Where Are the Christians?

Where are the Christians? Not where you would think:

  • As of 2010, the U.S. stood at 247 million Christians, most of any nation in the world. #2 is Brazil, followed by Mexico, Russia, the Philippines, Nigeria and China.
  • The only European country currently in the top 10 of Christian nations is Germany, at #8 with 58 million. In 1910, Europe had about 2/3 of the world’s self-professed Christians. Today, only a bit over one-quarter of all Christians globally hail from the Euro continent. Today, China claims more Christians than any European country except Russia.
  • The Global South accounted for only about 18% of all Christians in 1910; 100 years later this emerging region of the world represents almost 61% of all Christians. The South also now claims a Catholic Pope as one of their own.
  • The Global South includes places like South America and Africa. Sub-Saharan Africa today has over 500 million Christians (up from less than 10 million in 1910) and almost as many professing Christians as all of Europe.
  • The middle eastern cradle of Christianity accounts for less than 1% of all Christians globally. Less that 4% of the residents of this region call themselves Christian; the overwhelming proportion are Muslim.

Who says this? These statistics are the result of research by the Pew Forum on Religion and Public Life in a 2011 report titled: Global Christianity: A Report on the Size and Distribution of the World’s Christian Population.

Where are Xians (graph)

All together, there are more than 2 billion Christians in the world today. However, those who call themselves Christisns today make up not quite one-third (32%) of the world’s population – down from 35% in 1910.

With 1.1 billion adherents, Catholics account for just over 50% of all Christians globally. They are followed by traditions of Protestants (37%), Orthodox (12%) and other Christians including Mormons, Jehovah’s Witnesses and Christian Scientists  (at just over 1% each).

Good News or Bad News?

Are these changes good or bad for the Christian movement – now two millennia old? The good news is that Christianity has come closer to achieving the Great Commission of Jesus – to preach the gospel to every nation. Christianity now truly extends into almost every nook and cranny of the globe.

The bad news is two-fold. First, the cradle of Christianity has been left behind formerly Christian-dominated nations like Turkey (the churches of Asia Minor founded by Paul the Apostle), Palestine (centers of learning led by the theologians and historians such as Origen and Eusebius), Egypt (home to those who gave Christianity the books of the New Testament and the Nicene Creed) and Algeria (birthplace of St. Augustine). This cradle has since been upended by other religious movements (primarily Islam).

Second, it appears that numbers do not necessarily equate to intensity of belief and practice. Europe still nominally accounts for over one-quarter of those globally who call themselves Christians. But as we all know, the Christianity of Europe is largely just that – nominal. A cultural and social artifact.

God Moves On …

The evidence of the last 2,000 years clearly indicates that Christianity is not sustainable as a place-bound religion. Areas of the world once known for their faith have moved on to other gods – both spiritual and secular. And we are left to wonder why.

Three possible reasons come to mind:

  1. Christianity is a religion of the poor. As has been famously attributed to Karl Marx, “religion is the opiate of the masses.” Once the Christian work and social ethic takes hold, the poor become the middle class and religious expression fades in favor of materialism, the welfare state, and/or intellectualism that sees no need for God.
  2. God intentionally wills the action to keep shifting. Perhaps this is due to divine retribution for sin. The torch is passed from the Hebrews of the Old Testament to the Greeks and Romans of the New Testament because Jesus “came unto his own and they received him not.”  Any people eventually turn their minds from spiritual to other priorities. The Hebrews followed after other Gods; the Puritan ethic of New England in the end favors work over enforced religious zeal. 
  3. The Church has misunderstood its Commission, making Christianity unsustainable wherever it has taken root. Jesus came to bring not peace, but division – even in his own Church. What God wants is heterodoxy, not orthodoxy. Unfortunately, the “winner take all” approach of Christendom since the 4th century has meant that the new regime always comes at the expense of the old. The early churches of Asia Minor (Turkey) give way to western Europe to North America and now to South America and Africa.

For a clue as to which reason appears most salient, tune in for the next installment of this blog.

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To see other information available from this web site, click here for www.jesustheheresy.com

Christmas Past, Present & Future

Christmas 2013 has come and gone. Early U.S. returns suggest weaker than hoped for consumer holiday spending – due to anemic job growth and increased wage disparities (with fewer folks in the middle). The main winner appeared to be internet sales – even if UPS / FedEx didn’t quite get there on time.

This holiday served as a convenience to extend the enrollment period for Obamacare – in hopes that more young enrollees might yet be there.

Amid the din and commercial clatter, some mutter – wasn’t Jesus the reason for the season? Does Christmas really even matter?

Bethlehem's Church of the Shepherds Field:  Designed by Barluzzi, an Italian Franciscan monk and architect. Light penetrates the  concrete and glass dome,  evoking the divine brightness  that so startled nomadic shepherds of two millenia ago.

Bethlehem’s Church of the Shepherds Field:
Designed by Barluzzi, an Italian Franciscan monk and architect.
Light penetrates the
concrete and glass dome,
evoking the divine brightness
that so startled nomadic shepherds
of two millenia ago.

 

  

The Right Questions?

Are Christmas traditionalists asking the right questions? Wouldn’t it be better to ask: What’s so important about Christmas to seekers of this baby Jesus?

And here’s where the confusion begins. Because the Christian attachment to this season and to the biblical narrative of the first presumed Christmas is built on a foundation that is … well, shaky. For at least four reasons – having to do with:

1) Timing of Birth. Year 1 of the Western (then Julian) calendar was adjusted in what is now 525 AD by a Scythian monk named Dionysius Exiguus to be 525 years “since the incarnation of our Lord Jesus Christ.” Later calculations have placed the birth to be in 4BC (or earlier) as this was the year when Herod the Great died (to assure consistency with Matthew’s reported slaughter of the innocents by Herod).

Rather than tying Jesus’ birth directly to the right of Herod, Luke’s gospel links the timing of Jesus birth to Quirinius, the Roman appointed governor of Syria. This is the official who administered a universal Roman census ordered by Caesar Augustus. However, this creates a chronological conflict as this census is generally determined to have occurred in 6 AD (ten years after the death of Herod). There are multiple possible explanations to address this discrepancy – all of which are problematic and, at best, conjectural.

