Lawrence Schiffman on the Mandala Stone


If you ever go on a tour of Israel with me or the Center for Holy Lands Studies, you will go to Magdala, the home of Mary Magdalene. There, in a synagogue that Jesus likely visited, you will see the Magdala Stone, which Jesus likely saw and perhaps even preached from.

Lawrence Schiffman tells a little more about the stone in this article from Ami magazine. The article’s key insight is what this stone says about Jewish views of synagogue in the time of Jesus:

There appear to be flat, indented areas on [the stone’s] four top corners that could have supported poles. It has been suggested that this object was the base for what was then called a teyvah (a “chest”), the ancient synagogue furnishing that served both to hold the Torah scroll [like a modern-day ark] and as a lectern upon which it could be read. This beautiful object would have been part of a synagogue furnished and decorated more extensively than any other from the 1st century CE that has been excavated in Israel.

But this stone has an enormous significance, way beyond its beauty and rarity. It is the earliest post-biblical evidence we have for the notion that a synagogue is a mikdash m’at, a “small sanctuary,” a [talmudic description] drawn from Ezekiel (11:13), where it refers to God. Specifically, the decision to decorate the base of the teyvah on which the Torah was read with symbols of the Temple [implies] that the synagogue was intended to function as a local, admittedly less sanctified, version of the Temple. This object was decorated richly with such symbols to show that the prayer, Torah reading, and study that occurred in this building were likened to the sacrifices offered in the Temple. What this means is that the concept of the synagogue as a replacement for the Temple did not come into existence as a reaction to the latter’s destruction; rather, for [those] Jews who lived too far away to visit Jerusalem regularly, it existed long before.

Read the whole thing!

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Was the Forbidden Fruit an Apple?


Over at NPR, Nina Martyris explains how the forbidden fruit of Genesis 3 came to be an apple.

Short version: a Latin pun by St. Jerome and an epic poem by John Milton.

Long version:

In order to explain, we have to go all the way back to the fourth century A.D., when Pope Damasus ordered his leading scholar of scripture, Jerome, to translate the Hebrew Bible into Latin. Jerome’s path-breaking, 15-year project, which resulted in the canonical Vulgate, used the Latin spoken by the common man. As it turned out, the Latin words for evil and apple are the same: malus.

In the Hebrew Bible, a generic term, peri, is used for the fruit hanging from the Tree of the Knowledge of Good and Evil, explains Robert Appelbaum, who discusses the biblical provenance of the apple in his book Aguecheek’s Beef, Belch’s Hiccup, and Other Gastronomic Interjections.

“Peri could be absolutely any fruit,” he says. “Rabbinic commentators variously characterized it as a fig, a pomegranate, a grape, an apricot, a citron, or even wheat. Some commentators even thought of the forbidden fruit as a kind of wine, intoxicating to drink.”

When Jerome was translating the “Tree of the Knowledge of Good and Evil,” the word malus snaked in. A brilliant but controversial theologian, Jerome was known for his hot temper, but he obviously also had a rather cool sense of humor.

“Jerome had several options,” says Appelbaum, a professor of English literature at Sweden’s Uppsala University. “But he hit upon the idea of translating peri as malus, which in Latin has two very different meanings. As an adjective, malus means bad or evil. As a noun it seems to means an apple, in our own sense of the word, coming from the very common tree now known officially as the Malus pumila. So Jerome came up with a very good pun.”

The story doesn’t end there. “To complicate things even more,” says Appelbaum, “the word malus in Jerome’s time, and for a long time after, could refer to any fleshy seed-bearing fruit. A pear was a kind of malus. So was the fig, the peach, and so forth.”

Which explains why Michelangelo’s Sistine Chapel fresco features a serpent coiled around a fig tree. But the apple began to dominate Fall artworks in Europe after the German artist Albrecht Dürer’s famous 1504 engraving depicted the First Couple counterpoised beside an apple tree. It became a template for future artists such as Lucas Cranach the Elder, whose luminous Adam and Eve painting is hung with apples that glow like rubies.

Milton, then, was only following cultural tradition. But he was a renowned Cambridge intellectual fluent in Latin, Greek and Hebrew, who served as secretary for foreign tongues to Oliver Cromwell during the Commonwealth. If anyone was aware of the malus pun, it would be him. And yet he chose to run it with it. Why?

