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I remember my fourth grade teacher, Mrs. Potts, opening a vein when anyone wrote “Xmas” instead of “Christmas.” She felt there was a war on Christmas and that people who abbreviated the name of the holiday were trying to take Christ out of Christmas. I suppose that is true for some people, but when you look into the real story of “Xmas” you realize that something else is at work.
The story begins with the Ten Commandments. One of those commandments says, “Do not take the name of the LORD in vain.” The name by the way is not “LORD,” that was a respectful translation or substitute for the name. In Hebrew THE NAME is four letters, yodh-he-vav-he. The technical term for the name is the tetragrammaton (literally, “the four letters”). Scholars today think the name may have been pronounced—when it was pronounced—Yahweh or Yahveh. But we aren’t sure. This was the covenant name of God, the name revealed to Moses and Israel at Mt. Sinai.
Under the influence of the commandment about the misuse of God’s name, the faithful spoke it less and less. By the time of Jesus speaking the name was considered blasphemous in almost every circumstance. The rabbis made their mark by building a hedge about the law. If you never spoke God’s name, you could never be guilty of taking the name in vain. It was a way of safeguarding the name. Even when reading Scripture in the synagogue, a substitute word was used. In Aramaic-speaking synagogues the readers said “Adonai.” In Greek-speaking synagogues they said “kyrios.” Both mean something like “Lord” or “Master.”
The Dead Sea Scrolls provide good evidence for how the name of God was written in the centuries and decades leading up to the New Testament era. In many of the biblical scrolls the name of God is written in paleo-Hebrew script. That would be like shifting to a Gothic font when writing the name of God. In other scrolls the name is not written at all; it is represented by four, thick dots written in the center of the line. In yet other scrolls where the name of God should be there is a blank in the line just large enough for the tetragrammaton. Scholars theorize that the blank was left by a junior scribe and would have been filled in later by a senior scribe who had permission to write the name. Where there is a blank in the line, we think the senior scholar never got around to writing the divine name in the blank. These were some of the ways the faithful showed respect for the name of God.
Early Christians developed their own way of signaling respect for the names and titles associated with God the Father, God the Son, and God the Holy Spirit. Copying the New Testament books in Greek, they abbreviated the names (usually first letter and last letter) and placed a line above those letters. You can see this in the picture. Scholars refer to these as nomina sacra (Latin for “sacred names”). Copyists continued to write sacred names this way for centuries. It remains a common practice still among artists who create the icons used in the eastern churches. Many names and titles were written this way including “God,” “Father,” “Jesus,” “Son of God,” “Son of Man,” “Christ,” “Lord,” “Holy Spirit.” For our purposes note the nomina sacra for “Christ;” it was written XC. Now remember these are letters from the Greek alphabet not our Latinized version. It is not “X” (eks) the 24th letter of our English alphabet but the Greek letter “Chi,” the first letter of the title “Christ.”
Earliest versions of writing Christmas as “Xmas” in English go back to the Anglo-Saxon Chronicle (about 1100). This predates the rise of secularism by over 600 years. The Oxford English Dictionary cites the use of “X-“ for “Christ” as early as 1485. In one manuscript (1551) Christmas is written as “X’temmas.” English writers from Lord Byron (1811) to Samuel Coleridge (1801) to Lewis Carroll (1864) used the spelling we are familiar with today, “Xmas.”
The origin of “Xmas” does not lie in secularists who are trying to take Christ out of Christmas, but in ancient scribal practices adopted to safeguard the divine name and signal respect for it. The “X” in “Xmas” is not the English letter (eks) as in “X marks the spot,” but it is the initial Greek letter “Chi” (X), the first letter of the title “Christ.” No doubt some people today use the abbreviated form to disregard the Christian focus of the holy-day, but the background tells a different story, a story of faithful men and women showing the deep respect they have for Jesus at this time of year.
Merry Christmas or should I say “Merry Xmas”!
