Friday, October 26, 2012

Damn Tree

Jesus made as triumphant an entrance into Jerusalem as anyone could make while riding both a donkey and its colt simultaneously. Then, or the next day, or at the beginning of His ministry, Jesus chased dove-sellers and money changers from the Temple courtyard. Matthew then records a slight altercation between Jesus and the Chief Priests and the Teachers of the Law because children were praising Jesus as the "son of David." That brings us to the tale of a rather unfortunate fig tree...

Damn Tree
Every now and then, when you are reading through the Bible, you will come across a passage which makes you tilt your head, furrow your eyebrows, and ask "What? Did I just read that right?" And, yes, you find that you did read that right, but it still seems odd and inappropriate. Typically people just go on about their merry way, and try to forget all about it, but I invite you to take a closer look at one of these cases.

In Matthew 21:18-22 and Mark 11:12-14 + Mark 11:20-26, we find the anecdote of Jesus condemning a fig tree. The simple story goes like this: Jesus was hungry. He saw a leafy fig tree and went to it in hopes of finding figs. There were no figs on it, so Jesus cursed the tree. Sometime soon thereafter, the fig tree withered up and died. Jesus then told His amazed Disciples that if they only have faith, not only could they curse trees, but they could throw mountains into seas or have anything else that they ask for in prayer.

Think about that. Jesus literally killed a tree because it didn't have fruit on it. This is the man-God who came to tell us that we need to pay more attention to the spiritual life than the real one. This is the Messiah guy who said that if anyone hits you, you should turn the other cheek and let them hit you again. This is the divine one who fasted in the desert for forty days without eating, and who, after being tempted by Satan, simply let Satan go free. This same Jesus killed a tree for something that the tree did not have any conscious control over. And in Mark 11:13, the situation only gets worse:
Seeing in the distance a fig tree in leaf, [Jesus] went to find out if it had any fruit. When He reached it, He found nothing but leaves, because it was not the season for figs. NIV
The tree had no figs "because it was not the season for figs!" Why would Jesus kill a tree for not having fruit out of season?!?! Well, I have an answer, but first we will consider another point of view.

Faced with this incredibly absurd episode, faithful scholars struggled to find some sense of deeper meaning to latch onto, and this is it: the tree represents the Jews. Oh yes, Jesus went looking for spiritual fruit from them, but found none, and so, just like this tree, they were to be (partially) destroyed in 70 C.E. That is a completely reasonable metaphor, if you ignore all of the context.

For one, it was not the season for figs! So if the tree represented the Jews, then Jesus had no more right to expect spiritual fruit from the Jews than He did to expect figs from the tree. Second, Jesus' curse in Mark 11:14 was that " one ever eat fruit from you again." If that represented the Jews, then that would imply that no one would ever be spiritually blessed by a Jew, which then contradicts both reality and several Old Testament prophesies, such as Zechariah 8:23. Third, in Matthew 21:21 Jesus tells His Disciples that they could do the same thing. How many times would the Jews need to be destroyed?

Likely, the real reason why this is here is that it is an early anecdote from a less-refined Gospel story about Jesus. Mark was emphasizing both Jesus' power and that God's power could be made manifest through undoubted prayer. Of course, we know from a previous study, and from life in general, that such a statement is a lie. But it is a lie that works, because every faithful person harbors at least a little nugget of doubt within them. (Did I doubt? Was that why my prayer was not answered?) So this turns the responsibility for failed prayers back to the pray-er, not the recipient of the prayers; God.

Anyway, in Mark's effort to emphasize prayer power, he failed to see the oddity of the situation. Obviously, Luke did see the oddity, and so he edited this story out of his Gospel.

Matthew, on the other hand, rarely made such wholesale redactions, and he made no exception in this case. Instead, he just changed the odd parts when he copied from Mark. He removed the part about the figs not being in season. He further emphasized Jesus' power by having the tree die immediately (Matthew 21:19) instead of having an extended death (Mark 11:20). Finally, he noticed the ill placed nugget of advice about needing to forgive before you pray (Mark 11:25-26), and so he relocated it and enhanced it as part of the Sermon on the Mount (Matthew 5:21-24).

Friday, October 19, 2012

Isaiah 53 - Anatomy of a Prophesy

This week we are taking a break from the Gospel storyline to look at a particular Old Testament prophesy in great detail. It is a prophesy which is as close to being all about Jesus as you will find within the Old Testament, but how close is it? This study is in connection with the "Christian Prophesy Challenge" issued on my other blog.

Isaiah 53 - Anatomy of a Prophesy
If there is anything to be learned from political ads, it is that context is the key to knowing the truth. Couple that knowledge to the fact that there are often little-to-no explicit indications of where discrete prophesies begin and end within the prophetic books of the Bible, and it becomes apparent that you will probably need to look at the text surrounding that prophesy in order to gain the proper understanding of it.