Appelbaum says that Milton’s use of the term “apple” was ambiguous. “Even in Milton’s time the word had two meanings: either what was our common apple, or, again, any fleshy seed-bearing fruit. Milton probably had in mind an ambiguously named object with a variety of connotations as well as denotations, most but not all of them associating the idea of the apple with a kind of innocence, though also with a kind of intoxication, since hard apple cider was a common English drink.”

It was only later readers of Milton, says Appelbaum, who thought of “apple” as “apple” and not any seed-bearing fruit. For them, the forbidden fruit became synonymous with the malus pumila. As a widely read canonical work, Paradise Lost was influential in cementing the role of apple in the Fall story.

Read the whole thing!

The Blogosphere and the Problem of Authority


My wife Tiffany drew my attention to this article over at ChristianityToday.com. Tish Harrison Warren argues that the blogosphere has created a crisis of authority for Christians, especially for Christian women. Here’s her conclusion:

In his essay Sinsick, Stanley Hauerwas famously explores the notion of authority using a medical analogy. If a medical student told his advisor, “I’m not into anatomy this year, I’m into relating” and asked to skip anatomy class to focus on people, the medical school would reply, “Who in the hell do you think you are, kid? … You’re going to take anatomy. If you don’t like it, that’s tough.” Hauerwas delivers his crucial point by saying: “Now what that shows is that people believe incompetent physicians can hurt them. Therefore people expect medical schools to hold their students responsible for the kind of training that is necessary to be competent physicians. On the other hand, few people believe an incompetent minister can damage their salvation.”

The church has said for millennia that bad teaching is more deadly than bad surgery. Now we have an influx of teachers who become so by the stroke of a key. The need for formal structures of training, hierarchy, and accountability in medical schools and medical boards is obvious because we don’t want our doctors to simply be popular or relatable; we want them to practice medicine correctly and truthfully, participate in a medical tradition broader than themselves, and serve under the authority and oversight of others. We need to be as discerning in whom we trust with care of souls as we are with care of our bodies.

Christian writing and teaching is not minor surgery; it is heart surgery. In this new Internet age, we as a church have to recover the idea that, like doctors, Christian writers, teachers, and leaders can help cure or help kill. And therefore, like doctors, we have to ensure that all Christian leaders—male and female alike—have oversight and accountability that matches the weight of their authority and influence.

Read the whole thing.

Restoring Color to the Arch of Titus


Erected in A.D. 81, the Arch of Titus commemorates Titus’ victory in the Jewish Revolt. The “spoils panel” depicts the treasures from the Temple in Jerusalem that Titus brought to Rome, including the Menorah. Although the arch is now white, due to nearly 2,000 years of weathering, in its day, it was painted in vivid color. Recently, scholars tried to reconstruct what the arch looked like. Watch this video to see the fruit of their labors:

H/T: Biblical Archaeology Society.

Lincoln’s Creed


20130527-075212.jpgIn 1920, William E. Barton published The Soul of Abraham Lincoln, a now classic study of the development of Lincoln’s faith. “Lincoln’s religious was an evolution,” Barton wrote, “both in its intellectual and spiritual qualities.”

Lincoln’s religious identity seems to have moved through three stages: (1) a Calvinist Baptist in childhood; (2) a skeptical, freethinker in young adulthood; and (3) and a not-altogether-orthodox Christian in mature adulthood.

“Too much of the effort to prove that Abraham Lincoln was a Christian,” Barton wrote, “has begun and ended in the effort to show that on certain theological opinions he cherished correct opinions.” Lincoln didn’t. For example, he evidently believe in evolution and universal salvation, and he had doubts about Christ’s virgin birth.

“Abraham Lincoln was not a theologian,” Barton went on to say, “and several of his theological opinions may have been incorrect; but there is good reason to believe that he was a true Christian.” By this, Barton meant that Lincoln had “a right attitude toward spiritual realities and practical duties.” (In my opinion, Lincoln was neither an infidel nor an orthodox Christian, but something in between.)

Barton concluded his study with “a series of short quotations [of Lincoln’s] from documents, letters, and addresses, certified authentic and touching directly upon points of Christian doctrine.” He organized these quotations into what he called “The Creed of Abraham Lincoln in His Own Words.”

