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Righteous & Merciful Judge

First appeared in print in Christianity Today, December 2018,  under the Title “Prepare for the ‘Day of the Lord'” (p. 76)

Matthew Aernie & Donald Hartley. The Righteous & Merciful Judge: The Day of the Lord in the Life and Theology of Paul. Studies in Scripture & Biblical Theology.  Bellingham, WA: Lexham Press, 2018.

These days it is out of fashion to talk about judging and judgment.  Ours is a much more “tolerant” day—or so we’re told. But as our authors, Aernie & Hartley, correctly describe, throughout the counsel of Scripture the idea of God coming in judgment to right all wrongs and settle all scores is at the heart of God’s revelation.  Yet the specter of Marcionism is still with us in the church especially when we divide the Scriptures into parts and imagine that the first is dominated by justice and wrath, the second by mercy and grace.  As our writers point out, such mischaracterizations undermine the unity of Scripture and subverts the true story of God in the world. Some of the most wonderful passages of forgiveness, restoration, and grace are found in the Old; some of the most unsettling about justice, wrath, and judgment are found in the New. Righteous and Merciful Judge

The project Aernie and Hartley pursue in this book is to consider the theme of “the day of the Lord” in Paul’s letters.  They argue that it is not some subsidiary crater to Paul’s theology, but it stands as a major motif in his thinking.  They stop short of calling it the center, but they do make it central by arguing that “every aspect of his theology was in some way affected by the concept” (p. 5)  So their book examines the theme of “the day of the Lord: in scholarship, the Old Testament, extracanonical Jewish literature, Paul’s call/conversion on the Damascus Road, and the language of the day of the Lord and associated themes in Paul’s letters.  As a result, they shed much needed light on an ignored and marginalized feature of Paul’s theology.

Like most scholars Aernie and Hartley pursue their task systematically working through time, asking first: where this concept came from? But, of course, scholars don’t tend to agree on much and that includes how and where the notion of “the day of the Lord” entered into Jewish consciousness.  Some think it came from the holy war tradition; others from enthronement ceremonies when YHWH is installed as King.  Some think it came from within Israel itself; others imagine it was adopted and adapted from the Canaanites or the Babylonians.  The starting point remains elusive. What is clear is that the OT is rich in associations around the notion that God will visit the nations, including Israel, in judgment, power, and restoration.

While the phrase “the day of the LORD” is not found in the Books of Moses, our authors claim the theme  sits just beneath the surface in passages that portray YHWH as coming to visit his people in blessings and curses. The prophets developed the language of God’s visitation into the language we know, “the day of the LORD.” Only later, among the prophets does the phrase “the day of the LORD” become a technical term for a day of final judgment.  As such, depending on how a people are currently situated toward YHWH—whether faithful to the covenant or not—it is a day that prompts fear or a day awaited with joy.

In the past, periods of famine, scarcity, war and ultimately exile could be construed as “days” of judgement in typological patterns of what is to come: the final, definitive, eschatological day of the Lord.  When that day comes, God will make the world right.  In the final assize of history anything wrong in Israel or the nations must be judged.  All that is right is destined to be redeemed and restored. These patterns are found throughout the Hebrew Scriptures but they are also present in later Jewish collections such as the Pseudepigrapha and the Dead Sea Scrolls.   This was the symbolic world that Paul inherited.

One of the more interesting features of the book is how Aernie and Hartley interpret Paul’s Damascus Christophany as “a proleptic day of the Lord.” In other words, Paul had his own day of judgment when he encountered the risen Lord.  Instead of getting what he deserved, i.e., wrath, he found mercy.  Instead of being marked out for destruction, he was transformed, converted, and called to a new mission.  In this encounter the persecutor replaced the false identity of Jesus he had developed for the  true identity as Messiah, Son of God, and Lord. Now that the moment of Paul’s own judgment had arrived and he had found grace, he began to think that the final judgment for all was closer than he ever imagined.

The last portion of the book goes deeply into Paul’s language associated with “the day of the Lord.”  For Paul, “the day of the Lord (YHWH)” had become “the day of the Lord Jesus Christ” (1 Thess 5.2) or more simply “the day of Christ” (Phil 1.10).  Words of coming (Parousia), “revelation” (apocalypsis), and “appearing” or “manifestation” (epiphania) season his discourse as he likens the coming of Jesus to judge the living and dead to various manifestations of God in the Scripture. The final chapter offers the most detailed exegesis in the book.

