St. Augustine’s Approach to Scripture

In a letter to St. Jerome, Augustine comments on his view of the Bible, especially when dealing with a passage that is difficult to understand. He writes,

“I most firmly believe that the authors were completely free from error. And if in these writings I am perplexed by anything which appears to me opposed to truth, I do not hesitate to suppose that either the manuscript is faulty, or the translator has not caught the meaning of what was said, or I myself have failed to understand it.” Augustine, Letter 82, Chapter 1, § 3

What a humble approach to the Bible from a very faithful man. It would be great to see more people approach the scriptures with such faith.

Cherubim in the Bible – Part 1

With Valentine’s Day just around the corner, it seems fitting to spend some time discussing cherubim. However, I am not referring to the little winged babies that appear in many Renaissance painting, such as Raphael’s Sistine Madonna (see picture), or on the cards you may give and receive this Valentine’s Day. Instead, I want to talk about the cherubim of the Bible and ancient Near East. What exactly are these figures?

Raffaels_Angels

Beginning with the word itself, many scholars claim the Hebrew word cherub (כרב) comes from the Akkadian word karibu or karābu and thus reflects Mesopotamian influences. However, biblical scholar Andrew Steinmann thinks this is a very unlikely etymology. According to Steinmann, karibu or karābu means bless or praise and one does not find cherubim praising God in the Bible.[1] While this claim may be accurate regarding the OT narratives, it does not hold true for the NT. If one understands the four living creatures in Revelation 4 to be cherubim in light of their close association with the imagery of Ezekiel 1 and 10, then this would indeed provide a solid biblical example of cherubim praising God (see Rev 4:8). Therefore, I think one can proceed to view cherubim in light of their Mesopotamian counterparts with less skepticism than Steinmann.

So if we are not talking about winged babies, what do cherubim look like? (continue reading…)

Death of Jesus: Sacrifice vs. Execution

Savoldo,_crocifissioneThis year I have had the opportunity to discuss the Catholic Church’s teaching regarding the death penalty on a few different occasions. For those who are not familiar with the Church’s teaching on this matter, the Catechism of the Catholic Church 2263-2267 provides a helpful summery.

During each discussion with different groups of people, the same comment always came up: “Without the death penalty, we would not be saved.” The implication behind this comment is that the crucifixion of Jesus, an example of the Roman death penalty, was pivotal to humanity’s salvation. I have no quarrels that death of Jesus brought about our salvation, but this remark reduces his crucifixion to a mere execution. This presents a major problem.

Although the death of Jesus took the form of a Roman crucifixion and looked like a common execution to bystanders, the New Testament goes to great lengths to explain that Jesus freely gave his life out of obedience to the Father.[1] This distinction is so important that Jesus clearly spells it out to his disciples in John 10:17-18,

For this reason the Father loves me, because I lay down my life, that I may take it again. No one takes it from me, but I lay it down of my own accord. I have the power to lay it down, and I have the power to take it again; this charge I have received from my Father. (RSV)

Even though it appeared that the Roman judicial system had control over the life and death of Jesus, the Gospel of John gives us a different view. (continue reading…)

Engaging the Culture: A Biblical Perspective

345px-ChristCleansingI recently had a conversation with someone regarding the Jehovah’s Witness position on the celebration of holidays. For those who are not familiar with the beliefs of Jehovah’s Witnesses, they prohibit their members from celebrating holidays, both secular and religious, because many popular holidays have an apparent pagan origin and seek to exalt humans instead of God. A quick keyword search on their website provides a breakdown of their claims against specific holidays.

I mention the Jehovah’s Witness position not because I wish to debate the origin of any holiday or festive practice, but because it reflects a bigger and more important issue at hand. The overarching theme behind this issue is the relationship between culture and faith. How can we, as Christians, engage the culture while effectively and faithfully proclaiming the gospel? Are we able to find any points of contact between a culture and the gospel while evangelizing and catechizing?

