Buried Coins: Parable of the Talents

I’ve written a blog post for Bible Study and the Christian Life that looks at how a recent archaeological find sheds light on Jesus’ Parable of the Talents. It turns out that the parable is not primarily about business or investment.

Check it out HERE.

A hoard of bronze coins dating to AD 70, discovered by the Jerusalem–Tel Aviv Highway. © Vladimir Niihin. Israel Antiquities Authority

Robin Williams and Depression

News came today of the premature passing of acting genius, Robin Williams. Many who’ve been entertained and even mesmerised by his stunning artistic skills will mourn his death. And no doubt his family are distraught.

It’s no secret that Williams suffered from severe depression. Unfortunately, it seems to have played a significant role in his early death.

Depression is a sinister illness. It is not a character flaw. No one wills depression on themselves anymore than anyone wills a disability on themselves. It’s easy for those of us who don’t suffer clinical depression not to grasp just how awful and debilitating depression can be. Its invisibility and lack of external physical symptoms, however, make it no less an illness.

Depression lies to those who suffer from it. As humans, our feelings are our natural innate emotional responses to external influences. They are hard to control, because they are reflex responses.

For those of us who don’t suffer clinical depression, our feelings work with normal reflexes and help us adapt appropriately to circumstances. We feel happy in favourable circumstances, and angry in unjust circumstances. We feel sad at bad news, which is a normal kind of depression. But we also tend to feel better when things change or time passes. We bruise normally, and we heal normally.

Yet for those of us who do suffer clinical depression, the bruising runs deeper, and it doesn’t heal normally. The feelings fall out of alignment with reality and don’t respond positively when things change. This means the feelings actually begin lying to us about how things really are. Usually this produces a profound bleakness, but sometimes it can be an undue euphoria. In either case, since feelings are emotional reflexes, one can’t simply snap out of it. And so the vicious cycle continues.

This makes life very difficult, and often things appear very dark. Trying to function in the midst of depression is like trying to run uphill on blistered feet while pulling a fridge behind you. Others can’t see the blisters or the fridge, so things probably appear normal to them. But the weight of depression is still very much there.

Those of us who don’t suffer depression need to understand better that depression is neither a sin nor a fault. And nor is it a fake illness. Its invisibility makes it no less real.

Depression is an illness that requires treatment, patience, compassion, and care. Those who suffer don’t always need to have their problems solved. Most of the time they just need to be heard, understood, and encouraged. They need to know that things are not hopeless. That they do have options. That they are appreciated and valued for the person they are now, and not just the person they are when not depressed. That although things can fluctuate, and depression may well come again, there are still benefits in persevering and seeking help. That they are not alone. That you will sit with them through the darkness.

In calling us to love our neighbour as ourselves, Jesus urges us to focus on people as people. To bear each other’s burdens, as he bore ours. To go the extra mile, even as he went from heaven to hell. To treat the ill as we would treat him. To seek to serve rather than seek to be served. To be light and life in the midst of darkness and death.

There are no easy cures or answers to depression. If only those of us who suffered could simply flip a switch and turn it off! Alas, that’s not how reality is. Feelings lie to those of us who suffer depression. Those of us who don’t suffer shouldn’t believe the lie that ‘it can’t be that bad’.

Let’s all be real about depression.

Robin Williams’ death is a tragic reminder of just how awful this illness is. Hopefully his passing brings greater awareness and understanding. Depression is just one of those things that makes us long for the age to come. In the meantime, let’s be Christlike to those in need.

Vale Robin Williams.

The Nature of Creation

In the lead up to a seminar on Genesis 1–2 I recently gave, I did some reading about creation in biblical texts and science. One book in particular stood out: Mark Harris’ The Nature of Creation: Examining the Bible and Science (Durham: Acumen, 2013).

This is the most intelligent and theologically consistent treatment of the topic of creation and science I’ve come across. It examines creation texts in the Bible, carefully bringing out what they do and don’t claim. This is done within a carefully articulated Christian theological framework that understand the Bible as authoritative revelation. It looks at the challenge of science, explaining some of the most pertinent ideas affecting a biblical doctrine of creation, such as the ‘Big Bang’ and evolution. It then seeks to bring the two alongside each other, not in a harmonistic manner, nor in a competitive manner. Rather, Harris seeks to explain what each contributes to an understanding of creation.

