Princes of Darkness: The Devil’s Many Faces in Scripture and Tradition

Death and the Devil Surprising Two Women (1500)

Belief in Satan — the embodiment of sin and evil who exists in reality as a personal being — has been a mainstay of Christian doctrine and popular belief since the earliest days of the faith. As with most Christian theology, however, there is great diversity in the church’s teachings on the devil, both past and present. Most Christians assume that the qualities commonly attributed to Satan are derived from clear and straightforward readings of the Bible, but are they really? Continue reading “Princes of Darkness: The Devil’s Many Faces in Scripture and Tradition”

Matthew’s Nativity Story, Critically Examined

“The Three Wise Men”, a mosaic from the Basilica of Sant'Apollinare Nuovo in Ravenna, Italy, c. 526.

Another Christmas has come and gone, and it is a time of year when one Bible story stands out above all else—the nativity of Jesus. Despite the deep reverence Christians have for this story, many (perhaps most) are aware at some level that the ubiquitous scene with the shepherds, the three magi, the star and the stable full of animals is an idealized fairytale version. As a mythologized tradition, it exists in numerous cultural variations—those from Naples may include taverns and merchants, for example, while Catalan nativity scenes always include a character who is defecating (!), called the “Caganer”. The Bible itself tells two separate tales of Jesus’ birth (one in Matthew and one in Luke), and neither of them presents an account that resembles the modern nativity portrayal. Nor, for that matter, can the two accounts be merged into a single, consistent narrative without altering or omitting numerous critical details. Then again, few people care really look that closely at the biblical texts and their background. The crèche, though not faithful to any biblical story or historical reality, is a powerful vignette full of symbolic elements that combine to create a sense of mystery and awe. In many ways, it has superseded the Gospels as the canonical representation of Jesus’ birth in the minds of believers. Continue reading “Matthew’s Nativity Story, Critically Examined”

Exodus and the Plagues of Egypt

John Martin, The Seventh Plague of Egypt, 1823

With Ridley Scott’s new motion picture Exodus: Gods and Kings nearing its release date of December 12, I thought the Exodus would make a good topic for analysis. The tale of Moses, the ten (or so) plagues, and the Israelites’ flight from Egypt is in many ways the climax of the Pentateuch’s narrative arc — a Bible story that defines the nation of Israel and the most important figure in Judaism, Moses.

Investigation of the book of Exodus could fill (and has filled) innumerable articles and books, but even a fairly cursory look at the story of the plagues reveals tantalizing details and odd inconsistencies that imply a rich and complex history of authorship and revision. Continue reading “Exodus and the Plagues of Egypt”

Luke’s Genealogy Compared with Matthew and the Old Testament

Luke's Genealogy of Christ, Book of Kells

In an earlier article, I examined the genealogy that the Gospel of Matthew gives for Jesus and drew some conclusions about its sources and purpose. To summarize, Matthew’s genealogy is built on an artificial numerical scheme that divides Israel’s past from Abraham to Jesus into three periods spanning fourteen generations each. For the most part, it is based on the genealogies found in 1 Chronicles, and many contradictions with the Hebrew Old Testament can be explained by Matthew’s use of the Greek Septuagint (LXX) — particularly, a manuscript with variant readings that resemble Codex Alexandrinus. This genealogy makes Jesus out to be an individual of both royal and priestly descent, and it associates Jesus with some interesting women along the way.

The genealogy in the Gospel of Luke goes all the way back to Adam and is almost twice as long as Matthew’s, listing 77 generations. Luke’s view of Jesus, purpose for writing, and access to manuscripts were quite different, and the result is a pedigree that cannot be reconciled with Matthew’s ancestral list, despite many creative attempts at harmonization by theologians both ancient and modern. What can we deduce from a close look at Luke’s genealogy? Continue reading “Luke’s Genealogy Compared with Matthew and the Old Testament”

Did the Jerusalem Temple Use Slave Labour?

The Queen of Sheba before the temple of Solomon in Jerusalem, by Salomon de Bray (1597-1664)

Discussions about slavery in the Bible tend to focus on the treatment of slaves in the Jewish law as described in the Pentateuch. These passages, however, concern only private ownership of slaves. In the Ancient Near East, the institution of slavery was present in three different domains that were legally distinct: private slavery, state slavery, and temple slavery. Whether the Bible described and condoned slavery in the context of the Jerusalem temple and religious practices is a topic I had not encountered until recently. Continue reading “Did the Jerusalem Temple Use Slave Labour?”

Lying Cretans and Unknown Gods: Allusions to Epimenides in the New Testament

Apostle Paul Preaching upon the Ruins by Giovanni Paolo Panini (1744)

Only lately have I really begun to appreciate how much literary allusion there is in the New Testament. The books of the Christian canon were not written in a vacuum — its authors were literate, educated Greek speakers who drew heavily upon other writings from both the Jewish and Greek cultural spheres. My unfamiliarity with most ancient Greek literature has made me uncomfortably aware of how much context I am missing when I read the New Testament. As I explore the sources that influenced early Christian writing, I plan on blogging about them here. Today, I begin with Epimenides. Continue reading “Lying Cretans and Unknown Gods: Allusions to Epimenides in the New Testament”

Readers of the Lost Ark: Following the Literary Trail of an Ancient Religious Symbol

"The Erection of the Tabernacle and the Sacred Vessels" by Gerard Hoet

There is probably no artifact in the Bible more famous than the Ark of the Covenant — or, to use its fullest and most ancient title, the “Ark of Yahweh Sabaoth Who Sits Enthroned upon the Cherubim”.¹ When we look at what the Bible actually says about it, we find strange tales of the Ark’s dangerous powers, conflicting stories of its construction, contradictions about its contents, and a puzzling silence about its fate. If we dig deep enough, we even find signs of alternate traditions that have been erased by later biblical editors. A thorough look at all these passages would easily fill a book, but a few issues in particular have caught my attention lately. Continue reading “Readers of the Lost Ark: Following the Literary Trail of an Ancient Religious Symbol”

Book Review: “The Bible’s Cutting Room Floor” by Joel M. Hoffman

Cover of The Bible's Cutting Room Floor

(Full disclosure: I received a copy of The Bible’s Cutting Room Floor for review purposes from St. Martin’s Press.)

In The Bible’s Cutting Room Floor, Joel Hoffman—fiction writer, translator, and Bible lecturer—takes a look at the world in which the Bible was written and canonized, as well as several ancient texts that illuminate the Bible’s puzzles and elaborate on its stories. Unlike most such books, however, Hoffman’s latest work is aimed especially at lay readers who are unfamiliar with the apocrypha and the history of the Bible. Continue reading “Book Review: “The Bible’s Cutting Room Floor” by Joel M. Hoffman”

The Book of Enoch as the Background to 1 Peter, 2 Peter, and Jude

Elijah and Enoch - seventeenth-century icon, Historic Museum in Sanok, Poland (cropped)

Although the quotation of 1 Enoch in Jude 14–15 is often noted, the complex dependencies between 1 Enoch, Jude, and the Petrine epistles, as well as the general importance of the theology of 1 Enoch in the New Testament, often go under-appreciated. Taking a closer look at these books provides some insight into how early Christian authors adapted each others’ work and drew upon texts that were ultimately omitted from the Bible. The relationship between these books might also pose a problem for some conservative theologians and clergy who believe the Catholic epistles to be inerrant, but not earlier works like 1 Enoch. Continue reading “The Book of Enoch as the Background to 1 Peter, 2 Peter, and Jude”