Tuesday, August 16, 2011


In the post below I originally wrote Jude 28 when I intended Jude 25

Monday, August 15, 2011

Jude 25

I still like to browse through my King James Bible at times and in doing so recently I found a scripture that could give aid and comfort to the Trinitarians. Verse 25 of Jude reads (KJ):

To the only wise God our Saviour, be glory and majesty, dominion and power, both now and ever. Amen

So is the Saviour (Jesus) God? Sadly for the trinitarians, No. It's just a bad translation.

I don't have a copy of the old Stephanus text but I have checked three modern recensions of the original Greek text (Nestle, Griesbach and Westcott & Hort) and all have a "through" ("dia" in Greek) in the text. So the relevant text fragment translates as: "To the only God our saviour .... THROUGH Jesus Christ"

In other words God is the real saviour and he works THROUGH Jesus. The text in fact sharply distinguishes between the two rather than saying they are the same.

Check it in any modern translation

Tuesday, April 26, 2011

Some more exegesis

Exegesis is the detailed examination of a text in its context -- usually a scriptural text. I became an exegete of a sort when I was about 13. It was then that I first read the Sermon on the Mount. I was thunderstruck to find that what Jesus taught was nothing like what Christians actually do. Where is the ambiguity in:
"Ye have heard that it hath been said, An eye for an eye, and a tooth for a tooth. But I say unto you, That ye resist not evil: but whosoever shall smite thee on thy right cheek, turn to him the other also. And if any man will sue thee at the law, and take away thy coat, let him have thy cloke also. And whosoever shall compel thee to go a mile, go with him twain. Give to him that asketh thee, and from him that would borrow of thee turn not thou away."

Can you get plainer than that? I can't imagine it. And I am still nearly as thunderstruck to this day about the gap between what the Bible says on the one hand and what Christians and Jews do, say and believe on the other hand. One would think that they would long ago have found a book that suited them better.

I still like Christianity as we have it today, however. I attended the Good Friday service at my old Presbyterian church, for instance. See here. But it is a very poor reflection of the original faith.

I have continued to find exegesis fascinating, however, so I long ago started looking closely at what the rest of the scriptures actually say -- even delving into the original languages in which they were written where that seemed crucial. And over the years I have put up on this blog and on my scripture blog my findings about key doctrines -- including hellfire.

Rather to my amusement, however, I see that the NYT has just weighed in on hellfire. When the NYT is preaching the reality of hell, I feel that I should say a little more about some of the key scriptural texts involved.

Quick background: The word translated as "hell" in many Bibles is in the original Greek "hades", which simply means death or the grave. Translating it as "hell" is a theological statement, not a linguistic one. And knowing that wipes out most of the texts that are usually cited in support of the hellfire doctrine.

A couple of interesting texts remain, however, and today I thought I should look at one of Jesus's prophetic utterances in Matthew 25. An excerpt:
"When the Son of man shall come in his glory, and all the holy angels with him, then shall he sit upon the throne of his glory: And before him shall be gathered all nations: and he shall separate them one from another, as a shepherd divideth his sheep from the goats: And he shall set the sheep on his right hand, but the goats on the left. Then shall the King say unto them on his right hand, Come, ye blessed of my Father, inherit the kingdom prepared for you from the foundation of the world ...

Then shall he say also unto them on the left hand, Depart from me, ye cursed, into everlasting fire, prepared for the devil and his angels. And these shall go away into everlasting punishment: but the righteous into life eternal"

The "everlasting fire" into which the "goats" are cast certainly does sound like a clear formulation of a hellfire doctrine but that impression is partly an effect of a poor translation. The word translated as "punishment" is in Greek "kolasin" and it simply means "cutting off". It is the word a Greek gardener might use to describe the pruning of a tree. So it would be a defensible translation to say that the goats would be cut off and thrown away like the unwanted branch of a tree

So, when properly translated, we see that Christ was, as usual, offering the alternatives of life and death, not heaven and hell -- exactly as he does in the most famous verse in the Bible, John 3:16. The sheep get eternal life and the goats get eternal death. I guess I am a goat!

But where does the "everlasting fire" come in? To see that we have to note that Jesus was speaking figuratively for most of the passage, as he often did. His parables are famous. So is he really going to sit on a throne and muster billions of people on either side of him? If so, he would need to locate himself somewhere around Iran and even then the billions of goats would be crowded for room and many could well fall into the Mediterranean (presuming the throne was facing North).

And Jesus in fact makes it clear that he is aiming at vividness rather than precision when he notes: "as a shepherd divideth his sheep from the goats".

So we have to decipher what is behind the figurative language. We get a clue when we note another passage where he used the same expression. Matthew 18:
"Wherefore if thy hand or thy foot offend thee, cut them off, and cast them from thee: it is better for thee to enter into life halt or maimed, rather than having two hands or two feet to be cast into everlasting fire. And if thine eye offend thee, pluck it out, and cast it from thee: it is better for thee to enter into life with one eye, rather than having two eyes to be cast into hell fire."