A challenger submitted Isaiah 53 as being a prophesy about Jesus. So in our review of Isaiah 53, let us also take a moment to inspect preceding chapters and the chapter immediately following it. To save you some time, I have included copies of my chapter-by-chapter summary of Isaiah here, and have included some key notes from each chapter:

(Note: Israelite = Jew)

Chapter Summary
Isaiah 49) - God has made His sharp-speaking Servant, protected him, and chosen him to show God's glory. The Servant claims that he has labored in vain, but God will provide his reward. God made the Servant to gather the Israelites back to God, and God has been the Servant's strength. God will make His Servant not only gather the Israelites but also be a light to the Gentiles to bring Salvation to all of the earth. Although this Servant was despised and was a servant to rulers, God will make the Servant honored by kings and princes. When God chooses, He will make His Servant be a covenant and restore the exiled Israelites to Israel. They will not hunger, thirst, or be oppressed by the sun's heat. God will lead them to water and make their return easy from wherever they are. The Israelites cry that God has forsaken them, but God will never forget them. God will bring the Israelites back to Israel, and will bless them with so many offspring that they will need a larger country. The Gentiles will help bring Israelites back to Israel, and their royalty will humble themselves to the Israelites, and the Israelites will realize that God did this. God will rescue the Israelites, and make their oppressors eat their own flesh and drink their own blood. At that time, all of mankind will know God is Israel's Savior and Redeemer. 49:1) - Through metaphors, this is directed to the diaspora; the exiled and scattered Jews.

49:3) - "[God] said to me, "You are my servant, Israel, in whom I will display my splendor." NIV

 "Israel" being a patriarch, it is almost certainly a representation of the Jews. If it is meant to be a single person, the use of the name "Israel" makes it unlikely to be Jesus given that the name means "he who struggles with God" (Reference Genesis 32:24-30).

49:4) - The Servant thinks that he may have labored in vain, which is again unlikely to mean Jesus.

49:5-6) - The Servant will bring Jews back to God and reveal God to the Gentiles.
Isaiah 50) - God asks the Israelites if they thought God had left them or sold them, or if they thought He couldn't save them. God has the strength the rescue them because He is omnipotent. God has given His Servant the right words to say. God's Servant listens to God and doesn't rebel, and let his back be beat, his beard pulled out, and his face be spit on. The Servant knows that God will vindicate him soon. Those in darkness should follow God, because those which instead follow their man-made idols will be tormented. The emphasis of the Servant listening to God and not being rebellious further suggests the Servant is not generically all of the Jews, but specifically those who had remained steadfast in their faithfulness to God. They endured harsh criticism and even physical abuse for their impregnable faith which was held despite the exile.
Isaiah 51) - God tells the Israelites to listen to Him, because He will rebuild Israel and turn its deserts into gardens like Eden. God's law and justice will impress the Gentile nations. God's righteousness will soon come, and He will bring justice to the nations. The heavens will vanish, the earth will wear out, and people will die, but God's Salvation will last forever. God tells those with His Law in their hearts to listen (meaning the Israelites). The enemies of the Israelites will be destroyed but God's Salvation and righteousness will last through all generations. God's ransomed people will return to Israel with everlasting joy. Why do the Israelites fear their oppressors when God will soon free them, including prisoners and those in dungeons? God is finished applying His wrath to the Israelites, and will now apply it to their oppressors. 51:4) - God's Law and justice will be enlightening to the other nations of the world.

51:5) - God's Salvation was coming very soon. (Isaiah is suspected to have alive in the 8th century BCE, but some parts of the book of Isaiah are discerned to be as late as 5th century BCE. By either date, Jesus was a long way away.)

51:6) - This Salvation would last forever.

51:7) - Speaking of the subset of the steadfastly faithful...

51:16) - This parallel of 49:2 confirms the identity of the Servant as the faithful Jews.
Isaiah 52) - The Israelites are to go free and to rebuild Jerusalem in splendor because the uncircumcised and defiled will not enter there again. God sold the Israelites for free and now they will be redeemed without money. The Assyrians are acting like the pre-Exodus Egyptians, so God will punish them and prove that He is God. The Israelites should purify themselves and keep watch, because God will prepare the way for them to return to Israel. Even though the appearance of God's Servant was pitiful, God's Servant will be exalted in a way such that kings and nations will see and understand God. 52:1) - After the Jews returned from exile, impure people would never again enter Jerusalem. Amazingly, the Romans (and others) must of had God's stamp of approval.

52:4) - Pinpointing the extent of the prophesy in time, the Assyrians are mentioned.

