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Should We Give up on Private Bible Reading?

Recently I have talked with a number of Christian leaders from various denominations.  They have told me they are giving up on any private reading of the Bible.  They said it with a bit of uncertainty in their voices, wondering if they were doing the right thing, wondering if they were secret heretics.  You see it has been drilled into them that a good Christian has a quiet time every day and part of that includes personal Bible reading.

Now these leaders aren’t giving up on the Bible altogether, they have just concluded that Bible reading ought to be communal practice not individual.  They point out correctly that the books of the Bible were not addressed to private readers; the various authors expected these books to be read to gathered audiences of the faithful.  Even letters addressed to private persons like Philemon and Titus were supposed to be read publicly. Consider Paul’s admonition that “faith comes by hearing” (Romans 10:17); the apostle assumes one who speaks for God and one who listens to the good news.  Revelation 1:3 pronounces blessings upon those who read—that is, those who read aloud to the congregation—and those who hear the words of the prophecy.  The one who reads is one; those who hear are many.St Dominic with Scripture

These leaders also cite church history, particularly, the development of the daily office and other regular gatherings of the faithful to chant the psalms and read the Scriptures.  In particular, lectio divina—the  spiritual reading of Scripture—is  not intended as a solitary enterprise; it expects  that believers gather and listen to the Scripture. It assumes a community of people who are living life together and not just a haphazard collection of people with some common interests.

It’s clear to me these leaders are feeling a bit guilty and are unsure about their decision.  They want to be good Christians.  They see themselves as good Christians.  They want others to see them as good Christians too.   It’s not that they have found private Bible reading unproductive; it’s that they have found engaging the Bible publicly more productive.  It seems to me they have arrived at this point along their spiritual journey in good faith.  They aren’t trying to get out of anything or take any short-cuts.  They’ re serious in their Christian commitments.

For my part, I’m not ready to give up on private Bible reading.  While I understand and can appreciate the concerns expressed by these Christians leaders, I’m not convinced that private Bible reading is not already a communal event.  Let me explain.  When I sit down to read, say Mark’s Gospel, I am in a very real sense not alone.  Think for a moment where this text has come from and how it has come down to us.  Thousands of people have been involved in the process of bringing these books down to us.  Though the Gospel itself is anonymous, Christian tradition associates it with Mark, a missionary companion of Peter and Paul.  When Mark writes, he is writing to the church of his day.  They are the first consumers of this letter.  But because these Jesus-followers valued it for what it communicated about him, Mark’s Gospel was copied by hand for 1400 years along with all the other books that make up our Bibles.  Think about all the monks and scribes who took part in that process.  Along the way, it was translated into dozens of languages we know of and many more we don’t.  Beginning in  the 14th century–and indeed before–courageous Christian scholars began the difficult process of gathering these texts together and translating them into English, my mother tongue.  Protestant reformers took the churches of Europe back to the sources (ad fontes), collecting and sorting texts of the Greek and Hebrew Bibles.  That process of discovering manuscripts, transcribing them, relating them to other manuscripts, and translating them for the church today continues.  In a real sense when I sit down to read the Bible I meet the church.  When I work through Mark’s Gospel or Paul’s letter to the Galatians or a psalm, I think about all the saints painstakingly and carefully at work  to make sure later generations like ours have the Scriptures in our language.  Bible reading, even private Bible reading, involves “the communion of the saints.”

So, what do you think?  Have you given up on private Bible reading?  Or do you think it is time you did?   If so, why?  If not, how would you convince these leaders that private Bible reading is a practice worth pursuing?

Professor N. T. Wright to Lecture at HBU–March 19-20, 2014

Tom WrightProfessor N. T. Wright has agreed to give two lectures at Houston Baptist University March 19-20, 2014 as part of a conference entitled “Paul and Judaism.”  Professors Beverly Gaventa (Baylor University) and Ross Wagner (Duke University) will be presenting major addresses as well.  The university will issue a call for papers soon to allow scholars an opportunity to join us for this two day event.  For more information contact Dr. Ben Blackwell at 281.649.3000.

Professor Wright will also be on hand Friday, March 21, 2014,  to lecture for the Lanier Theological Library in Houston. 