Another question relates to the December 25 date now assigned to Jesus’ birth by most Christian faiths. The origin of this particular date is not fully certain – but is perhaps best explained as a means for Christianity in the first centuries AD to most readily supplant pagan winter solstice festivals. A more likely timing (assuming accuracy of the shepherds’ visitation) would be the lambing season in early spring (when shepherds would be out in the fields actively protecting the flock).  

2) Place of Birth. The two gospels that speak of Jesus’ birth (Matthew and Luke) place the event in Bethlehem – also the birthplace of the man who would become King David about a millennium previous. This is particularly important to Matthew who cites the Hebrew Scripture prophecy of Micah – stating that out of Bethlehem will “come a Ruler who will shepherd My people Israel.”

Assuming the census linkage with Jesus birth to be bogus and the prophetic fulfillment of Micah forced, some modern (typically non-fundamentalist) scholars suggest that the arduous trip to Bethlehem did not have to occur and that Jesus may actually have been born in Nazareth (which is certainly also implied to be the home town of Jesus in the Gospel of John).

3) Historical Narrative. Matthew and Luke are generally in agreement as to major events documented in their respective gospels. So, it is surprising to see that, with the exception of the place of birth, there is almost no correspondence between the major birth events cited by Matthew versus those of Luke.

The sequence of events recounted by Matthew are the dream of Joseph, wise men traveling to Bethlehem, family flight to Egypt, Herod’s slaughter of children in Bethlehem under 2 years of age,  and return of family to Nazareth after Herod’s death.

Luke’s account is more detailed but with virtually no overlap except for a pre-birth journey from Nazareth to Bethlehem. Luke’s account begins with angelic visits to Zacharias (a priest), then Mary. Mary visits her relative Elizabeth (wife of Zacharias), the Roman census order is given, there is no room at the inn, shepherds appear, Jesus is circumcised at 8 days, there are the Temple testimonies of the aged Simeon and Anna, and the holy family returns to Nazareth (with no mention of Egypt).

None of the events of Matthew are mentioned in Luke; none of Luke’s events appear in Matthew. Even the genealogies provided by the two gospels are different. 

Christmas services and pageants typically conflate (or combine) selected elements of the Matthean and Lukan accounts – simply assuming that both accounts are right (and overlooking the complete lack of correspondence between the two).

There is no help at all from the rest of the New Testament with added empirical evidence. Neither of the other gospel writers – Mark, John – nor Paul nor any of the other New Testament writers describe the birth of Jesus in any way, shape or form.

4) Prophetic Fulfillment. Of the gospel writers, Matthew exhibits a penchant to over-reach in his goal to demonstrate that Jesus’ birth is in fulfillment of Hebrew prophecy. A couple of added examples:

  • Herod’s slaughter of the innocents is portrayed by Matthew as fulfillment of Jeremiah’s prophecy: “A voice was heard in Ramah, lamentation, weeping and great mourning, Rachel weeping for her children …” But wait a minute! Doesn’t this slaughter take place in Bethlehem? Ramah is a town on the other side of Jerusalem from Bethlehem.
  • More puzzling is Matthew’s earlier citation of the prophet Isaiah: “Behold, the virgin shall conceive …” The original Hebrew of Isaiah 7:14 uses the term almah, which is best translated as young unmarried woman (virgin or otherwise). However, the earliest existing versions of Matthew’s gospel draw from the 3rd century BC Greek Septuagint wherein the Hebrew almah is translated to the Greek as parthenos (virgin).

Why Matthew who was a Jewish tax collector might want to quote from the less precise Greek rather than the more precise Hebrew is not known. What is known is that an early 2nd century AD church leader named Papias (Bishop of Hierapolis) wrote that: “Matthew organized the sayings in the Hebrew (Aramaic) language, but everyone has translated them as best he could.” Could the original Matthean version which no longer exists have been spot on, only to be corrupted in a later Greek addition? No one knows – as the textual evidence is no longer available.

Outside of Matthew and Luke, the concept of Mary as virgin is to be found nowhere else in the New Testament. The Almighty God certainly has the power to enable a woman to conceive without intercourse. But did He? Unfortunately, the historicity of this event is clouded by a weak (or misinterpreted) link to Old Testament prophecy.

The Incarnation

One thing that New Testament is not wishy-washy about is the incarnation – the concept that Jesus somehow was both God and human. Consider the following sampling:

  • The very first sentence of Matthew’s gospel tells us that his account is about “Jesus Christ” – the anointed one of God. And it is in Matthew that the apostle Peter Simon firmly declares that “You are the Messiah, the Son of the living God.”
  • Luke’ Jesus fends off the temptations of the devil by admonishing Satan not to “tempt the Lord your God.”
  • In John’s gospel, Jesus is quoted as saying that “the Father and I are one.”
  • Even in skeptical Mark’s gospel, testimony is finally offered by a Roman centurion who at the death of Jesus declares: “Truly, this Man was the Son of God.”
  • Extending beyond the gospels, it is the latecomer Paul who never met Jesus in the flesh but nonetheless spreads the message of Jesus’ incarnation over and over. For example, in his opening statement of a letter to the Romans, Paul proclaims “the gospel concerning his Son, who was descended from David according to the flesh and was declared to be Son of God with power according to the spirit of holiness by resurrection from the dead, Jesus Christ our Lord.”
  • Finally, even James who regarded his brother Jesus as a bit of a lunatic during his earthly sojourn would eventually be won over to the Christian cause. In his one and only New Testament writing, he begins by declaring himself: “James, a bondservant of God and of the Lord Jesus Christ.”

In short, even though the mechanics of incarnation may be a bit fuzzy (and subject to endless debate), the scriptural reality of incarnation is not. The divine and the human wrapped together – it’s fully attested throughout the complete New Testament.

Re-Branding Christmas?