Again, however, we risk being misled by a quite mendacious translation. This is one occasion when the original Greek underlying the translation "hell" is NOT "hades". It is "Gehenna". And Gehenna was simply the municipal incinerator outside Jerusalem where the bodies of criminals were thrown.

So: Bingo! We now have it. We know what image of everlasting fire Jesus had in mind. He had in mind the continuously burning fire of Jerusalem's garbage incinerator. And, needless to say, the bodies thrown into Gehenna don't feel anything. They have simply died and been disposed of in an ignominious way. So both goats and the Devil are simply going to die -- but die in disgrace.

Jesus is however a careful teacher so makes sure we don't get him wrong by adding a plain language summary at the end of the Matthew 25 passage:
"And these shall go away into everlasting cutting off: but the righteous into everlasting life"

So the hellfire doctrine is another pagan borrowing. It is not Biblical.

A couple more points: Note that in the Matthew 25 passage Jesus speaks only of judging the "nations". There is no mention of the dead. So what about the resurrection of the dead and the judgment of them? Resurrection is the hope of an afterlife that is held out in both the Old and New Testaments but it is not mentioned there at all. That again tells us that Jesus was concerned to paint a vivid mental picture rather than make a precise doctrinal statement.

So, although the Bible is in general a very plainspoken book, we have to make sure that the translation is right and be careful not to take the figurative literally. And reading the whole passage is the usual key to that

Finally, the goats are on the LEFT! Did Jesus foresee the world today? (Just joking).

There is an interesting article here which describes some of the divisions in contemporary Christian thought about the nature of heaven and hell.

Friday, April 15, 2011

Do the Scriptures need interpreting?

This post originally appeared on my DISSECTING LEFTISM blog.

As an atheist I of course have no religious interest in the scriptures but I was for many years paid a lot of money by a leading Australian university to teach sociology so I hope I may be excused for taking a sociological interest in them.

My interest is very much motivated by the historic power of the Judeo-Christian scriptures. They have been enormously influentual and I like to look at why. And in looking at why it seems important to see exactly what they say. So for a while I ran a daily Scripture blog which pointed out what they actually say -- and observed that what they say is a long way from what Christians generally believe today.

It was the Christianity of the first century that gave the huge initial impetus to the worldwide spead of Chistianity in subsequent centuries so it would seem to be that version of Christianity which is of greatest interest -- rather that the watered-down and paganized version we encounter today. And it is first century Christianity that is recorded in the Bible.

And my Scripture blog gave chapter and verse (as it were) in showing exactly where current Christianity is paganized and watered down from the first century original. And the fact that Christianity still has great influence despite being paganized and watered down is surely further testimony to the great power of the original. Even a little bit of the original Gospel is still helpful to many people.

Something that I have so far neglected to do, however, is to look at the claim made by the Catholic Church and some orthodox Jews (such as the aggressive Mr Kelley) to the effect that the Bible is THEIR book and only they can interpret it correctly. The Protestant Reformation was of course built around rejection of that claim. Most of the early Protestants said that they could read the Bible for themselves perfectly adequately and rejected any need for authoritative or learned interpretation.

I am a product of fundamentalist Protestant culture so that basic Protestant idea seems instinctively right to me. I am however a little saddened when I note that most Protestants talk the talk but don't walk the walk. Most Protestants still accept, for instance the quite mad doctrine of the triune God, which has absolutely no basis in scripture but which revives the doctrines of ancient Egypt rather well. The first person of influence to advocate it was Athanasius, an Egyptian. So I like to see what we find when we do walk the walk.

And it is my contention that the Bible is in fact very straightforward most of the time and that it therefore CAN easily be read and understood by almost everyone -- without any need for guidance from special authorities. But my asserting that is of little consequence unless I can give evidence of it. And I thought that I might today make a small start in that direction by comparing two historic pieces of religious expression. The first:
For the living know that they shall die: but the dead know not any thing, neither have they any more a reward; for the memory of them is forgotten. Also their love, and their hatred, and their envy, is now perished; neither have they any more a portion for ever in any thing that is done under the sun.... Whatsoever thy hand findeth to do, do it with thy might; for there is no work, nor device, nor knowledge, nor wisdom, in the grave, whither thou goest

The second:
Predestination to Life is the everlasting purpose of God, whereby (before the foundations of the world were laid) he hath constantly decreed by his counsel secret to us, to deliver from curse and damnation those whom he hath chosen in Christ out of mankind, and to bring them by Christ to everlasting salvation, as vessels made to honour. Wherefore, they which be endued with so excellent a benefit of God be called according to God's purpose by his Spirit working in due season: they through Grace obey the calling: they be justified freely: they be made sons of God by adoption: they be made like the image of his only-begotten Son Jesus Christ: they walk religiously in good works, and at length, by God's mercy, they attain to everlasting felicity.

