Craters, Pipe Cleaners, and Pink Floyd

Language evolves. One of the ways it is evolving today is that more and more nouns get used as verbs. Google has become a verb just as xerox became a verb some decades ago. Because of Facebook, friend has become a verb. And since we have largely stopped using old-timey language in prayers in church, our evolved language creeps into our prayers.

Lately I have been hearing prayers asking God to “impact” some circumstance. The petition is for God to impact the situation in the Middle East, for instance.

Impact used to be a noun.  It was a fairly violent one involving a collision. A boxer’s fist made an impact. But if a pitcher in baseball made an impact on the hitter, the hitter was awarded first base. A meteor made an impact on the moon and left a crater.

I have a friend I went to seminary with who tends to gossip a little about colleagues. He keeps track of the careers of our classmates. Some of these people have screwed up, alienated whole communities and ruined churches. My friend describes this as “leaving a crater.” So and so, he says, was the preacher at Podunk, Missouri. He is gone now and he left a crater.

This is an impact but not in a good way.

When we ask God to impact something, we probably do not mean to ask for a repeat of Sodom and Gomorrah. We probably don’t want him to leave a crater. Jonah wanted that for Nineveh and was most unhappy when God declined. I expect that God is similarly reluctant to answer our prayers for impact.

We want God to make a difference in the world.  We want to make a difference ourselves. But how we go about that is important.  I know people who are bomb throwers.  They feel that before you can build something, you first have to destroy.  They are impact-makers. But the results, I have observed, are often disastrous.

God sometimes destroys Jerusalem so that a new Jerusalem can come.  But that is rare. And that is God.  The rest of us should be very cautious about impacting anything.

Back in the 70‘s I was in some Christian Education class .  We were all about doing away with the lecture model for teaching.  We were learning to teach by creating an experience and then facilitating reflection on that experience.

One of the experiences we had in class was to take pipe cleaners and shape and twist them into something.  We were supposed to shape them in a way that expressed our desire to make a difference in the world.  We were then supposed to report to the class how our reshaped pipe cleaners expressed our vision for change in the world.

I did not do anything to my pipe cleaners.  I left them sitting just as they had been handed out.  I tried to explain to the class that I had no right to twist and shape people.  Neither my classmates nor the professor got it.  My grade probably got docked.  Later in that decade I resonated to Pink Floyd singing We Don’t Need No Education.  “Teachers, leave them kids alone.”

If we are pipe cleaners and God can twist and shape us, I think God often declines to do so.  He is God, so of course he does impact us.  He creates us in the first place.  In the end he takes his spirit back and we die.  I consider death a pretty big impact.  But I do not pray for God to impact people that way.  I think God usually is more subtle and indirect. He certainly does not treat us as just another brick in the wall (Pink Floyd reference).


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I affirm the crucifixion and burial of Jesus as historic events datable to the third decade of the first century. But what about the Easter event, the resurrection?

The church’s theology and worship certainly affirms it.

It is a little more problematic than the crucifixion because it is a unique and extraordinary event. Death and burial are all too ordinary. But resurrection is a unprecedented event that seems like a myth or a fantasy story.

For some contemporary believers it is a kind of metaphor for the resurgence of life and and hope against all odds. But it is not literal and objective. It is figurative, inward and subjective.

If you read the first several verses of 1 Corinthians 15, I think you will have to conclude that Paul and, through him, the mainstream of the early church understood the resurrection as, in some sense, an outward and objective event.

The Bible does not contain a single, easily harmonizable account. Each of the gospels tells the story with details that sometimes resist falling into a single, orderly narrative. How many women were at the tomb? Were the appearances on that first Sunday in Jerusalem? Or were they later in Galilee?

Since the women in Mark 16:7 (Matthew 28;10) told the disciples that they would see Jesus in Galilee, that is where we should look for the appearance to Peter and growing conviction that Jesus lived.  At some point Peter and others returned to Jerusalem. There they encountered some confused stories.  Matthew 27:52-53 may express this. There were rumors that tombs had opened.  Many people claimed to have seen the dead alive.  Nobody knew quite what to make of this.

The statement that the tombs were opened may point to the amazing story of the tomb having been found empty.

From these testimonies later storytellers constructed dramas like the appearance to Mary Magdalene in John 20 and the appearance on the road to Emmaus in Luke 24:13 ff.