What with all these historical questions combined with the crass commercialization of the season, there are those Christians who would gladly walk away from Christmas altogether. Give it back to the pagan bacchanalia of the season’s pre-historic beginnings.

This approach has been tried before – as when the Puritan Oliver Cromwell banned the celebration of Christmas from England in 1647 as “a popish festival with no biblical justification.” In the end, seasonal merriment always seems to win out over the predilections of more sober minded folk.

But, despite all the excess and corruption surrounding the season, Christmas has one thing going for it – that should be of importance to all Christians. Despite all the politically correct re-labeling away from “Merry Christmas” to “Happy Holidays” – everyone around this globe still knows that this event is somehow about the Godhead and humankind getting together. It’s a celebration of the master of the universe breaking into one little planet in the form of a human baby birthed in an animal feeding trough.

Should anyone in their right mind walk away from a brand that powerful, that global? Of course not!

Live in the moment even as we mix the best of the divine with the most crass of the human. Yes, where possible, aim for authenticity – for those who actually care. Yet for all the rest – even as they toast another year, there is yet the never ending afterglow of this kid Jesus (still the reason for the season).

———

To check out our full web site, click: www.jesustheheresy.com

Godly Musings & Monotheism (Part 3)

Part 1 of this trilogy traced the history of the peculiar form of Christian monotheism — namely the concept of a triune God as three-in-one.The overall conclusion is that the Nicene Trinitarian formulation of three-in-one, consubstantial with the Father may have served as good politics and as orthodox theology (since 325 AD), but can not be explicitly scripturally grounded.

With Part 2, we stepped back yet further in time to the preserved writings of the Hebrew Scriptures and the Christian New Testament. However, the New Testament gospels appear conflicted when it comes to the nature of the Godhead. Matthew gets us closest (but not all the way) to a Trinitarian formulation of the Nicene Creed; Mark gets us not very far at all; Luke and John take us perhaps half-way. John makes perhaps the most explicit statements of Jesus’ oneness with the Father, but complicates the issue by acknowledging we all are children of God.

Jerusalem's Temple Mount exemplifies the existential divide between Christians and their Jewish and Muslim counterparts.  The Jewish Shema of Deuteronomy proclaims "the Lord God alone."  Six centuries after Jesus, a prophet Muhammad asserts monotheism, acknowledging Jesus as a prophet, but not as God. How can Christianity proclaim monotheism with a straight face? Such a cacaphony!

Jerusalem’s Temple Mount exemplifies the existential divide between Christians and their Jewish and Muslim counterparts.
The Jewish Shema of Deuteronomy proclaims “the Lord God alone.”
Six centuries after Jesus, a prophet Muhammad asserts monotheism, acknowledging Jesus as a prophet, but not as God.
How can Christianity proclaim monotheism with a straight face?
Such a cacaphony!

The earlier Hebrew Scriptures (of the Old Testament) further blur the lines, especially with regard to the Spirit of God and even a fourth possible member of the Godhead – personified, for example, in the writings of King Solomon as the female sage of Wisdom. None of this is very satisfying to bolster a creed at the center of Christian belief and doctrine.

So, we are left with two questions posed at the outset of this trilogy:

  • Is Christianity monotheistic or polytheistic? 
  • And, what does the answer to this question mean to the application of Christian faith and practice – day in and out?

Monotheistic or Polytheistic?

The answer appears to be: both and neither.

Even putting aside the contortions of Nicaea, the Godhead of Christianity is multiple – consisting of multiple divine entities likely including Father, Son and Holy Spirit. And possibly even a fourth in the form of Wisdom. Maybe others of whom we do not know?

However, if divinity with Christianity involves multiple entites, the supreme God nonetheless remains singular – in the being of Yahweh (of the Hebrew Scriptures) or God the Father (of the New Testament). All other entities of the Godhead are subordinate to the Father.

Application?

So, what does this mean for Christianity? Are we to believe and behave any different than if the Godhead were three-in-one?

Four thoughts come to mind:

1) For starters, we as “Christians” need to re-think the theological foundations of our faith and creed. Not the biblical foundations, but the theological foundations arising after the time of Jesus’ sojourn on earth and the subsequent generation of the apostolic era. And we should anticipate that the re-exploration of this old path may find us again discoverying some off-shoot trails long forgotten – including the items noted below.

2) Christians should find more common ground with their Jewish and Muslim cousins. Religious beliefs should not be expected to prove fully coterminous, but there will be much greater overlap – more common ground.

3) The result can be a more friendly interaction involving both marketplace competition and collaboration between the three great faiths of monotheism. No more crusader mentality of winner take all,  everyone else be damned. We have much to learn from each other.

4) Christians can press toward reconciliation not only across faiths but even within the multi-stranded cacaphony of those followers of the Way. Across denominations including those too often dismissed as cults. There is all too much we all have yet to learn of the ineffable mysteries of the G-d, Allah (blessed be his name), our Father.

—–

At this season of remembering the birth of one Jesus of Nazareth, re-claim the words of his mother, a Jewish girl revered by both Christian and Muslim traditions as she declares:

… And holy is His name.
And his mercy is on those who fear Him from generation to generation.

—–

For more, check out our full web site: www.jesustheheresy.com

Godly Musings: Monotheistic? (Part 2)

In our last blog, we took a look back in history:

  • First, to the politically determined outcome at the Council of Nicaea of 325 AD.
  • Second, to the 16th century insertion of the first-ever explicitly Trinitarian phrase into the New Testament.

All this in support of a concept of the trinity as “three in one.”

Our conclusion is that to retrieve an authentic Christianity, we need to go back to the boneyard of Nicaea – and start all over again. Confess the Nicene error, and move forward in the reality of Father, Son and Spirit as beings of similar but separate essence.

With this blog, we get to a more challenging underlying question: Is Christianity a monotheistic or polytheistic religion?  

To get to this more definitive answer, we step back yet further in time to the preserved writings of the Hebrew Scriptures and the Christian New Testament.