As the godly consideration of Predestination, and our Election in Christ, is full of sweet, pleasant, and unspeakable comfort to godly persons, and such as feel in themselves the working of the Spirit of Christ, mortifying the works of the flesh, and their earthly members, and drawing up their mind to high and heavenly things, as well because it doth greatly establish and confirm their faith of eternal Salvation to be enjoyed through Christ, as because it doth fervently kindle their love towards God: So, for curious and carnal persons, lacking the Spirit of Christ, to have continually before their eyes the sentence of God's Predestination, is a most dangerous downfal, whereby the Devil doth thrust them either into desperation, or into wretchlessness of most unclean living, no less perilous than desperation.

Furthermore, we must receive God's promises in such wise, as they be generally set forth to us in holy Scripture: and, in our doings, that Will of God is to be followed, which we have expressly declared unto us in the Word of God.

It is my submission that the first is as clear as crystal and the second is as clear as mud. So what are those passages? The first is from the Bible (Ecclesiastes 9) and the second is from the 39 Articles of Religion of the Church of England. The Bible beats theology any day.

But the Bible is TOO clear for most people. Ecclesiastes could hardly have expressed more plainly and emphatically that when you are dead you are dead: No mention of immortal souls flitting about. So that is when people start scrabbling for "interpretations". They say (for instance) that the Ecclesisstes passage is only talking about the body and that there is some mystical "soul" that lives on as well.

And if people need the comfort of that belief so be it. But the original teaching is clear. The Hebrews of Old Testament times were earth-oriented and the only aferlife they looked forward to was resurrection to life on earth at the time of the coming of the Messiah. And Jesus believed that too: "Thy kingdom come; Thy will be done ON EARTH, as it is in heaven".

So it's not the Bible that needs interpretation; it is the reluctance of people to accept its teachings that gives rise to the need for interpretation.

And the passage above from the 39 articles is an example of that too. It is an attempt to reject the plain words of Ephesians chapter 1 while appearing to accept them. Ephesians says quite plainly that being one of God's chosen ones was "predestined" from "before the foundation of the world", which no doubt seems rather unfair. At the time the Calvinists (mostly Scottish Presbyterians) accepted that but the Anglicans didn't like it, presumably because it made their sacraments look rather superfluous.

And that applies equally well to Jews and Christians. The following command in the Torah (Leviticus 20:13) is crystal clear: "If a man also lie with mankind, as he lieth with a woman, both of them have committed an abomination: they shall surely be put to death; their blood shall be upon them." But Rabbinical teachings have "interpreted" that out of existence too.

Sunday, April 10, 2011

Abuse as a response to threat

This post originally appeared on my DISSECTING LEFTISM blog.

As most conservative bloggers can attest, the comments we get on our blogs or via email from Leftists consist almost entirely of a tirade of abuse. I have always thought that the abuse is a sign of a hostile or hating character but perhaps I have underestimated their awareness of their own situation. They know that the facts and logic are against them but cannot let go of their beliefs so rage is their only possible response.

I am moved to that thought by a comment put up in response to my recent post "Is God a racist"?. In the post I addressed once again the contentious question: "Who is a Jew?". The title would, however, I hope, alert anybody to the fact that I was offering a not-very-serious tease. And, to make sure I was not misunderstood, I stated that at the foot of the piece.

Most of the comments I got about it conceded that the piece was thought-provoking but that is all. In one of the places where I posted it, however, I got the following enraged response which consisted of nothing but extended abuse. It said in effect: "I know more than you do so you are wrong" A less persuasive argument would be hard to imagine:
I'm not sure how you got this bee in your bonnet or why this is on an anti-ACLU blog.

You are not dealing with Torah in the original Hebrew or the accompanying Oral Law. There is SO much you don't know about or understand, and are filtering through your X-tian (albeit now atheist) viewpoint. Your sources are from the original via Greek, via Latin, and then into English. You lose a *lot*-- and you don't even know what you don't have. Each of those translations had its own agenda and is probelmatic when compared with the original-- why don't you discuss that?

Give it a rest. Go ahead & do this to the stuff of your tradition (X-tian). You have no idea your lack of foundation to be able to discuss Torah, and you do indeed come off as an anti-semite, despite your rationalizations and protestations.

That is of course exactly the sort of non-argument one would expect of a Leftist. He says nothing to support his assertion that he knows more and gives no detail about where my post might be mistaken. It is pure assertion.

And it is not even good assertion. He asserts that I bypass the original languages of the Bible when in fact I specifically refer to the original Hebrew in discussing the divine name. Readers of my scripture blog will know that I pay great attention to the original Hebrew and Greek texts of the Bible -- though I must confess that I am more at ease with Greek than I am with Hebrew.

So who wrote such a sad effusion? A conservative Jew who uses the rather Portuguese-sounding nickname of "dahozho" [dahozho@yahoo.com] but whose real name is the very Irish-sounding J. Kelley.