You may have noticed that Isaiah 52 ends with some words about this Servant, so let us include those verses in our verse-by-verse look at Isaiah 53:

Verse (NIV)
Context Version
Christian Version
52:13) - See, my servant will act wisely; he will be raised and lifted up and highly exalted. "Faithful Jews" will obey God and be greatly praised and rewarded. Jesus will act wisely and be greatly praised and rewarded. As context has shown, this "servant" is a metaphor for the faithful Jews.
52:14) - Just as there were many who were appalled at him — his appearance was so disfigured beyond that of any man and his form marred beyond human likeness— People were shocked and disgusted that the "Faithful Jews" maintained their piety, well beyond the extents of normal human reason, given how their God had treated them. Jesus was beaten so badly after His trial that He did not even look human. Aside from Mel Gibson's movie, there is no reference to Jesus being beaten to an unrecognizable extent.
52:15) - so will he sprinkle many nations, and kings will shut their mouths because of him. For what they were not told, they will see, and what they have not heard, they will understand. When the scattered "Faithful Jews" are returned from their exile, even pagan kings will recognize the power of their God, despite not having heard about Him, because of how miraculous the return is. Jesus' purifying blood would be metaphorically sprinkled on many peoples, and kings will be astonished by His offer of Salvation. This references Gentile kings witnessing something themselves. This is in contrast to the kings being witnessed to by others (Matthew 10:18, Mark 13:9, Luke 21:12).
1) - Who has believed our message and to whom has the arm of the Lord been revealed? Who could have believed that such a prophesy would come true? Through God's grace, Jesus' Salvation is only accepted by the Elect.
2) - He grew up before him like a tender shoot, and like a root out of dry ground. He had no beauty or majesty to attract us to him, nothing in his appearance that we should desire him. The "Faithful Jews" born in harsh conditions of the Jewish exile appeared to be worshiping in vain, so the rest of the scattered Jews paid them little respect and were not attracted to their piety. Jesus grew up in a humble existence, being the son of a small-town carpenter, and he was not attractive in any way. You find large groups of people following Jesus around (of the 171 times the Bible mentions crowds, 127 times are in the Gospels). Indeed, John 12:19 states in hyperbolic language that the whole world has gone after Him.
3) - He was despised and rejected by mankind, a man of suffering, and familiar with pain. Like one from whom people hide their faces he was despised, and we held him in low esteem. These "Faithful Jews" were subjected to continual scorn, mockery, and physical abuse because of their unreasonable faith, by the Gentiles and even by the other Jews, who did not like being around them. Jesus was rejected and suffered on the cross. As noted above, he was accepted far more than rejected. Also, this verse portrays someone who lived a life of suffering, not just some climactic suffering at the end. Jesus was esteemed (such as Luke 7:6, Luke 7:45-46) much more than men despising and hiding their faces from Him.
4) - Surely he took up our pain and bore our suffering, yet we considered him punished by God, stricken by Him, and afflicted. "Faithful Jews" suffered along with the other Jews, but more so, despite and because of their piety, such that even the other Jews considered them cursed by God. According to Matthew 8:17: This verse is a reference to Jesus healing people.

A better interpretation: Jesus suffered for our sins, yet people thought that God had punished Him for what He had done.
Matthew 8:17 quotes this verse as if it was intended to mean that Jesus removed the infirmities and diseases of the people, but it instead means that he suffered those same pains, which is implicitly part of why he was called a man of sorrows/suffering in the previous verse.
5) - But he was pierced for our transgressions, he was crushed for our iniquities; the punishment that brought us peace was on him, and by his wounds we are healed. Though undeserving, the "Faithful Jews" suffered the punishment God had directed at all Jews, but it was because of their suffering that the other Jews now know of this Salvation. Jesus suffered for our sins, and the punishment enabled Salvation. In context, the punishment is what God had wrought through the exile because of the way they had acted in Judah/Israel as opposed to just being punishment for general sins. Furthermore, the Jesus story is that He died for our sins. He was pierced after He had already died, and then only because the soldiers were surprised that He was already dead (John 19:31-37). Being dead, the piercing was not a punishment.
6) - We all, like sheep, have gone astray, each of us has turned to our own way; and the Lord has laid on him the iniquity of us all. The other Jews had turned away from God, but meanwhile the "Faithful Jews" continued to take the divine punishment. We were the sinful ones, but Jesus paid the price for it.
7) - He was oppressed and afflicted, yet he did not open his mouth; he was led like a lamb to the slaughter, and as a sheep before its shearers is silent, so he did not open his mouth. Yet, similar to but better than Job, the "Faithful Jews" took this punishment without any protest. Jesus received this punishment silently. The mention of oppression and affliction suggests of some significant quantity of time of serious mistreatment. While the "lamb to the slaughter" hints of a sacrifice, the "sheep before its shearers" speaks of enduring, almost ritualized, mistreatment over a long time. Furthermore, Jesus did speak to His accusers (Matthew 26:64, Mark 14:62, Luke 22:67-70, John 18:19-37, John 19:11).
8) - By oppression and judgment he was taken away. Yet who of his generation protested? For he was cut off from the land of the living; for the transgression of my people he was punished. While the other Jews had adapted to their exile, turning away from God and building a life for their families, the scarce "Faithful Jews" dwindled away in penitent obscurity. Jesus was arrested without justification, yet no one protested His unfair treatment, and so He was killed for our sins. Until they ran away in fear, the Disciples did violently protest Jesus' arrest (Matthew 26:50-52, Mark 14:46-47, Luke 22:49-51, John 18:10). Even Pilate protested that Jesus seemed to be charged without justification (Matthew 27:23-24, Mark 15:14, Luke 23:20, John 18:38, John 19:4-6).
9) - He was assigned a grave with the wicked, and with the rich in his death, though he had done no violence, nor was any deceit in his mouth. The few "Faithful Jews" who died were thought to be lowly like the wicked, but in reality they were praiseworthy in their righteousness. Despite having done no wrong, Jesus was condemned to die with thieves, but was buried in a rich man's tomb. The "though" is probably better translated as "because" here.