Be prepared – this is not a journey for the faint of heart. But as none other than Apple guru Steve Jobs once said, this is a case where “the journey is the reward.”

Back to Genesis

In Genesis 1, the singular (and apparently monotheistic) God creates the heavens and the earth. Then the Godhead turns to the business of making people with this oft-quoted statement: “Let us make humankind in our image, according to our likeness …”

The question is: Who is us? Is this a veiled Old Testament Trinitarian reference to God the Father, Son and Holy Spirit – three in one? Or is this God appealing to his entire heavenly retinue (as with angels) to help shape humanity?  

The Hebrew Scriptures never offer an explicit determination. We humans – the created – are left to make our best guess.

So, let’s take a look at the available evidence – of Father, Son and Holy Spirit. And with a fourth possible addition – Sophia (or Wisdom).

God the Father

In the Hebrew Scriptures, God first defines who he is in discussion with Moses, the man being groomed to lead his people out of slavery to freedom in a land flowing with milk and honey.

Moses asks God this question: “If I come to the Israelites and say to them, ‘The God of your ancestors has sent me to you,’ and they ask me, ‘What is his name?’ what shall I say to them?”

God’s answer is succinct: “I Am Who I Am.”

Then the Almighty explains: “Thus you shall say to the Israelites, ‘I Am has sent me to you.’ ”

And further: “Thus you shall say to the Israelites, ‘The Lord, the God of your ancestors, the God of Abraham, the God of Isaac, and the God of Jacob, has sent me to you’: This is my name forever, and this my title for all generations.”

Years later, wandering in the wilderness, Moses delivers 10 Commandments on behalf of the God of his people. He then follows up with that great statement of what is known as the Shema (translated by the New King James as follows):

Hear, O Israel: The Lord our God, the Lord is one! You shall love the Lord your God with all your heart, with all your soul, and with all your strength.

Another perhaps more accurate translation might be:

Hear, O Israel: The Lord our God, the Lord alone. …
(Note: use of the term ‘alone’ is used in biblical translations as diverse as the Living, New Revised Standard, and New American Standard versions).

What is the difference? The first version of the “Lord is one” has been too easily conflated with the Trinitarian doctrine of three in one – a sort of Old Testament source-proof for a concept first introduced in the Christian Testament.

In contrast, the second version makes it clear that the God of the Hebrews should stand apart as the superior god but not the only god. This God alone trumps those Old Testaments gods of human and/or demonic invention – as with Baal, Astarte, Molech, and so on. Could it be that this God also stands apart and above even other other members of a heavenly Godhead?

The concept of God alone – this is the basis of the Hebrew (and later the Muslim) religions as stoutly monotheistic.

There are two other Old Testament passages to consider – the first being the confrontation of God with his faithful servant Job. After enduring a long back-and-forth between Job, his “friends” and the Almighty, God finally answers Job like this:

Where were you when I laid the foundation of the earth?
Tell me, if you have understanding.
Who determined its measurements—surely you know!
Or who stretched the line upon it?
On what were its bases sunk,
or who laid its cornerstone
when the morning stars sang together
and all the heavenly beings shouted for joy?

Later, a Psalmist would similarly declare:

Long ago you laid the foundation of the earth,
and the heavens are the work of your hands.
They will perish, but you endure;
they will all wear out like a garment.
You change them like clothing, and they pass away;
but you are the same, and your years have no end.

This God takes responsibility for the heavens and the earth – for all time – superceding even the duration of the universe.

The concept of God as ‘Father’ is introduced in the Christian New Testament. Writing to the Corinthians, the apostle Paul proclaims:

Indeed, even though there may be so-called gods in heaven or on earth—as in fact there are many gods and many lords— yet for us there is one God, the Father, from whom are all things and for whom we exist, and one Lord, Jesus Christ, through whom are all things and through whom we exist.

Paul makes a clear distinction between the Father as God and Jesus as Lord. This distinction is also evident in the teaching of Jesus himself during the period of his earthly ministry.

Most directly, Jesus makes his subordination to the will and purpose of the Father known in his discourse with the Jewish leader Nicodemus, saying that “God so loved the world that He gave His only begotten Son….”

God not only gave his only Son, but Jesus goes on to say that God also “sent” his Son. God gave Jesus followers. John’s gospel says that:

Everything that the Father gives me will come to me, and anyone who comes to me I will never drive away; for I have come down from heaven, not to do my own will, but the will of him who sent me.

God the Son

We are definitively introduced by the Christian New Testament to Jesus, a man who would also be defined as the Son of God. How this introduction is handled varies with each of four New Testament gospel writers.

The Gospel of Mark leads readers on a guessing game as to who Jesus is. Only when Jesus dies does a Roman centurion (of all people) make the observation that: “Truly this man was God’s Son!”

Both the Gospels of Matthew and Luke get to this point more directly. Luke’s gospel perhaps comes closest to an early Trinitarian formulation – in a backhanded sort of a way:

At that same hour Jesus rejoiced in the Holy Spirit and said, “I thank you, Father, Lord of heaven and earth, because you have hidden these things from the wise and the intelligent and have revealed them to infants; yes, Father, for such was your gracious will.  All things have been handed over to me by my Father; and no one knows who the Son is except the Father, or who the Father is except the Son and anyone to whom the Son chooses to reveal him.

Matthew caps off his gospel with what has become known as the Great Commission:

All authority in heaven and on earth has been given to me.  Go therefore and make disciples of all nations, baptizing them in the name of the Father and of the Son and of the Holy Spirit, and teaching them to obey everything that I have commanded you. And remember, I am with you always, to the end of the age.

On the surface, this is trinitarian stuff. But notice, while there is a clear articulation of three distinct entities, there is no claim here that these are “three in one.”

Of the four gospel writers, John portrays Jesus as Son of God (or synonymously as Word of God) repeatedly – opening his gospel with the declaration: “In the beginning was the Word, and the Word was with God, and the Word was God.” And to the Pharisee Nicodemus, Jesus says that “God so loved the world that he sent his only begotten son …”

But as is evident with Luke and Matthew, John also clearly portrays Jesus as subordinate to the Father. Just before his betrayal, Jesus prays to his Father for all those “whom you (the Father) gave me.”