My arguments obviously threatened him to the point where he was unable to give an intellectual reply. Why? From the name, I would guess that he is a Jewish convert. Real Jews have a perspective going back a long way so keep their cool with relative ease.

So the polemical incompetence of Mr Kelley suggests to me that maybe Leftists too know that they are on shaky ground when they respond to challenges with abuse.


Mr Kelley has now replied to the above -- simply repeating his contempt for gentiles who think they can understand the Bible without Jewish theology to guide them!

Wednesday, April 06, 2011

Is God a racist?

This post originally appeared on my DISSECTING LEFTISM blog.

Orthodox Jews seem to claim that God made a covenant with them as a nation, as a particular genetic group or race. I doubt that. From Moses on right through the Hebrew prophets, Yahveh (the name of God in the Hebrew Bible, sometimes translated as "Jehovah" in English Bibles) poured out imprecations and condemnations on the Israelites if they strayed from the true religion. It would seem clear that Yahveh defined his people by their RELIGION rather than by their race.

So how does that leave modern Jews in the eyes of Yahveh? As an atheist, I am in a poor position to say but if we assume his existence and read his words in the Bible, it does not look too good. They obey the Torah only selectively (they no longer put homosexuals to death, for instance) and they have not rebuilt the Temple in Jerusalem despite being in a good position to do so.

Additionally they have done the exact opposite of what he intended regarding his name. We read in Psalm 83:18 "That men may know that thou, whose name alone is JEHOVAH, art the most high over all the earth" (KJV). Yahveh clearly had big ambitions for his name and regarded himself as ruling not only the Israelites but all the earth. And even in the Ten Commandments, he stressed the importance and dignity of his name -- forbidding disrespectful use of it.

Yet what did Israelites, starting from around 200 AD or earlier, do? Far from proclaiming Yahveh's mighty name worldwide, they stopped using it altogether! The Devil must have had his best laugh ever when that happened! And modern Jews go one better and render even the Germanic word "god" as "G-d". I can't see Yahveh being pleased with that! No wonder he let the Romans boot the Israelites out of Israel

So has Yahveh transferred his support to the Christians? It's possible. On numbers alone it would seem so. The descendants (spiritual descendants?) of Abraham were promised that they would be a multitude throughout the earth. "Abraham" means "father of a multitude" and we read: "And he brought him [Abraham] forth abroad, and said, Look now toward heaven, and tell the stars, if thou be able to number them: and he said unto him, So shall thy seed be". (Gen 15:5).

The Christians are that multitude but Jews are not. On best estimates there are even 200 million Christians in China these days. So whom does this text best fit? Jews or Christians: "I will make of thee a great nation, and I will bless thee, and make thy name great; and thou shalt be a blessing: And I will bless them that bless thee, and curse him that curseth thee: and in thee shall all families of the earth be blessed. (Genesis 12:2-3)". It's a matter of opinion, of course but it is Christians who have both the numbers and the influence. And has not Christian civilization been a great blessing to the whole world? And "Jew" is much more often a curse than a blessing.

And remember that respect for his law was what Yahveh cared about. He even provided a nifty executive summary of it (or what scientists would call an "Abstract"). I refer of course to the Ten Commandments. And Christians are very zealous about teaching the Ten Commandments. And they distribute Bibles worldwide that contain the Torah in full.

What would I know? Nothing, perhaps. But that is what I see in the Hebrew scriptures. I probably should give theology up.


OK. The post above was a bit facetious and that was probably bad of me. Of greater concern is that the post may be seen as anti-Jewish and pro-Christian. It is neither. I give Christian theology a hard time too -- as you can see from my Scripture blog. It is just that as an atheist I am in a position to read the original texts without religious preconceptions and I like to do that. Doing that does produce some awkward conclusions at times, though.

Sunday, April 03, 2011

Jews as a race

This post originally appeared on my DISSECTING LEFTISM blog.

My recent posts about the Jewish religion questioned its antiquity. My submission was that modern-day Judaism and modern-day Christianity both arose at the same time as ways of adapting the ancient Hebrew religion to the destruction of the the Jerusalem temple by the Romans and the expulsion of most Israelites from Israel -- with Judaism being, if you like, the more conservative solution and Christianity the more radical solution.

Neither religion does things that the ancient Israelites did -- such as killing homosexuals or burning animals on altars -- but both have remained close to the major ethical teachings of the Torah, with Jews remaining true to more minor teachings too. So both religions are only about 2,000 years old rather than the 3,000 years or thereabouts that some Jews claim for their religion.

I may not have convinced anyone of all that but it seems to me that I should complete the picture as I see it by looking at another important Jewish claim: That they are indeed the same people as the ancient Israelites; that they are the modern-day descendants of the exiles from Israel. And I will jump the gun a little by saying that I do see some substance in that claim.

