Archive for the ‘History’ Category

Theudas & Judah of Galilee

April 16, 2020

The Epistle reading for this Sunday is Acts 5:29-42.  It’s an interesting passage full of historical personages we have conflicting information on beyond Scripture itself.  Some see this passage as problematic, particularly in reference to Theudas and Judas of Galilee.

From the Jewish-Roman historian Josephus we know of a Theudas who apparently intended to lead a revolt against the Romans.  However Josephus implies a Theudas active after this passage written by St. Luke, culminating in the dispersal of Theudas’ adherents and Theudas’ decapitation under order of the Roman procurator Cuspiuss Fadus, who ruled in Judea from AD 44-46.  This causes some to assert an error in Scripture.  But such an assertion rests on the confidence that the Theudas mentioned in Acts 5 is intended to be the same one Josephus mentions.  It also presumes Josephus is correct and, while Josephus is a respected historical source, he is also known to be in error upon occasion.  Scholars differ as to how common the name Theudas was in the first century (the meaning of the name is either gift of God or perhaps flowing with water, depending on where you source the name).  Respected New Testament scholar F.F. Bruce indicates it was probably a fairly common name (The Book of Acts, The New International Commentary on the New Testament, p.125 footnote 47).  However The International Standard Bible Encyclopedia claims it was an uncommon name (p.838).

At most we have a curiosity, and it would seem rash to rush to the assumption Luke has his information wrong (or misquoted Gamaliel).

The second figure mentioned is Judas of Galilee, whom Luke quotes Gamaliel as referencing “in the time of the census”, but after Theudas.  If the census mentioned is the one Luke mentions in his Gospel, it would provide significant complications by making Theudas’ revolt far too early to ever reconcile with Josephus.

We know of three Roman census’ that fall within the Biblical time frame – one in 8 BC, one in AD 14, and one in AD 47.  The one in 8 BC matches well with the time frame of Jesus’ birth, and the AD 47 census would be after the account of Acts 5.  But it could be Gamaliel is referring to the census in AD 14.

This would not remove the conflict with Josephus’ account of things, but given how accurate Luke is on many other technical issues in his writings, it’s not necessarily fair to presume the error lies with him.  Nor does the above information rule out the possibility of other figures with similar names that we don’t have external historical corroboration for.

Gamaliel himself is a well known-historical figure.  He was the grandson of the great rabbi Hillel the Elder.  He has considerable documentation validating his existence, identity, and the role Luke attributes to him in the Sanhedrin.  He is believed to have died in AD 52.

A lot of information for a relatively short passage!

Juggling Hats

April 9, 2020

There is no shortage of weirdness these days going around as people try to adjust.  Who and what is essential, and what does that make the rest of us?  How do we adjust to sheltering in place and social distancing?  How many people were essentially doing those things before all the madness, before there were names for these things and we simply had to call them isolation and loneliness?

Who and what are we when we aren’t allowed to be around other people?  Difficult questions to answer both privately and professionally.

But there are opportunities as patterns and routines and expectations are disrupted.  The opportunities aren’t necessarily good or bad per se, they just are what they are – something out of the ordinary.  We can step into them and see where they lead us or we can fixate simply on what we don’t have and can’t do and be.

So it is that on Maunday Thursday I would normally be leading my congregation in worship and remembrance, in celebration as well as somber reflection.  But we’re all sheltering in place and isolating ourselves socially.  Separated by a modicum of prudence and perhaps an overabundance of worry.  I can’t be and do who and what I would normally be and do on this night, but it isn’t that I don’t have other roles to fulfill, other hats I could be wearing when my pastor-leading-worship hat must be set aside for a time.

So it is that I could wear my father hat tonight.  My head-of-the-family hat.  Hats that sometimes have to be set aside to wear the pastor hat, just as for other guys they’re set aside for their engineer hat or their IT-professional hat or whatever particular hat they need to wear at times.  Some hats can be set aside at 5:00 pm and other hats keep unusual hours, and my hat is one of those.  But tonight I can wear my father hat instead, and lead my family in a favorite tradition of ours but one that’s difficult to keep up on because it conflicts with my pastoring duties, and that’s celebrating a Seder meal together.

