas, because thou hast seen me, thou hast believed: blessed are they that have not seen, and yet have believed.

//This is a curious passage of scripture. John’s Gospel had just finished relaying the story of how Jesus appeared to the Twelve, materializing before them in a locked room. But once isn’t enough; the Gospel then repeats the story eight days later, with a twist. This time, the apostle Thomas is with them, who becomes a scapegoat for a lesson Jesus wants to teach. That lesson is that while Thomas believed only after seeing Jesus, true blessing comes to those who could believe without seeing the risen Jesus.

The passage is probably an add-on, not original to the Gospel, and meant to inspire readers of the Gospel after the original witnesses to Jesus’ resurrection had all passed on. Blessed are the new believers, for they are able to believe without seeing Jesus.

Of course, this contradicts the rest of the Gospel by missing the point relayed many times earlier: that believing in Jesus is how one sees him. Yes, the Thomas story surely is an add-on by a later writer, abducting John’s spiritual Gospel for his own literal resurrection beliefs. More about this in my book about John’s Gospel.

Psalm 82:6-7, The Gods Will Die Like Mortals

I said, “You are gods, And all of you are children of the Most High. But you shall die like men, And fall like one of the princes.”

//In Psalm 82, God is presiding over the heavenly council of gods. In that day, it was believed that each nation had its own ruling god. But God, capital G, asserts his authority, claiming that the other gods are mere mortals.

Switch gears now to New Testament times. In John chapter 10, the Jews are ready to stone Jesus because he claimed to be “one with God.” In reply, Jesus points to this psalm, with the following argument: God was speaking to those who would die like mortals, and calling them gods … children of the Most High. How, then, can they stone Jesus for claiming to be the Son of God, though he be mortal?

A fascinating argument that leaves my head spinning.

Acts 16:17, Libertarian Slaves?

The same followed Paul and us, and cried, saying, These men are the servants of the most high God, who show to us the way of salvation.

//Sometimes a translation can be off just enough to mask a verse’s meaning. Examine today’s verse in the book of Acts. Servants/slaves (literally, in the Greek, “bond-servants”) of the most High God appear to be going around proclaiming a way of salvation/freedom/liberation. These particular “slaves” consider themselves free men, and wish to share this libertarian view with others.

These slaves were named Paul and Silas. They were visiting Philippi when a another slave girl with a penchant for fortune-telling told on them. She said they were slaves like her, but slaves to God rather than men. Her masters were not happy that Paul and Silas were insinuating that liberty was possible for those who were slaves to God, and decided to take away Paul’s and Silas’s freedom. They cast them into prison.

Of course, it didn’t work. You know the story: Paul and Silas prayed and sang praises in prison, and an earthquake rocked the prison opening the doors. Paul and Silas were freed, but they decided not to take advantage of the situation. They stayed where they were, in prison, though the lesson behind the earthquake was clear: they were slaves to no one but God. And being a willing “bond-servant” to God is what lifted them out of bondage to anyone else.

Deuteronomy 15:4, The Poor Will Be Always With You

However, there need be no poor people among you, for in the land the LORD your God is giving you to possess as your inheritance, he will richly bless you.

//One day, a woman poured a costly ointment over Jesus’ head and/or feet, and some who were watching this extravagance balked. Couldn’t this ointment be put to better use than anointing the Messiah? Perhaps it could be sold and the money given to the poor?

Jesus replied that the poor would always be available, but that he was soon leaving the scene. It’s an odd justification, especially in light of today’s verse in Deuteronomy.

To put the Deuteronomic verse in context, it is a promise of abundance in an upcoming land of “milk and honey.” The Promised Land, as it came to be known on the journey out of Egypt to Palestine, would overflow with God’s provision, and in that place there need not be any poor.

The key phrase, of course, is “need not.” It didn’t work out that way. Israel, in their new land, quickly evolved to a monarchy that favored a few and left the multitude destitute. Such was the State of the Union by Jesus’ time … a state that seemed unfixable, for Jesus indicated that it was never going away.

Does this justify Jesus accepting a costly ointment as an anointing? What do you think?

Psalms 121:6, Moonstroke?

The sun shall not smite thee by day, nor the moon by night.

//Today, I leave on vacation for a family reunion, an outdoor camping trip. I hear the temperature will be in the 90’s there in Northern Idaho next week. Sounds like a great place for getting a moontan.

The Psalmist in today’s verse promises that neither the sun nor the moon will cause heat stroke to believers, but prudence requires I warn my family: I believe it would be wise to use moonscreen of at least an 8 if you plan to be out much during the night next week.

Luke 23:28, Weep For Your Children

But Jesus turning unto them said, Daughters of Jerusalem, weep not for me, but weep for yourselves, and for your children.

//Jesus said these words as he carried his cross to his death. Roughly forty years after Jesus died, the Romans invaded Jerusalem by force and toppled the city. It was, the Romans felt, the only way to enforce peace in the Empire. The rebellious Jews had to be put in their place.