But the definitive appearances most likely were in Galilee as Matthew 28 and John 21 testify and 1 Corinthians 15 implies (also there is an appearance to Peter in Galilee in the fragmentary, noncannonical Gospel of Peter).  Luke centers the appearances in Jerusalem because it fits his geographical way of ordering things.  For him, the move of the gospel toward Rome must start in Jerusalem.  He clearly has the wording of Mark in front of him when he just blatantly changes Mark 16:7 from Jesus telling the disciples he would see them in Galilee to Jesus telling them that he would rise again “when he was still in Galilee” (Luke 24:6).

I think the appearances were real and objective.  By “objective” I mean that they didn’t just happen in the disciple’s heads.  Some of the later stories stressed this by showing Jesus allowing himself to be touched and showing him consuming food.  But the appearance to Paulon the Damascus road is a matter of a light and a voice–powerful, but not quite as corporeal.

For what it is worth, I have found the use of the idea of “appearance” in Colossians 3:3-4 helpful.  Our true life is now hid with Christ in God.  But at the second coming, Christ, who is our true life will appear (see also the use of “appearance” in Titus 2:11-14).  Like the Transfiguration (which Raymond Brown suggested might have been a post-resurrection experience in Galilee projected back into the middle of Jesus’ ministry) an “appearance” reveals the hidden glory of Jesus.

So it is more than a vision and it has a meaning deeper than a resuscitated body.  A resurrection appearance by Jesus pulls back the veil on reality.  As Paul said in 1 Corinthians 13, we now see poorly as though a polished metal mirror, but then we shall see face to face.  Now we know in part.  But with the appearance of Christ we shall fully know. Was Paul reflecting on his own experience of a resurrection appearance?

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Crucified under Pontius Pilate

It is Holy Saturday and I am back. Reconfiguring my desktop was more time consuming than I had expected. It tied up my router making several hours-long data dumps. We don’t exactly have blazing fast internet. Also one day there was a family gathering. We have been going to church a lot this week, which is usual for Holy Week.

Today let me speak to the crucifixion as history. Of course, there is theological and devotional meaning to the crucifixion. But it was also a historical event. The Apostle’s Creed contains the phrase “crucified under Pontius Pilate”. The writings of Paul affirm that these events had been narrated to Paul at a very early date. The Gospel of John, although its final form is very late in the first century, claims that its earliest traditions come from an eyewitness. And, most primitive of all, the accounts of the Lord’s Supper show that the rite had to do with a sacrificed body and spilled blood from a time that could not have been more than a few weeks after the events.

You can date the time when Pilate was governor of Judea as 26 C.E. to 36 C.E. Pilate was a crony of Sejanus, who was an influential adviser to the emperor Tiberius. It is not exactly clear why Sejanus was deposed and executed in 31, but it must have left Pilate in a precarious position. His sponsor in Rome was considered a traitor. This would have given force to the appeal of the priests that if Pilate sided with Jesus he was no friend of Caesar.

This is why students of Roman history often favor the year 33 for the crucifixion. New Testament scholars often favor the year 30. The reason for this is Paul’s 17 year time span set out in the letter to the Galatians. There were 17 years (3 years before his first visit to Jerusalem and then 14 years to his return) between the call of Paul the Apostle and the conference in Jerusalem. If you try to harmonize Paul with the book of Acts, Paul’s call had to have been in the very early 30s. A year 30 crucifixion would best fit with this.

This reasoning assumes that the book of Acts is written in chronological order so that you can set up the scheme of three missionary journeys to put Paul’s ministry in order. Yet we know, by comparing Luke’s gospel to the others, that chronological order was not Luke’s primary way of ordering events. He seems to follow a more geographical order in both the gospel and Acts–from Galilee to Jerusalem and from Jerusalem to Rome. We do not have any other accounts parallel to Acts except for what we can glean from Paul’s letters. But it seems wrong to assume that Luke would suddenly become a stickler for precise chronological ordering of events when he wrote Acts.

Several scholars, therefore, have asked if the Apostolic Conference in Acts 15 might be out of order–if it might actually have taken place somewhat later in Paul’s ministry than Luke’s desire to put the event right in the middle of his book suggests. If the Apostolic Conference actually happened in, say, 51; then there is much more room for the year 33 to be the date of the crucifixion. Paul Jewett, I think, successfully argued this case in his A Chronology of Paul’s Life.

