Theological rants
of a liberal Christian

Book review: The Gospel and Epistles of John

Sunday, January 30, 2011 in Book Reviews | 0 comments

Book review: The Gospel and Epistles of John

by Raymond E. Brown


This book is now 23 years old, but it is one that every Bible scholar must read. Raymond Brown is considered by many to be the premier Johannine scholar of the 20th century, and is widely acknowledged by both the Church and by academia. Brown began writing about John and the Johannine community in 1960, culminating a quarter-century later in an exhaustive, 800-page tome on the epistles in 1982. This book brings it all together in one concise commentary. If you fancy yourself a Bible scholar but you don’t have time to study all of Brown’s works, you must at least read this short book.

You’ll find in this book no comprehensive discussion of the Johannine community, of the development and authorship of the Gospel, or even of Johannine theology in general. You’ll find very little about Brown’s contributions to understanding Johannine eschatology or to the identification of the “beloved disciple.” What you will get is a concise verse-by-verse commentary of the Gospel and epistles, which in itself provides a taste of Brown’s thinking.

Scripture from the Revised New Testament is printed on the top of each page, with Brown’s commentary on the bottom half. Because it’s a summary only, providing nothing new or provocative, I have a hard time granting it more than three stars, yet it is a must-read.

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John 19:30, Jesus Hands Over a Spirit

Saturday, January 29, 2011 in Bible Commentary | 1 comment

When he had received the drink, Jesus said, “It is finished.” With that, he bowed his head and gave up his spirit.

//I’ve quoted the NIV translation of this verse, but a more accurate translation is Jesus “handed over” his spirit. This is a very different picture than the other Gospels, and this is a key verse to understanding Johannine theology. What or who is the spirit, and who is it handed over to?

Is it the soul of Jesus, going back to God? Not likely; the Jews understood that the soul would hang around the body for three days, before death is recognized as certain. John follows this understanding; Mary appears to witness the soul ascending to heaven (as did the souls of all martyrs) after the third day.

Is it the Holy Spirit? Most interpreters assume the Holy Spirit is the Johannine equivalent of the Paraclete, or the comforter. But the comforter will not make his appearance until the evening of the resurrection, where it appears magically behind locked doors in the presence of the disciples.

Earlier in John, at the beginning of Jesus’ ministry, a “spirit” settled upon Jesus like a descending dove. Perhaps this was a gift of the eternal light/love/life; that which was “before Abraham,” that which was “with God in the beginning.” Is it now ascending back like a dove to where it came from, bookending the earthly life of Jesus with its arrival and departure? But it doesn’t appear to be going anywhere; it is “handed over,” possibly to the “beloved disciple,” whom Jesus commissions to take care of his mother.

Today, we naturally interpret the writings of John in the light of our own theology, which is a composite of all the Gospel stories. But what did John mean, 2,000 years ago? Why must John write so mysteriously? I’ll be probing these questions and more in my upcoming book about John’s Gospel.

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Book review: I Sold My Soul on eBay

Friday, January 28, 2011 in Book Reviews | 0 comments

Book review: I Sold My Soul on eBay

by Hemant Mehta


Mehta is “the eBay atheist,” the nonbeliever who auctioned off the opportunity for the winning bidder to send him to church. Since then, Mehta has visited a variety of churches, from the cozy to the mega churches, and written about his experiences.

If you’re looking for comedy, this is not. The subtitle is “Viewing faith through an atheist’s eyes,” and Mehta, who stopped believing as a teenager, never crosses back over the line.

He begins his book by explaining what it is the nonreligious believe. He touches on prayer, suffering, child raising, and points out that atheism is not merely the denial of a supernatural being; it is a lifestyle. Then he narrates his journey from church to church, describing the events, the rituals, the music and more from an outsider’s viewpoint. At the conclusion of the book, Mehta offers suggestions for making the church experience more attractive and how to reach out to unbelievers.

What would it take for Mehta to become a believer? A miracle. A real miracle, not some “God helped me find a roommate” type of miracle. And I suspect Hemant speaks for a great number of atheists.

In a recent forum, someone made the statement that the believer will never understand the atheist’s mind, and the atheist will never understand the believer’s mind. I’m not sure I entirely agree, because many people grow from believers into atheists and vice versa. But the typical Christian suggestion that atheists work to suppress an inherent belief in God is no more true than the atheist idea that Christians are easily deluded. I have met many incredibly intelligent people on both sides of the line. Mehta’s book bridges the gap and breaks down the stereotypes.

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Revelation 13:18, The Number of the Beast, Part II

Thursday, January 27, 2011 in Bible Commentary | 0 comments

This calls for wisdom. If anyone has insight, let him calculate the number of the beast, for it is a man’s number. His number is 616.

//No, this isn’t a repeat. No, this isn’t a typo.