I got to lead my family and a few friends through a ritual that dates back hundreds and more  likely thousands of years.  Roughly 3500 years or so, though we can’t know for certain if it was observed the same way through all of that time or not.  A ritual and a meal celebrating God’s deliverance of his people from death and slavery and oppressors.  A ritual and a meal transformed roughly 2000 years ago by an intinerant Jewish teacher who also claimed to be the divine Son of God who would provide forgiveness for the sins of the world, deliverance from death and sin and an ancient enemy through his own death and resurrection.  A death and resurrection historically attested  to by multiple eye-witnesses.

It was a blessing to recite the Haggadah again, to move  through the texts of Scripture telling the story of God freeing his people, and knowing that freedom is extended to myself and my family because of Jesus of Nazareth.  A blessing to taste once again the unleavened bread and the charoset, the bitter herb dipped in salt water.  To raise the cups of wine, remembering how Jesus participated in three of the four, while promising He would not drink the fourth and final cup of the Passover celebration until we drink it with him after the Last Day.  A blessing to hear my children participate, to tell the story, both the very old story of deliverance from Egypt, as well as the old, old story of Jesus and his love.

I’m not sure when we’ll be able to celebrate this as a family again.  My children now older and on the cusp of adulthood and whatever that brings them.  My pastor-leading-worship hat likely to be back in place next year.  But I’m grateful for this opportunity in the midst of craziness.

 

 

Curiouser and Pricier

April 7, 2020

If it seems as though some things have gotten more expensive over the years, even taking inflation into account, you’re not wrong.  This graph tracks the price of various things as compared with wages over the past 30 years.

I find it interesting that the two things that have increased most dramatically in cost are things backed by government money.  Inexpensive and these days nearly ubiquitous government student loans, and now healthcare backed by insurance which now is mandatory.  Sort of.  Kind of.  Maybe.  Obviously, as the graph indicates, government backing isn’t necessarily causative of the rise in health care costs, since Obamacare is a relatively recent thing and doesn’t seem to have driven costs up at a higher rate than previous years.

One thing that surprised me was the relative cost of new cars has only gone up by 18%.  Seems like a typical new car is a lot pricier today than it was 30 years ago, even considering inflation.

 

St. COVID’s Day

April 6, 2020

March 17th.  St. Patrick’s Day.  This was the first year the BCA moved the annual world tournament from July to March.  The first year as well that my teammates were all able to attend, and so the first time we’d be competing as a team in several years.  We’ve been anticipating this time for months, saving and preparing.

I imagined St. Patrick’s Day in Vegas to be something certainly worth observing.  In a city so  obsessed with consumption and excess, I was certain there would be plenty of good people-watching to be done.  And of course, a few Irish whiskeys along the way perhaps.  But not too many, as the team competition would be starting the next morning and we would want to be sharp and ready for the the already formidable task of having to start shooting pool at 9 am instead of in the late afternoon or evening as most of us were more  used to.

But instead, as the sun was going down over the Nevada desert I was hightailing it out of Las Vegas instead of celebrating.  The team event was cancelled as of Sunday evening.  We had remained in Vegas through Tuesday for my teammate who was still competing in the individual’s tournament (and ended up winning 3rd place in his division – not bad being able to say you’re the third best player in your division in the world!).  But as of 5 pm or so he had finished, gotten his check, had his picture taken, and it was time to leave.

I drove up to Vegas the previous week alone, knowing I’d be driving two teammates and their gear back.  But now I was also driving our league president and his wife back.  The hotels were shutting down and kicking everyone out.  Rather than wait another day for their flight back to Santa Barbara they squeezed into my SUV and I used my Tetris skills to fit their gear in as well.  It was a cozy bunch headed into the sunset.

We were maybe half an hour out of town when the classic rock station interrupted their playlist for a live broadcast from the governor of Nevada.  For the next 20 minutes or so we listened to him talk about what the state of Nevada would be doing immediately to respond to the threat of COVID-19.  Yes, the hotels would be shut down by noon the next day.  All gaming machines in the state would be turned off in a matter of hours at midnight.  People were being ordered to stay at home as much as possible.  It was clear an entire state was essentially closing, hunkering down and hoping that by doing so the spread of COVID-19 would be slowed, and fewer people would get sick and die from it.

