A Funny Gaffe – fit for a Good Friday

The puzzle of Psalm 22

Jesus on crossA few years ago a friend and work colleague, J, wandered over to my desk. J was smart and educated – and definitely not a believer in the gospel. He was skeptical but somewhat curious which gave rise to some warm and open conversations between us. He had never really looked at the Bible so I encouraged him now and then to give it a go.

One day he came into my office with a Bible to show me that he was indeed taking a look. He had opened it randomly in the middle. I asked him what he was reading. I remember our conversation going something like this.

“I am reading in Psalm chapter 22”, he said (pronouncing the ‘P’ in Psalm).

“Really”, I said. “It is pronounced salm – without the ‘p’. Any idea what you are reading about?”

“I guess I am reading about the crucifixion of Jesus”, J replied.

“That’s a good guess”, I laughed. “But you are about one thousand years off. Psalm 22 was written by David around 1000 BC. Jesus’ crucifixion was in 30’s CE.”

J was not familiar with the books in the Bible and did not realize that the Psalms were not the accounts of Jesus’ life by his contemporaries. He had only heard some stories about Jesus, including his crucifixion, and randomly opening his Bible he stumbled on something that, from his perspective, seemed to describe the crucifixion, and not knowing any better, he just assumed it was the story of the crucifixion. He had made a little gaffe – an error- in his first Bible reading exercise. We had a chuckle over his first mis-step in Bible exegesis.

Then I asked J what he saw in Psalm 22 that made him think he was reading about the crucifixion of Jesus. Thus began our little on-the-spot investigative study. I invite you to consider some of the similarities we noticed by placing the passages side-by-side in a table. To help I have color matched the texts that are similar.

Comparison of Gospel accounts of the Crucifixion with the details in Psalm 22

Crucifixion details from the Gospels Psalm 22 – written 1000 BC
(Matthew 27: 31-48) ..Then they led him (Jesus) away to crucify him…. 39 Those who passed by hurled insults at him, shaking their heads 40 and saying, “… save yourself! Come down from the cross, if you are the Son of God!” 41 In the same way the chief priests, the teachers of the law and the elders mocked him. 42 “He saved others,” they said, “but he can’t save himself! He’s the king of Israel! Let him come down now from the cross, and we will believe in him. 43 He trusts in God. Let God rescue him now if he wants him,…About the ninth hour Jesus cried…“My God, My God, Why have you forsaken me?” …48 Immediately one of them ran and got a sponge. He filled it with wine vinegar, put it on a staff, and offered it to Jesus to drink.Mark 15: 16-2016 The soldiers led Jesus away… They put a purple robe on him, then twisted together a crown of thorns and set it on him. 18 And they began to call out to him, “Hail, king of the Jews!” 19 Again and again they struck him on the head with a staff and spit on him. Falling on their knees, they paid homage to him. 20 And when they had mocked him, they took off the purple robe and put his own clothes on him. Then they led him out to crucify him…37 With a loud cry, Jesus breathed his last.(JOHN 19:34) they did not break his legs..., pierced Jesus’ side with a spear, bringing a sudden flow of blood and water.…they crucified him… (JOHN 20:25) [Thomas] unless I see the nail marks in his hands ,…”…JOHN 20:23-24 When the soldiers crucified Jesus, they took his clothes, dividing them into four shares, one for each of them, with the undergarment remaining…Let’s not tear it”, they said,”Let’s decide by lot who gets it” My God, my God, why have you forsaken me?
Why are you so far from saving me,
so far from my cries of anguish?
My God, I cry out by day, but you do not answer,
by night, but I find no rest…All who see me mock me;
they hurl insults, shaking their heads.
“He trusts in the Lord,” they say,
“let the Lord rescue him.
Let him deliver him,
since he delights in him.”Yet you brought me out of the womb;
you made me trust in you, even at my mother’s breast.
10 From birth I was cast on you;
from my mother’s womb you have been my God.11 Do not be far from me,
for trouble is near
and there is no one to help.12 Many bulls surround me;
strong bulls of Bashan encircle me.
13 Roaring lions that tear their prey
open their mouths wide against me.
14 I am poured out like water,
and all my bones are out of joint.
My heart has turned to wax;
it has melted within me.
15 My mouth is dried up like a potsherd,
and my tongue sticks to the roof of my mouth;
you lay me in the dust of death.16 Dogs surround me,
a pack of villains encircles me;
they pierce my hands and my feet.
17 All my bones are on display;
people stare and gloat over me.
18 They divide my clothes among them
and cast lots for my garment.

The fact that J, being astute but not familiar with the Bible, made the logical but wrong conclusion that Psalm 22 was an eye-witness account of the Good Friday crucifixion, should make us ask a question. How do we explain the similarity between these accounts? Can we write it off to chance coincidence that the details can match so precisely as to include that the clothes would BOTH be divided (the clothes with seams were split along the seams and passed out among the soldiers) AND have lots cast (the garment without the seam would be ruined by tearing it so they through dice for it). Psalm 22 was written before crucifixion was invented but it uncannily describes its various details (piercing of hands and feet, bones being out of joint – by being stretched as the victim hangs). In addition, the Gospel of John states that blood and water flowed out when the spear was thrust in Jesus’ side, indicating a fluid buildup in the pericardium cavity around the heart. Jesus thus died of a heart attack.  This matches the Psalm 22 description of ‘my heart has turned to wax’. The Hebrew word in Psalm 22 which is translated ‘pierced’ literally means ‘like a lion’. In other words the hand and feet were mutilated and mauled as they were pierced. So, what to make of all this?

Jesus, through the pens of the Gospel writers, argued that these similarities were prophetic. God inspired Old Testament prophets hundreds of years prior to Jesus’ life to predict details of his life and death so that we can know that this was all in the plan of God. Prophetic fulfillment is like having a Divine signature on these events of Good Friday since no human can know the future like this.