And that claim is a central one for orthodox Jews. They really do believe that Jewish Israelis are the same people in the same land speaking the same language as of old. And some of my Jewish correspondents are so strongly attached to such a view that they see no difficulty in the fact that Jews from Lithuania mostly look like Lithuanians (blue eyes, blond hair) while Jews from Egypt mostly look like Egyptians (black hair, dark eyes). And at the last Pesach seder I attended we were honoured to have a Sabra family present -- who were by far the most dark-skinned people in the otherwise Ashkenazi congregation.

And that is the central difficulty for the orthodox claim: As we see in the famous story of Ruth, Israelites have never been wholly endogamous. The marrying out that is the despair of many a Yiddisher Momma in NYC today has been going on for a long time. So Jews from Lithuania are largely Lithuanians and Jews from Arab lands are largely Arab. Any genetic connection to the Israelites of old would appear to be tenuous indeed.

A second difficulty is that there is a very clear sense in which Judaism is a religion -- and that was the starting point of my posts of a few days ago. You can BECOME a Jew, just as you can BECOME a Christian. The requirements are more severe in some ways for Jews than for Christians but both conversions do happen. You cannot change your race but you can change your religion so is not Judaism simply a religion?

The answer lies, of course, in abandoning two-value logic. Jewry could be BOTH a religion and a race. And it seems that it is. The last I saw of the genetic findings, about half of Ashkenazi Jews do show some distinctively Middle-Eastern genes. So despite the exogamy, some genetic connection to ancient Israel would appear to remain among modern-day Jews. So many or maybe most Ashkenazim who make aliyah are indeed returning to what is at least partly their genetic home. And the fact that their religion is partly that of ancient Israel makes it their home too.

The situation with the Sephardim is harder to disentangle and may require further developments in genetic research to progress. But that the Ashkenazim have hung on to their original ancestry to some degree for so long is obviously encouraging.

So the holiest of holy cities has indeed regathered to itself its people.


Jewish humor is of course legendary and I am a great devotee of it. I was probably started off by being taken to see Marx Bros. movies as a kid. It often has tragic undertones, as one might expect. A totally mad example of that which I can never get out of my mind is the crack by Milton Berle: "Anytime a person goes into a delicatessen and orders a pastrami on white bread, somewhere a Jew dies". So let me end up my comments on endogamy/exogamy with an equally mad cartoon on the subject

And should I mention that I always order my Pastrami on rye?

Wednesday, March 30, 2011

More on the antiquity of Judaism

This post originally appeared on my DISSECTING LEFTISM blog.

I love my Jewish readers. When I post something about Jews and Judaism, I always get ten times the response to what I get on any other topic -- and all well-reasoned responses too, unlike the tantrums from Leftists.

I posted a couple of days ago a provocative article that did something very naughty. I questioned the continuity between the Judaism of Old Testament times and the Jews of today. It is a tribute to Jewish good manners that my post was greeted with some politeness, albeit with great disagreement.

And, of course, it is all a matter of degree. It is probably safe to say that all religions change all the time. Nonetheless I think there is a step-change after the destruction of Herod's temple. For instance, Jews no longer put homosexuals to death (as the Torah requires) and no longer burn animals on an altar in the belief that so doing will ingratiate themselves with their god.

How often Jews did those things is beside the point. The point is that their religion required those things, whereas now it does not.

It is true that the diaspora started long before the Roman onslaught and that Jews outside Israel had already abandoned the two practices I mentioned. But the temple was still there and its centrality to Jewish practice and belief cannot be doubted by any reader of the Hebrew scriptures. Jews abroad were still in a position to feel that all the requirements of their religion were being met where that mattered: In Israel.

So it is still my conclusion that post-temple Judaism and Christianity are two different and contemporaneous adaptations of the original Hebrew belief system. And we call Christianity a different religion, so why not present-day Judaism?

A point that may have slid past some of my Jewish readers is that Jesus did a very good job of rooting his teachings in the Torah. He quoted it repeatedly and insisted that he did not question it. He was a good Israelite of his times and his adaptation of the traditional teachings provided a good foundation for what later became known as Christianity to be likewise rooted. Which is why the Hebrew scriptures are an important part of Christianity to this day.

Update: In case it is not already clear, I should perhaps note that I am speaking of Jewish RELIGION. There is also of course a substantial claim that modern Jews are RACIALLY related to the ancient Hebrews.

Tuesday, March 29, 2011

The meaning of "soul" in the Bible

This post originally appeared on my DISSECTING LEFTISM blog.

Jesus said: "For what shall it profit a man, if he shall gain the whole world, and lose his own soul?" (Mark 8: 36).

How can you lose your soul? Is not your soul YOU? Is it not your immortal essence? Sadly, although the idea that we have an immortal soul in us is an old pagan one, it is not Biblical -- as the text shows.

The Bible in fact mentions nothing like an immortal soul. The word "soul" does appear in most translations of the Bible but it does not mean what Christians assume it to mean. In the original Greek of the New Testament, the word used in Mark 8: 36 and elsewhere is "psyche", the basic meaning of which (according to the authoritative Liddell & Scott Greek Lexicon) is "breath", or, metaphorically, "life".

