In my most recent video, I take a look at one the strangest passages in Scripture. I mean, how often do you come across prophet-inspired, boy-eating bears? Lots of people are disturbed by the violence of this event. But I’ve found out a few interesting things that will really tweak your view of this passage. I hope this video helps explain what’s going on!
This is the second installment of my new YouTube channel, Bible Broccoli. In this video, I explain why some of the typical “solutions” people come up with to address the dark passages of Scripture don’t really work. You can pre-order my new book at Amazon if you’d like.
So…I have a new book coming out entitled “Light on the Dark Passages of Scripture.” It will be released on September 20 from Our Sunday Visitor press. In the time leading up to the book release, I’ve put together a YouTube channel called “Bible Broccoli” and I’ll be posting several videos related to the book. This video above is my very first YouTube video and I address the first question you might ask about the book, “What are the Dark Passages of Scripture?” I hope you enjoy this video and I hope you check out my new book!
I have always been fascinated by early Christian readings of pre-Christian texts. The big ones are, of course, the Iliad, the Odyssey, and the Aeneid. For a long time, many Christians read the Aeneid as a kind of Christian allegory with Aeneas as a Christ-figure, as if he were a foreshadowing of Christ.
But I just stumbled across a very vivid (bizarre?) Christian reading of Homer. This comes from Mehodius (d. 311), an early Christian bishop, who wrote many works. Only one survives–his Symposium on Virginity. It’s known by many titles: On Virginity, On Chastity, The Banquet of the Ten Virgins, Symposion e peri hagneias. In this book, Methodius depicts a long conversation between ten Christian virgins who talk about how great a virtue virginity is. The link to
At one point in the conversation, when the virgin Thekla is speaking about fleeing to the wilderness away from temptation, fighting the spiritual battle and Christ’s victory. She quotes, surprisingly, the Iliad:
Lion in front, but dragon all behind,
And in the midst a she-goat breathing forth
Profuse the violence of flaming fire.
Her slew Bellerophon in truth. And this
Slew Christ the King; for many she destroyed,
Nor could they bear the fetid foam which burst
From out the fountain of her horrid jaws; (Source)
For those of us who have not memorized Homer, this comes from Iliad Book 6, Lines 181-183. But of course, you’re saying like I was, “How could ‘Christ the King’ be in the Iliad?” Here is the Iliad text from the Chicago Homer site (minus text-critical notes):
IL.6.181 πρόσθε λέων, ὄπιθεν δὲ δράκων, μέσση δὲ χίμαιρα,
IL.6.181 lion-fronted and snake behind, a goat in the middle,
IL.6.182 δεινὸν ἀποπνείουσα πυρὸς μένος αἰθομένοιο,
IL.6.182 and snorting out the breath of the terrible flame of bright fire.
IL.6.183 καὶ τὴν μὲν κατέπεφνε θεῶν τεράεσσι πιθήσας.
IL.6.183 He killed the Chimaira, obeying the portents of the immortals.
IL.6.184 δεύτερον αὖ Σολύμοισι μαχέσσατο κυδαλίμοισι:
IL.6.184 Next after this he fought against the glorious Solymoi,
IL.6.185 καρτίστην δὴ τήν γε μάχην φάτο δύμεναι ἀνδρῶν.
IL.6.185 and this he thought was the strongest battle with men that he entered;
The key line is 183 – “he killed the Chimaira.” You might be searching the Greek for the word Chimaira and not finding it, that’s because it is back at line 179. Here’s another translation of this text from William Cowper (1791):
Lion in front, but dragon all behind,
And in the midst a she-goat breathing forth
Profuse the violence of flaming fire.
Her, confident in signs from heaven, he slew.