The book has ten chapters:

  1. Introduction
  2. Creation According to Modern Science
  3. Creation According to the Bible I: Genesis
  4. Creation According to the Bible II: The Creation Motif
  5. The Framework of Biblical Creation
  6. Creation–creation: How can a Relationship be Described?
  7. The Fall
  8. Suffering and Evil
  9. Scientific Eschatology and New Creation
  10. Conclusions

There are three things that really struck me about this book:

  1. Harris does not gloss over difficulties or try to explain them away. He superbly describes both theological and scientific issues in a way that gives adequate voice to both, thus fostering understanding. He is well placed to do so, being Lecturer in Science and Religion at the University of Edinburgh. He capably brings both theological and scientific expertise to bear on the issues in a very constructive way. The result is an articulation of problems that gives more clarity to the issues than anything I’ve read before.
  2. Harris’ theological method is not proof-texting. He discusses biblical texts with a good eye for their texture, and also how they contribute to an overall theology. In his own words, he ‘explores how the Bible’s creation texts may be integrated into modern discussions in the science–theology field, first by discussing ways of understanding the scientific framework of the biblical texts, and then the theological framework‘ (p.83). He is not trying to align his exegesis to a previously determined conclusion, but rather seeking to survey the theological ‘lie of the land’ before picking the best trail across it. He is guided by a good Christian theo-logic that appreciates revelation, Trinitarian theology, soteriology, and eschatology. His conclusion is that the Bible has many complex things to say about creation and the creator. Each of these complexities needs to be appreciated and understood rather than flattened out into a single homogeneous notion. Only then can we bring the Bible into dialogue with science in a fruitful way.
  3. Harris’ handling of scripture is rational, respectful, and riveting. He knows his biblical scholarship and his theology. And because of the first two points above, his discussion is able to blaze some new trails that are productive and profound. Not everyone will agree with some of the ideas he puts forward, but I don’t think Christians can ignore what he says either. He exposes some key flaws in previous thinking that need to be addressed. Harris pushes into new directions, but not for novelty’s sake. He is, rather, seeking to move in the direction that the Bible itself suggests, and seeing how these new directions intersect with science. He is not being a radical—he’s being reasonable.

Mark Harris

I particularly liked Harris’ exploration of the concepts of creatio ex nihilo (creation out of nothing), creatio continua (ongoing creation), and creatio ex vetere (creation out of the old). He sees creatio ex nihilo as a necessary theological conclusion, but not the end of creational discussion. The fact of creatio ex nihilo means that God created a world that is other than him, and therefore not divine. It is, rather, wholly contingent for its being on him. This therefore critiques the concept of Deism (the notion that God created in the beginning, but takes no further part in creation), and necessitates creatio continua—God’s ongoing acts of creation in sustaining and propagating life and the universe. This concept opens the door for a dialogue with evolutionary biology, though Harris recognises that there are difficulties in this dialogue that aren’t easy to digest. Then, on the basis of the death and resurrection of Christ, Harris talks about creatio ex vetere—creating something new out of the old. This is the essential redemptive dynamic involved in framing an understanding of the age to come. Eschatology thus becomes an important factor in considering the nature of creation and should act as a guiding concept in any dialogue between theology and evolutionary science. He does not want to collapse the supernatural act of God into a scientific naturalism, but nor does he want to sideline science. Rather, he sees science as offering valid, though incomplete and constantly updating, perceptions of the world that God has created, sustains, and will ultimately redeem. And though science creates difficult theological questions, Harris’ three concepts of creation provide some good stakes in the ground for focusing the dialogue. For example, the possibility of death and suffering in a ‘good’ world, as proposed by evolutionary biology, should be informed by the nature of life as contingent rather than perfect, and redemption as regenerative. It may not solve all the difficulties, but it certainly moves the discussion beyond an apparent impasse. It gets us to consider the nature of God and the nature of creation, rather than judge the issue purely on how closely it approximates a biblical text.