How God Became Jesus
I’m heading to San Diego to attend the Annual Society of Biblical Literature meeting. I’m meeting with former and future publishers, scholars, and a variety of former students. One of my duties while there is to preside over a session of a program unit called The Extent of Theological Diversity in Earliest Christianity. The session will offer a panel review of Bart Ehrman’s new book, How Jesus Became God: The Exaltation of a Jewish Preacher from Galilee. The title and subtitle tells you the essential story; Ehrman suggests that Jesus was understood first as Jewish itinerant teacher from Galilee; only later did his disciples claim he is divine. How much time goes by he does not say, but apparently he thinks in some circles it happened early even though it took centuries for the language to be worked out in church councils. Accordingly, Jesus didn’t regard himself as divine in any sense, nor did his earliest disciples. Jesus was, in fact, an apocalyptic prophet who announced the end of the current evil age. He did believe and describe himself as the coming king of God’s future reign, the Messiah of God. Once the disciples came to believe that Jesus had conquered death and was exalted to God’s right hand, they came to hold to his divinity. It is an important new book, some say his most significant book to date.
The book is published by HarperOne, an imprint of Harper Collins. Interestingly, when Bart’s book was being prepared, someone got the idea to commission a group of other scholars to respond to the book. This happened at Zondervan, which is now part of the Christian Publishing Group of . . . yep, Harper Collins. Nice stroke. Both ways, they win. “Heads, I win. Tails, you lose.” So editors at Zondervan appointed Michael F. Bird of Ridley College in Melbourne, Australia to edit the book, and he assembled an impressive group of internationally recognized scholars to answer various aspects of Bart’s book. Their book is entitled How God Became Jesus The Real Origins of Belief in Jesus’ Divine Nature. On the cover it also says it is “a response to Bart D. Ehrman.” The scholars Bird assembled include: Craig Evans, Simon Gathercole, Charles Hill, Chris Tilling. Each scholar takes on a different challenge. For example, Craig Evans addresses the question of burial practices at the time of Jesus. Ehrman claims Jesus was not buried; instead, in keeping with what happened with other crucified persons, Jesus’ corpse became food for scavengers. If there was no burial, there could be no empty tomb, so those traditions must have been invented by early Christians convinced Jesus somehow conquered death. Professor Evans presents evidence that crucified people were occasionally buried and makes the further claim that Jesus must have been one of them. This is the way it goes. Point. Counterpoint.
Both books make an important contribution to the study of early Christianity, in particular how early Jesus’ followers came to regard him as divine. In the history of the west and of the Christian church this may well be one of its most significant chapters.
Once again the claim is being made that Jesus was married to Mary Magdalene, and together they had two children. This time the claim is made in a book by the self-described “Naked Archaeologist,” Simcha Jacobovici, and Barrie Wilson, professor of religious studies at York University in Toronto. The book is entitled The Lost Gospel: Decoding the Ancient Text that Reveals Jesus’ Marriage to Mary the Magdalene (HarperCollins, 2014). First, this document has not been lost. The “lost Gospel” is actually a well known novella from the first 500 years of the common era known as Joseph and Aseneth. It has been the subject of hundreds of scholarly articles. It is found in every standard collection of Jewish documents known as the Old Testament Pseudepigrapha. Only the Dead Sea Scrolls have been studied more than this collection of Jewish writings. Mark Goodacre, professor at Duke University, hosts a website dedicated to the story. Here is a link to the story:
Here is a link to the Aseneth home page:
Joseph and Aseneth is a story inspired by the Joseph narratives in Genesis (chs 36-50). It’s a story of a Jewish boy who made good because God was with him. On his way to becoming vicegerent of Egypt (that is, second-in-command) he was given many gifts including the beautiful Aseneth. The story of Joseph and Asenath is an account of how they met, how he wooed her, and how they eventually fell in love, married, and had two children, Ephraim and Manasseh. Like Daniel it is a story to inspire Jews to remain faithful to the One, True God when surrounded by hostile forces and “pagans.” Like Ruth it is story that celebrates the conversion of a woman to the faith of Israel. So let’s be clear. It is not a Gospel. It doesn’t claim to be a Gospel or Jesus book of any kind. Simcha and Barrie want us to read it as an allegory. So every time you see Joseph (wink, wink) think of Jesus. Every time the text reads Aseneth (wink, wink) it’s really talking about Mary Magdalene. That’s a load of rubbish or as Diarmaid MacCulloch, an Oxford University professor told the Sunday Times: “it sounds like the deepest bilge.”
There is no credible evidence from contemporary sources that Jesus was ever married. But let us suppose there was married. There is no shame in marriage. The Hebrew and Christian tradition affirm the goodness of marriage as an institution ordained by God. Being married is no sin nor does it disqualify a person from God’s service. Likewise there is no shame in having children. Again, both Hebrew and Christian traditions affirm that children are a blessing from the Almighty! I am no systematic theologian, so I don’t mind being corrected on this, but I see no point of doctrine that would be compromised if it could be proven that Jesus of Nazareth married. Still there simply is no evidence from historical sources that he was.