Professor Wright has recently completed a new book entitled Paul and the Faithfulness of God.  All of his lectures during this series will deal with Paul.

Recently Professor Michael Bird sat down with Wright to discuss his new book (approximately 25 minutes).   This interview offers a good summary of Wright’s approach.

If You Like Weekends, Give Thanks for Jews and Christians

Many people live for the weekends.  They might love their jobs or simply tolerate them, but they look forward to the weekends like no other time.  Weekends give them the chance to sleep late, hang out with friends and family, pursue hobbies, and, for those religiously inclined, worship.  weekend

The terms “workweek” (in Britain “working week”) and “weekend” refer to the parts of the week associated with labor and rest respectively.  The five day workweek has come about primarily in the west under the influence of Christianity and Judaism.  In many countries—especially where Islam is the dominant faith–the workweek includes Saturday and/or Sunday (e.g., Afghanistan, Algeria, Bangaladesh, Egypt, India, Iran, Israel, Malaysia) because Friday is their day devoted to prayers and time off work.  The French Revolutionary calendar attempted to reform the way citizens lived in time by adopting a ten day week and giving them one day out of ten as a day for leisure.  Obviously, that never caught on.

The days of the workweek are popularly described in relation to the weekend.  “Rainy Days and Mondays” got Karen Carpenter down, probably because the weekend seemed so far away.  Wednesday is hump day (we’re halfway there). And of course, there is TGIF (Thank God It’s Friday) Fridays. 

The term “weekend” is actually a misnomer because Sunday has traditionally been understood  in the west as the first day of the week.  Take a look at most (non-business) calendars and you will see Sunday the first day on the left.  Perhaps in an attempt to reconfigure time and our relationship to it, modern business calendars start with Monday on the left and end with Sunday on the right.  The idea of the week beginning on the day we call Sunday and ending on Saturday is derived from Jewish sensibilities.

You see the seven day week goes back to biblical story of creation (Genesis 1:1—2:3).  In the west we operate with four main categories of time: year, month, day, week.  A year represents the time it takes the earth to orbit around the sun.  A month represents (at least initially) the lunar orbit around the earth.  A day represents the time it takes the earth to rotate on its axis.  So where did the idea of a week come from?  Essentially, from Genesis.  While a year, month, and day relate to astronomical observance, the idea of a week is related completely to religious observance.  The Jewish Sabbath set the rhythm of the cycle of work and rest not only for them but for much of the world.

According to Genesis, God created for six days, rested the seventh, and required his covenant people to do the same (Genesis 1). Here is how the directive is stated in the first account of the Ten Commandments:  

You and your family are to remember the Sabbath day; set it apart, and keep it holy.  You have six days to do all your work, but the seventh day is to be different; it is the Sabbath to the Eternal your God.  Keep it holy by no doing any work—not you, your sons, your daughters, your male and female servants, your livestock, or any outsiders living among you. For the Eternal made the heavens above, the earth below, the seas, and all the creatures in them in six days.  Then, on the seventh day, He rested.  That is why He blessed the Sabbath Day and made it sacred. (Exodus 20:8-11, The Voice)

So the Jews are to remember the Sabbath Day, keep it holy by doing no work on it, why?  Because it is an imitation of God’s creative and restful activity.   The Sabbath is the seventh day or what we call Saturday. 

The first Christians were Jews so they observed the Sabbath, but it wasn’t long before they added another day of religious observance to their week.  “The Lord’s Day,” as they called it initially, was a weekly celebration of Jesus’ resurrection and the times he appeared to the disciples.  Christians met in anticipation that Jesus would be with them as two or three gathered.  They met to sing hymns, pray and commemorate his life, death, and resurrection in a sacred meal known as the Eucharist (Greek for “giving thanks).  Later the reading of Scripture and what we call today the sermon were added to their gatherings. weekend 2

Through history the relationship of Saturday and Sunday has been complicated.  Entire books are dedicated to parsing carefully how Jews and Christians lived in connection with time and each other. I have written more about this in two articles if you’re interested: “The Eighth Day” and “The Lord’s Day.”