Next, with the men of Solymæ he fought,
Brave warriors far renown’d, with whom he waged,
You might be thinking, “What’s the big deal? So an ancient Christian bishop re-wrote a line of Homer in the midst of an ascetical treatise. What of it?” Well, I don’t know the entire story, and hopefully there’s a dusty tome waiting for me in a library that explains all of this, but I think it illustrates profoundly how a Christian worldview shaped the all of the reading of the ancients. Their perspective was so shaped, so molded by the sacred text of Scripture, that all texts have the ability to be sacred by being re-read through a Christian lens. To me this “reading procedure” is bothersome, remarkable precisely because it was so natural for them–and I think, very unnatural for us. It is a kind of “reading against” the text, almost deconstruction. And yet there is something so beautiful about it–to be able to look into Homer and see Christ, to look at any landscape and find flowers.
I’ll report back if I find more examples of this Christian re-reading of the ancient epics.
April 26, 2015
Fourth Sunday of Easter
First Reading: Acts 4:8-12
Thank goodness, most of the time we Christians are not on trial. I suppose life can be an ongoing trial and we are tested daily by temptation, but rarely do we actually get dragged before a court of hostile judges who ask probing questions about our faith. It might be worth putting ourselves in the apostles’ shoes, er, sandals, to figure out how we would respond in that moment of true examination.
A Controversial Healing
This Sunday’s first reading picks up where we left off in the story of Acts. In chapter 3, Peter and John heal a man lame from birth in the name of Jesus. Afterwards, Peter gives a speech to the astounded witnesses of the miracle. What always gets me about this healing is that the lame man had been lying there all throughout the ministry of Jesus and yet had never received a healing. He might have witnessed Jesus healing others, but he kept lying there in his disabled state. Yet God picked the right moment for his healing and it was to be at the hands of the apostles. Most sermons end with the preacher sitting back down, but Peter’s incites the “priests and the captain of the temple and the Sadducees” to come and arrest him and John (Acts 4:1).
Tension in the Air
You always know that a homily was worth listening to when the priest is arrested by the authorities at the end of it. However, you would think that healing a lame man would be a universally praiseworthy happening. Everyone should be happy about it, even the Jewish authorities. But the problem is what happened at the recent holiday gathering at Jerusalem—the chief priests, the Sanhedrin, had put Jesus on trial, accused him before Pilate, and brought about his crucifixion. Now that exact same group of Jewish leaders are after Peter and John, two of Jesus’ chief followers.
On Trial Before the Judges of Jesus
Jesus was tried first by Annas, the former high priest who was father-in-law to the current high priest, Caiaphas. (Before and after Caiaphas, five of Annas’ sons also served as high priest.) Then Jesus was tried before Caiaphas and the whole Sanhedrin. When Peter and John are brought before the Sanhedrin, Annas and Caiaphas are there at the head of the judicial body. This group of mostly Sadducee leaders had given a death sentence to Jesus and leveraged their political influence with Pilate to see it through. At that time, John had snuck into Caiaphas’ house to watch the trial, while Peter skulked outside and infamously denied Jesus three times.
Holy Spirit Boldness
However, this time is different. Instead of hiding, sneaking, and denying, Peter stands up with boldness before the Sanhedrin and speaks in the power of the Holy Spirit. This moment fulfills what Jesus had taught the disciples about persecution:
And when they bring you before the synagogues and the rulers and the authorities, do not be anxious how or what you are to answer or what you are to say; for the Holy Spirit will teach you in that very hour what you ought to say. (Luke 12:11-12 RSV)
The Sanhedrin is worried that the Christian “virus” is going to infect the people. In fact, Acts 4:4 tells us that by this point the number of Christians had grown to five thousand, up from three thousand at Pentecost (Acts 2:41). But there is also perhaps a twinge of regret in the question they ask, “By what power or by what name did you do this?” (Acts 4:7 RSV) They don’t directly attack the apostles for healing a lame man, unlike the unrelenting assault on Jesus for healing on the Sabbath, but they do want to know how the apostles have authority to heal. Whether the question is sincere or not does not matter too much, but Peter’s response does.