This verse is backwards for Christianity. Jesus died with the wicked (Matthew 27:38, Mark 15:27, Luke 23:32, John 19:18), but went to the grave of a rich man (Matthew 27:57-61, Mark 15:42-47, Luke 23:50-56, John 19:38-42). Plus, Jesus did violently (with a whip) clear out the Temple courtyard (John 2:13-17).
10) - Yet it was the Lord’s will to crush him and cause him to suffer, and though the Lord makes his life an offering for sin, he will see his offspring and prolong his days, and the will of the Lord will prosper in his hand. Yet these "Faithful Jews" fully received the punishment God had intended to serve to the Jews for their sins before the exile, and so God will reward the piety of the "Faithful Jews" with prosperity, offspring, and long life. It was God's plan for Jesus' death on the cross to be the supreme sin offering. Jesus will live eternally as a prosperous and divine king with a family of the faithful. It is the Servant's life that is the offering, not the Servant's death. There is no emphasis on the "offering for sin." It is simply "an" offering, which seems a little underplayed for its Christian significance. Furthermore, because the Servant is alive, it speaks of offspring, as in children, and his days will be "prolonged," not eternal.
11) - After he has suffered, he will see the light of life and be satisfied; by his knowledge my righteous servant will justify many, and he will bear their iniquities. The "Faithful Jews" will be rewarded for enduring this punishment, and from this the other Jews will realize God's power and purpose, and turn back to Him. The suffering of the "Faithful Jews" will cover the other Jews. Jesus was resurrected according to plan, and knowledge of Jesus' sin offering has led many to Salvation. Jesus' sacrifice will cover people's sins. Note that the Masoretic Text, which is considered the authoritative Hebrew text of the Old Testament, has "...he will see the result of the suffering of his soul and be satisfied..." instead of the line about seeing the light of life.
12) - Therefore I will give him a portion among the great, and he will divide the spoils with the strong, because he poured out his life unto death, and was numbered with the transgressors. For he bore the sin of many, and made intercession for the transgressors. These "Faithful Jews" will be exalted like other heroes of the faith, and will be richly rewarded for steadfastly holding to God regardless of the dire circumstances, for accepting God's planned punishment despite being righteous, and for pleading for mercy for the other Jews. Jesus will be king for willingly sacrificing Himself, dying with criminals, and making intercession for sinners. God will give this Servant “a portion among the great.” Yet according the Bible, God is giving Jesus the entire Kingdom, not just a portion (Matthew 28:18). Furthermore, "a portion" implies a sharing, but God will not share His glory with anyone or anything (Isaiah 42:8, Isaiah 48:11).

As usual, we should also consider what comes afterward for context as well:

Chapter Summary
Isaiah 54) - God, the Israelites' husband and Redeemer, God of all the earth, will restore the Israelites to Israel and they will be blessed with so many offspring that they will have to expand their boundaries into other countries, dispossessing other nations. They will not be shamed or humiliated, and will forget their earlier shame. In God's surge of anger, He briefly abandoned the Israelites. Now God is coming back to them with everlasting kindness and compassion. God swears that He will never rebuke them again, and His love and covenant of peace with them will last forever. God will rebuild Jerusalem with precious stones. God will teach their sons. They will no longer have tyranny and terror. Anyone who attacks them will not succeed, and the attack will not be caused by God. God made the blacksmith and the destroyer. No weapon or accusations will harm the servants of God. 54:3) - This speaks of capturing and resettling cities.

54:6) - A call back, which is a reference to the return from exile. They had to be there before in order to be called back.

54:7) - God will bring the exiled Jews back.

54:9) - This exile was like the flood of Noah, and God swears that He will never be angry with the Jews again.

54:15) - If anyone attacks them, God will not be the reason behind the attack.