The bottom-line is this: if you like the weekends, give thanks for Jews and Christians.  They have done more to keep alive these traditions than any others.  The idea of the weekend is not created out of nothing.  This modern blessing owes its substance to the Jewish and Christian faiths.  It has a noteworthy history that goes back to a mountain in the Sinai desert and a tomb outside Jerusalem.

Did Jesus Have All His Teeth? (Part 2)

Last week I posed a historical question: when Jesus entered public life (at the age of 30) did he have all his teeth?  It is a question which can’t be answered with certainty.  There is no physical description of Jesus from contemporary sources to help us nor are there any physical remains, so to address the question you look analogically at what happens to 30 somethings who have limited access to dental care. Consider this: what would you look like today without the benefit of braces earlier in life? how about the bridges, the caps, the crowns, the whitening toothpaste?  The chances are good you wouldn’t have that perfect, made for TV smile. 

Sallman's Head of Christ
Sallman’s Head of Christ

This historical question has a theological component.  You see most people have some image of Jesus in their heads.  As they read the Gospels or pray, they imagine Jesus looking one way or another.  Those images have been laid down in our experience.  It may have come from a painting you saw on the wall in Sunday School like Sallman’s the Head of Christ (1941; see the Warner Sallman Collection).

It could have come from a favorite movie like Mel Gibson’s The Passion of the Christ. Jim Caviezel is a dashing, leading man type who portrayed Jesus in Gibson’s 2004 epic drama.

Jim Caviziel as Jesus
Jim Caviziel as Jesus

Or perhaps your favorite is the Laughing Jesus who has a nice set of choppers.

But there is another place where our image of Jesus comes. From our theology. Orthodox theology tells us that Jesus is fully God and fully man.  This means, at least in our sanctified imaginations, that Jesus is a perfect man, a man with no physical flaws or blemishes. A man taller than most, with eyes more penetrating than most, with teeth perfect and whiter than most.  Our commitment to the divinity of Jesus often trumps our understanding of his humanity so that we could well imagine the infant Jesus speaking fluent Chinese from the manger.

The Laughing Jesus
The Laughing Jesus

But to embrace the incarnation, a central tenet of faith, we must take seriously Jesus’ humanity.  A truly human Jesus would have to learn to speak proper Aramaic and Greek.  He would have to practice his letters to form them properly.  What else could Luke mean when he said that Jesus grew in wisdom and stature (Luke 2)?  He would have had to apprentice with his father in the carpenter shop in order to make goods his neighbors needed.  He would have had belly aches, vomiting, and diarrhea.  He would have been laid up for days with the flu and had bunions and blisters on his feet.  A truly human Jesus would have had toothaches and probably lost some teeth before he was in his 20s.  Fortunately, his wisdom teeth would have come in about then in order to fill in the gaps and help chew his food. 

We are not very comfortable with a truly human Jesus because we’re not comfortable in our skin. So I guess it makes sense that we would think Jesus had a different kind of skin, skin that wouldn’t blister in the sun, freckle or wrinkle with age.  Our Jesus may have been the Word made flesh (John 1) but He had a different sort of flesh than ours. 

The 2nd century Christians known as the Gnostics were so uncomfortable in their skin that they denied Christ his. He only appeared to be human. He only seemed to suffer for there can be no true participation of the divine in the ugliness of humanity. 

If the incarnation is true, if God has become flesh and dwelled among us in the historic person known as Jesus of Nazareth, and if Jesus truly died on the cross and rose bodily from the grave, then this body we inhabit matters. It matters to God.  It must also matter to us.

Did Jesus Have All His Teeth?

 So, here is an interesting question: did Jesus have all his teeth?  Now I’m not asking whether Jesus was born with a full complement of primary (or baby) and permanent teeth.  I’m wondering whether Jesus had all his teeth when he left behind his private life in Nazareth for the more public life of an itinerant preacher and healer.  According to Luke, he was “about 30” at the time. The question was prompted by two things.  First, a conversation with colleagues, Dr. Randy Richards, dean of theology at Palm Beach Atlantic University, and Dr. Rodney Reeves, dean of theology at Southwest Baptist University in Bolivar, Missouri.  We had co-authored a book in 2007 entitled Rediscovering Paul (InterVarsity).  Randy had been a missionary in Indonesia for 10 years and had worked closely with indigenous populations far removed from the kind of health and dental care available to most western people.  Second, last week I was in Boston and visited the Peabody Museum at Harvard.  There was a photo-exhibition of indigenous people from Papua New Guinea.  I noticed that most people photographed were missing teeth.  Many of those people were of the same age as Jesus when he started his public ministry.   