Peter puts the problem starkly, “we are being examined today about a good deed done to a cripple, namely, by what means he was saved” (Act 4:9 NAB). Rather than objecting to the inquiry, he declares “that by the name of Jesus Christ of Nazareth, whom you crucified, whom God raised from the dead, by him this man is standing before you well” (4:10 RSV). Peter uses the same terminology for healing that Jesus does when he tells people he heals, “your faith has saved you” (Luke 7:50; Mark 5:34; Matt 9:22, etc.). This matches the idea of “salvation” just a couple verses later in Acts 4:12. Salvation here in the primary sense is physical healing, which can be expanded to indicate eternal salvation. Peter’s praise report about the man’s Jesus-centered healing also includes an indictment. He accuses the Sanhedrin of crucifying Jesus.
Quoting a Psalm
Peter quotes Psalm 118, a messianic psalm that had come up in Jesus’ ministry. When Jesus rides into Jerusalem on a donkey, the people sing Psalm 118:26 “Blessed is he who comes in the name of the Lord.” Later, when Jesus is teaching in the Temple, he quotes an earlier verse, Ps 118:22,
17 But he looked at them and said, “What then is this that is written: `The very stone which the builders rejected has become the head of the corner’? 18 Every one who falls on that stone will be broken to pieces; but when it falls on any one it will crush him.” 19 The scribes and the chief priests tried to lay hands on him at that very hour, but they feared the people; for they perceived that he had told this parable against them. (Luk 20:17-19 RSV)
Jesus had just told the Parable of the Wicked Tenants and the Sanhedrin members realize he is accusing them. Peter, before the Sanhedrin, likewise accuses them of being the imprudent builders who reject the most important stone. Not only is the Psalm Messiah-focused, but it also hints at resurrection: “I shall not die, but I shall live, and recount the deeds of the LORD” (Ps 118:17 RSV). Peter points to Jesus as the fulfillment of Psalm 118 and challenges the Sanhedrin for missing the Messiah’s moment and actually bringing about his death.
The bold speech of Peter and John impresses the Sanhedrin and silences them (Acts 4:14). Those who had so virulently accused Jesus while he stood silent are now themselves silenced when listening the proclamation of the gospel of his resurrection. The formerly timid disciples are now proud to identify themselves as Jesus’ followers. While we might not have the opportunity to be put on trial for our faith in such an open and public way, we can learn from the apostles’ attitude. Their faith comes with some swagger, Holy-Spirit-empowered confidence to preach the death-defeating, life-giving message of Jesus. After all, there is no other name…
Over time, I’ve been doing a little series of posts on Aramaic in the New Testament. This is the sixth post.
This week, I came across an Aramaic term that I just couldn’t pass up. In Acts 1, we get a rather gruesome description of Judas’ suicide after his betrayal of Jesus. We’re told that the horrific hanging happened in a particular places called “Akeldama.” Here’s the passage:
18 (Now this man bought a field with the reward of his wickedness; and falling headlong he burst open in the middle and all his bowels gushed out.
19 And it became known to all the inhabitants of Jerusalem, so that the field was called in their language Akeldama, that is, Field of Blood.) (Act 1:18-19 RSV)
Note on the Location
You can go look up the location, but basically it was and is a field of red clay dirt that was used by artisans in antiquity as a natural resource for making clay pots. In Matthew 27, 7, 10, the place is referred to as the “Potter’s Field” (Greek: τὸν ἀγρὸν τοῦ κεραμέως), hence the notion that the clay dirt was used for making clay pots. When it is called “field of blood” in Acts 1, the origin of the term might not be Judas’ suicide, but rather the red color of the dirt. The other thing to say is that Matthew and Acts differ on who purchased the field. In Acts, Judas bought the field, but in Matthew 27:7, the priests who paid Judas to betray Jesus bought the field to bury him. Either way, the location is still around and orthodox Christians have built a monastery on the place creatively nicknamed “Aceldama Monastery.” The field has also been used as a burial place.
