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A friendly commentary on the Bible from an atheist. Warning: My only loyalty is to the texts themselves, not to any particular interpretation of them. Orthodoxy not at all guaranteed!


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September 30, 2008

A small meditation for the Jewish New Year

Although I am an atheist, I am acutely aware of the vast influence that the New Testament has had on my thinking. And I regret not one jot or tittle of that. Whenever I follow the teachings of Christ (alas far too seldom) I get a blessing -- sometimes very rapidly.

I also however have great respect for the Old Testament and often read it with pleasure. One book however stands out for its difficulty: The book of Job. However you explain it, the fact of the matter is that the God of Israel placed great burdens and afflictions on a good and holy man.

If I were a Rabbi, I would see that as a metaphor for the relationship between the God of Israel and his people as a whole. The God of the Jews has given his chosen people enormous gifts but in his wisdom he has also given them one enormous handicap: political stupidity. Israel and the Jews have only ONE powerful friend in the world: American evangelical Christians. And yet Jews generally despise them. Through the despicable Abraham Foxman, they do all they can to thwart evangelical Christians and they vote in droves for the antisemitic Democratic Party, the party that also despises evangelical Christians.

Now that seems to me to be a curse from on high but I speak from a particular perspective. What Jews do politically is virtually inexplicable from an Anglo-Saxon viewpoint but to the rest of the world it may not be so at all.

This is not the time or place to spell it out in historical detail, but a large element in Anglo-Saxon exceptionalism is the way they value alliances. When Anglo-Saxons go to war they generally do so as "Allies". They in fact refer to their side of a conflict as "the Allies" or "Allied forces". They have an instinctive appreciation of the importance of friends, banal though that may seem. There is much egotism in the world that causes both people and nations to "go it alone" at times but that is something that seems to be missing in Anglo-Saxon thinking.

And that seeking of alliances even overcomes old wounds. There is only one country that has burnt Washington to the ground and that is Britain -- in 1812. But, despite that bad start, the commonality of attitudes and values has prevailed and the USA and Britain have fought alongside one-another repeatedly since then.

Why cannot Jews do the same? Christians were once a plague upon Jewry but they are not so now. Both fundamentalist Christians and Jews want to see Jews in Zion but very few Jews will grasp the hand of friendship that is held out to them by the Christians. That blindspot does seem to me very much like a curse from on high.

There are of course some Jews who fight the good fight: Charles Krauthammer, Jonah Goldberg, Jeff Jacoby, Dennis Prager etc. But on some accounts 88% of Jews voted for the Islam-loving Democratic party at the 2006 mid-terms -- so the curse is pervasive despite that.

There has always been antisemitism on both sides of politics but at least since Karl Marx it has always had its principal home on the Left. Jews can remember conservative businessmen keeping them out of country clubs but forget that Hitler was a socialist. One should be able to expect better than that from a generally clever people. In the late 19th century, the British Conservative party made a Jew (Disraeli) their Prime Minister. About 50 years later the socialist Hitler incinerated 6 million Jews. Can anybody see a difference there?

In 1939 Germany went to war with a powerful ally on its side: Soviet Russia. The German Panzern that stormed through France were powered by Soviet fuel. Germany later however turned on its ally, with disastrous results for itself. One hopes that Jews will not similarly antagonize THEIR best ally. Abe Foxman, take note.

Thursday, July 17, 2008

Wow! Reformation Christianity still lives in Sydney

It's just sentimentality on my part (although my own background is Protestant fundamentalist, I am an atheist and brought my son up as a Catholic) but I must admit that I still do enjoy smelling a whiff of the old fire and brimstone in the article below by immensely-influential Sydney Anglican clergyman Phillip Jensen. Beliefs such as his have transformed the world

Roman Catholicism is a very diverse thing and what you see in the Philippines is not necessarily what you see in the streets of Sydney. It has a Protestant face in the Protestant world. Recently we've been getting into the Stations of the Cross here in Sydney with World Youth Day in 2008, but not all 14 Stations of the Cross are going to be done, only I think eight of the Stations of the Cross - I can't remember the exact number.