Bart Ehrman’s explanation

Bart Ehrman, renowned Bible scholar and arch Gospel critic, counters that the prophetic credentials of Psalm 22 are suspect because the whole thrust of the Gospel story was that the ‘Messiah’ or Christ was the one that was supposed to be sacrificed and Psalm 22 says nothing of the victim being the ‘Messiah’. As he states it

“But what to do with the fact that there were no Jewish prophecies that the Messiah would suffer and die?” (Bart Ehrman, Jesus Interrupted. p. 234)

But this raises another issue. It is not that there is just one prophecy (like Psalm 22) that Jesus was to fulfill, but there are scores of them. These are testable predictions by different authors in different time periods and social strata through the Old Testament. So, to take Ehrman at his challenge, Daniel, living in exile in Babylon around 550 BC had a vision in which he was told the following prophetic riddle:

“Know and understand this: From the issuing of the decree to restore and rebuild Jerusalem until the Anointed One, the ruler comes, there will be seven ‘sevens’ and sixty-two ‘sevens’. It will be rebuilt with streets and a trench, but in times of trouble. After the sixty-two ‘sevens’ the Anointed One will be cut off and will have nothing… ” (Daniel 9:25-26)

Hmm. My deepest respects to the New Testament scholar but he missed this in the Old Testament. Here, exactly as he challenged, is a prophecy that the ‘Anointed One’ (= Christ = Messiah) would be ‘cut off’. The timing of this and the details of ‘cut off’, which foresaw the meaning of Jesus’ death, flatly refutes Ehrman’s assertion that there is no Old Testament prophecy where the ‘Christ’ was to suffer and die.

Spong’s explanation

Others, like Shelby Spong (in That Hebrew Lord), argue that the similarity of Psalm 22 with the events of crucifixion of Good Friday are simply due to the fact that the Gospel writers made the events up to ‘fit’ the prophecy. His detailed verse-by-verse analysis showing the similarities between Psalm 22 and Jesus’ crucifixion in the Gospel accounts is data to support his theory that the Gospel writers made up the crucifixion events, taking the details from Psalm 22. At the very least, Spong’s theory means that he thinks the similarities demand an explanation. But his explanation totally ignores the testimony of historians from that time outside of the Bible. Josephus and Tacitus respectively tell us that:

“At this time there was a wise man … Jesus. … good, and … virtuous. And many people from among the Jews and the other nations became his disciples. Pilate condemned Him to be crucified and to die.” (Josephus. 90AD. Antiquities xviii. 33   Josephus was a Jewish Historian)

“Christus, the founder of the name, was put to death by Pontius Pilate, procurator of Judea in the reign of Tiberius” (Tacitus. 117 AD. Annals XV. 44.  Tacitus was a Roman Historian)

Their testimony agrees in broad-brush strokes with the gospels that Jesus was indeed crucified. This is important because many of the details in Psalm 22 are simply particulars of the act of being crucified. If the gospel writers were going to make up or grossly distort the actual events to make them ‘fit’ Psalm 22 then they would basically have had to make up the whole crucifixion, yet no one denies his crucifixion, and Josephus explicitly states that this is how he was executed.

Psalm 22 and Jesus’ legacy

But Psalm 22 does not end at v18 in the table above – it continues seamlessly on. Note here how triumphant the mood is at the end –after the person is dead!

26 The poor will eat and be satisfied; they who seek the LORD will praise him— may your hearts live forever!

27 All the ends of the earth will remember and turn to the LORD,
and all the families of the nations will bow down before him,

28 for dominion belongs to the LORD and he rules over the nations.

29 All the rich of the earth will feast and worship; all who go down to the dust will kneel before him— those who cannot keep themselves alive.

30 Posterity will serve him; future generations will be told about the Lord.

31 They will proclaim his righteousness to a people yet unborn— for he has done it. (Psalm 22:26-31)

Notice that this is not talking at all about details of the events of this person’s death. That was dealt with in the first section of the Psalm. The psalmist is now addressing the impact of that person’s death on ‘posterity’ and ‘future generations’ (v.30). That is us living 2000 years later.  He tells us that  ‘posterity’ which follows this ‘pierced’ man who died such a horrible death will ‘serve’ him and be ‘told about him’.  Verse 27 predicts the geographic scope of the impact – it will go to the ‘ends of the earth’ and among ‘all families of nations’ and cause them to ‘turn to the LORD’. Verse 29 indicates how ‘those who cannot keep themselves alive’ (since we all die would that not be all of us?) will one day kneel before him. The righteousness of this man will be proclaimed to people who were not yet alive (the ‘yet unborn’) at the time of his death.

One could not make a better prediction of the subsequent legacy of the death of Jesus than Psalm 22 does. Two thousand years after Jesus amid global Good Friday celebrations this week highlight the worldwide impact of Jesus’ death, fulfilling the conclusion of Psalm 22 as uncannily as the earlier verses predicted the details of his death. Who else in world history can even make a claim that details of his death as well as the legacy of his life into the distant future would be predicted 1000 years before he lived?

The conclusion in Psalm 22 has nothing to do with whether the gospel accounts borrowed from it or not because it is now dealing with much later events – those of our time. The gospel writers, in the 1st century could not make up the impact of the death of Jesus into our time. How does Spong incorporate this fact in his explanation? He doesn’t. He ignores this latter part of Psalm 22.

Perhaps, like my friend J, you will take the opportunity this Good Friday to consider Psalm 22 in light of Jesus’ crucifixion. It will take more mental effort than if you just coasted through Good Friday. And you may make some gaffes as you engage with the text like J did. But don’t let that stop you. As you can see, even the most well-known of scholars make gaffes over Psalm 22. The reward is worth the risk because the man whom I believe Psalm 22 is referring to promised:

I have come that they may have life and have it to the full

That would make this Easter fulfilling indeed.  Here is the full Psalm 22, and the crucifixion account according to Matthew, Mark, Luke and John.  May you experience some of that not only this Good Friday but through the year as well.

Prudence in the rising wake of an ancient Apocalyptic Speech

The Bible unapologetically tilts to the future. From the Beginning back in the Garden to the very last chapter of the last book there is a steady stream of prophecies directing our thoughts to events yet to come. You can recognize these predictions by the repeated use of ‘will’ – as in the future-tense verb. Such-and-such ‘will’ happen is stated again and again throughout the Book.

There are no doubt many reasons for this. For starters, since no human knows the future, it serves as a testable signature to verify if indeed there is a Divine Mind behind those writings, separating would be pretenders from the Real. Reflect on how key events of Abraham as well as the Passover fit like a key in a lock with the crucifixion of Jesus. Prophecies as predictions of the future thus help our minds recognize truth.