So when you're dead, you're dead, brother -- as Ecclesiastes chapter 9 tells you so emphatically. Your only hope is to be resurrected at the coming of the Messiah.

Monday, March 28, 2011

How ancient is Judaism?

This post originally appeared on my DISSECTING LEFTISM blog.

At some risk to my "Goy" self, I occasionally write something about Jews and Judaism. So far, however, I have escaped unscathed (I think) so here goes another foray:

It is a common and proud claim among Israelis that they are still living in the same place and speaking the same language and (sort of) following the same religion as they did 3,000 years ago. That thought gives them great pride and helps make up in some way for the horrendous travail Jews have had to go through to get to today.

But, to be blunt, it is nonsense. After the Roman triumph and the expulsion of most Jews from Israel, Jews had to change their religion radically. Judaism had been a temple-focused religion -- so once the temple was gone, huge changes in thinking and custom were needed.

And the changes took two forms: Those who accepted the ideas of the greatest rabbi (Jesus Christ) and those who laboured to stick more closely to traditional ideas. Even among the latter group, however, the surrounding pagan culture took over to a degree. The modern form of the seder, for instance, is said to be strongly influenced by the form of the Hellenistic symposium.

So Judaism as we know it today is in fact no older than Christianity. They are two branches that had to put out fresh growth after the original tree was cut down. And just as Christian thinking underwent all sorts of disputes in its development (e.g. the Arian/Athanasian controversy) so Jews waited a long while for their new ideas to coalesce -- in the form of teachings by great rabbis such as Rashi and Maimonides.

Christian thought in fact probably coalesced more rapidly that did post-temple Jewish thought. Rashi and Maimonides both wrote over 1,000 years after the fall of the temple but have been immensely influential. And by the time they wrote, they lived in a Christian world so were undoubtedly influenced in various ways by Christian ideas -- and Christianity had itself taken on a pretty heavy load of pagan ideas by that time. So I am sure that the Christian/Egyptian concept of the triune God was the subject of much private hilarity among Jews.

So we in fact have two religions of ancient Jewish origins that are quite contemporaneous -- with the Christian variant more successful in most ways. And while Christianity/Judaism precede Islam, Sikhism and Bahai, they are themselves preceded by Hinduism, Buddhism, Confucianism, Taoism and Shinto. And I'm inclined to think that Shinto has the best hats -- despite formidable competition from the gold crowns of Russian Orthodoxy and the shtreimel of orthodox Judaism.

I guess I'll get a few zingers over all that! I'll hear about the Talmud and the Midrash and so on. As an atheist who is sympathetic to religion, however, I may be in a position to be more impartial than most.

Monday, March 07, 2011

Hellfire and the immortal soul are pagan doctrines

Although I have been the most utter atheist for all of my adult life, I cannot rid myself of an interest in theology, or more precisely, exegesis -- so I am reproducing the article below. I would normally have nothing but contempt for an "evangelical" equivalent of Episcopalian Bishop Spong but I think that there are good Biblical grounds for some of the more unorthodox views described below and I will add my reasoning on that at the foot of the reproduced article -- JR
A new book by one of the country’s most influential evangelical pastors, challenging traditional Christian views of heaven, hell and eternal damnation, has created an uproar among evangelical leaders, with the most ancient of questions being argued in a biblical hailstorm of Twitter messages and blog posts.

Rob Bell addressed the issue of heaven and hell in a video about his book, “A Book About Heaven, Hell and the Fate of Every Person Who Ever Lived.”

In a book to be published this month, the pastor, Rob Bell, known for his provocative views and appeal among the young, describes as “misguided and toxic” the dogma that “a select few Christians will spend forever in a peaceful, joyous place called heaven, while the rest of humanity spends forever in torment and punishment in hell with no chance for anything better.”

Such statements are hardly radical among more liberal theologians, who for centuries have wrestled with the seeming contradiction between an all-loving God and the consignment of the billions of non-Christians to eternal suffering. But to traditionalists they border on heresy, and they have come just at a time when conservative evangelicals fear that a younger generation is straying from unbendable biblical truths.

Mr. Bell, 40, whose Mars Hill Bible Church in Grand Rapids, Mich., has 10,000 members, is a Christian celebrity and something of a hipster in the pulpit, with engaging videos that sell by the hundreds of thousands and appearances to rapt, youthful crowds in rock-music arenas.

His book comes as the evangelical community has embraced the Internet and social media to a remarkable degree, so that a debate that once might have built over months in magazines and pulpits has instead erupted at electronic speed.

The furor was touched off last Saturday by a widely read Christian blogger, Justin Taylor, based on promotional summaries of the book and a video produced by Mr. Bell. In his blog, Between Two Worlds, Mr. Taylor said that the pastor “is moving farther and farther away from anything resembling biblical Christianity.”