The ones that are going to be done are the ones that are in the Bible, but the extra ones, like Veronica, well they're not in the Bible. They're not going to be done in the streets of Sydney. Now in one sense it is because they haven't got time, space and energy to do all of them, and in one sense it is out of courtesy to Protestants that they choose to leave out the ones that are not in the Bible.

But if Martin Luther came into Sydney and saw Roman Catholicism and its Stations of the Cross, he'd say, "Ah, they've cleaned up their act." So there are certain aspects of Catholicism in the Protestant world which are much more acceptable to where Luther would have been.

But no. Things are actually worse than in Luther's day because since Luther's day the Roman Catholic Church not only calcified itself explicitly against justification by faith alone, or the authority of the scriptures alone, or salvation by grace alone, etcetera; not only calcified itself against that back at the Council of Trent but since then you've had the Vatican I Council in 1870, which clarified the idea that the Pope can speak infallibly.

A faithful Roman Catholic would say, "Well, they're just saying what we've always believed," but in fact it was not until 1870 that it was ever said that this is really what the belief is. Since then we're not too sure how often the Pope has spoken infallibly but the one occasion on which everyone agrees he did was in the 1950s when he declared that Mary had been bodily assumed from the grave. Well, that's not in the Bible anywhere. And why would she be bodily assumed from the grave? It's all part of the Maryology that has come in. It has also identified the immaculate conception of Mary; that is, that Mary was without sin. Well, that's nowhere in the Bible.

So since the Reformation we've had the infallibility of the Pope, the sinlessness of Mary, the bodily assumption of Mary. These things show you that Roman Catholicism has moved since the Reformation - but it has moved further away from us, not closer to us.

NOW in Vatican II there was an opening up - people were "separated brothers" and things like that - but with all due respect to the genuineness of their attempts to be more ecumenically open - and certainly I'm appreciative of the sense of which we can live in a tolerant acceptance of each other - it was only a year or two ago that the Pope made quite clear that the Anglican Church, Presbyterians, are sects, cults; we are not the true church.

So you can't get salvation through us; you are moved into fairly serious deviation. And so Protestants can be very warm and fuzzy towards Roman Catholicism but it's not actually reciprocal. We are not really seen as God's people in Christ Jesus because the Pope is seen as the vicar of Christ. Now from a Bible-believing point of view, that is an appalling blasphemy because the Holy Spirit is the vicar of Christ.


July 10, 2008

Bible publisher faces $60M federal lawsuit over homosexuality

In the article indented below, we read that a homosexual is upset that some Bibles translate the Greek word "arsenokoites" in 1 Corinthians 6:9 as "homosexual" instead of "sodomite". Politeness gets you nowhere, it seems. My Abbott-Smith Greek Lexicon just gives "sodomite" as the meaning of the word. The word that Americans spell as "ass" (NOT meaning a donkey) is spelt and pronounced in the British Commonwealth as "arse". It is tempting to see a convergence with the Greek there!

I note that the highly-regarded New English Bible published by the Oxford University Press renders the passage as "homosexual perversion". Wow! Are they in big trouble! Actually, nobody is in big trouble. The lawsuit is so thin that it is obviously just "go-away" money that the guy and his lawyer want. I hope Zondervan resists.

Some more points: The historic Geneva Bible translates the word as "buggerers" so that is pretty frank too. And note that in the original Greek, St Paul groups together for condemnation both sodomites and effeminates ("malakoi oute arsenokoitai") so it is perfectly clear that he is condemning homosexuality generally -- JR

Christian publisher Zondervan is facing a $60 million federal lawsuit filed by a man who claims he and other homosexuals have suffered based on what the suit claims is a misinterpretation of the Bible. But a company spokeswoman says Zondervan doesn't translate the Bible or own the copyright for any of the translations. Instead, she said in a statement, the company relies on the "scholarly judgment of credible translation committees." That is to say, setting aside whether the federal civil rights lawsuit is credible, the company says Bradley Fowler sued the wrong group.

His suit centers on one passage in scripture -- 1 Corinthians 6:9 -- and how it reads in Bibles published by Zondervan. Fowler says Zondervan Bibles published in 1982 and 1987 use the word homosexuals among a list of those who are "wicked" or "unrighteous" and won't inherit the kingdom of heaven. Fowler says his family's pastor used that Zondervan Bible, and because of it his family considered him a sinner and he suffered.