Our lives are also full of trials and heartaches wherein we regularly suffer profound loss. We long for a better world and many of us despair that it will ever come about. So we need encouragement. Many Bible prophecies look to a better future and are given as encouragement so we do not lose hope. “The Kingdom of God will be established and peace one day will reign – so do not give up now” is the thrust of many prophecies, providing needed comfort, strengthening us emotionally.

But there is yet another reason for prophecies. Some confront our wills – the part of us that makes choices – to warn us of hard consequences in the future if we do not change the direction we have chosen for ourselves. These are probably the most difficult for us to accept (at least that is true for me) precisely because they oppose our inborn tendency of not wanting anyone, whether God or man, to speak warning into our lives.

Some prophecies combine all these elements. And no prophet does so with better effect than Jesus himself. He gave future-looking prophecies, apocalyptic even, that somehow provide comfort, engage our minds – and yet still confront our wills.

Events this week brought one of his apocalyptic speeches to my mind, causing me to ask whether we are seeing it (parts at least) unfolding in front of our eyes – and on our websites and TV screens. The complete discourse is in the link here. Below are  highlights.

Some of his disciples were remarking about how the temple was adorned with beautiful stones and with gifts dedicated to God. But Jesus said, “As for what you see here, the time will come when not one stone will be left on another; every one of them will be thrown down.”

“Teacher,” they asked, “when will these things happen? And what will be the sign that they are about to take place?”

He replied: “… 20 When you see Jerusalem being surrounded by armies, you will know that its desolation is near. 21 Then let those who are in Judea flee to the mountains, let those in the city get out, and let those in the country not enter the city. 22 For this is the time of punishment in fulfillment of all that has been written … against this people. 24 They will fall by the sword and will be taken as prisoners to all the nations. Jerusalem will be trampled on by the Gentiles until the times of the Gentiles are fulfilled.

Destruction of Jerusalem prophesied

The phrase I underlined is a tipping point pushing people to vastly different conclusions. We know from history that the Romans sacked Jerusalem in 70 AD and expelled the Jews living there across the Roman Empire – mostly as slaves – exactly as the underlined section states. It indicates it will occur in Jesus’ future (note the ‘will’s). So is this a case of prophecy? Some say ‘yes’. But Luke authored this Gospel some years after Jesus. Perhaps he authored it after 70 AD and, knowing the events that had transpired, put the ‘prophecy’ in Jesus’ mouth to give him robust prophetic credentials. In fact, most scholars date Luke after 70 AD precisely because it makes this very prediction. In this logic, since prophesy is impossible (they assume), the only way to explain it is to set the date of authorship after 70 AD.

The conclusion of the Gentiles over Jerusalem prophesied

What seems to get missed in the authorship controversy is that Jesus continued seamlessly along and predicted that the Gentile (i.e. non-Jew) control of Jerusalem, initiated in 70 AD with its destruction, would end one day, when ‘the times of the Gentiles are fulfilled’. This is the part I have bolded. For thousands of years, one Gentile group after another swapped control of that city. But that all changed in 1967, when it was captured by the new state of Israel in the Six-Day war – and Gentiles now no longer control that city. Whatever one chooses to believe about it, whether one ‘likes’ it or not, this part of the prophecy was fulfilled – along with all its attendant issues – and certainly it was not because Luke inked it in after the fact.

Roaring and tossing of the sea prophesied

But maybe it was just a lucky guess, bound to come true eventually by chance. Jesus’ speech continues on:

25 “There will be signs in the sun, moon and stars. On the earth, nations will be in anguish and perplexity at the roaring and tossing of the sea.

Last week the nations witnessed Cyclone Pam rip through and devastate islands in the South Pacific. Consider some headlines through the lens of this prediction of the ‘roaring and tossing of the sea’

Devastation from Cyclone Pam in Vanuatu - March 2015

Devastation from Cyclone Pam in Vanuatu – March 2015

We have been hearing for a while now of the threat of sea level rise and the increased intensity of ocean storms. Cyclone Pam was just the latest exhibit in lengthening line-up of such stories we now commonly hear. Something is changing in the seas such that they now ‘roar’ and ‘toss’.

The perplexity of the nations prophesied

But Jesus was not just talking about the sea itself, but about ‘the nations’ and their perplexity of what to do about this rising problem. In a twist of irony, while his country was being devastated by Cyclone Pam, Vanuatu President Baldwin Lonsdale was in Japan attending a United Nations conference on how to understand and deal with these rising storms.  As the United Nations bulletin expressed it

Devastation in cyclone’s wake illustrates need for targeted disaster response, Pacific leaders say at UN conference

Jesus’ predictions of the ‘nations’ being in ‘anguish’ and ‘perplexity’ with the problem of increasing storms on the seas was vividly illustrated for us. We may think it is obvious that ‘nations’ will convene to discuss and fret about global problems – but that certainly was not a given in the 1st Century when nations did not exist in a global community like they do today. Jesus’ words anticipated the context of nations, the endless discussions and forums amongst nations about the ‘sea’, as well as the sea itself. That starts to intrigue me.

Netanyahu at Western Wall of ancient Second Temple in Jerusalem after winning elections in March 2015

Netanyahu at Western Wall of ancient Second Temple in Jerusalem after winning elections in March 2015

This all happened as the Israeli elections results were agonized all the world over. This picture of Netanyahu at the Western Wall of the Temple (destroyed in 70 AD as predicted in the Speech) reminding us of Jewish re-control of that sensitive area after 2000 years, in the same week as the devastation of the ‘roaring and tossing’ of Cyclone Pam, seem almost like Someone is adding pictures to go along with the text of Jesus’ ancient speech.

The Celestial Bodies

But what to make of this other prediction in Jesus’ speech, that of ‘signs in the sun, moon and stars’? Frankly, it is not clear to me. The recent spectacular eclipse that made headlines around the world is actually part of a series of ‘blood’ moon events that have been coinciding with the last Jewish festivals of Passover and Sukhot for which the secular Times of Israel published an interesting article. Is there a ‘sign’ in that?  Perhaps.  Jesus concludes his speech with the following:

28 When these things begin to take place, stand up and lift up your heads, because your redemption is drawing near.”

29 He told them this parable: “Look at the fig tree and all the trees. 30 When they sprout leaves, you can see for yourselves and know that summer is near. 31 Even so, when you see these things happening, you know that the kingdom of God is near.