The big idea Aernie and Hartley pursue offers an important corrective for the academy and the church. The current western mood is to avoid anything that smacks of judgment.  We want a merciful, forgiving, anything-goes kind of god, not one who demands something of us and will ultimately judge us.  We  cannot adequately deal with Paul’s life, mission and theology until we grasp where he believed the telos toward which history was moving.  The next thing we await is the final, definitive coming of Christ in glory, power, and judgment.

 

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What are the Gnostic gospels?

A few years ago I wrote an article for the E3 Foundation on what are the Gnostic Gospels?   Gnosticism is hard to define and a challenge to describe.  But there are certain things that characterize the various Gnostic movements that give rise to Gnostic Gospels.

Here is a link to that article:

https://www.exploregod.com/what-are-the-gnostic-gospels

Alternatively, you can read a version of it below.  The E3 Foundation’s work is available now at http://www.exploregod.com

What are the Gnostic gospels? 

If you turn on the History Channel, A&E, or National Geographic around Christmas or Easter, you’re likely to hear someone talk of conspiracies by Catholic popes and church councils to suppress the truth about Jesus. The agenda of these former bishops, they claim, is simple: they wanted to hold on to positions of power and influence.

Along the way, these scholars will probably appeal to lost Christianities and secret Gospels. Chief among them are the Gnostic Gospels. So what are the Gnostic Gospels, exactly?

What Is a Gospel?

Let’s first consider what a “Gospel” is. The word “gospel” (Greek, euaggelion) means simply “good news” or “favorable report.” It was a term with political overtones often used in the ancient world. The accession of a new leader could be “good news,” as could reports of a military victory.

Early Christians used the word to describe the essential message of and about Jesus—that is, the “good news” of Jesus. Later, “gospel” took on the more technical meaning of a book that gives an account of Jesus’ life. The New Testament has four such gospels: Matthew, Mark, Luke, and John. These books belong to the genre of ancient biographies.1 Unlike modern biographies, they stress a person’s words and deeds and are often written to provide readers with an example of how they should live.

Gnostic Discoveries

In 1945 a chance discovery yielded a treasure trove of ancient documents in Upper Egypt at a place called Nag Hammadi. The Nag Hammadi Library, as it is known today, contained papyrus codices of forty treatises written in Coptic (an old Egyptian language) dating from the third to fifth centuries CE.2 Most of the documents show Gnostic influences to one degree or another, and a number of the books found are Gnostic Gospels.

Scholars had known about Gnosticism and Gnostic accounts of Jesus for many years. Most of what was known came from the writings of early Christian leaders like Irenaeus of Lyon (130–200 CE), Hippolytus of Rome (170–236), and Tertullian of Carthage (160–225). These church fathers were convinced the Gnostic teachings were heretical, so they wrote against them, often quoting the Gnostic leaders or summarizing their positions in the process. But the church fathers only quoted fragments of these “heretics,” not full books. With the Nag Hammadi discovery, we suddenly had full books rather than just bits and pieces.

Gnosticism

Although scholars are divided on the origin, meaning, and extent of Gnosticism in the ancient world, there are a few characteristics that are broadly accepted about who the Gnostics were and what they believed.

“Gnosticism” is a word used today to describe several complex religious–philosophical movements that flourished from the second to the fourth century AD. It is important to realize that Gnosticism is not a single movement; it is a term used to characterize a variety of movements with particular beliefs and practices led by influential leaders in this specific time period.

At the heart of the Gnostic worldview is the belief that the material world is evil and corrupt; in contrast, the spiritual world is good and pristine. This is easy to demonstrate. Take a nice, fresh apple and put it on a table. What happens to it over a few days, a few weeks, a few months? Before long the apple rots and becomes a smelly mess. Repeat the experiment with a piece of iron. Over time the iron rusts, corrodes, and eventually disintegrates. Try the experiment with a twenty-year-old. At twenty, a person is fit and trim; they feel and look well. Fast-forward fifty years and the same person is now old and tired; their once-firm body sags and hurts most of the time. Before long, they have died and their corpses have decomposed.

Graphic, yes, but it proves a point: Everything we can see and touch in this material world suffers the same fate. It corrodes, decays, and eventually disappears.