Now he is asking for an apology and $60 million. "To compensate for the past 20 years of emotional duress and mental instability," [I can believe the mental instability] Fowler told 24 Hour News 8 in a phone interview. He claims the company is misinterpreting the Bible by specifically using the word homosexuals. Fowler admits that every Bible printed is a translation, interpreted in some way, but he says specifically using that word is not a translation but a change. "These are opinions based on the publishers," he said. "And they are being embedded in the religious structure as a way of life."

More here

July 09, 2008

The anarthrous predicate in John chapter 1

Apologies for that technical heading. I am just following up on the point of Greek grammar that I raised yesterday. What it is all about is the way ancient Greeks used their word for "the" (the definite article -- which is "ho" in our Greek case in John 1:1). In New Testament Greek, the classical Greek usage of referring to "The god" (ho theos) was adopted, rather than using simply "God" (theos). "Theos" was in other words treated as a noun rather than a name. So the god of the Hebrews was referred to as "The god", just as Zeus in the Greek pantheon was referred to as "The god".

So whether anybody is referred to as "The god" (ho theos) or not is significant. In the NT it is the Greek equivalent of our name "God". I hope that is not too obscure.

And the point about John 1:1 is that the Logos (word) is NOT refered to as "The god" (ho theos) but rather as "god' (theos). So the Logos is of the substance of gods but not "The god".

An objection that sometimes arises to that interpretation, however, is that there is a custom in Greek writing, perhaps a lazy or an economical custom, of omitting the definite article in the predicate (the anarthrous predicate) if it is already given in the subject. This is sometimes urged as the explanation for the missing definite article in the predicate of John 1:1.

While that may be true in general, however, it is clearly not applicable to John's writing in the passsage concerned. Just a few lines down in John 1 we read: "kai ee zoe een to phos ton anthropou" ("and the life was the light of men"). The article is used in BOTH the predicate and the subject. And note that John is again there referring elliptically to the same guy whom he earlier referred to as the "logos" (word). In both cases he is referring to Jesus Christ. So John was writing carefully there and was clearly NOT adopting the anarthrous predicate convention.

July 08, 2008

The Geneva Bible

A great pleasure! I have just received my copy of the recently reprinted Geneva Bible, the translation that the Pilgrim Fathers mainly used. The Geneva Bible was the popular version in the English-speaking world until the "official" King James Bible gradually supplanted it.

I bought my copy via World Net Daily and it cost me rather a lot, which may seem rather mad since I already have many Bibles, including three recensions of the Greek New Testament (i.e. in the original Greek) and some excellent modern translations. But it is exciting to read the words of the Bible just as they were read by the great English Protestant reformers who changed the world and whose reforms are the basis of our entire modern civilization.

Because it was so popular in its day, the Geneva Bible underwent many printings, not all of which were identical. The version I have is a reproduction of a 1599 printing. The King James Bible, of course, was first printed in 1611.

I tend to judge Bible translations by their translation of the first few verses of the Gospel of John. John 1:1 is much used by afficianados of the originally pagan Trinity doctrine to justify their nonsensical dogma. So I was most pleased to see that the Geneva translators gave in their footnote a much better sense of the original Greek than we usually see. The Geneva Bible was renowned in its day for its many informative footnotes and they are still a useful resource. The explanatory footnote for John 1:1 reads: "The son of God is of one, and the selfsame eternity or everlastingness, and of one and the selfsame essence or nature, with the father". That puts the sense of the original much more clearly than the literal translation of the original text itself. The underlying idea in the Greek original -- that the Logos was of divine essence -- is clearly there in the Geneva footnote.

If I were to express the meaning of the original Greek in a purely Anglo-Saxon vocabulary, I would translate it as "And of god-stuff was the word". (See also my many previous exegetical comments on John 1:1 -- e.g. here and here)

So the Geneva Bible did allow the people of the 16th century to get close to the original meaning of the New Testament. And the transformative power of doing that was evident then and continues to this day. Those now ancient words still have enormous power to move the minds of men. The many clergy of the "mainstream" churches who think they have a better or more "modern" message to preach from their pulpits are just self-defeating fools. There is no substitute for the original Gospel.