And like Job before him, the Jesus of Mark’s gospel would express frustration with apparent betrayal by his own Father, crying out at the point of death: “My God, My God, why have you forsaken me?”

If Son and Father are one and the same, why would one bother to cry out in anguish against the other?

God the Holy Spirit

When we get to the Holy Spirit, the picture is more muddled. The Spirit is here and there – but but who is this spirit?

Back to Genesis, when the earth was without form and void and dark, “the Spirit of God was hovering over the face of the waters.” Was this God – who is Spirit? Or was it a separate entity that would become known as the Holy Spirit by the time of the Christian New Testament?

Matthew’s gospel records Jesus as quoting the prophet Isaiah, who speaking for the Father says: “Here is my servant, whom I have chosen, my beloved, with whom my soul is well pleased. I will put my Spirit upon him…” Using this prophecy, there is a clear sense of divine infusion and identity both with God’s servant (i.e. Son) and His spirit.

When other gospel writers are added to the mix, things get more confusing. For example, Mark notes that “Jesus perceived in his spirit that they were discussing these questions among themselves” Is Jesus referring to the Holy Spirit? Or to his own spirit within him – as flesh and (possibly) God?

What we today know as the Nicene Creed (actually modified), states that: “And I believe in the Holy Spirit, the Lord and Giver of life, who proceeds from the Father and the Son, who together with the Father and the Son is adored and glorified, and who spoke through the prophets, and one holy, Catholic, and Apostolic Church.”

God the Wisdom (Sophia)

There is another tradition partly in and partly outside of the OT/NT canon that bears on this discussion – the tradition of the Sophia (or Wisdom).

The writer of the Proverbs declares that:

Wisdom cries out in the street;
in the squares she raises her voice. 
At the busiest corner she cries out;
at the entrance of the city gates she speaks

and

Wisdom has built her house,
she has hewn her seven pillars.
She has slaughtered her animals, she has mixed her wine,
she has also set her table.
She has sent out her servant-girls, she calls
from the highest places in the town,
“You that are simple, turn in here!”
To those without sense she says,
“Come, eat of my bread
and drink of the wine I have mixed.
Lay aside immaturity, and live,
and walk in the way of insight

In the New Testament, the female personality of wisdom is invoked by Jesus as a response to charges that he was living a dissolute lifestyle:

For John came neither eating nor drinking, and they say, ‘He has a demon’; the Son of Man came eating and drinking, and they say, ‘Look, a glutton and a drunkard, a friend of tax collectors and sinners!’ Yet wisdom is vindicated by her deeds.”

Whether at dusk or otherwise, Istanbul's Hagia Sophia dedicated to the Wisdom of God is unforgettable. Originally constucted by Constantine or his son, the current structure was rebuilt by Emperor Justinian in 537 AD -- the second most imposing structure in Christendom after St. Peter's Cathedral in Rome.

Whether at dusk or otherwise, Istanbul’s Hagia Sophia dedicated to the Wisdom of God is unforgettable. Originally constucted by Constantine or his son, the current structure was rebuilt by Emperor Justinian in 537 AD — the second most imposing structure in Christendom after St. Peter’s Cathedral in Rome.

The Sophia of Jesus Christ also is part of the non-canonical Nag Hammadi Library. For example a gnostic text describes the “Great Sophia” as the consort of the “Self-constructed Father.”

The disciple Bartholomew asks:

How (is it that) (he) was designated in the Gospel ‘Man’ and ‘Son of Man’? To which of them, then is this son Related?” To this the Holy One answers:

I want you to know that First Man is called Begetter, Self-perfected Mind. He reflected with Great Sophia, his consort, and revealed his first-begotten, androgynous son. His male name is designated ‘First Begetter Son of God’; his female name, ‘First Begettress Sophia, Mother of the Universe.’ Some call here ‘Love.’ Now First-begotten is called ‘Christ.’ Since he has authority from his father, he created a multitude of angels without number for retinue from Spirit and Light.

Parting Shots

At the end of four gospels, we are left with a condundrum. Matthew gets us closest (but not all the way) to the Trinitarian formulation of the Nicene Creed, Mark gets us not very far at all, and Luke and John get us perhaps half-way. John makes perhaps the most explicit statements of Jesus’ oneness with the Father, but complicates the issue by saying we are all children of God. None of this is very satisfying to bolster a creed at the center of Christian belief and doctrine.

Part 3 of this series will close with concluding observations as to the bottom-line question: Is Christianity monotheistic or polytheistic? And, what does the answer to this question mean to the application of Christian faith and practice – day in and out?

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To check out our full web site, click: www.jesustheheresy.com

Musings on the Godhead: Monotheistic or Otherwise?

In this blog, we tackle a question starkly stated: Is Christianity a monotheistic or polytheistic religion? 

To answer this question, we traverse the paths of early, then medieval church history – and finally back to the scriptures themselves.

Early Church History

In 325 AD, the first Roman emperor convert to Christianity convened a session of clerics to address a seemingly simple question: What is the relationship of God the Father to God the Son to the God the Holy Spirit?

And beneath is an underlying question: Is Christianity a religion of one God or multiple Gods?

These were questions about what most Catholics and Protestants today consider as the doctrine of the Trinity. It’s a formulation that we know as the Nicene Creed.

The pivot point for the creed was this more seemingly innocuous but more pointed question: Is the Son to be considered as being of same substance versus a similar substance with the Father?

In one of its common incarnations, the Nicene Creed today reads roughly as follows:

I believe in one God, the Father Almighty, Maker of heaven and earth, and of all things visible and invisible.

And in one Lord Jesus Christ, the only-begotten Son of God, begotten of the Father before all worlds; God of God, Light of Light, very God of very God; begotten, not made, being of one substance with the Father, by whom all things were made.