Two days ago, I introduced the beastly number 666, and why first-century Christians immediately recognized it as referring to Nero Caesar. But if you look in the margin of your Bible, you may find something interesting: many early manuscripts of Revelation record the number of the beast as 616, not 666! Why?

Yes, John’s puzzle was easily cracked, and Nero’s role in Revelation was well-known in the first and second century (and actually, well into the fifth century). But as more and more Latin speaking Christians entered the fold, the puzzle no longer made sense. Neron Caesar, written in Hebrew, is spelled NRWN QSR. But the Latin pronunciation is Nero Caesar, NRW QSR. A 50-point letter is dropped, and the sum becomes 616. So what did the copyists do? They began changing scripture from 666 to 616!

Luckily, it didn’t take, and we’re back to the original 666. I’m glad; 666 just looks and sounds so much more … appropriately evil.

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Book review: Celebrating Jesus in the Biblical Feasts

Wednesday, January 26, 2011 in Book Reviews | 0 comments

Book review: Celebrating Jesus in the Biblical Feasts

by Dr. Richard Booker


It’s impossible to recognize all the nuances of the New Testament writings without understanding the Jewish feasts. Consider especially the Gospel of John: It goes from one Biblical feast to the next with barely a let-up. This is one of John’s primary literary devices, where the festival celebrations provide a meaningful backdrop for Jesus’ lessons. Let me give you an example from Booker’s book, in his coverage of the Feast of Tabernacles:

As part of the ritual proceeding, a certain priest would draw water from the Pool of Siloam with a golden pitcher. He would then come to the altar at the temple where the High Priest would take the pitcher and pour the water into a basin at the foot of the altar. … About the time the water was being poured … [all the people] sought the Lord from Isaiah 44:3, which reads, “For I will pour water on him who is thirsty, and floods on the dry ground; I will pour my Spirit on your descendants, and my blessing on your offspring.”

Now we come to the words of Jesus in John 7:37. Picture him there in the temple as the ceremony concludes. On the last day of the feast of Tabernacles, Jesus stood and cried out, “If anyone thirsts, let him come to me and drink. He who believes in me, as the Scripture has said, out of his heart will flow rivers of living water.”

I have at least a half-dozen books about the feasts of Israel; it’s a basic necessity for anyone studying to publish a book about the Gospel of John. With perhaps the exception of an over-sized picture book (come on, who can resist that?) this one is my favorite. Booker will guide you through the entire year of festivals, from Passover to Hanukkah, adroitly explaining the significance of each traditional and ritual and how the events relate to the story of Jesus.

(Dr. Richard Booker is considered a pioneer and spiritual father in teaching on Israel, Jewish-Christian relations, and the biblical Hebraic roots of Christianity.)

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Revelation 13:18, The Number of the Beast

Tuesday, January 25, 2011 in Bible Commentary | 0 comments

This calls for wisdom. If anyone has insight, let him calculate the number of the beast, for it is man’s number. His number is 666.

//Most learned scholars of Revelation today recognize that, at least on some level, John names first-century Roman Emperor Nero Caesar as the Beast of Revelation. This verse provides one clue of many.

Here we find our infamous reference to the number 666 and John’s command that the churches of Asia figure it out. Everyone knows this number identifies the Antichrist (as the Beast has since come to be known—Revelation never uses the term Antichrist). Clearly, John knows the Beast’s identity and expects the seven churches to understand. A first-century spelling of Nero Caesar’s name, written in Hebrew characters, sums to that exact value. Though perhaps hidden from Greek and Latin readers, this could not have gone unnoticed by Jewish Christians.

For anyone not familiar with this type of cryptogram, the basic idea builds upon the way Hebrew letters function as phonetic symbols for building words but also serve as numerals. All alphabetic symbols represent both a letter and a number. Roman numerals present perhaps our most familiar example of this, but in the Greek and Hebrew alphabets, all letters also stood for numbers, making this numerical wordplay quite popular. The letters of the Beast, N-R-W-N Q-S-R, written in Hebrew, become 50+200+6+50+100+60+200=666. This type of numerology, particularly among Rabbinic writings, proved irresistible for scriptural interpretations.

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Book review: Thinking Is Authorized!

Monday, January 24, 2011 in Book Reviews | 0 comments

Book review: Thinking Is Authorized!

by Nash Khatri


With a mysterious Bang! 13.7 billion years ago, an incredible universe of time and space tumbled forth. Science and religion both are fascinated by this existence, as we humans peer ever deeper into the mysteries of the universe. But Nash’s book is different: it wonders what else is out there. It invites us to contemplate what lies outside our prison of time and space. This concept is so key to the book that Nash has given it a label: Lack of Time and Space, or LTS.

The greatest mystery of LTS may be life itself. Life, Nash contends, is special; we’ll never instill life in a robot, which will never be more than a construction in time and space. But where did life come from? How did emotion, thought, wonder, break into our world of time and space? Where does this life-matter go when we die? Is life truly eternal, existing in LTS? What does eternal mean where there is no time?