The Gnostics considered this material world inferior and evil because corruption was constantly at work in it—as anyone could observe. Since this world is so corrupt and transitory, Gnostics reasoned that the Supreme God—whom they considered to be utterly transcendent and unknowable—could not have made the present world. So they posited that creation was the work of a lower, inferior god called the Demiurge. The God recorded in the biblical book of Genesis, therefore, was not the Most High God but an inferior, second-class god.

According to Gnosticism, human beings are good spirits trapped inside of evil material bodies. The good spirit originated in the sublime spiritual realm above. The problem for all people is that in the journey from heaven to earth, people forgot their true origin and nature. The Supreme God answers by sending a Redeemer from the heavenly realm to the world below in order to reveal the truth to those who have fallen into a forgetful sleep.

Salvation, then, depends on receiving that knowledge and being awakened from slumber. It means that when people die, their spirits escape the bonds of this material world and ascend to the heavens to be reunited with the One above. According to Gnostic thinking, the Redeemer had to come to earth in order to reveal the truth to humans, but could not be truly incarnate—that is, enfleshed—because flesh is evil. So Christ just appeared to be human during his earthly sojourn; he was in fact only divine. This is a departure from tradition Christian belief, which states that Jesus was fully human and fully divine.

The Gnostic Gospels

To one degree or another, the Gnostic Gospels reflect these teachings. Often they appear to rewrite familiar stories with a twist. In some cases they may contain early, independently attested traditions (e.g., the Gospel of Thomas). Here is a partial list of the Gnostic Gospels, along with an approximate date during which each was composed:

  • The Gospel of Thomas (second century CE)
  • The Gospel of Truth (second century CE)
  • The Gospel of Judas (second century CE)
  • The Gospel of Peter (second century CE)
  • The Gospel of Mary (second century CE)
  • The Gospel of Philip (second–third centuries CE)
  • The Gospel of the Egyptians (second–third centuries CE)

In addition, there are other Gnostic texts that narrate aspects of Jesus’ life, though they are not known as gospels:

  • Sophia of Jesus Christ (second century CE)
  • Pistis Sophia (second century CE)
  • Apocalypse of Peter (second–third centuries CE)
  • Apocryphon of John (second–third centuries CE)
  • Second Treatise of the Great Seth (third century CE)
  • Hypostasis of the Archons (third century CE)
  • Tripartite Tractate (third–fourth centuries CE)

The Gnostic Gospels were written and read in various Christian communities in Egypt, Syria, and Asia Minor from the second to fifth centuries. Scholars debate whether they tell us anything true about Jesus. Where all agree, however, is that they tell us a great deal about the Christian communities who used them.

Phil Keaggy

Recently, Wheaton College started a podcast called “Exegetically Speaking.”  Each episode is about 7 minutes in length and its purpose is to promote the study of the biblical languages: Greek, Hebrew and Aramaic.

I contacted legendary guitarist, Phil Keaggy, to see if he would compose and record music for our introduction and conclusion.  He did so gladly, out of the goodness of heart, and offered us about 14 different possibilities. I was amazed and grateful.  We chose a classical snippet that lasts about 24 seconds.   So now each podcast opens with the music of Phil Keaggy.  It  is bright, hopeful “snippet” that sets the table well for our podcasting efforts.

Take 25 seconds and listen in:

http://exegeticallyspeaking.libsyn.com/website

Thanks, Phil, for your gift.  phil-keaggy-Live-2-622x504

Podcast: Xmas–Is it taking Christ out of Christmas?

We have a new podcast up, a special Christmas edition.  It’s entitled: “Xmas–Is it taking Christ out of Christmas?”  Here is a link to the website.  Each podcast is about 7 minutes in length.  Take a few minutes and catch up on other episodes while you are there.

http://exegeticallyspeaking.libsyn.com/website

Exegetically Speaking: In Praise of Joy

Wheaton College has a new podcast featuring Dr. Phil Ryken, president of Wheaton College.  In this episode a wonderful pastor, teacher and college administrator talks of some of the advantages of reading the Scriptures in their original languages.  As an example, Dr. Ryken takes us to Ecclesiastes 8.15.