Who, for us men for our salvation, came down from heaven, and was incarnate by the Holy Spirit of the virgin Mary, and was made man; and was crucified also for us under Pontius Pilate; He suffered and was buried; and the third day He rose again, according to the Scriptures; and ascended into heaven, and sits on the right hand of the Father; and He shall come again, with glory, to judge the quick and the dead; whose kingdom shall have no end.

And I believe in the Holy Ghost, the Lord and Giver of Life; who proceeds from the Father [and the Son]; who with the Father and the Son together is worshipped and glorified; who spoke by the prophets.

And I believe one holy catholic and apostolic Church. I acknowledge one baptism for the remission of sins; and I look for the resurrection of the dead, and the life of the world to come. Amen.

Never mind that this is not the creed adopted by the 325 Council of Nicaea; the current form is modeled on some fine-tuning at the First Council of Constantinople of 381.

This conclusion was not easily determined – but it was essentially pre-determined. The Council of Nicaea was convened and presided over by the Roman Emperor Constantine. The first formulation proposed by Eusebius, bishop of Caesarea, was based on a Palestinian confession and represented an attempt by Eusebius to evade the central issue.

The Emperor then intervened, stating that the proposal of Eusebius matched his own sentiments. He urged adoption but with “the insertion of the single word Consubstantial” (meaning of the same rather than similar substance with the Father).

Despite protests from a certain Arius from Alexandria (Egypt) and others that the term “of the same essence” was not to be found in any of the New Testament writings, the Emperor’s viewpoint (not surprisingly) prevailed. The Council ended by condemning Arius, authorizing his excommunication and degradation from the presbyterate of Alexandria. Constantine ordered Arius and three others of his supporters “to be arrested and banished to the most distant region possible.”

Constantine acted not on the basis of a deeply held theological conviction but for political reasons. The concept of a united God was most consistent with the imperial mandate of a united empire – coming just after Constantine had spent nearly two decades fighting off other claimants to take sole possession of the Roman throne.

In time, the emperor would have second thoughts, largely because the chief advocate of consubstantial, Athanasius of Alexandria, proved to be even more troublesome than Arius.  Athanasius (who also gave us the books of the New Testament as now received) threatened to withhold shipment of grain from Alexandria. – breadbasket of the empire. Athanasius then experienced the pain of imperial exile (the first of five times).

The see-saw between the Arians and Nicenes would continue beyond Constantine to the conflicted reigns of his three younger sons. Following the return of a pagan emperor – Julian – control of the empire fell into the hands of Theodosius, a confirmed Nicene. The final victory of Nicaea was confirmed in 381 with the Council of Constantinople.

Postscript on Constantinian Household Holiness. While there are conflicting strands of thought about Constantine as ruler, converted Christian, and family man – one incident tells the story. The year after the Council of Nicaea, Constantine precipitated a household tragedy of his own making. He first murdered his eldest son Crispus and then boiled his wife Fausta in her bath (over an alleged affair between wife and stepson).

Fausta got one thing out of this. She assured the line of succession would be to her three natural sons – but with tragic results. The oldest would live to die in war with the youngest son. The youngest would then be displaced by a German officer who would then be overthrown by the middle son Constantius II. One bright light – Constantius was devoutly Arian – but to no avail within a generation.

But What Proof of Trinity?

The Council of Nicaea has served over nearly 1,700 years to buttress Catholic and Protestant notions of the Trinity – the notion of the Godhead as three in one. With the Son and Spirit consubstantial with the Father.

There have been two problems with this theological Trinitarian construct – both of which have to do with lack of scriptural authority. The first problem is that the term “trinity” is never once mentioned in the Bible. Simply stated, “trinity” is not a scriptural term; it’s an after-the-fact theological construct.

The second problem is that scripture has never even used even the looser term for trinity such as the concept of “three in one.” This has been an unresolved problem down through the centuries for the orthodox church.

This second problem was temporarily remedied in 1552 when I John 5-7-8 was amended to read as follows:

For there are three who bear witness in heaven: the Father, the word, and the Holy Spirit; and these three are one. And there are three that bear witness on earth: the Spirit, the water, and the blood; and these three agree as one. (New King James Version)

The phrase in boldface type does not appear in any Greek manuscripts of the Bible before the 16th century. There is general agreement that this phrase was added by the Catholic theologian Erasmus in his 1552 version of a Greek New Testament. This terminology has since been removed in most modern translations of the New Testament. Note: the New King James Version remains true to its 1611 hoodwinked forebear but with a margin note acknowledging that the highlighted phrase is not to be found in earlier Alexandrian/Egyptian (NU) or Majority/Greek New Testament (M) texts.

Monotheistic or Polytheistic?

Three centuries after Constantine, a prophet by the name of Muhammad came out of the Arabian desert preaching the gospel of surrender – of Islam. Muhammad had close affinity for those of Christian persuasion – he and his first wife were married by the Christian bishop of Mecca.

But Muhammad had one significant problem with Christianity. He abandoned Arabian polytheism for the monotheism of Allah. He could accept the idea that Jesus was a divine prophet but not God. As reflected by writings in the Qur’an: “Praise be to Allah, Who begets no son, and has no partner in (His) dominion; nor (needs) He any to protect Him from humiliation: yes, magnify him for His greatness and glory.”

Of course, Muhammad would not be alone in this persuasion, For Judaism as well, the Nicene formulation amounts to idolatry – because it appears to contradict the Shema formulation of the Old Testament (or Hebrew Scriptures) that the  “the Lord our God is one.”

For some, Nicaea could even be interpreted as violating the first of the Ten Commandments: Thou shalt have no other gods before me.” Small wonder that this tenet of Christianity has served to drive a wedge between Christians and their Muslim as well as Jewish counterparts.

We’ll reserve our answer to the question of whether Christianity is monotheistic or polytheistic to the next installment of this jesustheheresy blog. And to get to this more definitive answer, we will need to step back further in time to the preserved writings of the Hebrew Scriptures and the Christian New Testament.