This war had a profound effect on our New Testament scriptures, most of which were written after the war ended, while Jerusalem and the Temple lay in ruins. Jesus often warned of what was on the horizon for Jerusalem, and after it happened, our gospel writers surely recalled Jesus’ prophetic words and emphasized them. It’s hard to imagine the cultural upheaval of losing your temple–the house of God–and being displaced from God’s holy land.

Because of this emphasis in the New Testament, it seems proper to read scripture in the light of this destruction. Think of Jesus standing on a hill overlooking Jerusalem, weeping for it. Think of him predicting that one day soon, not one stone of the temple would be left atop another. Think of him warning the Jews that they were headed for Gehenna–a valley on the south side of Jerusalem, often assumed to be a creative reference to hell, but which actually describes exactly what happen in history. During the war, bodies were thrown by the thousands over the walls of Jerusalem into the cursed valley of Hinnom (Gehenna). What happened to the Jews was hellish, indeed.

Today’s verse is one more not-so-subtle reference to the upcoming horror. When Jesus speaks of weeping for “you and your children,” he means it quite literally: that generation and the next. They would be massacred and tossed into Gehenna. The gospels come alive when we put them back in their historical context.

This topic will be covered in more detail in my upcoming book, The River of Life.

Matthew 15:22, The Canaanite Woman

And, behold, a woman of Canaan came out of the same coasts, and cried unto him, saying, Have mercy on me, O Lord, thou Son of David;

//Today’s verse leads into the story of Jesus healing the daughter of a Canaanite. At first Jesus ignores her pleading for mercy, stating that his duty is to Israel. But she persists, humbling herself, and Jesus succumbs to mercy. He heals the woman’s little girl.

I’ve written about this story before. It’s fascinating and encouraging on a number of levels. But today, I want you to note one word in particular:


Matthew calls this woman a Canaanite. It’s an odd description, because there were no Canaanites anymore by Jesus’ time. They no longer existed as a culture. Maybe this Old Testament verse is why:

And when the LORD thy God shall deliver [the Canaanites] before thee; thou shalt smite them, and utterly destroy them; thou shalt make no covenant with them, nor shew mercy unto them: –Deuteronomy 7:2

Even the daughters of the Canaanites were destroyed. They were not fit as wives for Israelites. Israel was to show no mercy for them, even for their little girls.

Is this why Jesus at first refused to heal the little girl of this “Canaanite” woman? Was he letting their meeting build to a climax before making his point: that things were changing and even “Canaanites” were to be treated mercifully in God’s new world?

Then Jesus answered and said unto her, O woman, great is thy faith: be it unto thee even as thou wilt. And her daughter was made whole from that very hour.

John 8:6, Jesus Writes on the Ground

This they said, tempting him, that they might have to accuse him. But Jesus stooped down, and with his finger wrote on the ground, as though he heard them not.

//Everyone knows this story. The Pharisees, hoping to discredit Jesus, bring him a woman caught in the act of adultery and ask him if she should be stoned. The law says she must die. But Jesus refuses to answer at first and instead stoops to write in the dust.

This scene leads to great speculation. What was Jesus writing, there? I provided a guess once before about what Jesus may have written. See here.

Today it was brought to my attention that this incident occurred in the Temple. That means Jesus was writing in the Temple dust, which sheds a different light on the topic. It brings us to this post about the “Jealousy Law.” In order to find out whether a woman was unfaithful to her husband, the priest would make a mixture of holy water and Temple dust. He then would make the woman drink it, to see if her womb would shrink (perhaps a “shrinking womb” indicated the death of the fetus).

Might Jesus have been toying with the woman, or with the Pharisees, pretending to be a priest … pretending to evoke the divining powers of the Temple dust? Or … even more bizarre … might he actually have been learning from the magic dust whether the story of adultery was true? This is the first time I’ve ever put these two passages of scripture together, so I would be interested in hearing opinions!

Leviticus 15:16, Baptism By Immersion Or Sprinkling?

And if any man’s seed of copulation go out from him, then he shall wash all his flesh in water, and be unclean until the even.

//Christian baptism evolved from the ritual cleansing baths of Judaism, and those baths evolved from an interpretation of the Law. Today’s verse is one law in particular, and instance where “baptismal cleansing” is required. So are we doing baptism right?

If your church believes in immersion, you’re halfway there. But only halfway. The law is specific about all flesh being cleansed. The person being baptized was therefore not to be clothed at all. Nor was he to remain in contact with his baptizer, for a single touch would prevent full cleansing of at least a small part of the body.

This brings up a question. What about women? Were they to be baptized naked? Acts 8:12 indicates that women were indeed baptized:

But when they believed Philip as he proclaimed the good news of the kingdom of God and the name of Jesus Christ, they were baptized, both men and women.

But we know Jews were notoriously cautious about sexual immorality. The only time you would see a woman nude in public was when she was being punished, by being lawfully shamed. As a result, scholars are unsure about exactly how baptism was practiced in the early church. Maybe we’ll never know whether or not we’re doing it right.

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