We sat in stunned silence.

Good zombie movies often center around an unlikely collection of people forced to work together to survive.  That’s all well and good for a movie, but as we raced towards the sinking sun I couldn’t  help but think that this isn’t the group of people I would have hoped to be my apocalypse survival squad.  Not that there weren’t some good skill sets here.  Our league president served in the US Navy.  One of my teammates was good with his hands.  Another had experience in caring for people with disabilities.  It was a good, gritty crew to some extent.  But I couldn’t help but lament, as we drove by mostly empty gas stations and restaurants and Motel 6’s with their lights turned off that I would have preferred to be facing the apocalypse with my family, even if we weren’t quite as gritty and our survival chances might not be as good.

That ride, and listening to the speech from the governor is likely something I’ll never forget.  Unlike any experience in my life.  Unlike 9/11.  Unlike housing busts and recessions, presidential assassination attempts or even the vague background threat of nuclear war as a child and young adult.  This was something different.

Three weeks later it remains something fundamentally different.  How long can a country shut down?  How long are people expected to shelter in place and avoid one another?  What are the long-term costs to our country not just economically but socially and politically?  We don’t have any road maps for these sorts of considerations.  As competing models and evolving models of how the infection will play out in our country shift and change, something seems clear.

COVID-19 will have to be a pretty big deal.  If it turns out to be a smaller issue than anticipated, if it turns out to have the overall impact of a really bad flu season, there’s going to be hell to pay.  Or at least there should be.  There will need to be some very specific repercussions against a government ordering people to shut their businesses down and destroy their livelihoods rather than guiding people but allowing them to make decisions that seem to make sense.

Either COVID-19 is devastating to our nation as an actual health crisis, or it will be devastating to our political structure and the people who sacrificed untold small businesses out of fear or paranoia.  It’s possible that both things could happen, though I pray not.  But understanding whether COVID-19 is ultimately dangerous enough to very possibly destroy an entire economic and political system is something we aren’t going to know until after the fact.

It’s popular to compare COVID-19 to the Spanish Flu epidemic of 1918-1920.  The Spanish flu killed 675,000 Americans in less than two years.  We’re currently at not quite 13,000 deaths.  This is, of course tragic, but also confusing, as an undetermined number of deaths attributed to COVID-19 are also strongly related to underlying and pre-existing health conditions.  At the same time, there have been an estimated 24,000 deaths from the flu through the end of March, and I assume that some number of  those deaths also involve compromised health situations.  Depending on what news reports you choose to believe, we may already be seeing the COVID-19 infection rate slowing in the US.

It will be painful and fascinating in the coming years to understand better whether we reacted appropriately to COVID-19 or not.  Whether the economic and political damage incurred is something we can recover from or will lead us into new economic and political realities couldn’t  have foreseen.  Most zombie movies never play out the long game of community and state and nation and world rebuilding.  Nobody has the attention span for that.  Or  at least, we didn’t used to.

Hopefully we do now.  Because we’re all in this together, an unlikely group of people thrust together and required to work together to survive.  I pray we’re up  to the task, and careful about the precedents that are knowingly or unknowingly being set right now.  I hope our skills, Tetris or otherwise, are up to the task.  And I hope people are willing to work together towards these ends rather than continuing to isolate and scream at one another through their face masks and social media masks.  There are challenges ahead but also opportunities, if we are wise enough to discern enough and brave enough to take them.  Hopefully the darkest part of this night-desert-drive is over, and we’ll be seeing the sun coming up shortly.

 

Highly Illogical

March 27, 2020

Sometimes it’s the little things that are inspiring and surprising.

As a casual Trekkie and somewhat more than casual admirer of J.R.R. Tolkien, I found a curious blending of the two a few years ago after the Star Trek movie reboot.  Namely, a very delightful if slightly corny Audi commercial starring the original Spock, Leonard Nimoy, and his reboot alter-ego, Zachary Quinto.  It’s a cute commercial but I never understood the song Nimoy was singing.  I thought it was just a nonsensical sort of thing to compare his outdatedness with Quinto’s more with-it persona and car.