Last week I had the great honor of flying to Nashville to present at the sales conference for Harper Collins Christian Publishing (Zondervan & Thomas Nelson). I spoke briefly on the topic of a book I have coming out next summer with Thomas Nelson entitled Slow to Judge: Sometimes It’s OK to Listen. The book is about a lot of things, but it is especially about the problem Christians have of being judgmental and being perceived as anti-this and anti-that. Too often Christians are defined by what they are “against.”
The big idea in this book is that it is possible to stand up for your faith, bear witness to it, defend it against detractors and yet not do so in a judgmental way because we have taken James’ advice: be quick to listen and slow to speak.
The book is part of the Refraction Series. Here is a link to 2 minute video on YouTube about the series:
If you are interested in culture and faith, then you will want to track this series. The first book is already out: How to Pick up a Stripper and Other Acts of Kindness by Todd Stephens. A second book is out as well: The Reluctant Journey: Fulfilling God’s Purpose for You by Richard Leslie Parrott.
Slow to Judge is scheduled to release next summer. I hope you’ll look for it particularly if you find yourself up close and personal with Muslims, Jews, Buddhists, and people from an assortment of faiths or no faith at all. It is chocked full of Scripture and events which have taken place over the last 30-40 years. We’re living in interesting times. Here are my chapter titles:
Chapter 1 A Listening Heart
Chapter 2 “Do Not Judge” . . . Really?
Chapter 3 A Book by Its Cover
Chapter 4 Love & Forgiveness
Chapter 5 Homophobia, Islamophobia, Christophobia
Chapter 6 The Problem with Tolerance
Chapter 7 Authentic Tolerance
Chapter 8 Listening to a Muslim: Fetullah Gülen
Chapter 9 Listening to the Pagans: C. S. Lewis
From time to time I’ll share an excerpt from the book. In the meantime watch for the Refraction Series. The goal of the series is to help align God’s people with God’s purposes. My own effort has grown out of a radio show I co-host called “A Show of Faith.” It airs Sunday evenings 7 to 9 pm (Central time) on 1070 KNTH The Answer out of Houston. But, you can listen live weekly via the Internet or on the I Heart Radio app.
Recently, I gave the Hayward Lectures at Acadia Divinity College in Wolfville, Nova Scotia. My topic was “Paul’s KYRIOS Christology.” Kyrios is a Greek word most often translated “Lord” in English Bible translations. Paul uses the word about 200 times in his letters to refer to his Lord, Jesus Christ. On a few occasions he used the word in reference to God, the Father. The word can be used of people as well who possess some sort of recognized, superior status, a king, a master of slave, for example.
One night after the lecture during the Q&A time, someone asked a good question. It had to do with the English word “lord” or “Lord” as a translation of Kyrios. The fellow knew about The Voice translation and he appreciated that we had tried to find new words and associations which communicate well to a modern audience. We translated words like Christos as “the Anointed” rather than “Christ.” We translated apostolos as “emissary” rather than “apostle.” So he asked, is there a better word than “Lord” to translate kyrios?
The word “Lord” was used first to translate kyrios and other biblical words for English-speaking audiences in the middle ages when the upper classes were referred to as “my lord” or “my lady” by those who occupied lower status. Given the sensibilities of the modern world, the fellow wondered whether there was a better word. Though those titles are still used in some societies, they are rare in many countries including the United States. They have lost currency in many places. The use of “Lord” is restricted to religious language most often referring to God, Christ or, in some cases, the Holy Spirit. For some “Lord” functions as a name or title for God.
Well, I had no answer. No one had ever asked me that question before so I had never thought about it. I’m embarrassed to admit I had no response given the fact that we rethought so many of the other key religiously-laden words. I’m still puzzling over it. I’d be interested in your thoughts. Is there a better word than “Lord” to translate kyrios in modern English? It would have to have the right meaning and sets of associations. It would need to convey the idea that the person holding the title had supreme authority and power. Since it is most often used in the New Testament as a title for Jesus linking him with the One, True God, it must be an appropriate honorific (fancy word for “title”) for the Liberating King. I’m hard pressed to come up with anything. If we put our heads together, I bet we can think of something. Then again, maybe not?!