“It is unspeakably sad when those called to be ministers of the Word distort the gospel and deceive the people of God with false doctrine,” wrote Mr. Taylor, who is vice president of Crossway, a Christian publisher in Wheaton, Ill.

By that same evening, “Rob Bell” was one of the top 10 trending topics on Twitter. Within 48 hours, Mr. Taylor’s original blog had been viewed 250,000 times. Dozens of other Christian leaders and bloggers jumped into the fray and thousands of their readers posted comments on both sides of the debate, though few had yet seen the entire book.

One leading evangelical, John Piper of Bethlehem Baptist Church in Minneapolis, wrote, “Farewell Rob Bell.” R. Albert Mohler Jr., president of Southern Baptist Theological Seminary, said in a blog post that by suggesting that people who do not embrace Jesus may still be saved, Mr. Bell was at best toying with heresy. He called the promotional video, in which Mr. Bell pointedly asks whether it can be true that Gandhi, a non-Christian, is burning in hell, “the sad equivalent of a theological striptease.”

Others such as Scot McKnight, a professor of theology at North Park University in Chicago, said they welcomed the renewed discussion of one of the hardest issues in Christianity — can a loving God really be so wrathful toward people who faltered, or never were exposed to Jesus? In an interview and on his blog, he said that the thunder emanating from the right this week was not representative of American Christians, even evangelicals. According to surveys and his experience with students, Mr. McKnight said, a large majority of evangelical Christians “more or less believe that people of other faiths will go to heaven,” whatever their churches and theologians may argue.

“Rob Bell is tapping into a younger generation that really wants to open up these questions,” he said. “He is also tapping into the fear of the traditionalists — that these differing views of heaven and hell will compromise the Christian message.”

Mr. Bell, who through his publisher declined to comment on the book or the debate, has resisted labels, but he is often described as part of the so-called emerging church movement, which caters to younger believers and has challenged theological boundaries as well as pastoral involvement in conservative politics.

As the controversy exploded last week, HarperOne moved up to March 15 the publication date of Mr. Bell’s book, “Love Wins: A Book About Heaven, Hell, and the Fate of Every Person Who Ever Lived.”

Judging from an advance copy, the 200-page book is unlikely to assuage Mr. Bell’s critics. In an elliptical style, he throws out probing questions about traditional biblical interpretations, mixing real-life stories with scripture.

Much of the book is a sometimes obscure discussion of the meaning of heaven and hell that tears away at the standard ideas. In his version, heaven is something that begins here on earth, in a life of goodness, and hell seems more a condition than an eternal fate — “the very real consequences we experience when we reject all the good and true and beautiful life that God has for us.”

While sliding close to what critics consider the heresy of “universalism” — that all humans will eventually be saved — he never uses the term.

Mark Galli, senior managing editor of Christianity Today, called in an article on the magazine's Web site for all sides to temper their rhetoric and welcome more debate.

“We won’t be able to discern where the Spirit is leading if we don’t listen and respond respectfully to one another,” he wrote.

“God once used a donkey to make his will known,” he added, “so surely he is able to speak through both traditionalists and gadflies.”


I think Pastor ring-a-ding is right for the wrong reasons. He is clearly motivated mainly by the current Leftist "prizes for all" mentality, which in turn emanates from their totally counterfactual belief that "all men are equal". So his is a secular rather than a religious gospel. I may be wrong but I rather doubt that he would be able to give a straight answer to the question: "Do you believe in God?" Spong just ridicules the question.

But orthodox Christianity is unbiblical too. It is still largely mired in the pagan add-ons that the church absorbed in its first thousand years of existence. And the heaven/hell story is one of the pagan add-ons. Why else is the supposedly "immortal" soul repeatedly referred to in the Bible as dying? (e.g. Ezekiel 18:4).

The original Jewish hope of an afterlife (as recorded in the OT) was of being resurrected to life on this earth after the coming of the Messiah. They believed that when you are dead you are dead, with no mention of some part of you flitting off to heaven or elsewhere. I give you an excerpt from Ecclesiastes chapter 9:
For the living know that they shall die: but the dead know not any thing, neither have they any more a reward; for the memory of them is forgotten. Also their love, and their hatred, and their envy, is now perished; neither have they any more a portion for ever in any thing that is done under the sun.... Whatsoever thy hand findeth to do, do it with thy might; for there is no work, nor device, nor knowledge, nor wisdom, in the grave, whither thou goest

And Jesus looked forward to a resurrection on earth too. Do I need to repeat: "Thy kingdom come; thy will be done ON EARTH as it is in heaven"?