54:17) - No attack will prevail against the Jews.

Isaiah 53 is not a prophesy about Jesus. In varying degrees, details in verses 2, 3, 7, 8, 9, 10, and 12 directly conflict with the Gospel stories of Jesus. That is seven of the twelve verses of this entire prophetic chapter, or over half of the prophetic message.

In my opinion, the most notable conflicts are verse 3 (Jesus was not rejected by the masses in the manner portrayed here, and was often held in high esteem), verse 10 (offspring for Jesus, and prolonged life, not eternal life), and verse 12 (Jesus is getting much more than just a portion).

In my opinion, the contextual meaning, while often similar to the story Christianity presents, is distinctly different from being a Messianic prophesy. Instead, this Servant is merely a representation of the relatively small subset of Jews which remained devout in their worship of God throughout the exile, despite the fact that their form of religion made them the subject of prejudice, scorn, and suffering. However, note that even some Jewish scholars hold that this is a Messianic prophesy.

Yet what is clear is that Isaiah 53 is part of a larger prophetic picture, and that the picture is different than what Christianity promises. Furthermore, the differences are not just trivial, but they actually contradict what Christianity promises. These are the highlights of contradiction in the interwoven prophetic verses:
  • This prophesy was for the Jewish diaspora (Isaiah 49:1, Isaiah 51:5) who had been exiled from the land of Israel for their sins (Isaiah 50:1, Isaiah 51:17-21, Isaiah 52:5).
  • Confirming the time frame, audience, and scope of the prophesy, God drew a parallel between the Jewish oppression in Egypt and the oppression they now, or rather then, had within the Assyrian empire (Isaiah 52:4).
  • God's Salvation would happen soon... back then (Isaiah 50:8, Isaiah 51:5).
  • A key feature in this prophesy is the Jewish return from exile (Isaiah 49:9-12, Isaiah 49:17-19, Isaiah 52:11-12, Isaiah 54:6-7), which has already occurred, but not exactly as described.
  • The Jewish system of land inheritance will be re-established (Isaiah 49:8).
  • There will still be children born, generations living, and people dying (Isaiah 51:6-7, Isaiah 53:10, Isaiah 54:3, Isaiah 54:13).
  • The nation of Israel will need to be expanded. In order to do so, the Jews' descendants will invade surrounding nations, and then settle in their emptied cities (Isaiah 54:2-3).
  • God will protect the Jews, and even though they still may be attacked, it will not be because of God causing the attack, and the attackers will not prevail (Isaiah 54:13-17).
  • This return from exile is an eternal Salvation (Isaiah 51:6-7, Isaiah 51:11), where God promises to show everlasting kindness to the Jews (Isaiah 54:8), and they will never be rebuked by God again (Isaiah 51:22, Isaiah 54:9)!
  • God promises all of this as an inheritance to His servants (Isaiah 54:17). (This is not so much a contradiction with Christianity, but the reference to "servants" is significant in context to these prophesies.)

The Rest of the Story
Aside from the return from exile, most of the prophesy did not come true, but all of that prophetic ink could not just be ignored. It was too difficult to admit that God had failed, and in turn raise questions about their long-held faith in their prophetic texts and their God. So the rest of these Jewish prophetic points, and others, were recast to some future date in which the new Godly era would be led in by a Messiah.

The Jews were anxious for the Messiah by the time Jesus had arrived on the scene, especially due to the Roman infiltration. Yet contrary to the original prophetic vision and God's own promises here, Jesus rebuked the Jews and called for their destruction at the hands of enemies (Luke 19:41-44)! To make this prophesy conform to Jesus is to ignore that point, ignore the larger intrinsic associations with the original Jewish exile, ignore the fact that this version of eternal Salvation involved people living and dying just like they do today, ignore the implicit coexistence of Israel with other nations, and ignore the fact that these other nations have the ability to attack (if only impotently). That just seems like a really ignorant thing to do.

Friday, October 12, 2012

From the Mouths of Babies

Jesus made a triumphant, yet extremely awkward, entrance by riding on both a donkey and its colt in order to fulfill a prophesy which did not appear to apply to Him. Then immediately, or the next day, or way back in the beginning of His public ministry, Jesus chased merchants and moneychangers out of the Temple courtyard, despite them being there to facilitate sacrifices to God according to His Law. Associated with that event were two more ill-applied prophesies.

Next, there is another misused prophesy to cover. This one just goes to show you that kids say the craziest things...

From the Mouths of Babies
Sometimes, it seems like you can just tell that the Gospel writers were combing the Scriptures for any verse they could use, regardless of the original context, to support the Jesus legend. If they were in the age of digital media, they would have found hundreds of verses they could have applied by searching on various words or phrases. But they were still in the era of ink. Their searches were limited by time, memory, and the available scrolls, such as the Septuagint - a Greek version of the Old Testament made in the late third century BCE. The Septuagint, with its infamous translation tweaks, is often an easily identifiable source when it is quoted. We will see the Septuagint signature in this study, and explore the implications.