January 24, 2008


With their love of conspiracy theories and their revived antisemitism, I wonder that the Left have not come up with the accusation implied in my heading above. Because there are in fact reasonable grounds for viewing Islam as a reactionary form of Judaism. There is not a lot in the teachings of the Koran that cannot also be found in the Torah: Stoning homosexuals to death, acceptance of slavery, subordination of women, prohibition of "graven images", killing unbelievers, "I the LORD thy God am a jealous God" etc. And, of course, monotheism. Even the Arab word for God is also Hebrew: "Allah" and "Eloah".

Israel has always had great prophets and Rabbis, however, and a great Jewish theologian -- known to Christians as St. Paul -- transformed Judaism into a much more humane faith -- a faith we now know as Christianity -- and he took that faith to the world.

But there was a backlash. The old faith still had power and Mohammed felt it. And, like St Paul, Mohammed was a proselytizer. The old mainstream Jews could not be proselytizers, of course. You were either of the "chosen people" or you were not. But there was a tremendous power in the idea of the one invisible God and it should not be surprising that TWO great proselytizers took it to the world. And it was Mohammed that stayed closest to the original. He was perfectly aware of Christianity. Powerful Christian fanatics lived not far from him in the form of the Byzantine empire. But Mohammed was a much less powerful thinker than St. Paul so he mostly just took a return to the old faith to the world.

St. Paul and his Rabbi -- Jesus Christ -- were however the ones who laid the foundation not just for military conquest (which was Mohammed's achievement) but rather for a major advance in human thinking. And other Jewish theologians have had no difficulty in also taking on board most of his ideas -- so that Paul has in fact humanized Judaism too. It is left to Islam to represent the "old" version of Judaism.

St. Paul did of course have to have a foundation for his transformation of the faith and a strong foundation was of course already there in the Torah. There is much in the Torah that is humane. Paul chose the humane side. Mohammed chose (mostly) the dark side. What an amazing body of thought to have had such huge and varied influence!

NOTE: In what I have said above, my thinking has partly been formed by what is, I believe, the universal conclusion of the textual critics: That the Pauline epistles were the earliest Christian documents. The Gospels came later.

An only tangentially related thought: I read with great interest Murray's exploration of the various reasons for Jewish brilliance. And his final suggestion did have some resonance despite the fact that I am an atheist: That maybe they really are God's chosen people! But that resonance probably has more than a little to do with the fact that I spent my early years steeped in the Bible -- years which I still remember with great joy.

Final note: The "graven images" commandment is perhaps emblematic of the great interaction between Judaism, Christianity and Islam. Mohammed of course insisted on a purer form of Judaism -- i.e. keeping that commandment with great strictness -- which caused much heartburn in nearby Christian Byzantium. Byzantium was in fact for a long time racked by a controversy between the iconoclasts (tearers down of images) and the iconodules (guys who thought that pictures and statues of Christ and the saints (icons) were perfectly OK). Civil wars were fought over it.

And I cannot be too smug about all that, either. My old church (Ann St. Presbyterian -- where I still go on rare occasions and where I always feel at home) was built by men sympathetic to the "Wee Free" (Free Church of Scotland -- a very puritanical group) persuasion and it features a large circular window (Rose window) of coloured glass. But is not stained glass. It has only abstract patterns in it. No pictures. No "graven images" in fact. Christian fundamentalism and Islamic fundamentalism are very different -- as different as night and day most of the time -- but their common Jewish origin does occasionally give them some surprising points of contact.

But the prohibition of alcohol is a quite surprising point of contact. There is no prohibition in the Bible -- rather the reverse in fact (John 2: 3-10; 1 Timothy 5:23; Ecclesiastes 8:15). But Muslims are strictly "dry" and so are zealous Presbyterians. I remember once in my early years taking out a very nice girl (Rhoda) from the Ann St. church and suggesting unseriously as we walked past a bar that maybe we could go in and have a drink! As a result of that heinous suggestion, I was banned by her parents from ever taking out Rhoda again! Those were the days!