This was given to reassure, as a comfort. It also indicated that these events will occur progressively. Not all will be clear at once. But when they ‘begin’ we can know that the Kingdom is ‘near’.

In American baseball, only the exceptional batter ever reaches a batting average of .333. This means that he gets out twice as often as he makes first base. Yet pitchers regularly walk those batters. Why? Because they prudently recognize that 1 hit for every 3 at bats is very good and it is prudent to walk such a batter rather than risk a hit. If that is true for batters at .333 how about for the record in this Speech? Perhaps not everything is clear yet. But enough seems to be happening that at the very least it would be prudent to take it seriously – just like pitchers take a .333 batter seriously.

The Warning

Jesus adds the following footnote to his Speech

34 “Be careful, or your hearts will be weighed down with carousing, drunkenness and the anxieties of life, and that day will close on you suddenly like a trap. 35 For it will come on all those who live on the face of the whole earth. 36 Be always on the watch, and pray that you may be able to escape all that is about to happen, and that you may be able to stand before the Son of Man.”

True to form, this is the part we do not like because it is a warning challenging our wills and therefore we would prefer to ignore the whole speech, hoping it will just go away. But if we are prudent we will recognize that Jesus, master teacher that he was, combined elements in his Apocalyptic speech to reach our minds, our emotions and our wills – for our good. I know that I am planning to keep ‘watch’ as I go about the life that has been given to me.

Laying claim to St. Patrick – luck of the Irish or ‘The Voice’?

Many nations claim great men in their heritage. For example, America has Abraham Lincoln, Britain has Churchill, and South Africa has Nelson Mandela. Though I admire these men for what they overcame and accomplished with their political power, I still find them worlds apart from St. Patrick because of what he accomplished without power. Unfortunately for most of us, St. Patrick lies somewhere between legend, Leprechauns, green outfits, and a good excuse for an evening of excess drinking. But your life has been impacted by Patrick in substantial ways so it is worthwhile to get a mental sketch of the man and his contribution even into today.

We associate Patrick with the Irish, but few realize that he was not an Irishman by birth. No, he went through an extraordinary baptism of kidnapping and slavery, followed by escape and then a voluntary return to civilize his former captors. How many other nations can claim that in their heritage? The Luck of the Irish has been running its streak for a long time indeed. Or was it something else?

Life of Patrick – from his Confessions

Patrick was born in Britain when the Roman Legions had left the British Isles in the early 400’s CE. Britain was a lawless place then full of anarchy, looting and kidnapping. In His Confession (one of two of his extant writings) he states that when he was ‘sixteen’ (Confessions 1) or “almost a beardless boy” (Confessions 10) he was captured by Irish slave-traders, taken to Ireland, sold as a slave where he tended his master’s herds (probably pigs) for seven years. Back home his grandfather had been a priest and his father a deacon so he had been raised in a relatively well-off household. However he had never accepted true faith. He describes himself in his youth as a “sinner”, who along with his hometown friends “did not keep His (God’s) precepts, nor were we obedient” (Confessions 1). However, during his lonely years in a barbaric place, amidst a foreign language, strange customs and deprived opportunities, the teachings sown into his heart in childhood sprang to life. He describes his herder life as one

“…out in the forests and on the mountain … in the snow, in icy coldness, in rain…” (Confessions 16)

where

“…there the Lord opened my mind to an awareness of my unbelief” (Confessions 2)

Then his story decidedly becomes ‘different’ because he states that he heard a voice in his sleep which said

“ ‘…soon you will depart for your home country.’ And again, a very short time later, there was a voice prophesying: ‘Behold, your ship is ready.’ “ (Confessions 17)

So he escaped, travelling 200 miles to a ship which took him aboard. After briefly being recaptured and escaping again he made his way home. His family ‘welcomed’ (Confessions 23) him back. By all accounts the story should have had its Happy Ending right there with Patrick living out his life comfortably back home.

But that was not to be. The “Voice of the Irish” (Confessions 23) spoke again begged him

‘…that you shall come and shall walk again among us.’ (Confessions 23)

Who was this Voice? Patrick writes that on other occasions It said

‘He who gave his life for you, he it is who speaks within you.’ (Confessions 24)

But then accusations from his hometown elders, reminding him of his unworthiness for such a venture due to his youthful ‘sins’ (Confessions 26-27) stood in the way of his plan to go back to live amongst those who had enslaved him. This rebuke from his own countrymen who did not support him, allowed him to see that

still, I was only concerned for myself (Confessions 28)

But with further encouragement from the Voice (Confessions 29) Patrick faced his hometown naysayers such that

… guided by God, I neither agreed with them nor deferred to them, not by my own grace but by God who is victorious in me and withstands them all, so that I might come to the Irish people to preach the Gospel and endure insults from unbelievers; that I might hear scandal of my travels, and endure many persecutions to the extent of prison; and so that I might give up my free birthright for the advantage of others (Confessions 37)

So Patrick went back and spent the rest of his life in Ireland without the sanction of the Roman Catholic Church (the ultimate authority in Europe back then) or the support of his own people. In fact they opposed it. Intriguingly, Historian Philip Schaff states that in the conflux of political and religious power-brokers of that day

Pope Caelestine, in 431, ordained and sent Palladius, a Roman deacon, and probably a native Briton … as their (Irish’s) first bishop… But Palladius was so discouraged that he soon abandoned the field, with his assistants, for North Britain, where he died among the Picts (i.e., Scots). For nearly two centuries after this date, we have no authentic record of papal intercourse with Ireland … It was converted by two humble individuals, who probably never saw Rome, St. Patrick, once a slave, and St. Bridget, the daughter of a slave-mother … The Roman mission of Palladius failed; the independent mission of Patrick succeeded.” Philip Schaff, History of the Christian Church Vol IV, p. 45

As Patrick himself asked

So, how is it that in Ireland, where they never had any knowledge of God but, always, until now, cherished idols and unclean things, they are lately become a people of the Lord, and are called children of God. (Confessions 41)

With not much but that Voice to guide him through the many years of hard work in Ireland, Patrick reported that

What is more, when I baptized so many thousands of people, did I hope for even half a jot from any of them? [If so] Tell me, and I will give it back to you. And when the Lord ordained clergy everywhere by my humble means, and I freely conferred office on them, if I asked any of them anywhere even for the price of one shoe, say so to my face and I will give it back. (Confessions 50)