So I put the crucifixion in 33. And I think the downfall of Pilate’s sponsor and the crumbling of Pilate’s backing in Rome had something to do with his actions.

The historical event is the given behind the theological and devotional meaning of Good Friday. It was an actual event. You could have been there.

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Easter-Psalm 118

I live near Kansas City.  If you have been paying attention to the news at all, you know that an antisemite shot people in the parking lots at a Jewish complex in Overland Park, Kansas yesterday.  I am familiar with the area.  In fact I blogged about an exhibit I attended there a few years ago.

The crime happened as Passover approached–probably on purpose.  But it is also the Christian Holy Week leading up to Easter.  And Christians were the people shot.

Psalm 118 is the Psalm set to be read in many Churches on Easter Sunday.  Here is one line: “With the Lord on my side I do not fear. What can mortals do to me?”

Christians and Jews have a tradition of belief in the resurrection that comes from the Pharisees.  This belief is reinforced from the Christian point of view by the Easter event.  But many Jews already believed in resurrection.  In the face of persecution and murder, people of faith can hold the sentiment of those words from the Psalm.   God is beyond our mortality.  He transcends this life and death.  So what, indeed, can mortals do to us?

Blogging will continue to be light this week.  I am making a big overhaul of the Linux OS on my desktop.  Also this time of year brings me lots of church and family events.





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The Garden of Eden-beyond what you thought the story said

I just got my May/June issue of Biblical Archeology Review. This is a magazine that, whatever else you might say about it, is not stodgy at all. If they can find what might have been ancient Near Eastern porn, they will publish it. I think a lot of people read BAR just for the shocked letters to the editor.

In this issue Mary Joan Winn Leith reviews Ziony Zevit’s book, What Really Happened in the Garden of Eden. Zevit seems to want to read the Genesis story without all the layers of interpretation that generations of rabbis and Christian scholars have laid upon it. Also he seems to want to interpret the Garden of Eden story in a way that will allow feminists to give it a second look.

Leith titles her review, “Restoring Nudity”. That is a typical headline for BAR and one reason the magazine is so popular. So, of course, she would report Zevit’s interpretation of Genesis 2:21 that God fashioned Eve from Adam’s penis bone. Many animals have one. Humans do not. Genesis 2:21 would function partly as an explanation for this. So much for Adam’s rib!

Also interesting is Zevit’s interpretation of the term English Bibles once translated as “help meet” or “help mate”. Zevit suggests that it means “a powerful counterpart”. Woman is a powerful counterpart to man. It is an interesting suggestion that should get taken seriously.

Catholics and Protestants have gotten all caught up in the idea that what happened in the Garden of Eden was the Fall–the fall of humans from innocence and immortality. As John Milton put it, it was the loss of paradise. Jews have tended not to see it that way. The Eastern Orthodox also have had a different take. From the review, I take it that Zevit thinks the Garden of Eden story is about “how all humanity. . .obtained the knowledge to discriminate between the more and less preferable when making choices.”

I have not read the book, just the review. But I do think it would be good if more people could put aside some of the preconceptions that feed into simplistic and anti-scientific interpretations of Genesis. The Garden of Eden and other Bible stories may not be saying exactly what we have always thought they said.

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Lent-Psalm 31

On the Sunday before Easter there are options for the readings.

You can treat the day as Palm Sunday and stress Jesus’ triumphal entry into Jerusalem. It is a parade. People shout, “Hosanna”. In many churches there is a procession with children and others waving palm branches. All the readings go along with this mood.

The other option is to treat the day as Passion Sunday. The central event here is the crucifixion. Compared to Palm Sunday, it is a downer.

My practice, when I was a pastor, was to let the parade happen. It was not an unimportant event. It ideally would kick off the services throughout the week that follow Jesus to the cross. But after the parade, the palms, and the Hosannas; I would read the Passion Sunday scriptures.

My reasoning was that most of the people in church on Palm Sunday would not go to any other Holy Week services. The next time they were in church would be Easter Sunday. They would go from the palms and Hosannas to the lilies and trumpets. They would never touch on the betrayal and denial. They would never touch on the garden of agony and the arrest and trial. They would never touch on the mocking and abuse and death on Golgotha–unless you mixed Palm Sunday with Passion Sunday.