In honor of Lincoln’s birthday—he was born on February 12, 1809—I’ve posted that creed below, adding footnotes that link individual phrases to their sources in The Collected Works of Abraham Lincoln. This is the online version of Roy P. Bassler’s authoritative series of the same name.

 

The Creed of Abraham Lincoln in His Own Words[1]

I believe in God, the Almighty Ruler of Nations,[2] our great and good and merciful Maker,[3] our Father in Heaven, who notes the fall of a sparrow, and numbers the hairs of our heads.[4]

I believe in His eternal truth and justice.[5]

I recognize the sublime truth announced in the Holy Scriptures and proven by all history that those nations only are blest whose God is the Lord.[6]

I believe that it is the duty of nations as well as of men to own their dependence upon the overruling power of God, and to invoke the influence of His Holy Spirit; to confess their sins and transgressions in humble sorrow, yet with assured hope that genuine repentance will lead to mercy and pardon.[7]

I believe that it is meet and right to recognize and confess the presence of the Almighty Father equally in our triumphs and in those sorrows[8] which we may justly fear are a punishment inflicted upon us for our presumptuous sins to the needful end of our reformation.[9]

I believe that the Bible is the best gift which God has ever given to men. All the good from the Saviour of the world is communicated to us through this book.[10]

I believe the will of God prevails.[11] Without Him all human reliance is vain.[12] Without the assistance of that Divine Being, I cannot succeed. With that assistance I cannot fail.[13]

Being a humble instrument in the hands of our Heavenly Father, I desire that all my works and acts may be according to His will; and that it may be so, I give thanks to the Almighty, and seek His aid.[14]

I have a solemn oath registered in heaven[15] to finish the work I am in,[16] in full view of my responsibility to my God,[17] with malice toward none; with charity for all; with firmness in the right as God gives me to see the right.[18] Commending those who love me to His care, as I hope in their prayers they will commend me,[19] I look through the help of God to a joyous meeting with many loved ones gone before.[20]

 

Notes

[1] William E. Barton, The Soul of Abraham Lincoln (Urbana and Chicago: University of Illinois Press, 2005), 300. This book is a reprint of the 1920 first edition published by George H. Doran Co. Chapter XXIII is titled, “The Creed of Abraham Lincoln.”

[2] “First Inaugural Address—Final Text,” March 4, 1861.

[3] “To John D. Johnston,” January 12, 1851.

[4] Ibid.

[5] “First Inaugural Address.”

[6] “Proclamation Appointing a National Fast Day,” March 30, 1863.

[7] Ibid.

[8] “Proclamation of Thanksgiving,” July 15, 1863.

[9] “Proclamation Appointing a National Fast Day.”

[10] “Reply to Loyal Colored People of Baltimore upon Presentation of a Bible,” September 7, 1864.

[11] “Meditation on the Divine Will,” [September 2, 1862?].

[12] “To the Friends of Union and Liberty,” May 9, 1864.

[13] “Farewell Address at Springfield, Illinois,” February 11, 1861.

[14] “Reply to Eliza P. Gurney,” October 26, 1862.

[15] “First Inaugural Address.”

[16] “Second Inaugural Address,” March 4, 1865.

[17] “Message to Congress,” March 6, 1862.

[18] “Second Inaugural Address.”

[19] “Farewell Address at Springfield, Illinois.”

[20] “To John D. Johnston.”

4 Kinds of Fundamentalists


There are four kinds of Fundamentalists:

  1. Those who put the “fun” in “fundamentalist,”
  2. those who put the “duh” in it,
  3. those who put the “mental” in it, and
  4. those who put the “lists” in it.

I’ll let you decide what Fundamentalists fit into which category.

(For my fellow eggheads, here’s a nice overview of what the term Fundamentalist does and does not mean.)

George F. Will Offers a “Nones” Perspective on “Religion and the American Republic”


George F. Will pens a typically insightful essay in the most recent issue of National Affairs: “Religion and the American Republic.” The unique “angle” on this essay is Will’s identification with the 20 percent of Americans who are religiously unaffiliated, i.e., the “nones.” From his conclusion:

Alexis de Tocqueville wrote Democracy in America just two generations after the American founding — two generations after Madison identified tyranny of the majority as the distinctively worst political outcome that democracy could produce. Tocqueville had a different answer to the question of what kind of despotism democratic nations should fear most.