Now I find out  there’s a history to what Nimoy is singing about Bilbo Baggins.  A history that goes all the way back to 1967 when Nimoy, in addition to starring in a new series called Star Trek, was releasing musical albums.  Two at this point.  And he sang this original song called The Ballad of Bilbo Baggins on one of his albums, and then lip-synced it for a campy TV show during the summer of 1967.

Mind blown.  I respect the Audi commercial even more now for their attention to detail – even a detail many would miss!

 

On Considering Death

March 25, 2020

Thanks to Jo Anne for sharing the following C.S. Lewis quote:

“How are we to live in an atomic age?” I am tempted to reply: “Why, as you would have lived in the sixteenth century when the plague visited London almost every year, or as you would have lived in a Viking age when raiders from Scandinavia might land and cut your throat any night; or indeed, as you are already living in an age of cancer, an age of syphilis, an age of paralysis, an age of air raids, an age of railway accidents, an age of motor accidents.”

In other words, do not let us begin by exaggerating the novelty of our situation. Believe me, dear sir or madam, you and all whom you love were already sentenced to death before the atomic bomb was invented: and quite a high percentage of us were going to die in unpleasant ways. We had, indeed, one very great advantage over our ancestors—anesthetics; but we have that still. It is perfectly ridiculous to go about whimpering and drawing long faces because the scientists have added one more chance of painful and premature death to a world which already bristled with such chances and in which death itself was not a chance at all, but a certainty.

This is the first point to be made: and the first action to be taken is to pull ourselves together. If we are all going to be destroyed by an atomic bomb, let that bomb when it comes find us doing sensible and human things—praying, working, teaching, reading, listening to music, bathing the children, playing tennis, chatting to our friends over a pint and a game of darts—not huddled together like frightened sheep and thinking about bombs. They may break our bodies (a microbe can do that) but they need not dominate our minds.

— “On Living in an Atomic Age” (1948) in Present Concerns: Journalistic Essays

As I began verifying the quote it was quickly apparent it has received a lot of Internet attention in the past several weeks.  Many people are rushing to caution against interpreting C.S. Lewis incorrectly and thinking he would encourage us to not take precautions against COVID-19.  How quickly we want to interpret things to support our point of view or discourage competing views!

Rather than go this direction, I’ll offer this observation.  Lewis lived in a time when mortality was a much more real thing.  Not that people have ceased dying since the mind-20th century, but certainly our familiarity with death has continued that drastic decrease already underway in Lewis’ day.  As he points out aptly from history, death has long been an all-too-familiar companion to vast majorities of people.  Glancing through history books where the sweep of empires roils back and forth through the pages should give ample evidence death was more common and more brutal than we are accustomed to thinking of it these days.  Lewis himself served in World War I and lived through World War II.  He understood firsthand what it looks like when millions of people suddenly encounter death.

Now, death is an anomaly in the West.  At least death before a certain age.  Now we presume death is something primarily for the unfortunate few with pre-existing conditions or for the elderly.  We hide death away in sanitized rooms with strict visiting hours and palliative care to mask the reality of death for those who would prefer not to face it head on.  The ever-increasing average life span in the last century has lulled many people into a false confidence that death may – for now – be an unfortunate eventuality, but  we need pay it little mind until we are of a certain age.

Frankly our secular culture demands this.  If there is nothing more to life and existence than a random assemblage of atoms for an infinitesimally small period of time and then nothing but a rather swift dissipation, then this life becomes extraordinarily important.  Ironic, as we insist life is random and without meaning that we should cling to it all the more tightly!  Yet this is who we are.  Enlightened materialists unable to cope with the cold reality of the meaninglessness we have clothed our lives in, yet scoffing at the foolish theists who insist on the nobility and meaning and purpose of our bare, unadorned nakedness.  It is not what we accomplish that gives our lives meaning, they dare to say, but simply that we are.  Silliness, of course.  And our culture returns to ignoring death as long as possible, studiously occupying ourselves with any number of equally unimportant and random details.

Lewis holds a far more realistic point of view, which is that life is desperately unpredictable despite our attempts to make it predictable.  None of our advances have changed this reality but, given a broader range of alleged understanding we pretend our information is somehow power.  And it isn’t that we don’t have some power.  Anti-biotics and better understandings of hygiene have greatly improved both quality and length of life, as have advances in dentistry, surgery, and a host of other -ies.  But it only takes another global conflict of the micro-biological (COVID-19) or macro-biological sort (warfare) to remind us how easily our routines and control is upended.