Patrick concluded with his conviction that

But I entreat those who believe in and fear God, whoever deigns to examine or receive this document composed by the obviously unlearned sinner Patrick in Ireland, that nobody shall ever ascribe to my ignorance any trivial thing that I achieved or may have expounded that was pleasing to God, but accept and truly believe that it would have been the gift of God. And this is my confession before I die. (Confessions 62)

Patrick’s Legacy

Schaff goes on to describe the impact of Patrick’s life on succeeding generations of Europe in these words

“In less than a century after St. Patrick’s death Ireland was covered with churches and convents for men and women. The monastic institutions were training schools … and workshops for transcribing sacred books“ Philip Schaff, p. 52

So when the rest of Europe was sinking into the dark ages of ignorance in the dissolution of the Roman Empire Ireland was investing in “training schools” and ‘books’. Concurrently

“Ireland dreamed the dream of converting heathen Europe. Its apostles went forth to Scotland, North Britain, France, Germany, Switzerland and North Italy. They covered the land and seas of the West. Unwearied navigators, they landed on the most desert islands; they overflowed the continent with their successive imaginations.” Philip Schaff, p. 53

And when they got to their destinations across Europe these bands of people founded ‘primitive’ Keltic Monasteries. Schaff explains:

“By a primitive Keltic monastery we must not understand an elaborate stone structure, but a rude village of wooden huts … on a river, with a church, a common eating hall, a mill, a hospice, the whole surrounded by a wall of earth or stone. The senior monks gave themselves entirely to devotion and transcribing of the Scriptures … they were training schools … offering them (pagan converts) a refuge from danger and violence. They were resorted to by English noblemen who were … furnished with books and instructed. Some Irish clergymen could read the Greek Testament at a time when Pope Gregory I was ignorant of Greek.” Philip Schaff, p. 56-57

No wonder Thomas Cahill, in his historical survey of the Irish in this period entitled his book How the Irish Saved Civilization. When the Greco-Roman world was dissolving such that neither the educated brilliant like Augustine of Hippo, nor the ecclesiastical authority of the Roman Church, nor the might of kings and nobles could preserve civilization, it was the humble Irish monks that kept learning and civilization alive. You and I are beneficiaries of this today.

As we live in our society, with an education and knowledge advanced far beyond that of classical Rome, but with a decadence that in many ways surpasses the self-indulgence of that era, we will have different explanations as to what that ‘Voice’ really was that spoke to Patrick so long ago. Was he simply hearing things? Or did Someone actually speak to him? But if that is the case why is He not speaking today?

Here are a few ruminations I am contemplating this St. Patrick’s Day

1)      Humility breathes all across the short Confessions of St. Patrick. Has our learning and knowledge puffed our pride more than it has increased our wisdom?   In the Book He states that He is

…opposed to the proud but shows favor to the humble (1 Peter 5:5)

Perhaps our pride coupled with all the noisy props and entertainments we have built around us render us unable to hear.  Maybe we need first, like Patrick needed, to strip our lives a bit more bare so our minds can be opened to an awareness of our real state.

2)      Many of the manuscripts that those Irish monks transcribed are still around and form part of the vast collection of 24 000 extant manuscripts giving evidence of a reliably preserved New Testament text. Perhaps we can start there to hear this Voice

3)      It is easy to simply look and listen at the established churches of our day, and in seeing/hearing something we do not like, cease to listen for a deeper tune. We prefer to chalk up the whole gospel to some Roman conspiracy of Constantine. Patrick’s life shows clearly that the gospel is not derived from there. Though Constantine introduced certain controversial customs and dates, Patrick’s customs and holidays, which differed from that of Rome, show that the Voice was not a church conspiracy.

4)      Perhaps there is a tie-in between this Voice and the man for whom a case for resurrection can be made.  If that were true he would be alive and ready to Speak.

Your take-aways may differ from mine, but hopefully it will be more than just drinking green beer this St. Patrick’s Day.  Patrick’s legacy and gift to us deserves more than that.

Confessions of the Real Housewife of 50 Shades of Grey

Last week I was on a long-haul driving trip.  That meant I spent a lot of time listening to the radio as I passed station after station’s coverage area.   The domination (no pun intended) of ’50 Shades of Grey’ in the theatres made for plenty of juicy radio talk.  The box office success of the erotic romance matched the success of the ‘Fifty Shades’ book trilogy which has sold over 100 million copies and been translated into 50 languages!  It seems like both publishing companies and Hollywood have found another lucrative formula with global appeal – an S&M form of romance-porn.

I must admit that I have not seen the movie, nor have I read the books, and I confess that neither is on my bucket list.   Perhaps my lack of partaking will simply be dismissed as prudishness in the eyes of many.  After all, what’s the harm with a little bit of fun many (100 million across 50 nations at least) would probably ask me.

But I was intrigued to find out that I am not alone in my abstinence.  It turns out that Amelia Warner, the real (house)wife of Jamie Dornan (the actor playing Christian Grey in Fifty Shades) also will not be seeing the movie.

According to Australian magazine NW, Dornan’s wife, English actress-singer Amelia Warner, is unhappy with him starring in explicit sex scenes in the film.

“Jamie said the movie would skyrocket his career. He tried to assure Amelia nothing would change but women all over the world now lust after Jamie. She hasn’t seen the film and I don’t think she will to be honest,” an insider said, according to the Mirror.

Dornan himself said about this

“She doesn’t want to watch this,” he said. “She wants to support me and my work. I won’t be able to sit there myself. I am not going to put any pressure on her either way. It’s her decision. She’s well aware that it’s pretend, but it’s probably not that comfortable to watch.”

Hmm.  If this is not ‘comfortable’ for the wife of the actor himself and it makes her ‘unhappy’ we can surmise something about the state of his real-life love, and also surmise something about ourselves from this confession.  I would like to do so through the pen of C.S. Lewis.   His take on human sexuality seems shrewdly (to me) tough but spot-on and so has informed my sensibilities.  These words were originally broadcast across Britain in the 1940’s and then put into print in the early 1950’s.  So they come from a different era – one that we view today as prudish.  In that light notice how he paints the situation in his day and observe how his predictions have come of age in our day.