Some further quotable quotes:

If the science-religion dialogue has proceeded with little engagement so far with Scripture then that is perhaps because Scripture’s cutting edge has not been brought to bear with sufficient accuracy (Heb 4:12). [p.9]

 

These texts [in Genesis] may be controversial in our modern times, but they are of enormous significance to the Bible, since they set out basic features of its worldview…If we fail to appreciate this point, and unthinkingly impose our own worldview on the text, we will quickly misunderstand them, along with their claims about key worldview issues such as cosmology, (ancient) science, and the human condition and its relationship with the Creator and other creatures. Without awareness of this point, we will learn relatively little from the texts. [pp.56–57]

 

[S]cience has played an important part in renewing appreciation of biblical ideas of creation, even if it is unable to shed much direct light on these ideas themselves. Ultimately the texts say rather little about the physical makeup of the world, but much about God’s creative relationship with it and about who God is. [p.186]

In short, this book is profound and intensely thought provoking. Any Christian discussion of creation and science should be engaging with Harris from now on. It’s not always an easy read, because the subject matter is complex. However, it is a very worthwhile read. I particularly recommend that Christians read this book immediately after reading John Walton’s The Lost World of Genesis One: Ancient Cosmology and the Origins Debate (Downers Grove: IVP, 2010).

Review of Jonah: God’s Scandalous Mercy

Zondervan have generously sent me a review copy of Kevin J. Youngblood’s commentary, Jonah: God’s Scandalous Mercy, which is part of the Hearing the Message of Scripture series (edited by Dan Block).

The format of this series is excellent. Each chapter contains six sections:

  1. a brief statement of the main idea of the passage;
  2. a short discussion of literary context;
  3. translation and visual outline of the relevant passage;
  4. a more detailed discussion of the structure and literary form of the passage;
  5. a sustained explanation of the text; and
  6. concluding observations about the canonical and practical significance of the text, which elucidate themes and seek to bridge forward to a contemporary setting.

Youngblood’s contribution to the series is on the book of Jonah. It begins with a introduction that seeks to place Jonah within its canonical and historical context. In this regard, there are some useful comments about Jonah as part of the Book of the Twelve—an important observation given the increasing importance of understanding the ‘minor prophets’ as a single collection. I found the historical context both interesting and frustrating. On the one hand it provided some good insights about the difficulties with reading Jonah as a straight history, suggesting it would be best viewed as a non-historical genre. However, this was then subverted by characterising the difficulties as deliberate authorial ambiguity. The two claims didn’t quite seem congruent to me. I feel a chance to bring freshness to an evangelical reading of Jonah has been missed.

Nonetheless, despite this qualm, what follows is still a genuinely good commentary on Jonah. Youngblood reads the text closely with attention to Hebrew grammar, syntax, and semantics. This is all discussed in a non-threatening way that makes it largely accessible to the non-specialist (though knowledge of Hebrew will always make this easier). He makes some excellent structural observations, giving an excellent account of the text’s form. And he perceives good thematic development, picking up trajectories from elsewhere in the canon. This leads him to make modest but valid contemporary inferences from reading Jonah as Christian scripture. The one frustration I had pertained to the historical discussions. These were excellent, and yet seemed to continue the incongruence picked up in the introduction between historical difficulty and its implication for genre, and the claim of deliberate authorial ambiguity.

A few notable quotables:

God’s dealings with humanity should never be reduced to simplistic retributive formulas. The author emphasizes this with respect to God’s threatened judgement. He states God “relented concerning the disaster that he threatened.” The last phrase in that sentence (ʾăšer-dibber) stresses God’s freedom with respect to the prophetic word. God’s pronouncements through his prophets do not obligate him to courses of action from which he cannot turn. [p.141]

This is an important observation that helps balance an understanding of the Deuteronomic test of a prophet in Deuteronomy 18:21–22.