Another important thing to bear in mind when reading Lewis’ quote is that he is speaking to Christians.  His words make no sense (or have no basis for making sense) to a non-theist.  Only the Christian can truly live this life in confidence and hope and joy, knowing that death is an unpleasant passage to something much grander and larger and better.  The Christian should not despise this life, but they should hold it in the proper relationship to the scope of eternity – if that is possible.  So we exhort the living continually and mourn the dead in Christ for a time.  We acknowledge our mortality with an even eye and a steady hand, neither rushing towards it prematurely nor fleeing from it inordinately.

This allows the Christian to be brave and courageous, and to take risks for the sake of loving our neighbor that may be admirable to non-theists but must ultimately  be (in their eyes) the height of folly.  So it is that Christians have always laid their lives down in service to those in need when nobody else was willing to take the risk.  Christians have died with the victims of plague and casualties of war they tended to, just as their patients died.  Their courage and love has been often noted, and hopefully will be emulated today and for as long as we wait for our Lord’s return.

So don’t be too quick to co-opt Lewis’ words to either disparage precautions against contagion or to summon Christians to adherence to social distancing.  Rather, in Christ may his followers live this day in joy, loving God and neighbor as we are given opportunity to do so and without too much over-calculating of the possible costs.  All of the costs have ultimately already been paid for us by Christ.  Let us love our neighbors who insist on safe distances between us and them, but let us be the first to show love and care for those who do not have that luxury.  We are all of us in the Father’s hands.  What more could we ask for?

 

 

Apocrypha – 3 Maccabees (Ptolemaika)

March 25, 2020

Likely authored towards the  end of the third century BC or early second century BC by an Egyptian Jew, 3 Maccabees deals primarily with the efforts of Ptolemy IV to overthrow the Jewish people and God’s defense of his people.  Thus the traditional title is confusing because it deals with events which occurred well  before the rise of the Maccabees. The more ancient title of Ptolemaika makes more sense since the main character described is Ptolemy IV Philopator.  Because it does not appear to have been authored in Hebrew or by a recognized prophet it has remained outside the Biblical canon despite the Roman Catholic decision to include it based on the Apostolic Canons.  These  were believed to have apostolic authority although that is no longer believed to be the case by many scholars.

The book begins in mid-thought, as though it were originally part of a larger work or the introduction to this work has been lost.  The historical events in the broad sense are true and accurate though this writing attributes divine and angelic elements to those events which sound as though they are exaggeration or embellishment, though of course it is possible they are true as well.

Again, this seems an unreliable text even as it deals with actual events.

Apocrypha – 2 Esdras

March 24, 2020

Another apocryphal writing claiming authorship by the Old Testament figure Ezra.  This, like 1 Esdras, contains historical errors which make this almost impossible, such as claiming (in 1:40) the advent of the Biblical prophet Malachi (who dates to roughly 430 BC) even though the book claims to be written by Ezra in the neighborhood of 574 BC.  The Jewish people did not view this book as canonical, and I think we are right to treat it similarly.  Many scholars argue this book was likely written in the late first century AD, after the destruction of the Jewish Temple by the Romans.  If this is the case, the author is projecting back to the first destruction of Jerusalem by the Babylonians in light of the second destruction by the Romans.

The book itself is primarily a recounting of a series of visions and angelic visitations attributed to Ezra.  As such, the genre of the book is most accurately apocalyptic, having to do with end times and seeking in large measure to answer the question of why so many people apparently will not be saved.  It affirms the bodily resurrection of the dead (1:23, 31) and also seems to refer to the Messiah (2:41).

An angel by the name of Uriel is the primary messenger to Ezra, providing him with a series of seven visions designed to grant Ezra comfort and a modicum of understanding as to how and why God does things they way he does.  Those who reject God are condemned and those who suffer as God’s people are encouraged to maintain strength and hope as their trust will be vindicated.