Note on the Aramaic Word “Akeldama”
Simply, the word Akeldama transliterates the Greek “Ἁκελδαμάχ” (transliterated more precisely, Hakeldamach, note the appropriate rough breathing) which transliterates a combination of two Aramaic words: חֲקָל דְּמָא (chaqal dema). Some Greek manuscripts have a better spelling: Ἁκελδαμά (Act 1:19). Oddly, the English eliminates the Greek rough breathing which aims to transliterate the consonant chet. The word, dema or dma, means “blood” and appears many times in various combinations in Aramaic texts, as listed in the online Comprehensive Aramaic Lexicon. Here is the entry from Jastrow’s dictionary:
The word “Akeldama” represents then, the construct chain חֲקָל דְּמָא (chaqal dema). In which the first word, chaqal is masculine singular construct and dema is masculine singular emphatic. The construct chain is definite since it is a proper noun–like “the king of Persia” in Ezra 4:24–hence “the Field of (the) Blood” is the best translation. Note that Luke refers to “their own dialect” (ta idia dialekto auton), which indicates both he and his intended reader, Theophilus, are not part of the group of native Aramaic speakers, but native Greek speakers.
I suppose there’s no rocket science involved in explaining Akeldama. I think the only thing to say is that the English could do a better job transliterating it – perhaps as Halkeldema. The word simply means what Luke says it means “field of blood.”
Psalm 42:7 inspires the imagination, but do we actually get the translation right? Do we really understand what this verse means?
I’ll quote the King James here:
Deep calleth unto deep at the noise of thy waterspouts:
all thy waves and thy billows are gone over me.
Ok, so for an updated-sounding translation, here’s the ESV:
Deep calls to deep at the roar of your waterfalls;
all your breakers and your waves have gone over me.
Often, people use this verse to describe the nature of prayer–a “calling out” from deep within oneself to deep within God. You can get a sense for it from the songs which quote this verse like “Deep Calls to Deep” by Mary-Kathryn or Matt Redman’s song by the same name. You can get a sense for the Christian preaching inspired by this line from Benny Hinn talking about intimacy with God. There are many other sermons, homilies, songs and inspiring Christian reflections on this phrase. But, do we really get it right? I think not.
The typical interpretation in these Christian reflections tries to associate the phrase to a personal communication between God and the soul. However, I think our Psalmist is actually trying to poetically describe water. Yep, water. Notice the rest of the verse about waterfalls and waves. The phrase “tehom el-tehom qore“. The ever-helpful Blue Letter Bible gives us a dictionary entry on the significant word here, tehom “deep”:
Notice the relevant line: “‘wave calleth unto wave,’ i. e. wave follows wave without intermission.” The word tehom normally is referring to a big body of water like the sea. Here though, the psalmist is talking about moving water, wave after wave, or in the case of a waterfall, crash after crash of the water from above. “Deep calls to deep” describes as best as a poet can the awesome power, repeated crashing and visual impact of wave after wave, not the cry of the heart.
Now of course, this verse does come in the context of a poem about intimacy with God, which describes thirst for God, the joy of his presence and the terror of his loss. It deals with the depths of despair and conflict and the agony of tearful longing for God. But the personal dimension is at the end of this verse rather than the beginning. It says: “your breakers and your waves have gone over me.” The Psalmist feels overwhelmed by the darkness and despair he is experiencing, hitting him with wave after wave. He is mourning and oppressed (v. 9). He seeks hope, but finds taunting. His prayer is to be released from the overwhelming waters of darkness into intimate union with God. So, yes, this Psalm is about intimacy with God, but somehow we have a hard time getting the details right.