The Jehovah’s Witness position on these questions is a strict one. Anything originating from pagan customs is automatically and permanently unclean. However, what does the Bible tell us? Are there elements in non-Christian cultures that can act as a springboard for evangelization? (continue reading…)

In God We Trust – A Reflection on Mt 6:24

Wikipedia.orgI recently came across an article by Antonine DeGuglielmo titled, “The Religious Life of the Jews in the Light of their Coins.” The article surveys recent studies in archeology and numismatology (the study of coins) to determine how ancient Jewish coins reflect the religious beliefs and practices of the Jews. As I read this article, two things in particular caught my attention.

First, DeGuglielmo begins by mentioning a limiting factor regarding the interpretation of coins. He states, “With coins, one deals with objects that are entirely official in character… [O]ne must bear in mind that in striking coins the authorities may have wished to spread their own views on a particular subject. Of their very nature coins represent an official attitude.”[1] In other words, since the authorities were in control of producing the currency, they could promote whatever images or attitudes they desired. It would not be hard to imagine the authoritative leaders abusing this control to spread their own political agendas, such as the silver Roman denarius hailing Tiberius Caesar as the “son of the divine Augustus.”[2]

Second, in light of the information above, it is noteworthy that many ancient Jewish coins depict religious images. For example, DeGuglielmo describes coins that portray the lulab and the ethrog, both of which belong to the celebration of the Feast of Tabernacles, in addition to the menorah. He goes on to describe several other motifs possibly present on Jewish currency: the Temple or a synagogue, the Ark of the Covenant, the table of shewbread and the screen of the tabernacle.[3] The use of these liturgical images on the Jewish coins show us what the Jewish authorities considered important and the values they sought to promote among the common people. Instead of trying to build up their own political leaders, they used their currency to remind people about their liturgies and worship of God. (continue reading…)

The Miracle of Sharing? (Jn 6:5-15)

Several months ago, I attended the Northwest Regional Catholic Stewardship Conference in Vancouver, WA. The purpose of the conference was to teach parish ministers effective techniques to develop a healthy atmosphere of stewardship in their local communities. For the most part, the conference succeeded in its goal by offering great pastoral advice and practical strategies. However, in an attempt to make a relevant connection between the life of Jesus and the Christian vocation of being good stewards, the first keynote speaker made a grave error in her interpretation of Jn 6:5-15. Here is the biblical text:

Lifting up his eyes, then, and seeing that a multitude was coming to him, Jesus said to Philip, “How are we to buy bread, so that these people may eat?” This he said to test him, for he himself knew what he would do. Philip answered him, “Two hundred denarii would not buy enough bread for each of them to get a little.” One of his disciples, Andrew, Simon Peter’s brother, said to him, “There is a lad here who has five barley loaves and two fish; but what are they among so many?” Jesus said, “Make the people sit down.” Now there was much grass in the place; so the men sat down, in number about five thousand. Jesus then took the loaves, and when he had given thanks, he distributed them to those who were seated; so also the fish, as much as they wanted. And when they had eaten their fill, he told his disciples, “Gather up the fragments left over, that nothing may be lost.” So they gathered them up and filled twelve baskets with fragments from the five barley loaves, left by those who had eaten. When the people saw the sign which he had done, they said, “This is indeed the prophet who is to come into the world!” Perceiving then that they were about to come and take him by force to make him king, Jesus withdrew again to the hills by himself. (RSV)

After referencing this passage, the keynote speaker made a comment I did not expect to hear in that particular setting. To the best of my memory and paraphrasing ability, she said,

“Can you imagine Jesus miraculously dividing five loaves and two fish in order to feed five thousand people? What would that look like? Are we supposed to imagine that he kept pulling loaves and fish out of a bag? No, the narrative is not saying that Jesus miraculously produced more bread and fish. What really happened is Jesus encouraged everyone to share and be stewards to each other. In the end, once everyone had shared, there was a surplus remaining.”

This was not the first time that I have heard this claim. In fact, this is a fairly common interpretation resulting from a larger hermeneutical view that believes anything “miraculous” must have a non-supernatural explanation. With this post, I would simply like to offer a response to this particular interpretation of Jn 6:5-15 to demonstrate that natural explanations of the miraculous, which claim to be more reasonable and easier to accept than adhering to supernatural causes, often create severe difficulties in explaining the biblical text. (continue reading…)