In Matthew 21:14-15, we find Jesus in the Temple area, where He heals the lame and blind people who come to Him. Children in the area were praising Jesus, calling Him the "son of David." That angered the Chief Priests and the Teachers of the Law, so they questioned Jesus about it, which we see played out in Matthew 21:16 like so:
"Do you hear what these children are saying?" they asked Him.
"Yes," replied Jesus, "have you never read,
'From the lips of children and infants you, Lord, have called forth your praise'?" NIV
Jesus asked this question as though the Chief Priests and the Teachers of the Law should have been familiar with the verse of Scripture He partially quoted. There is just one problem: that verse does not exist. Well, that is not entirely true. It does exist, but only in the botched translation of the Septuagint.

The Chief Priests and the Teachers of the Law would not have been reading some Greek translation of their Holy Scriptures in Jerusalem. They would have been reading Hebrew transcripts, and possibly some Aramaic texts, but Greek ones are highly unlikely because they would have been translations from the originals, and translations are not always good...

The original text comes from Psalm 8:2, and is rendered in the AKJV like this (See the lower section of this post for more translation details.):
"Out of the mouth of babes and sucklings have you ordained strength
because of your enemies, that you might still the enemy and the avenger."
So, from these children, has God called forth praise, or has God established strength? Odds are that the original Hebrew is correct and Jesus is wrong. In fact, the original text breaks the association with the praise-giving children, thereby making this whole episode seem contrived and based on the sloppy Septuagint text. For more evidence on why this is the case, we will have to dig in a little deeper.

Lost in Translation
I kind of like Psalm 8. It is short and sweet. Attributed to the Jewish King David, it is a song about the marvelous universe created by God, and the incredible honor humans have received in being granted by God to have dominion on the earth. Do not get me wrong. I am not big on the "dominion" side of things, but I can get behind the spirit of appreciation and sense of wonder this song communicates.

That brings us to Psalm 8:2, and what it actually means. I have studied various translations of Psalm 8:2 in the lexicon and Psalm 8 in its short entirety. As arrogant as this may sound, I think all of the translations have missed the mark, but that is not too surprising. This verse in particular is challenging with its seemingly odd mention of foes and avengers. The NIV gets the closest to the meaning I have seen so far:
"Through the praise of children and infants you have established a stronghold against your enemies, to silence the foe and the avenger." NIV
That is close, but they are trying to be a little too sympathetic to matching up with Jesus' misquote by throwing in that "praise" word which does not really belong based on the definitions of the actual Hebrew words.

To get it right, I think we have to look at the surrounding context. In Psalm 8:1, we see:
"...You (God) have set your glory in the heavens." NIV
We know we are talking about some pretty awesome stuff here, namely the universe God created. And on the other side, in Psalm 8:3-4 we see:
"When I consider your heavens, the work of your fingers, the moon and the stars, which you have set in place; what is mankind that you are mindful of them, human beings that you care for them?" NIV
Again, here is an expression of marvel and wonder, and the seeming insignificance of man within the universe of God's creation.

Based on this context, I would render Psalm 8:2 like this:
"Through the questions of children and infants you have established a vexing stronghold, to silence the foe and the avenger."
Just to be clear, the Hebrew text only talks about God's strength being established by what comes out of children's mouths. We have to interpret what it is that they say, or, as I render it, what it is that they ask. Let me explain.

Children have to be taught to praise God at a young age. However, children do not have to be taught to ask questions about the world around them. It is natural. Both the child of the most debased pagan and the child of the most righteous Jew will ask questions about the amazing world around them. Those questions would have been a reminder to foes and avengers back then that it was the God who created the universe; the God of the Bible who was really in charge of everything. So they best proceed with some trepidation in respect of His power.

Psalm 8:2 is not about praise. It is about questions, and the enchantment of the splendid world around us. The Septuagint, and Jesus, got it wrong.

Friday, October 5, 2012

Entrapment in the Temple

Jesus and the Disciples have arrived in the area of Jerusalem for the first (Synoptics)/last (John) time. They will bounce in and out of Jerusalem to the towns and territories surrounding Jerusalem, but Jesus will not leave the region before being crucified.

With some form of pageantry, Jesus entered Jerusalem on a donkey's colt, or maybe on a donkey and her colt, in order to fulfill the prophesy of how Israel's king would come to them.

Entrapment in the Temple
Entrapment is an act in which innocent people get purposefully lured by the authorities into breaking the law so that they can be arrested. In general, people find entrapment to be unscrupulous, if not flat out immoral, but that is not how God sees it. In part of a previous post, we discussed how God would send a miracle-working false prophet just to see if the Jews would faithfully hold to the one true God. In this study, we will see how actually obeying God's Law got turned into sinning against God by Jesus.