Often the Deuterocanonical books of the Old Testament receive short shrift because they are not part of the canon accepted by many Christians. However, I don’t think any book gets less press than the Wisdom of Solomon. Readings from it appear eight times in the Sunday lectionary, but I’ll bet you can’t find a commentary on it online or at your local library. Here’s the short list of available book-length resources in English. Add more in the comments…if you can find any!
- Reider, Joseph. The Book of Wisdom: An English Translation with Introduction and Commentary. New York: Harper, 1957. 233 pp.
- Geyer, John. The Wisdom of Solomon: Introduction and Commentary. Torch Bible Commentary. London, SCM Press, 1963. 128 pp.
- Clarke, Ernest G. The Wisdom of Solomon. Cambridge Bible Commentary on the NEB.Cambridge University Press, 1973. 136 pp.
- Winston, David. The Wisdom of Solomon. Anchor Yale Bible Commentary. New Haven, CT: Yale University Press, 1979. 360 pp.
- Grabbe, Lester. Wisdom of Solomon. T&T Clark Study Guides. Bloomsbury, 2004. 105 pp.
- Clifford, Richard. Wisdom. New Collegeville Bible Commentary, vol. 20. Liturgical Press, 2013. 88 pp.
There’s a wider-ranging bibliography put together by Daniel Harrington here. But yes, that’s it! Just a handful of short commentaries, and nothing very recent.
Colossians 3:11 gives us one of Paul’s lists of formerly-significant people boundaries to indicate that now in Christ, we are all one and these boundaries no longer matter. The text reads:
Here there is not Greek and Jew, circumcised and uncircumcised, barbarian, Scythian, slave, free; but Christ is all, and in all. (Col 3:11 ESV)
ὅπου οὐκ ἔνι Ἕλλην καὶ Ἰουδαῖος, περιτομὴ καὶ ἀκροβυστία, βάρβαρος, Σκύθης, δοῦλος, ἐλεύθερος, ἀλλὰ [τὰ] πάντα καὶ ἐν πᾶσιν Χριστός.
Unfortunately, the very last part of the verse always sounds weird. I mean, “Christ is all”–what does that mean? The translations do not deviate much from this line. I’m sure that lots of translators have toiled over this verse, so I don’t mean to scoff at their hard work or claim any sort of omniscience. I merely want to make a suggestion. The copula, the verb of being, is absent in the Greek and therefore always inserted in the translations. Latin can follow the Greek without an “is”: “…sed omnia et in omnibus Christus.” If all I had was that snippet and no context, I’d be very tempted to translate either the Latin or Greek as “…but all and in all, Christ” or “…but all and Christ in all.” So, why not translate the verse that way?
To me it seems that list of divisions Paul rattles off between Greek and Jew, slave and free and so one simply terminates at panta, all. Let’s try another sentence with the same structure to see if this could work: “Here there is no longer short and tall, big and small, serious and silly, but everybody and in everybody is ice cream.” Doesn’t it seem that the final term in my list, everybody, could function as the terminus of the list rather than as a predicate nominative of “ice cream”? “Everybody is ice cream” sounds strange.
To me it seems that the drive to translate our phrase as “Christ is all and in all” comes from the context and the idea of putting on Christ and especially “Christ who is your life” in verse 4. But it really seems like an unnecessary stretch. Why does the adversative, alla, but, have to create a new independent clause, couldn’t it just be Paul’s way of punctuating the turning point in the comparison?: Before, we had all kinds of divisions that divided us, but now we are one. Lastly again, it comes back to trying to make sense of the “Christ is all” statement. What does that even mean? Paul is certainly not pantheist or something, so what could such a statement convey, that every Christian is in some mysterious way, Christ?? I’d prefer that Paul is simply saying in Christ, the divisions fall away and only “all/everybody” is left and in everybody dwells Christ. That seems to fit the grammatical demands and Paul’s theology. Inserting an “is” to me seems an overly creative translation twist.
(Of course, perhaps I’m overlooking something important, so please comment if you can explain why “Christ is all” is the best translation here.)