At this juncture, there are three initial conclusions that can be drawn from this review of early and medieval church history:

  • The Nicene Trinitarian formulation of three-in-one, consubstantial with the Father may have served as good politics and as orthodox theology, but can not be explicitly scripturally grounded.
  • Nicaea may also have been perceived as a marketable means by which Christianity could peddle itself as consistent with a monotheistic faith, but that subterfuge has been easily understood by Jew and Muslim alike.
  • To retrieve an authentic Christianity, we need to go back to the boneyard of Nicaea – and start all over again. Confess the Nicene error, and move forward in the reality of Father, Son and Spirit as beings of similar but separate essence.

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To check out our full web site, click: www.jesustheheresy.com

Reza Aslan’s Jesus the Zealot

It’s about time. A Palestinian Jesus has made it to the top of the New York Times and Amazon bestseller lists with Zealot: The Life and Times of Jesus of Nazareth by Muslim writer Reza Aslan.

First off, let’s get to the question of whether a Muslim has the right to pen a critical evaluation of the founder of Christianity. Just as much right as Christians have to expound on Islam and its founder Muhammad. And Christians have been wide ranging in their evaluations of Muhammad.

At one end of the spectrum is fundamentalist evangelist Pat Robertson’s famous 2002 FOX News interview in which he declared that Muhammad was “an absolute wild-eyed fanatic … a robber and a brigand.” A more balanced (perhaps unduly favorable) perspective is expressed by well-known liberal commentator Karen Armstrong in her 2001 book Muhammad: Legacy of a Prophet. And there have been numerous non-Muslim commentaries in-between.

A self-described American Muslim (of Iranian heritage), Aslan “found Jesus” and briefly converted to Christianity at an evangelical youth camp at age 15. As a re-converted Muslim, today he claims to be a “more genuinely committed disciple of Jesus of Nazareth than I ever was of Jesus Christ.” He concludes the book with the statement that “Jesus of Nazareth – Jesus the man – is every bit as compelling, charismatic, and praiseworthy as Jesus the Christ. He is, in short, someone worth believing in.”

Whether as an anti-American jihadist or non-practicing Muslim proud of his American heritage, any Muslim has as much right to talk and write about Jesus as anyone else. The fact that Reza Aslan is up-front about his biases and sympathies is so much the better.

Make no mistake about it. Zealot is one of the best-written, most coherent books about the Jesus of history and faith to appear in recent years. Three features of this book are most compelling:

1. Aslan clearly separates the life of Jesus the man from the post-resurrection identity of Jesus the Christ. Jesus is planted as a flesh and blood Jewish man within the chronological time span of human history. As much as any work to date, this book succinctly articulates the case for Jesus as a revolutionary – a Zealot – who sought to rid his native Palestine of the economically and spiritually corrupt practices of first century Roman authority and Jewish religious leadership. To the extent that the Christian New Testament presents the “kingdom” as more a heavenly than earthly realm, that is because the gospels and epistles are argued (by Aslan) as written after the AD 70 destruction of Jerusalem. In effect, rather than tell the story of Jesus as it really was, Aslan claims that the goal of the post-70 writers was to rescue Jesus from a failed human mission by elevating him to a divine and timeless role as the Christ – the Messiah, one with God – for Gentiles as well as Jews.

2. Zealot is not shy about presenting apparent conflicts between various canonical and non-canonical accounts of Jesus life and mission. Aslan does a great job to accentuate rather than (the more typical Christian predilection) to smooth the edges as happens, for example, between the accounts of Jesus life by the three synoptic gospel writers or in the New Testament’s presentation of subsequent early church conflicts between Paul and James. Based on a detailed review of the gospel accounts, Aslan presents a compelling case as to why Jesus may never have viewed himself as Messiah and likely would have opposed his subsequent deification as Christ – on a par equal to God the Father.

3. Aslan rightly ends his survey of apostolic church authority with James the brother of Jesus rather than Paul the self-appointed missionary to a more receptive non-Jewish audience. As Aslan notes, “Paul may have considered himself an apostle, but it seems that few if any of the other (early Christian) movement leaders agreed.” Aslan suggests that James was getting the upper hand in this intra-church feud. Paul’s influence even with churches he started may have been on the wane due to James’ efforts to keep the diaspora in line with its roots in both Judaism and the Jesus of history.

James may have won the battle but lost the war due to his early execution at the hands of the Jewish high priest, the subsequent Roman destruction of Jerusalem and attempted obliteration of all things Jewish, and by a re-crafted Pauline message that played better to the culture and mythologies of Rome and its subject empire. In summary, Aslan writes that “it would be the contest between these two bitter and openly hostile adversaries (James and Paul) that, more than anything else, would shape Christianity as the global religion we know today.” Unfortunately, the shape Christianity has taken reflects less of the Jesus of history than the post-resurrection manipulations of Paul the self-anointed apostle.

Despite the outstanding presentation of Zealot, Aslan unfortunately overplays his hand – in at least two respects.

First, as the title of the book clearly implies, Jesus is portrayed by Aslan as a zealot – a term commonly associated with persons seeking to overturn the economic and political authority of the day, by violence if necessary.  However, the more detailed narrative backs off this claim. Jesus is one who has zeal for God’s house but is not necessarily of the same ilk as the numerous wannabe and actual revolutionaries of first century Palestine. Near the middle of the book, Aslan explains a bit more precisely that:

To be clear, Jesus was not a member of the Zealot Party that launched the war with Rome, because no such party could be said to exist for another thirty years after his death. Nor was Jesus a violent revolutionary bent on armed rebellion, though his views on the use of violence were far more complex than it is often assumed.

A panoply of writers over the last two centuries have attempted to pigeon-hole Jesus – variously as a mystic, charismatic, healer, do-gooder, preacher of prosperity gospel, social revolutionary, and now as zealot.

Jesus is all and yet none of the above. History has attempted but so far failed to pigeon-hole Jesus into any of these or other singular categories. While perhaps helping to sell books, Aslan’s appellation – as zealot – sells his work short.