Apocrypha – 1 Esdras

March 23, 2020

With this entry in my Apocrypha posting series, we move from those books associated with Western Christianity to apocryphal writings more prevalent in other Christian  traditions and Judaism.  Again, these are generally not accepted as canonical – on the same level as the books of the Old and New Testaments, but various groups at various times have either included them alongside the canonical Scriptures or even included them with them.

1 Esdras purports to be written either by the Old Testament prophet Ezra or a near-contemporary of his, providing specific details about Ezra’s work in rebuilding Jerusalem and the Temple in the late 6th and early 5th centuries.  It draws heavily on Old Testament passages from 2 Chronicles, Ezra and Nehemiah.  However it also has several direct contradictions of Biblical passages in Haggai and Esther.  The author undoubtedly did not intend harm in their retelling and reworking of the Biblical accounts, but we should treat it as such, rather than a work inspired by the Holy Spirit.

The book details the rebuilding of Jerusalem and the Temple.  It begins briefly with the timeframe directly before the fall of Jerusalem and then leaps to the time of Cyrus the Persian and the decree allowing the Jews to return to Jerusalem to rebuild.  As with other apocryphal writings it expands greatly on the Biblical material, purporting to record specific prayers and exchanges between Biblical and extra-biblical figures.  One such example is an extended section detailing a competition between three bodyguards of King Darius of the Persians, with each describing what they think the strongest thing in the world is.  One claims wine, another the king, and the third women.  The latter position, voiced by Zerubbabel (who cheats and also includes truth as the alternate, strongest thing) is judged the winner.

The work concludes with Ezra’s reading of the Law to God’s people.  Again, an interesting book to some degree but certainly not as reliable as the Old Testament canon.

Holy Communion and COVID-19

March 21, 2020

As previously noted, our congregation is suspending corporate worship for the time being.  I make this decision only because I am specifically ordered to by the civil authority and because I do  not sense in this order any intention to suppress God’s people gathering together as God’s people, but only a desire to temporarily avoid gatherings that might spread infection.

This necessitates I as a pastor and my congregational leadership and members thinking about how we carry on as the body of Christ in this time.  I’ve intentionally refused to livestream or record worship services to  post  on Facebook or YouTube because  the sermon I deliver each Sunday is for my congregation.  People that by and large I know fairly well, and who know me.  When we speak to each other, we speak in the context of that relationship and trust, and the sermon is no different.  What I say to them and how I say it to them is in part conditioned by my relationship to them.

Therefore, for someone not part of our immediate community of faith to listen in could be problematic.  Without the relationship and trust, they don’t know how to hear properly what I’m saying.  This isn’t  their fault – at a very real level the words aren’t for them.  They’re for my people.  The Word of God is for everyone, to be sure. But a sermon as an explication and application of  the Word of God has to be crafted and fashioned with a hearer in mind.  Paul’s message to the Greeks on Mars Hill (Acts 17) would hardly have been appropriate to hearers in Jerusalem.

So I’ve maintained for a long time that if we’re going to post things online, they need to be designed for digestion online, by a community I cannot know, and that cannot know me.  The message has to be focused on the Word as it might apply to anyone, rather than the Word as it applies to my small flock of regular hearers.

Enter COVID-19.

Now we’re scrambling to find ways to allow our members to receive the Word of God in a sermon (as well as Bible studies and other things).  We’re going to experiment with livestreaming to our very small congregational group on Facebook tomorrow.  We’re also  arranging for  a phone-in, conference-call type solution for our many members without access to  either Facebook or the Internet.

But one question remains – what about Holy Communion?

Well, that’s going to have to wait.

While there have been efforts made over time to figure  out how to bring Communion to people  when they cannot gather for it together, those solutions are problematic to varying degrees.  Either they end up breaching the very reasons we aren’t gathering together in the first place (the possible spread  of infection) or they somehow alter what happens in Holy Communion.  Our denominational leadership prepared a brief statement indicating why some of these practices are problematic and to be avoided, while reminding us that for centuries, Holy Communion was an infrequently celebrated event.  We receive God’s grace and forgiveness daily, and while we should not willingly despise or avoid Holy Communion, when we must forego it for a period of time it does  not damage us spiritually, even though we might long to partake in it.

For now, patience.  And prayer that this outbreak will subside quickly and we can once again gather as the body of Christ to receive his good gifts to us in Word AND Sacrament.