Psalm 31 is the Passion Sunday reading. Jesus quoted from this Psalm on the cross when he said, “Into thy hand I commit my spirit.” This is verse 5 of the Psalm. Jesus quoted it before his death according to Luke’s gospel. Also Luke has Stephen quote it as he is being stoned to death in the Book of Acts.

The original Hebrew poem represents the simple prayer of someone who had suffered greatly. He had been sick (vss. 9-10). People had told lies about him (vss. 18 and 20). Friends had dumped him (vs. 11). So it does apply to a situation like the passion of Jesus where there was personal betrayal as well as physical hurt.

Luke probably expected the readers of his passion story to know this psalm and to associate the words of Jesus with the whole atmosphere of its content.

The spiritual point for our sharing in Lent and Passion Sunday? The great contemporary Catholic psalmist, John Michael Talbot, puts it simply, “Father, I put my life in your hands.”

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Milgrom-egalitariamism and wrap-up

I could go on and on with Jacob Milgrom’s commentary on Leviticus. The book of Leviticus is full of details. I have chosen not to go into too many of them so that I can deal with the larger picture.

This was easier because Milgrom has several sections that deal with larger themes. But I have come nearly to the end of the issues that interest me enough to write about.

One thing I would rather he had not done is use the term “egalitarianism” to describe the program of Leviticus so far as social reform is concerned. I have disliked this term as a description of Israelite polity ever since I first ran into it in the works of Norman Gottwald. Egalitarianism is a belief in social and economic equality of all people. But Israel was hardly a society where this prevailed. I am pretty sure they did not even think in those terms.

Communists touted egalitarianism. But look at what their regimes were actually like. The same with labor unions or feminist organizations or liberal churches. They can never get rid of hierarchy. And their hierarchies seem to me to be worse for their attempts to disguise the power plays and the drive for status and position.

But what we do have in Israel–in the prophets and in both the P and H sections of Leviticus–is a respect for people at the bottom. I do not see that they are treated as having equal rights. There is a pecking order. But those closer to the bottom are treated with dignity. If you can’t afford to sacrifice livestock like cattle or sheep, there is still dignity in the sacrifice of doves or even grain. These sacrifices do not have lower effectiveness.

H made provision for the poor, but also for the resident alien. The reason, as Milgrom explains, for H making several laws about the resident alien is that for H the whole land was like a sanctuary. Those who lived in it could pollute it. This included non-Israelites who lived there. So some laws had to apply to them. But also some of the benefits of living in the land had to apply to them.

The priests had a sense of fairness. But this came from their theology. It was far from the rationals for fairness in Marx or John Rawls. Everybody was the property and slave of God. All the land belonged to God and all the people were tenants. This was the primary hierarchy. It did not prevent kings, queen mothers, priests, village elders,wise men and women, or heads of households from having a higher status than others. It did not mean that your family background or gender did not matter. But it did mean that all were equally under the care of God and must be treated fairly.

In sum though, the term egalitarianism as it has been used in social and political discourse since the French Revolution does not apply to ancient Israel. Their clan-based society was less hierarchical than many of the city states around. But the Davidic monarchy brought with it the power structures that you find in Egypt and the Phoenecian city states and imposed them over the clan structure. And, as far as I can see. even the old clan-based society did not aspire to be egalitarian.

What I have gotten from Milgrom’s work is a broader sense of the way the theory that he shares with Israel Knohl about the eighth century Holiness movement could be fleshed out. I am tending to agree with the theory. The prophets criticized the spirituality and ethics that took hold then. The priests behind the Holiness movement did not wholly agree with someone like Isaiah, but they responded to him by addressing the issues in their own way. The theory makes a lot of sense and accounts for a lot of facts.

Some of Milgrom’s ideas are challenging. The idea that being “cut off” from your people had to do with alienation from family after death is intriguing. But I’m not sure it is correct and neither is Milgrom. The whole notion about ancestor worship forming the background for some of the laws is a theory I had not run into before. I would need more information before I could affirm it.

Overall, I am grateful for this book and feel I know a whole lot more about Leviticus than I did before.

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