Nash Khatri meanders through these questions and more as he probes the mysteries of LTS. Nash obviously has a religious background, though he doesn’t discuss it in the book. He at time appears apologetic (though he needn’t be) for contradicting the beliefs of various religions. He points out the silliness of some of our age-old assumptions with both humor and respect.

At times, I would find myself asking: “Is this idea theologically sound?” And then, on the next page, “Is this idea scientifically sound?” You know, it really is hard to think beyond religion and science! In the end, I am unqualified to answer either question about the book, but thank you, Mr. Khatri, for encouraging me to think.

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II Samuel 21:17, Who Killed Goliath?

Sunday, January 23, 2011 in Bible Commentary | 0 comments

And there was again a battle in Gob with the Philistines, where Elhanan the son of Jaareoregim, a Bethlehemite, slew [the brother of] Goliath the Gittite, the staff of whose spear was like a weaver’s beam.

//Thus was the brother of Goliath slain. Or was he?

In the original Hebrew, it is Goliath himself who is slain by Elhanan! The words “the brother of” were added to the English translation of this verse to match I Chronicles 20:5, where it is Goliath’s brother, and not Goliath himself, who was slain. These words do not exist in the original version in Samuel. Here is the NIV version of the same verse:

In another battle with the Philistines at Gob, Elhanan son of Jaare-Oregim the Bethlehemite killed Goliath the Gittite, who had a spear with a shaft like a weaver’s rod.

So, who killed Goliath? Was it David, or was it Elhanan, one of David’s elite men of war? Given that the writing of II Samuel precedes Chronicles by several centuries, the earliest tradition says Elhanan. Yet, somehow, the myth of David’s great victory grew, and today has become a beloved story of courage for underdogs everywhere.

There are actually several clues in the Bible that hint the oldest tradition (Elhanan) is the true slayer of Goliath, but I won’t go into them all here. Suffice it to say it’s a fascinating study.

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Book review: The Existential Jesus

Saturday, January 22, 2011 in Book Reviews | 0 comments

Book review: The Existential Jesus

by John Carroll


Ex-is-ten-tial –adjective: of or relating to existence, especially human existence.

This is Jesus, the way you’ve never read about him before. John Carroll draws primarily on the Gospel of Mark, a Gospel which rather quickly fell into disuse among early Christians as they favored the more majestic stories told by Matthew and the others.

Mark’s Jesus is far more human. He sometimes questions, sometimes fails. He is ridiculed by his family. Carroll portrays Jesus as a lonely, mysterious stranger with an obscure mission. By the end of his journey, he has lost all of his followers. “His life reaches its consummation in tragedy—a godless and profane one—and a great death scream from the cross, questioning the sense of it all.”

Mark’s story then closes with a mystery. An empty tomb, and three women fleeing in terror, told to tell no one of what they saw—or didn’t see. (Carroll is correct; the ending we have now in the book of Mark, describing the resurrection of Jesus, did not exist in the earliest manuscripts.)

Mark’s Gospel is, of course, one of four. Over time, the Jesus story grew in splendor, and by the time the fourth Gospel was written, Jesus had become God Himself. When I complete my book about John’s Gospel (yet a couple years away from publication), I am going to wander through every local bookstore and move my book next to Carroll’s, where the two extremes can sit side-by-side.

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Jude 1:9, The Body of Moses

Friday, January 21, 2011 in Bible Commentary | 4 comments

But even the archangel Michael, when he was disputing with the devil about the body of Moses, did not dare to bring a slanderous accusation against him, but said, “The Lord rebuke you!”

//What on earth is this verse all about? Michael and Satan squabbling over the body of Moses?

According to Origin, an early 3rd-century church father, this verse in Jude references an apocryphal text known as the Assumption of Moses or the Ascension of Moses. We’ve never uncovered the ending to the Assumption of Moses; it’s believed that about a third of the manuscript is missing, and many scholars therefore assume the story of Michael and Satan is in the lost ending.

An alternative explanation is that Jude compounds ideas from multiple sources, playing on the general Jewish tradition of Michael as a gravedigger for the just. Michael “rebukes” Azazel in the book of Enoch, and an angel of the Lord “rebukes” Satan in Zechariah 3, so if we mix all the stories together, we get something akin to Jude’s verse.Today’s theologians often point out that Satan is the prince of this earth and, though the spirit of Moses ascended untouched to God, Satan stakes his claim to the bodies of believers. If so, why do you suppose Michael cared about this particular body? Is it because the location of Moses’ burial is supposed to remain a mystery? In Deuteronomy 34, God buried him in Moab, in the valley opposite Beth Peor, but to this day no one knows where his grave is.

Is Satan among those still looking for the lost body of Moses? Why would God take a special hand in Moses’ burial? Something out of the ordinary was going on, and maybe we’ll never know what this little tiff was about, but if you have opinions, I’d be curious to hear them.

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