A Word in Edgewise

Xmas: Is it taking Christ out of Christmas?

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. nomina_sacra

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 nomen sacrum 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”!

The Modest Dignity of Politics

Friends know I don’t comment on politics often.  The reason is simple.  I have friends on both sides of the aisle, and I value their friendships.  More to the point, politics seldom allows for quick and easy answers, the kind of thing you can say in a blog or on facebook.  Hillary . . . good . . . Trump . . . bad.  Or Trump good . . . Hillary . . . bad.  It’s far more complex than people try to make it.

I ran across a statement recently from a Catholic thinker.  Here’s what he said: “Politics participates in the modest dignity of the penultimate.”

In God We Trust

In God We Trust

Now that is quite a mouthful. I could think and write about that for hours.

Politics offers us only a limited good in this world.  It can’t, it doesn’t participate in the ultimate good. The ultimate good is beyond the reach of any politician or political party.  Ultimate dignity comes to human beings by nature—after all we are created in the divine image—and it comes through our knowledge of and participation in the life of God and the rule of God in this world.  That’s why Christians pray daily, “your kingdom come, your will be done, on earth as it is in heaven.”

So, for my Republican friends, no, the Trump presidency will not be the beginning of the messianic age.

And, for my Democratic friends, no, the Trump presidency will not be the end of the world.

More likely, over the next four to eight years, the government Donald Trump pulls together will offer America and our neighbors only modest dignity, a few, modest gains.  Two steps forward, another step back.  But that has been true of every political party, agenda and administration since the beginning of time. We should not expect more.

Consider Psalm 146.  Read the entire thing but here’s a key verse.

Psalm 146:3

Do not put your trust in princes,

In mortals, in whom there is no help.

When their breath departs, they return to the earth;

On that very day their plans perish.

So in whom should we trust?  Well, the psalmist goes on to say that we should trust in the LORD, the God of Jacob, who made heaven and earth, the sea and then filled them with life.  He is the one who rescues the oppressed and feeds the hungry.  He is the one who sets prisoners free and heals the blind.

Whatever good politics can do is not ultimate; it participates only in the modest dignity of the penultimate. Politics can’t create food or give me a happy home where I can enjoy it.  It can and ought to regulate commerce.  Politics can’t give a person a vocation that gives their life meaning and purpose.  It can and ought to regulate some business.  Politics can’t cause the right person to fall in love with you and live together until you’re both in your 90s.  It can and ought to make marriage economically feasible.  Ultimately, what makes for a good life is beyond the reach of Democrats, Republicans or Independents.

Here’s a good saying to remember during any troubling time: “In God will I put my trust.”

Make it your own.

Is It Time to Retire “Low” and “High” Christology?

In his book Echoes of Scripture in the Gospel (Baylor University Press, 2016) Richard Hays makes a compelling case that the four NT Gospels, taken together and individually, identify Jesus as the embodiment (incarnation) of the God of Israel.  He reaches this conclusion after probing the Jewish and Old Testament roots of the Gospel stories.

Now this presents a challenge to a number of scholars who have assumed that Gospels like Mark and Luke offer a “low” Christology, that is, an image of Jesus as prophet and Messiah but not divine.  He goes on to say that it may be time to retire terms like “high” and “low” Christology because they presuppose a developmental scheme, a movement from low to high or human to divine as if these categories can be easily distinguished.  Scholars such as Maurice Casey, Jimmy Dunn and, more recently, Bart Ehrman have made the developmental case. The presupposition driving such analyses has been that the first Jewish followers of Jesus would have been prevented from associating the man Jesus with the God of Israel because of their monotheistic heritage.  Once the Jesus movement drifted into Gentile territory where there were gods-a-plenty, such scruples could be easily compromised.

Hays is quick to say that bold, even audacious claims about Jesus’ linkage with the God of Israel do not preclude the Gospels’ portrayal of EHCC mug “human” Jesus, a Jesus who truly suffers and dies, a Jesus who hungers, thirsts, grows weary, like the rest of us. For the evangelists it was not an all or nothing proposition.

I’m sympathetic with Hays’ call to retire the terms.  But I’m not sure what to put in their place.  Is there a single term which can unite those claims that Jesus is human like the rest of us with Jesus is divine like the God of Israel?  In private correspondence Prof. Hays writes that he likes the phrase used by Richard Bauckham “divine identity Christology.”  But does this reflect sufficiently the full and true humanity of Jesus?  I have also used that phrase because I find it useful.

In a sense that is what these discussions are about; how might we frame the Jesus-talk of the earliest Christians?  Other than repeating and explaining what we sense they meant when they used titles and echoed Scriptural language and applied it to Jesus we are often in search for language which describes, portrays, and otherwise adequately reflects these convictions.

I have to confess I’m partial to the language of “low” and “high” Christology for a number of reasons. Despite the assumption of development from low to high culturally and chronologically with which the phrases are often laden, I think the terms can be useful if they are carefully nuanced. In the spirit of full disclosure, I am a mug-carrying member of the Early High Christology Club.   Still, I’d be interested to know if you think there is language out there which might help us have more fruitful discussions about early Christology.

Hengel

Founding member, Larry Hurtado, presents an official EHCC mug to the late Professor Martin Hengel (seen here with his wife, Frau Hengel)

“In Pain You Shall Bring forth Children”

I’m now convinced of the obvious: that bringing forth the next generation is the most difficult and most important job on the planet.