Chastity is the most unpopular of the Christian virtues. There is no getting away from it: the old Christian rule is, “Either marriage, with complete faithfulness to your partner, or else total abstinence.” Now this is so difficult and so contrary to our instincts that obviously either Christianity is wrong or our sexual instinct, as it now is, has gone wrong. One or the other. Of course, being a Christian, I think it is the instinct which has gone wrong.

But I have other reasons for thinking so. The biological purpose of sex is children, just as the biological purpose of eating is to repair the body. Now if we eat whenever we feel inclined and just as much as we want, it is quite true that most of us will eat too much: but not terrifically too much. One man may eat enough for two, but he does not eat enough for ten. The appetite goes a little beyond its biological purpose, but not enormously. But if a healthy young man indulged his sexual appetite whenever he felt inclined, and if each act produced a baby, then in ten years he might easily populate a small village. This appetite is in ludicrous and preposterous excess of its function.

Or take it another way. You can get a large audience together for a strip-tease act—that is, to watch a girl undress on the stage. Now suppose you came to a country where you could fill a theatre by simply bringing a covered plate on to the stage and then slowly lifting the cover so as to let everyone see, just before the lights went out, that it contained a mutton chop or a bit of bacon, would you not think that in that country something had gone wrong with the appetite for food? And would not anyone who had grown up in a different world think there was something equally queer about the state of the sex instinct among us?

One critic said that if he found a country in which such striptease acts with food were popular, he would conclude that the people of that country were starving. He meant, of course, to imply that such things as the strip-tease act resulted not from sexual corruption but from sexual starvation. I agree with him that if, in some strange land, we found that similar acts with mutton chops were popular, one of the possible explanations which would occur to me would be famine.

But the next step would be to test our hypothesis by finding out whether, in fact, much or little food was being consumed in that country. If the evidence showed that a good deal was being eaten, then of course we should have to abandon the hypothesis of starvation and try to think of another one.

In the same way, before accepting sexual starvation as the cause of the strip-tease, we should have to look for evidence that there is in fact more sexual abstinence in our age than in those ages when things like the strip-tease were unknown. But surely there is no such evidence.

Contraceptives have made sexual indulgence far less costly within marriage and far safer outside it than ever before, and public opinion is less hostile to illicit unions and even to perversion than it has been since Pagan times. Nor is the hypothesis of “starvation” the only one we can imagine. Everyone knows that the sexual appetite, like our other appetites, grows by indulgence. Starving men may think much about food, but so do gluttons; the gorged, as well as the famished, like titillations.

Here is a third point. You find very few people who want to eat things that really are not food or to do other things with food instead of eating it. In other words, perversions of the food appetite are rare. But perversions of the sex instinct are numerous, hard to cure, and frightful. I am sorry to have to go into all these details, but I must. The reason why I must is that you and I, for the last twenty years, have been fed all day long on good solid lies about sex. We have been told, till one is sick of hearing it, that sexual desire is in the same state as any of our other natural desires and that if only we abandon the silly old Victorian idea of hushing it up, everything in the garden will be lovely. It is not true. The moment you look at the facts, and away from the propaganda, you see that it is not. They tell you sex has become a mess because it was hushed up.

But for the last twenty years it has not been hushed up. It has been chattered about all day long. Yet it is still in a mess. If hushing up had been the cause of the trouble, ventilation would have set it right. But it has not. I think it is the other way round. I think the human race originally hushed it up because it had become such a mess. Modern people are always saying, “Sex is nothing to be ashamed of.” They may mean two things. They may mean “There is nothing to be ashamed of in the fact that the human race reproduces itself in a certain way, nor in the fact that it gives pleasure.” If they mean that, they are right. Christianity says the same. It is not the thing, nor the pleasure, that is the trouble.

You and I both know that since Lewis wrote those words in the 1940/50’s we as a society have gone much further down the road of indulgence.  We are fed a constant chattering of sex through all media channels – more than Lewis could even have imagined just a few decades ago.  So have these intervening decades of further indulgence satisfied our sexual appetites or only inflamed them to higher levels?  The latest ‘Exhibit A’ – 50 Shades – shows clearly that our appetites are only being inflamed to such an extent that those involved are even uncomfortable.  As we continue to scratch our sexual itch it only gets itchier.  Perhaps Lewis was on to something then.   He continues on with his food metaphor.

There is nothing to be ashamed of in enjoying your food: there would be everything to be ashamed of if half the world made food the main interest of their lives and spent their time looking at pictures of food and dribbling and smacking their lips. I do not say you and I are individually responsible for the present situation. Our ancestors have handed over to us organisms which are warped in this respect: and we grow up surrounded by propaganda in favour of unchastity.

There are people who want to keep our sex instinct inflamed in order to make money out of us. Because, of course, a man with an obsession is a man who has very little sales-resistance. God knows our situation; He will not judge us as if we had no difficulties to overcome. What matters is the sincerity and perseverance of our will to overcome them.

Sex sells.  We all know that.  But why?  Lewis argues that it is because there is something gone awry with our sexuality.  Something that the Bible indicates happened at the dawn of humanity.  If that is the case our consumption of sexual showbiz is not a consequence-less entertainment.  It is feeding the cancer within.  Instead of feeding it we need to cure it.  But as Lewis says.

Before we can be cured we must want to be cured. Those who really wish for help will get it; but for many modern people even the wish is difficult. It is easy to think that we want something when we do not really want it. A famous Christian long ago told us that when he was a young man he prayed constantly for chastity; but years later he realised that while his lips had been saying, “Oh Lord, make me chaste,” his heart had been secretly adding, “But please don’t do it just yet.” This may happen in prayers for other virtues too; but there are three reasons why it is now specially difficult for us to desire—let alone to achieve—complete chastity.

In the first place our warped natures, the devils who tempt us, and all the contemporary propaganda for lust, combine to make us feel that the desires we are resisting are so “natural,” so “healthy,” and so reasonable, that it is almost perverse and abnormal to resist them. Poster after poster, film after film, novel after novel, associate the idea of sexual indulgence with the ideas of health, normality, youth, frankness, and good humour.