This may sound like strange question.  I can hear someone say, “Of course, Jesus had all his teeth.  This is America and we have the best health care and dental care in the world.”  Someone else might state, “Of course he did.  I have seen the movies.  Jesus was a good-looking, leading-man type.  Taller than most.  He was a bit somber, but he did smile and I’m sure he had all his teeth.” Someone else might declare in good faith, “Of course he did.  He was God’s Son.  He may have been human but God the Father would have protected him from tooth decay and other disgusting human maladies.” Jesus Passion of Christ

Now this is first of all a historical question and historians base their conclusions on evidence.  That evidence comes primarily in two kinds: literary and material.  Literary evidence refers to written documents composed roughly from the relevant time period.  Material evidence refers to the kinds of things archaeologists can dig up.  To answer my current question we would need some physical description of Jesus from a contemporary source and the body of Jesus to examine. 

The earliest sources we have for Jesus (Christian and non-Christian) provide no details of his physical appearance.  We don’t know how tall he was.  We don’t know the color of his skin, his hair, or his eyes.  The sources provide no description at all.  We assume he had a beard based primarily on what was customary for men at the time.  Now this may strike us as strange given our level of interest in peoples’ physical appearance.  But our interests are different than the ancients’. Ancient biographies—the NT Gospels are types of biographies—were most interested in what a person said and did.  That was the measure of a man, not the color of his eyes or the strength of his jaw.    

So there is no literary evidence.  What about material?

Well, if Christianity is correct, then the body of Jesus was transformed into a new kind of body at the resurrection on the first Easter.  Therefore, no human remains would be available to examine.  If Christianity is not correct, then the bones of Jesus could still be among us.  The problem is: how would we know if we found them?  Assume for a moment we unearthed a bone box (an ossuary) marked with the name “Jesus, son of Joseph.”  Would that prove that we had discovered the remains of Jesus.  No.  Both Jesus and Joseph were common names at the time.  To date no one has made a credible case that the bones of Jesus have been identified.  So there is no material evidence to examine in order to shed light on this question.

toothbrushOK, if we have no literary evidence or material evidence to go on, what do we do?  Well, we proceed cautiously and consider the experience/culture of people who are roughly analogous to the time of Jesus.  What happens generally to people who are 30 plus years old who do not have access to fluoride in the water, modern toothbrushes, toothpaste, dental floss, and the kind of dental care we are accustomed to.  Now this is not to say that Jesus and his contemporaries had no dental hygiene at all.  We know that ancient peoples used chew sticks, bird feathers, and twigs to clean their teeth.  We know too that Greeks and Romans had developed what we might call toothpastes that were rubbed onto teeth with their fingers or rags. These methods were better than doing nothing at all. But even with these we don’t have to look far around the world to see that many adults in their 20s to 30s begin losing their teeth to decay and periodontal disease.  In fact most people who have no access to dental care begin losing teeth in their 20s.    

Tooth decay is caused by a combination of bacteria and food.  Bacteria feed on the sugar in the foods we eat to create acids and those acids break down our enamel causing decay.  Enough decay means we lose the tooth.  The normal diet in Jesus’ time would not have included as many sugars as ours, but the wine people drank had some antibacterial properties.  But that was not likely to have been enough for people to have kept all their teeth into their 30s or 40s.

It is always a bit dicey to move from the general to the particular.  What is generally true for most people is not always true for an individual.  While most people in their 30s across the world with limited dental care suffer tooth decay and loss, we cannot say for certain what has happened to a specific person in the past.  So, did Jesus have all his teeth when he embarked on his public ministry?  Probably not.   We cannot say for sure.  But even if he had, no one listening to Jesus teach would have thought it strange because most everyone they knew of that age had lost one or more teeth.Jesus reconstruction

Now, as I said, this is first of all a historical question, but since Christianity is a faith based in history there are theological ramifications as well.  In the next post we will explore some of those.