One of the consequences of Adam and Eve eating from the tree of knowledge of good and evil–something God directed them not to do–was that “in pain you shall bring forth children” (Genesis 3:16, New American Standard Version).  The passage is complicated, but most of us think we know what that means: that labor and delivery are going to bring immense pain and in some cases death to the mother.  At one level, that certainly seems the interpretation, but there may be more to it.pic57

One night we were interviewing Rabbi Harold Kushner on a radio show I co-host, “A Show of Faith” (950 AM KPRC). At the time Kushner was the most famous rabbi in America known best for his book Why Bad Things Happen to Good People?  On this night we were interviewing him about another book he had written, How Good Do We Have to Be?  The topic of conversation turned to the Genesis passage about pain in child-bearing and Kushner made an interesting observation.  In good rabbinic style he said the Hebrew word often translated “pain” in Genesis 3:16 is the same word used in Genesis 6:6 to describe God’s grief and pain over the sorry state of humanity.  You remember: God was so upset he lamented the fact he made humanity in the first place.

So here was Kushner’s interpretation: the real pain of child-bearing is not the 18 hours of labor (though painful, that pain is soon forgotten in the joy of birth), the real pain comes in the fact that after 18 years of love, teaching, nurturing and raising your children to the best of your ability, they turn against you, disobey you, disappoint you, end up on drugs, end up in prison, etc.  In a sense we share in our Heavenly Father’s pain when we bring forth children who go astray and do not remember us and our sensible teaching.

Let me add another insight.  Because the two have become one flesh (Genesis 2:24), both man and woman, husband and wife, share the same pain.  The pain of bringing forth the next generation is not unique to women.  Women may experience it more acutely, but men experience it as well.  Medical science, of course, may intervene and lessen the pain experienced by a woman in childbirth, but it is unlikely to be able to stem the tide of pain to fathers AND mothers when children go astray.  Like the other consequences of the first couple’s disobedience (domination, death, work degenerating into toil), both men and women share the same fate.

Most parents will experience significant periods of pain as their beautiful babies become adolescents and adults.  I’ve spent many hours listening to parents whose children have hurt them deeply.  And there are no easy solutions to this.  There’s no perfect strategy to parenting.  Perhaps there is some comfort in knowing that it is a universal experience, and even more, to know that God felt the pain first.

In The Voice we tried to express this universal, more nuanced aspect of Genesis 3:16.  As we worked through this text, I was interested to note that in the King James Version the Hebrew word is not translated “pain” but “sorrow.”  I think the KJV had it right.  Here is how we rendered it in dynamic translation:

God (to the woman): As a consequence of your actions,

I will increase your suffering—the pain of childbirth

And the sorrow of bringing forth the next generation.

Despite all this, we confess and we believe that children are a gift from God.  We confess and we believe that it is our greatest and most important life’s work.  For a time they are ours to love, to care for, to protect and to teach.  Then, we commend them and their future to the grace and guidance of God.

 

Wrong about Christian history? . . .

One of the great joys I have in life is special friends.  The same is probably true for you.  One of my best friends for most of my adult life is Prof. Larry Hurtado, now retired Professor of New Testament from the University of Edinburgh.  And Edinburgh happens to be one of my favorite cities.

Recently Larry was on a podcast with Tom Holland, who is an amazing historian.  Holland doesn’t just tackle little narrow bits of history (like most of us).  He tackles the big questions and does so with clear, insight into the past.

Not long ago Holland wrote an article on why he believes he has been wrong about Christian history.  That article resulted in a podcast featuring both Larry Hurtado and Tom Holland. The podcast is about 1 hr and 20  minutes in length, but it is well worth your time in listening to two  of the most engaging speakers I’ve heard in a long time.

Here is the URL for your browser:

http://www.premierchristianradio.com/Shows/Saturday/Unbelievable/Episodes/Unbelievable-Why-I-changed-my-mind-about-Christian-history-Tom-Holland-Larry-Hurtado

Or click here.

If you’d like to read the original article by Holland in The New Statesman, here is the link:

http://www.newstatesman.com/politics/religion/2016/09/tom-holland-why-i-was-wrong-about-christianity

Or click here.

How Did Jesus Become God?

Early in 2016 a group of scholars gathered at New Orleans Baptist Theological Seminary to debate the question: how did Jesus become God?  I wish I had been there, because it is a question of interest to me.  For those who know me and my work, I’ve worked on aspects of this question since the late 1980s when I was writing my dissertation.

Well, thanks to YouTube we can all be there to at least hear the comments and arguments of these scholars.  I want to help  you find them so I’ll post them here and eventually pull them together.

The first is a debate between Bart Ehrman and Mike Bird.

Click here for the link.

Or if you prefer, cut-and-past the URL to your browser:

James McGrath and Christology

James McGrath, professor of New Testament at Butler University in Indiana, is somebody you need to know.  He’s a good scholar and a faithful blogger.  He’s worth reading on a variety of subjects. He has good judgment and sound methods.

.  In a recent post he collected some of the hubbub going on right now on the web regarding “an early high Christology,” a topic I have some interest in.  In fact over the next few years I hope to return to the topic–though I never really left it, I got distracted–with what I trust is a more measured and mature reading of certain texts. In the meantime I thought I’d link to his Patheos blog.  mcgrath-james

Click here for the link

or type the URL below into your browser.

 

Early High Subordinationist Christology around the Blogosphere