His warning is justly famous and more pertinent now than ever. This despotism, he said, would be “milder” than traditional despotisms, but

it would degrade men without tormenting them….It is absolute, detailed, regular, far-seeing, and mild. It would resemble paternal power if, like that, it had for its object to prepare men for manhood; but on the contrary, it seeks only to keep them fixed irrevocably in childhood….It willingly works for their happiness; but it wants to be the unique agent and sole arbiter of that; it provides for their security, foresees and secures their needs, facilitates their pleasures, conducts their principal affairs, directs their industry, regulates their estates, divides their inheritances; can it not take away from them entirely the trouble of thinking and the pain of living?

So it is that every day it renders the employment of free will less useful and more rare; it confines the action of the will in a smaller space and little by little steals the very use of free will from each citizen….[It] reduces each nation to being nothing more than a herd of timid and industrious animals of which the government is the shepherd.

Each of us must decide to what extent Tocqueville’s foreboding has been fulfilled. People of faith might well ask this: Does the tendency of modern politics to take on more and more tasks in order to ameliorate the human condition tend to mute religion’s message about reconciling us to that condition? And people of faith might well worry whether religious institutions can flourish in the dark shade beneath a government that presumes to supply every human need and satisfy every appetite.

And those of us in the “none” camp must confront the other side of the same question: Can our limited government and free society long endure if the work of our civil society, which so often is the work of our religious institutions, is taken up instead by the government? To the extent that the politics of modernity attenuates the role of religion in society, it threatens society’s vitality, prosperity, and happiness. The late Irving Kristol understood this. Although not an observant Jew, he described himself as “theotropic,” by which he meant oriented to the divine. He explained why in these words:

[A] society needs more than sensible men and women if it is to prosper: It needs the energies of the creative imagination as expressed in religion and the arts. It is crucial to the lives of all of our citizens, as it is to all human beings at all times, that they encounter a world that possesses a transcendent meaning, a world in which the human experience makes sense. Nothing is more dehumanizing, more certain to generate a crisis, than to experience one’s life as a meaningless event in a meaningless world.

We may be approaching what is, for our nation, unexplored and perilous social territory. Europe is now experiencing a widespread waning of the religious impulse, and the results are not attractive. It seems that when a majority of people internalize the big-bang theory and ask, with Peggy Lee, “Is that all there is?”; when many people decide that the universe is merely the result of a cosmic sneeze with no transcendent meaning; when they conclude that therefore life should be filled to overflowing with distractions, with comforts and entertainments, to assuage the boredom — then they may become susceptible to the excitements of a politics promising ersatz meaning and spurious salvations from a human condition bereft of transcendence.

We know from the bitter experience of the blood-soaked 20th century the political consequences of this felt meaninglessness. Our political nature abhors a vacuum, and a vacuum of meaning is filled by secular fighting faiths, such as fascism and communism. Fascism gave its adherents a meaningful life of racial destiny. Communism taught its adherents to derive meaning from their participation in the eschatological drama of History’s unfolding destiny. The excruciating political paradox of modernity is that secularism advanced in part as moral revulsion against the bloody history of religious strife. But there is no precedent for bloodshed on the scale produced in the 20th century by secular — by political — faiths.

Therefore, even those of us who are members of the growing cohort that the Pew survey calls “nones,” even we — perhaps especially we — should wish continued vigor for the rich array of religious institutions that have leavened American life. We do so for reasons articulated by the most articulate American statesman.

In 1859, beneath gathering clouds of war and disunion, a successful railroad lawyer turned presidential aspirant addressed the Wisconsin State Agricultural Society. He concluded his speech with the story of an oriental despot who assigned to his wise men the task of devising a proposition to be carved in stone and be forever in view and forever true. After some while they returned to the despot and the proposition they offered to him was: “And this too shall pass away.” Only this, they argued, would be true until the end of time. How consoling that proposition is in times of grief, Lincoln said, and how chastening in times of pride. And yet, he insisted, it is not necessarily true. If we Americans cultivate the moral and intellectual world within us as assiduously and prodigiously as we cultivate the physical world around us, perhaps we shall long endure.

We have long endured. We shall endure further. This is so in large part because of America’s wholesome division of labor between political institutions and the institutions of civil society — including, especially, religious institutions — that mediate between the citizen and the state, and so make freedom possible.