When Jesus looked at this site, he saw Herod's temple. Did he predict its destruction in advance or was his prophecy inserted into the gospels after the leveling had taken place at the hands of the Romans in 70 AD? And did Jesus foresee the Muslim Dome of the Rock that would eventually take its place?

When Jesus looked at this site, he saw Herod’s temple. Did he predict its destruction in advance or was his prophecy inserted into the gospels after the leveling had taken place at the hands of the Romans in 70 AD? And did Jesus foresee the Muslim Dome of the Rock that would eventually take its place?

Second, like many critical thinkers and scholars, Aslan flatly states (without evidence) that all of the gospels are written after the 70 AD destruction of Jerusalem. He also summarily rejects John’s gospel as an essentially bogus work – supposedly written much later to further buttress Paul’s claims of Jesus as Christ – as God.

Nowhere in Zealot does this reader find any definitive evidence or explanation to support these conclusions, not even in the fairly extensive notes at the end of the book. If Aslan is in league with much of the current scholarly community, the overwhelming reason for this late dating appears to be the presupposition that, since no one can foretell the future, any gospel that predicts the destruction of Jerusalem must have been written after than before 70 AD. This is logic not based on rules of evidence but on personal and/or scholarly bias.

Admittedly, it is high time for fundamentalist Christians to consider what it means if the gospels were shaped (or spun) to reflect political conditions and realities in place long after rather than during Jesus’ actual sojourn on earth. At the very least, this suggests a spin toward the Jesus of Paul (Jesus as God) rather than Jesus of James (as messiah or divine representative of God).

On the flip side, commentators like Aslan either need to provide clear historically verifiable evidence for a post-70 dating of the gospels or to straightforwardly address the implications of their spin in view of the contingency that these accounts may well have been written earlier instead of later. If the gospel accounts were written by the traditionally ascribed writers with first-hand (albeit sometimes conflicting) information or direct access to those with first hand contact with Jesus, do the arguments of Zealot still stand? 

If Jesus really did prophesy the destruction of the Temple and Jerusalem, does Aslan still present a coherent view of the Jesus of history? Or do his arguments crumble?

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To check out our full web site, click: www.jesustheheresy.com

Reflections on the U.S. Supreme Court & Same Sex Marriage

Maybe it is the torpor of summer – but it is hard to focus and write these words. On June 26, the Supreme Court ruled unconstitutional the portion of the Defense of Marriage Act (DOMA) that barred the federal government from recognizing same-sex marriages in states where they were legal. And, by declining to decide a case from California, the Court effectively allowed same-sex marriages there.

Children of the marketplace, face of the future. Children of Jerusalem on the run,  living in the moment. Do we hear them?  What do we hear? Will we dance? Do we lament?

Children of the marketplace,
face of the future.
Children of Jerusalem on the run,
living in the moment.
Do we hear them?
What do we hear?
Will we dance?
Do we lament?

One hears the words of Jesus:

 “But to what shall I liken this generation? It is like children sitting in the marketplaces and calling to their companions, and saying:

 ‘We played the flute for you,
And you did not dance;
We mourned to you,
And you did not lament.’

For supporters of gay marriage, the Supreme Court decision has irrevocably changed the cultural landscape regarding acceptance of homosexuality. But the state-by-state slog and the cultural wars continue, with further collateral damage yet ahead.

Even though I have stated that the Bible should be left out of the gay marriage debate, there is nonetheless a profound sense of foreboding. Looking back through history, there are few if any examples of nations that accepted gay marriage as on a par with heterosexual relationships.

The Romans were widely noted for diverse sexual proclivities. One emperor known for his bisexual behavior, Julius Caesar was described as “every woman’s man and every man’s woman.” And Emperor Nero was said to have engaged in same sex marriages. However, marriage between two persons of the same sex had no legal standing.

In the modern era, the first country to legalize same sex marriage was Denmark in 1989. In the space of less than a generation, nation after nation and state after state have moved to radically altered the course of what has been considered acceptable versus discouraged human behavior. With virtually no thought as to the long-term consequences for civilization.

Yes, heterosexual relationships are no longer the only means of propagating the human species. Technology has trumped cultural taboos. It’s a bit like genetic modification – whether for super-crops or prevention of human maladies. Where do we go from here? At what point, does the earth’s ecosystem go pathogenic?

We hear the flutist; but there is no motivation to dance. And who will be the dance partner?

At the same time, those of us (like me) who might profess to be in mourning are actually hard pressed to seriously lament. For those religious sorts who think a deity really prefers heterosexuality as the norm – as God’s plan – is this about defeat or about raising the ante? If male-female is really what God intended, shouldn’t our marriages be healthier and our resulting offspring all above average? Shouldn’t this be the norm to which everyone aspires?

The cultural heterosexual monopoly of multiple millennia has bred sloth and a millennia-long legacy of marital dysfunction. The destruction of the marriage monopoly means that its advocates must now truly compete in the marketplace of multiple relationship options. And yes, we certainly can expect the door to widen to an ever increasing array of sexual options.

If marriage is to prove itself in the marketplace, it’s time to re-discover and then sell the sizzle.  Heterosexual divorce should become the exception rather than the rule. Prove up to sustainable families across all racial, social and economic strata. Demonstrate that being gay and artistic are not necessarily synonymous.

If marriage has no more market advantage than Chevy over Ford, let’s get ready for the next step in the evolutionary adventure. Where sex is all about whatever feels good in the moment – as long as my neighbor isn’t directly affected or doesn’t care what’s taking place on my side of the fence.

For those of us who believe that heterosexuality really is the norm, the proven alternative, the demonstrated path to lifelong happiness, now is the time to strut our stuff. Time for heterosexuals to come out of the closet.

We hear the flute. No time to dance when millennia-long sexual taboos get swept aside with little to no thought about what comes next.

And we hear mourning. But how can the spirit truly lament as we soar to new heights of human potential?

What’s a follower of Jesus’ kingdom to do? We say “bring it on.” We Christians may be a diverse, contentious lot – but only we lay claim to both the love and the justice of the heavenly kingdom – all in the same breath.