Now this association is a lie. Like all powerful lies, it is based on a truth—the truth, acknowledged above, that sex in itself (apart from the excesses and obsessions that have grown round it) is “normal” and “healthy,” and all the rest of it. The lie consists in the suggestion that any sexual act to which you are tempted at the moment is also healthy and normal. Now this, on any conceivable view, and quite apart from Christianity, must be nonsense. Surrender to all our desires obviously leads to impotence, disease, jealousies, lies, concealment, and everything that is the reverse of health, good humour, and frankness.

For any happiness, even in this world, quite a lot of restraint is going to be necessary; so the claim made by every desire, when it is strong, to be healthy and reasonable, counts for nothing. Every sane and civilised man must have some set of principles by which he chooses to reject some of his desires and to permit others. One man does this on Christian principles, another on hygienic principles, another on sociological principles. The real conflict is not between Christianity and “nature,” but between Christian principle and other principles in the control of “nature.” For “nature” (in the sense of natural desire) will have to be controlled anyway, unless you are going to ruin your whole life. The Christian principles are, admittedly, stricter than the others; but then we think you will get help towards obeying them which you will not get towards obeying the others.

In the second place, many people are deterred from seriously attempting Christian chastity because they think (before trying) that it is impossible. But when a thing has to be attempted, one must never think about possibility or impossibility. Faced with an optional question in an examination paper, one considers whether one can do it or not: faced with a compulsory question, one must do the best one can. You may get some marks for a very imperfect answer: you will certainly get none for leaving the question alone. Not only in examinations but in war, in mountain climbing, in learning to skate, or swim, or ride a bicycle, even in fastening a stiff collar with cold fingers, people quite often do what seemed impossible before they did it. It is wonderful what you can do when you have to.

We may, indeed, be sure that perfect chastity—like perfect charity—will not be attained by any merely human efforts. You must ask for God’s help. Even when you have done so, it may seem to you for a long time that no help, or less help than you need, is being given. Never mind. After each failure, ask forgiveness, pick yourself up, and try again. Very often what God first helps us towards is not the virtue itself but just this power of always trying again. For however important chastity (or courage, or truthfulness, or any other virtue) may be, this process trains us in habits of the soul which are more important still. It cures our illusions about ourselves and teaches us to depend on God. We learn, on the one hand, that we cannot trust ourselves even in our best moments, and, on the other, that we need not despair even in our worst, for our failures are forgiven. The only fatal thing is to sit down content with anything less than perfection.

Thirdly, people often misunderstand what psychology teaches about “repressions.” It teaches us that “repressed” sex is dangerous. But “repressed” is here a technical term: it does not mean “suppressed” in the sense of “denied” or “resisted.” A repressed desire or thought is one which has been thrust into the subconscious (usually at a very early age) and can now come before the mind only in a disguised and unrecognisable form. Repressed sexuality does not appear to the patient to be sexuality at all.

When an adolescent or an adult is engaged in resisting a conscious desire, he is not dealing with a repression nor is he in the least danger of creating a repression. On the contrary, those who are seriously attempting chastity are more conscious, and soon know a great deal more about their own sexuality than anyone else. They come to know their desires as Wellington knew Napoleon, or as Sherlock Holmes knew Moriarty; as a rat-catcher knows rats or a plumber knows about leaky pipes. Virtue—even attempted virtue—brings light; indulgence brings fog.

(C.S. Lewis, Mere Christianity, p49-53)

Everyone who has accomplished anything knows that Lewis is correct in his main point.  Success has come from restraint and discipline.  Whether it is business, athletic, artistic, or educational accomplishments impulses to laziness, gluttony have had to be restrained.  A restraint-free life will not build into society.  Instead it will break it down.  Neither will a restraint free life help in securing the relationships we were made for.  Why should it be different with our sexuality?

Don’t take my word for it, or Lewis’s.  Amelia Warner’s actions – that of the real housewife – speak for themselves.

Oh … and what about Dakota Johnson the actress playing the sexual ‘love’ interest of Christian Grey in 50 Shades?  What is her take on all this?  She is happy with all the starlet money and fame she has now obtained.  But, like Dornan, all is not so rosy in the ‘real’ world.  She has now split with her real boyfriend in the wake of the film.  50 Shades of Grey is turning out rather to be another verse in 50 Ways to Leave your Lover.  We would be prudent to take note.

Halloween II: The zombie coming to life before our ears as well as our eyes

Halloween is just around the corner, when we celebrate the macabre and the scary, with ghosts, skeletons and zombies ‘in costume’ being seen and heard. With this focus the vast majority of us are missing the real zombie coming to life. If we listen carefully we will even be able to hear it. This zombie has been dead a long time – almost 2000 years – but her coming to life was predicted even further back.

Last Halloween, I introduced the Dry Bones that Ezekiel saw 2600 years ago coming to life. Here is a quick re-cap of what he saw:

… the bones covered the valley floor. They were scattered everywhere across the ground and were completely dried out. … Suddenly as I spoke, there was a rattling noise all across the valley. The bones of each body came together and attached themselves as complete skeletons. Then as I watched, muscles and flesh formed over the bones. Then skin formed to cover their bodies, but they still had no breath in them…. Then he said … “Come, O breath, from the four winds” … They all came to life and stood up on their feet—a great army. (Ezekiel 37: 2-10)

So what were these dry bones that so Halloween-ishly transformed into zombies and then stood up into a vast army? We do not need to guess because Ezekiel explicitly wrote that:

Then [God] said to me, “… these bones represent the people of Israel. … I will open your graves of exile and cause you to rise again. Then I will bring you back to the land of Israel…. Then you will know that I, the LORD, have spoken, and I have done what I said. Yes, the LORD has spoken! … I will gather the people of Israel from among the nations. I will bring them home to their own land from the places where they have been scattered.” (Ezekiel 37: 11-21)

Even a cursory following of the news will put the tiny nation of Israel into our line-of-sight. From its remarkable United Nations declared re-birth in 1948, to its many wars in the subsequent decades, to the intractable conflict with Palestinians and the wider world – that vision which Ezekiel saw 2600 years ago is happening right in front of our eyes – even up to that detail of the ‘vast army’ standing on its feet. The Israeli army today is literally regarded as one of the most formidable in the world.

But to focus only on what you see in the news is to miss what you may hear.  Because one important reason that made these ‘bones’ dry and dead was that for millennia the Jews had lost their language – Hebrew. But today we can literally hear its re-birth – if we listen.

Let me explain.