In all four Gospels, there is a story of Jesus clearing the Temple grounds of merchants. But Matthew 21:12-13 and Luke 19:45-48 are apparently significantly cropped versions of Mark's longer account. John's version is ever-so-slightly different. So let us look as both Mark and John side-by-side:

Mark 11:15-18 (NIV)John 2:13-17 (NIV)
On reaching Jerusalem, Jesus entered the Temple area and began driving out those who were buying and selling there. He overturned the tables of the money changers and the benches of those selling doves, and would not allow anyone to carry merchandise through the temple courts. And as He taught them, He said, "Is it not written:
" 'My house will be called
a house of prayer for all nations'? But you have made it 'a den of robbers.'"

The Chief Priests and the Teachers of the Law heard this and began looking for a way to kill Him, for they feared Him, because the whole crowd was amazed at His teaching.
When it was almost time for the Jewish Passover, Jesus went up to Jerusalem. In the Temple courts He found men selling cattle, sheep and doves, and others sitting at tables exchanging money. So He made a whip out of cords, and drove all from the temple area, both sheep and cattle; He scattered the coins of the money changers and overturned their tables. To those who sold doves He said, "Get these out of here! How dare you turn My Father's house into a market!"

His disciples remembered that it is written: "Zeal for your house will consume me."

Basically, the two accounts are similar. Though it is not stated in this section, Mark's version also happens close to the Passover festival (Mark 14:1). So Jesus goes into the Temple courtyard, finds merchants, and kicks them out. You can tell that He was zealous about it, too, as Mark has Jesus preventing any more merchandise through and John has Jesus take the time to make a whip to accomplish the task. Two independent witnesses testifying to apparently the same event should add credibility to the story, but there are some veracity issues that we will cover in a moment. First, though, let us consider the situation.

Why is Jesus upset here? I know, that seems like a dumb question, right? Obviously Jesus was filled with righteous indignation at the "market" established on Temple grounds, but was He justified in that anger? No, not really. To find out why Jesus is really being unreasonable here, we have to turn back to the Old Testament.

Jesus threw out people selling cattle, sheep, and doves, as well as money changers, but they were there for a righteous purpose. This was not just some casual consumer meat market and currency exchange. Rather, this "market" was established to facilitate worshiping God and complying with His Law. In God's Law there are many references to specific animals being used for specific sacrifices, such as bulls (57+ times), rams (68+ times), goats (57+ times), sheep/lambs (4+/69+ times), and doves (6 times). If you did not own livestock, such as if you owned a vineyard, and you wanted/needed to provide a sacrificial offering to God, then (in most cases) you needed to buy an animal.

What about the money changers? Let us consult Leviticus 27:25 here:
Every value is to be set according to the sanctuary shekel, twenty gerahs to the shekel. NIV
You have to remember that this law was established in a time when money was not as standardized as it is today, and gold and silver coins could have had different weights depending on their precise origin, so God set the standard for His own House. God required that every financial transaction, such as redeeming a person, must be done according to weight of the "sanctuary shekel" (mentioned 25 times). That is why these money changers were on the Temple grounds. They helped people comply with God's Law by changing out their coinage for the supremely sanctioned sanctuary shekels. (Say that phrase ten times fast!)

God's Law, while not creating this "market" per se, established the need for this market to be in close proximity to the Temple's sanctuary. Given the Temple's ample courtyard, the most logical place for the market was on Temple grounds. Furthermore, unlike the sanctuary of the Temple, the courtyard was not considered to be sacred ground, as 2 Chronicles 29:16 indicates.

So if Jesus was justified in His righteous indignation, then God set up the Jews for this transgression, and thereby has practiced entrapment; ironically through the necessities in complying with God's Law. Alternately, I suspect that the real Jesus may have actually done such a deed as disrupting the market, or at least voiced his discontent of the situation of the market on Temple grounds, but that his actions in this case were born from pious ignorance; being unaware of how the Law made the market necessary. That did not stop the Gospel writers from incorporating the event into the overall story and including some tweaks to make the anecdote prophetic.

A Prophetically Different View
Speaking of prophesy, these two versions vary in Jesus' words and in their associated prophesies. In the Synoptics, including Mark, Jesus Himself quoted prophesy, and made it seem as though the merchants were dishonest by calling the market a "den of robbers." However, having Jesus prevent anyone from bringing in more merchandise is suggests a general problem with the market being there. That general problem is what we find with John's Jesus. But, in John, it was Jesus' Disciples who tied in the prophesy. So what about these prophesies?