Read the whole thing.

“The Horrible Decree” by Charles Wesley


Charles Wesley was a prolific hymnist, with approximately 9000 hymns and sacred poems to his name. Among my favorites are “And Can It Be?” and “O, for a Thousand Tongues to Sing!” Welsey–along with his brother John–were also a theological polemicist, however, who wrote his polemics into his songs. One of his most blunt anti-Calvinist hymns is “The Horrible Decree,” which refers to the Calvinist doctrine of limited atonement. Here’s the text of the hymn, not exactly in honor of Calvin’s birthday, but apropos of it nonetheless.

[1] Ah! Gentle, gracious Dove,
And art thou griev’d in me,
That sinners should restrain thy love,
And say, “It is not free:
It is not free for all:
The most, thou passest by,
And mockest with a fruitless call
Whom thou hast doom’d to die.”

[2] They think thee not sincere
In giving each his day,
“ Thou only draw’st the sinner near
To cast him quite away,
To aggravate his sin,
His sure damnation seal:
Thou shew’st him heaven, and say’st, go in
And thrusts him into hell.”38

[3] O HORRIBLE DECREE
Worthy of whence it came!
Forgive their hellish blasphemy
Who charge it on the Lamb:
Whose pity him inclin’d
To leave his throne above,
The friend, and Saviour of mankind,
The God of grace, and love.

[4] O gracious, loving Lord,
I feel thy bowels yearn;
For those who slight the gospel word
I share in thy concern:
How art thou grieved to be
By ransom’d worms withstood!
How dost thou bleed afresh to see
Them trample on thy blood!

[5] To limit thee they dare,
Blaspheme thee to thy face,
Deny their fellow-worms a share
In thy redeeming grace:
All for their own they take,
Thy righteousness engross,
Of none effect to most they make
The merits of thy cross.

[6] Sinners, abhor the fiend:
His other gospel hear—
“The God of truth did not intend
The thing his words declare,
He offers grace to all,
Which most cannot embrace,
Mock’d with an ineffectual call
And insufficient grace.

[7] “The righteous God consign’d
Them over to their doom,
And sent the Saviour of mankind
To damn them from the womb;
To damn for falling short,
“Of what they could not do,
For not believing the report
Of that which was not true.

[8] “The God of love pass’d by
The most of those that fell,
Ordain’d poor reprobates to die,
And forced them into hell.”
“He did not do the deed”
(Some have more mildly rav’d)
“He did not damn them—but decreed
They never should be saved.

[9] “He did not them bereave
Of life, or stop their breath,
His grace he only would not give,
And starv’ed their souls to death.”
Satanic sophistry!
But still, all-gracious God,
They charge the sinner’s death on thee,
Who bought’st him with thy blood.

[10] They think with shrieks and cries
To please the Lord of hosts,
And offer thee, in sacrifice
Millions of slaughter’d ghosts:
With new-born babes they fill
The dire infernal shade,
“For such,” they say, “was thy great will,
Before the world was made.”

[11] How long, O God, how long
Shall Satan’s rage proceed!
Wilt thou not soon avenge the wrong,
And crush the serpent’s head?
Surely thou shalt at last
Bruise him beneath our feet:
The devil and his doctrine cast
Into the burning pit.

[12] Arise, O God, arise,
Thy glorious truth maintain,
Hold forth the bloody sacrifice,
For every sinner slain!
Defend thy mercy’s cause,
Thy grace divinely free,
Lift up the standard of thy cross,
Draw all men unto thee.

[13] O vindicate thy grace,
Which every soul may prove,
Us in thy arms of love embrace,
Of everlasting love.
Give the pure gospel word,
Thy preachers multiply,
Let all confess their common Lord,
And dare for him to die.

[14] My life I here present,
My heart’s last drop of blood,
O let it all be freely spent
In proof that thou art good,
Art good to all that breathe,
Who all may pardon have:
Thou willest not the sinner’s death,
But all the world wouldst save.

[15] O take me at my word,
But arm me with thy power,
Then call me forth to suffer, Lord,
To meet the fiery hour:
In death will I proclaim
That all may hear thy call,
And clap my hands amidst the flame,
And shout,—HE DIED FOR ALL.

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