The Jews (or Israelites) have been conquered and sent into exile two times in her long history. The first exile and deportation was about 600 BC under the Babylonians and this exile lasted 70 years. The second exile was far more severe. The Romans in 70 AD sacked, destroyed and burned Jerusalem and sold the Jews into slavery across the Roman Empire. They were sent literally into the four corners of the world. This is why Jews today can be found in almost all countries of the world.

Historical Timeline of the Jews - featuring their two periods of exile

Historical Timeline of the Jews – featuring their two periods of exile

As Moses predicted 3500 years ago they have been living in host countries around the world since 70 AD, always in danger of overstaying their welcome.

In their complete destruction as a people they even lost their language – for centuries. Here is how Wikipedia summarizes the history of their Hebrew language.

Hebrew had ceased to be an everyday spoken language somewhere between the first and fourth centuries CE[10] and survived into the medieval period only as the language of Jewish liturgy and rabbinic literature. Then, in the 19th century, it was revived as a spoken and literary language, and, according to Ethnologue, is now the language of 9 million people worldwide,[11][12] of whom 7 million are from Israel.[3][13]

Hebrew ceased to be spoken for centuries – it was deader than Latin is today. But now it is spoken by 9 million people!  How often does something like this occur?  Let the syllabus of a course on this topic at Dartmouth College explain:

The rebirth of Hebrew as a mother tongue after two millennia is an event unique in sociolinguistic history. It happened through a constellation of radical political and ethnic aspirations, dire economic forces, and educational circumstances that may never be repeated, but none of which are in any way ‘miraculous’. This course examines how it happened, through the eyes of those who made it happen and contemporary sociolinguists and historians, and draws conclusions for language policy in other developing societies.

In the dry words of a university course syllabus, reviving a language not spoken for 2000 years is ‘unique in sociolinguistic history’ – there is just no other example like this out there. Of course, this occurred from a lot of hard and strategic work on the part of some key people – not by a ‘miraculous’ event as our syllabus is quick to point out. But what should be considered at least potentially miraculous is that Ezekiel 2600 years ago foresaw a national re-birth of such a scope. Who else can put that on his CV?

Actually, someone else can – Jeremiah.

Jeremiah who lived about the same time as Ezekiel (ca 600 BC) but in a distant country from him (Ezekiel was living as an exile in Babylon while Jeremiah was in Jerusalem) wrote as if foreseeing the same phenomenon

I will build you up again,
and you, Virgin Israel, will be rebuilt.
Again you will take up your timbrels
and go out to dance with the joyful….

“Sing with joy for Jacob;
shout for the foremost of the nations.
Make your praises heard, and say,
‘Lord, save your people,
the remnant of Israel.’
See, I will bring them from the land of the north
and gather them from the ends of the earth….

a great throng will return.

‘He who scattered Israel will gather them
and will watch over his flock like a shepherd.’
11 For the Lord will deliver Jacob
and redeem them from the hand of those stronger than they.
12 They will come and shout for joy on the heights of Zion;
they will rejoice in the bounty of the Lord—…
13 Then young women will dance and be glad,
young men and old as well.
I will turn their mourning into gladness;
I will give them comfort and joy instead of sorrow.  (Jeremiah 31: 4-13)

Jeremiah foresaw a return from ‘the ends of the earth’, but with a weighting from ‘the land of the North’ which would be joyful, with singing, timbrels, dancing and gladness. Jeremiah wrote this in Hebrew – his native language. But soon afterwards came the first exile to Babylon and many Jews stopped speaking Hebrew in favor of Aramaic. Then with the rise of Hellenism, Hebrew continued its decline and many Jews became Greek speakers. Jesus spoke in Aramaic and the Jewish writers of the New Testament wrote in Greek. Then, with the second, more extensive shattering and exile, the Hebrew tongue went dead for over one thousand years – until our day.

I had the privilege of traveling in Israel recently. There were many monuments, archaeological sites and ruins to see in a land that has such an ancient and tumultuous history. But I didn’t just see dead stones but heard a language spoken unassumingly by common every-day people.  I heard something ‘unique in sociolinguistic history’.  Most of these were recent arrivals from Russia (‘the land of the north’ as per Jeremiah) but I also met Jews from ‘the ends of the earth’ – and they were learning & speaking Hebrew.

One evening in Tiberias by the Sea of Galilee I went out for a stroll with my camcorder on me. Join with me in my short video/audio clip. Witness the ‘event unique in sociolinguistic history’ in joyful dance and song.  They were celebrating the close of Sukhot (Festival of booths) and the conclusion of the annual reading of the ‘Torah’ – the books of Moses.

These people I joined that night were not considering the irony of their sociolinguistic re-birth in the backdrop of all the Roman ruins and the now-dead Latin inscriptions, the seemingly invincible and permanent power and cause of their second demise.  Nor were they even thinking of Jeremiah’s words in the midst of their celebration. But that’s OK because Jeremiah wasn’t writing to them! He explicitly tells us that

“Hear the word of the Lord, you nations; proclaim it in distant coastlands …(v.10)

Though Ezekiel specifically addressed the Jewish people in his vision of Dry Bones, his colleague Jeremiah wrote specifically to the ‘nations’ in ‘distant coastlands’ – that’s you and me. He wanted us, not them, to take note of their re-born celebrations and then reflect.

Many of us wonder, in our educated and secular time, whether there really is a God out there. We see the mayhem, strife and death in the world around us and continually hear the naturalistic mantra in our educational media, as well as conspiracy theories about the gospel. So we surmise that if there is a God he is far removed from our world. Jeremiah wanted you and me to take note and listen to this new-born tune.

Because maybe this climate of our day comes from not looking, or in this specific case not listening, in the right place.  After all, our leaders and the media, educated and resourced with the best our society can give them, are still always being caught off guard by events that take them by surprise, from the global financial crisis a few years ago, to the Arab Spring, to the rise of the Islamic State – they are always caught with their pants down so-to-speak. In comparison, these ancient prophets seem to have a much better record – almost as if they have some Inside Information. They do claim that God was speaking through them. That can be easy to claim and many charlatans past and present continue to make that claim, but this Old Testament team backed it up by predicting in black-and-white the far future with uncanniness, even numerically. Perhaps we need to dust off the writings of these 2000+ year-old prophets and hear their case. Checking their works carefully may send a far greater shiver down your spine than any costume will this Halloween.