Here is a link to this and other episodes:

http://exegeticallyspeaking.libsyn.com/website

 

 

What oral tradition is not: the game of telephone

Jesus of Nazareth lived between 6-4 BC and 30-33 AD.  When he died, he was in his mid- to late-thirties. That’s about as good as we can get.  The documents and historical sources don’t allow us any more precision.  The first Gospels written about Jesus—perhaps in this order, Mark, Matthew, Luke, and John—are not written until 30-40 years after his execution.  The period in between we call the period of oral tradition.  In this time, the stories of Jesus are told and retold, and then they are written down in the books we have today.  Now this does not mean there were not written sources during the period of oral tradition.  It means we just don’t have them.  Why? Because like most things written 2000 years ago they did not survive.  If, as some believe, the stories of Jesus are taken up in longer narratives like Mark or Matthew, then there was no need to put in the effort to preserve preaching or teaching notes.  That is the only way they would have survived. But even after the Gospels are written down, that did not end the oral traditioning  of the stories.  Why? Because 90% of the people could not read.  So there was a need to tell and retell the stories over and again in oral form and fashion.game of telephone

If you are 20 years old, then thirty to forty years sounds like a long time.  But in historical terms, it is not long at all.  To take an analogy from the time I am writing, 2018, go back thirty to forty years and we have the Reagan administration in America, John Paul II in Rome, and Gloria Estafan and the Miami Sound Machine’s hit song “Anything for You.”  Are there people today who can tell us what was happening in the 1980s?  What do you think?

Scholars think John’s Gospel may be have been written last.  Perhaps sixty years after Jesus’ execution.  So, in historical terms, again that is not a long time.  That is the late 1950s when Eisenhower was president, John Paul XXIII started his papacy, and the Everly Brothers were crooning “All I Have to Do Is Dream.”  Are there people around today who can tell us what was happening toward the end of the 1950s when rock n’ roll is in its infancy?  What do you think?

Some scholars make the case that oral tradition is like the “game” of telephone. In this party game, one person whispers something in the ear of another, then he/she in turn whispers to the next person and on and on. Then by the time you go all the way around the room, you compare notes and everyone has a good laugh because the message has changed.  That is not at all how oral tradition societies pass on their most precious stories.  It’s baffling to me that a “parlor game” designed to get laughs at a party could in any way be identified with the passing down and handing on of religious tradition.

Oral societies, like those that existed around the Mediterranean world in the first century, privileged the living voice over the written record.  That may sound strange to westerners who have to see everything in writing (often because you want to use it against them).

A better example of oral tradition would be this:  Do you think you could teach someone the Lord’s prayer?  You have heard it hundreds of times.  You’ve internalized it.  And even if you say “debts” rather than “trespasses” (a distinction in the English language translations), you still can pass it along in a fixed and stable form.  This is what happened to the Jesus stories.  They were told and retold.  They took on fixed forms.  Then they are handed down.  This happened early enough that there were authoritative voices who could correct the record if something got off kilter.

With the passing of Senator John McCain recently, people are telling and retelling stories about him.  When he and his fellow soldiers were prisoners-of-war in the Hanoi Hilton during the Vietnam war  (early 1960s), they were eventually allowed to hold religious services.  Not at first, but eventually.  John McCain stepped in to lead those services in part because his great grandfather had been an Episcopal priest, and John grew up with the Anglican liturgy.  “Bud” Adams, one of his fellow prisoners, told news agencies that John did an excellent job leading the liturgy because he remembered it nearly word for word.  Now, we might quibble over this or that wording to part of the service, but I bet you that then prisoner McCain did a good job handing on the liturgy he heard as a boy and later young man.

Father Mario Arroyo is a good friend of mine.  He is a Catholic priest and native of Cuba.  He and his family came to the USA after the revolution in the 1950s.  Father Mario is a fan of 1960s and 70s pop music.  When he hears just a few notes of a song, he can tell you the name of the song, the artist, and begin singing it nearly word for word even if he has not heard the song in 20-30 years.  The songs of his youth imprinted in his mind, and they will likely never leave him.  Those are better analogues for how oral tradition is passed on than the game of telephone.

There have been a lot of important anthropological and social studies done of oral societies because oral cultures still exist today.  Studying these cultures is probably a better idea than going to party and studying the silly games people play to make some argument about oral tradition.

Adam the Earthling

Recently, I interviewed Rabbi Steve Bob on our podcast, Exegetically Speaking.  It’s 7 minutes of good insight into the Scripture on the significance of names in the Hebrew Bible.

Here is the URL:

http://exegeticallyspeaking.libsyn.com/website

For the link click here.

For the link