St Paul, however muddied the waters somewhat with his proclamation in 1 Corinthians 15:
"So also is the resurrection of the dead. It is sown in corruption; it is raised in incorruption. It is sown in dishonour; it is raised in glory: it is sown in weakness; it is raised in power. It is sown a natural body; it is raised a spiritual body. There is a natural body, and there is a spiritual body.... Now this I say, brethren, that flesh and blood cannot inherit the kingdom of God; neither doth corruption inherit incorruption. Behold, I shew you a mystery; We shall not all sleep, but we shall all be changed, In a moment, in the twinkling of an eye, at the last trump: for the trumpet shall sound, and the dead shall be raised incorruptible, and we shall be changed. For this corruptible must put on incorruption, and this mortal must put on immortality."

So Paul was also perfectly clear that nothing happened until the resurrection and that we are mortal, not immortal. What he changed was WHAT we are raised as. Instead of being recreated as flesh and blood persons on this earth, he saw us as being transformed into spirit beings after the manner of God and the angels. And he said NOTHING about Hell. The good guys were brought back to life and the rest of the dead stayed dead.

So what the Bible says is just ignored by orthodox Christianity. It should be a huge theological puzzle as to whether we accept the OT or the Pauline account of the afterlife. Who is right? Jesus or Paul? Yet there seems to be almost no awareness that the question even exists.

And there also seems to be no awareness that there is no Biblical basis for the doctrine of hellfire. There is no mention of such a thing in the Bible. The words translated in most English Bibles as "hell" are in the original Hebrew and Greek "sheol" and "hades", which simply mean "grave".

There is on one occasion a reference to burning in the fires of Gehenna but Gehenna was simply the municipal incinerator of ancient Jersusalem -- a place where the bodies of criminals were thrown. It is NOT any kind of spirit realm.

So I agree with pastor ring-a-ding that the hellfire doctrine is repulsive -- but you can't pin that doctrine onto the Bible. The original Bible doctrine DOES fit with a loving God: The faithful are resurrected and the sinners are simply forgotten.

For more details on the above matters see earlier posts on this blog -- e.g. my post of 3.14.2005.

Tuesday, February 08, 2011

Why Genesis chapter 1?

Genesis chapter 1 tends to be something of an embarrassment to Christians because of the quite false claim that it represents the earth as having been created in 7 periods of 24 hours. That is simplistic. In the Hebrew scriptures the word for "day" was from time to time used metaphorically (e.g. Genesis 31:40), just as it is in modern English. It can refer to any period of time. When old guys like me say: "In my day ... ", we are not referring to 24 hours -- more like decades.

There is however some cause for embarrassment if one knows what Genesis chapter 1 really is. I have forborne from mentioning it so far out of respect for my Christian readers but in the end I think it is important that knowledge buried in scholarly publications should be brought into public view. So I am now breaking my self-imposed embargo. Readers at this point may wish to decide if they should continue reading.

For a start, it is clear that chapter 1 (plus the first three verses in chapter 2) is a late tack-on, and a glaring one at that. It is the first of two different accounts of creation and has major textual differences from the original account given from Genesis 2:4 onward. The really glaring difference is the use of the divine name. In the rest of the Torah, the divine name (Yahveh; Jehovah) is used freely in the original Hebrew text. Eventually, however, pietism took hold and use of the divine name came to be regarded as disrespectful. "Elohim" (God) and "Adonay" (Lord) came to be used instead. We see something similar among modern Jews, where the usage "G-d" is now common.

So what do we see in Genesis 1? Complete avoidance of the divine name. And from chapter 2 onwards the name is used freely. So chapter 1 is clearly from a later era.

But what could have motivated something as serious as a distortion of the original creation account? Sun worship. It was an attempt to explain why Israelites had accepted the 7 day week of the sun worshippers.

The 7 day week originated in ancient Babylon (or perhaps earlier) in recognition of the 7 movable objects in the sky: The 5 movable stars (planets) plus the sun and the moon. Something as exceptional as stars that moved indicated to ancient minds that those stars must be gods -- so each star had to have a day dedicated to him. And the biggest object in the sky -- the sun -- had to have a day too. And as he was obviously the boss, his day had to be particularly holy. And to this day many of us regard Sunday as holy.

The Israelites didn't go down without a fight, however. They resisted the sun worshippers by saying in effect: "OK. If you celebrate the first day of the week as holy, we will celebrate the last day of the week as holy". And so they did and so they still do.

They were however stuck with the fact that everybody by then divided up the week into 7 days and they also knew perfectly well why. So they had to invent another story about how the 7 day week arose. Hence Genesis chapter 1. And the new story, of course, explained why the 7th day was particularly holy.

So it's all rather simple if you know your ancient history. What saddens me a little is that Christians have reverted to the old sun-worshippers day as their holy day.

Footnote: The account above is a basic outline but there are also some interesting details. Although Genesis chapter 1 is a late addition, it did not of course spring out of the blue. It would in fact seem to be the product of a very long debate.

The seven-day creation story is of course also mentioned in the ten Commandments of Exodus. And in that passage, the divine name IS used. So clearly, the story itself is much older than Genesis chapter 1. The Hebrews had to deal with sun-worshippers from the beginning so their retort to the sun-worshippers went back a long way too.