In the Synoptic Gospels, Jesus is partially quoting Isaiah 56:7. The whole prophesy at least includes Isaiah 56:1-8, but may extend beyond there. When you read it, you will notice that it was wise for Jesus to only quote part of the prophesy. Isaiah 56:1 tells us that God's Salvation was coming soon... which was written at least 500 years before Jesus. Isaiah 56:2 stressed the importance of keeping the Sabbath, something that Jesus was more lenient about.

Even more interesting is the section Isaiah 56:3-7, which includes the verse Jesus quoted. There, God addressed eunuchs and foreigners who chose to worship God by keeping the Sabbaths and obeying His Law.

To the eunuchs, whose concern was that they would have no offspring for God to bless as a reward for worshiping Him, God told them that their names would be recorded as "a memorial" in the Temple, bringing them eternal fame. This implicitly indicates that there is no eternal afterlife reward awaiting the faithful!

To the foreigners, God would "bring them to [His] holy mountain" (which is implicitly Mount Zion in Jerusalem) where He would accept their burnt offerings and sacrifices! That is in direct contradiction to Jesus ending the need for sacrifices (Hebrews 10:1-18).

In John's Gospel, the Disciples associated Jesus' behavior with a partial quote from Psalm 69:9. Psalm 69 is a song allegedly written by the Jewish King David. Being a song, as opposed to being an explicit prophesy, I would argue that it is not necessarily intended to be prophetic. Yet if we are considering this song to be prophesy, then obviously we should consider the entire song, right? Most of the song is about how David had many enemies who were mocking and mistreating him without cause, and how even his own family rejects him because of his zeal for God. That kind of sounds like Jesus, right? Psalm 69:21 even speaks of being given vinegar for thirst, just like Jesus was given on the cross (Matthew 27:48, Mark 15:36, Luke 23:36, John 19:29). But that is not the whole story...

In Psalm 69:1-3, David had not seen God's help, despite calling out for God for a long time. In Psalm 69:5, he said that God knew the sins he had committed. In Psalm 69:19-28, he prayed for his enemies to suffer as opposed to praying for their enlightenment and Salvation. Speaking of Salvation, he did pray for God's Salvation of himself in Psalm 69:29-30. None of these concepts correspond to Jesus; who was often in prayer with God and saw His power through miracles, who was sinless (2 Corinthians 5:21), who said to pray for your enemies (Matthew 5:44), and who, through Himself, was supposedly bringing Salvation.

Interestingly enough, in Psalm 69:32-36 does end on a note that sounds prophetic. The last two verses, Psalm 69:35-36, are particularly noteworthy:
...for God will save Zion and rebuild the cities of Judah. Then people will settle there and possess it; the children of His servants will inherit it, and those who love his name will dwell there. NIV
What you have here is a terrestrial prophesy... rebuilding cities... in Judah (a region of Israel)... people settling there... children inheriting the land, implicitly after people die. This is not the prophesied afterlife of Christianity.

So, despite their differences, neither the Synoptic Gospels nor John managed to find an accurate prophesy to associate with this event. In fact, the prophesies appear to be pointing to something other than what Jesus offers.

(On a side note, the "den of robbers" phrase used by the Synoptic Gospels is sometimes associated with Jeremiah 7:11 where the same phrase is used. However, Jeremiah 7 is a part of a pre-Exile prophesy, where among the associated transgressions is idol worship, which was never mentioned as a problem by Jesus.)

Wait, When Did That Happen?
You may have noticed something odd about John's Temple-clearing event; specifically the chapter number. Chapter 2? Yes, that is right. While Matthew, Mark, and Luke portray Jesus clearing the Temple near the end of His public ministry, John shows that it occurred near the beginning of it. In fact, in John, Jesus recruited the Disciples, then changed water into wine, and then cleared the Temple, making it the second major event in His public ministry.

It is possible that these are two separate clearing events, but it seems unlikely. Yet the Synoptic Gospels only record Jesus making one trip to the area of Jerusalem during His ministry, while John records four visits there, so it is difficult to make a case one way or another beyond circumstantial evidence built on an argument from silence.

However, as noted above, there is no reason for Jesus to have enacted this spectacle if He was truly knowledgeable about the Biblical sacrifice requirements of the Law. So I lean towards thinking that this was a real, single event by a (sadly mistaken) real Jesus. However, I do not think that this necessarily happened at either the beginning or the end of Jesus' ministry. It was just an event that happened at some time. So when the Gospel writers came to including this anecdote, they had some liberty on where to put it. Mark put it near the end. Matthew and Luke (as usual) followed Mark's lead. John, which was developed independent of Mark's Gospel, put it at the beginning.

Or, of course, there is always the possibility that this anecdote had no foundation in Jesus' actual history.

The fact that it shows up in both the Synoptics and John, and the fact that there are significant differences in the associated prophesies, provide at least a little more circumstantial support for this event being derived from actual history, or at least included in the earlier origins of the entire Jesus story. I believe that such an early inclusion also supports the idea of this being derived from a real event.