21 You may say to yourselves, “How can we know when a message has not been spoken by the LORD?” 22 If what a prophet proclaims in the name of the LORD does not take place or come true, that is a message the LORD has not spoken. That prophet has spoken presumptuously, so do not be alarmed. [NIV11]

Youngblood helpfully shows that divine faithfulness must be held together with divine freedom in the understanding of prophecy. Thus, Deuteronomy 18:21–22 is not a one-size-fits-all test (otherwise Jonah would be classified a false prophet!). It is, rather, a handy rule of thumb. Youngblood continues:

The unit loss with a restatement of God’s relenting from his wrath: “and he did not do it” (wĕlōʾ ʿāśâ). The narrative expresses God’s clemency both positively and negatively, thus conforming to the wording of the royal decree (“God may change his mind, and relent [wĕniḥam] … so that we will not perish” [wĕlōʾ nōʾbēd]). Normally, negative clauses in Hebrew narrative function as background, scene-setting devices and are relegated to the lowest rank of significance. In certain contexts, however, the fact that an event did not materialize is so critical to the plot that the negative clause receives prominence. Such is the case with 3:10e, which functions as a second rank clause, directly supporting the preceding narrative verb (wayyināḥem). [p.141]

Here is a good use of syntactical observation for rhetorical significance. This eventually leads Youngblood to reflect on the significance of God seemingly changing his mind:

Special circumstances always apply in contexts where the Bible affirms that God does not repent. most of these cases are related to covenantal obligations into which God voluntarily entered. In such cases, God has chosen to limit his options and his commitment is irrevocable. Yet, one must be careful not to turn one of these affirmations into a general principle that governs the other, or to dismiss one as merely accommodative language that metaphorically attributes human qualities to God while insisting that the other is literally true… Prophecy, generally speaking, is conditional. Unilateral covenants (i.e., covenants in which God unconditionally guarantees promises solely on the basis of his character), however, such as the Davidic and Abrahamic covenants, are irrevocable. [p.143]

This is a safe explanation of the concept of God changing his mind. I’m not sure it would fully explain certain instances of this theme in the Hebrew Bible (e.g., contrast 1 Sam 15.11 with v.29 later in the same chapter), but it covers a significant amount.

Here’s a short clip from Kevin Youngblood himself talking about the commentary.

In conclusion, Youngblood’s commentary on Jonah is a commendable addition to a Christian library, particular for someone who wants to understand the text of Jonah and perhaps preach through the book.

Bible’s Attitude to Rape

I recently had the privilege of delivering a seminar for the Priscilla and Aquila Centre of Moore Theological College, looking at the Bible’s attitude to rape. In the seminar, I looked at the laws pertaining to rape in Deuteronomy 22, as well as the narratives of 2 Samuel 13 (the rape of Tamar), Genesis 19 (Lot in Sodom), Genesis 34 (Dinah and Shechem), and Judges 19 (the rape of a concubine at Gibeah).

Video of the seminar is found here below.

What language did Jesus speak?

Today witnessed a very minor verbal exchange between Pope Francis and Israeli PM, Benjamin Netanyahu, over the language Jesus spoke. Reuters reports the incident on the final day of the Pope’s visit to the Middle East:

During his comments about a strong connection between Judaism and Christianity and tolerance towards Christians in Israel, Netanyahu told the [sic!] Francis: “Jesus was here, in this land. He spoke Hebrew.

“Aramaic,” the pontiff interjected.

“He spoke Aramaic, but he knew Hebrew,” Netanyahu shot back.

The difference of opinion reignites a historic debate about the language Jesus spoke two millennia ago.

“Jesus was a native Aramaic speaker,” Israeli linguistics professor Ghil’ad Zuckermann told Reuters. “But he would have also known Hebrew because there were extant religious writings in Hebrew.”

Zuckermann added that during Jesus’ time, Hebrew was spoken by the lower classes – “the kind of people he ministered to.”

Pope Francis (R) meets Israel’s Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu (L) at the Notre Dame Centre in Jerusalem May 26, 2014 (Photo courtesy of Reuters / Alex Kolomoisky).

Jesus was evidently a native Aramaic speaker. The quotation in Mark 5.41 has Jesus address Jairus’ daughter with the words Talitha koum—an Aramaic phrase meaning, ‘Kid, get up!’ He would also have been very familiar with Hebrew, the language of most of the Jewish Scriptures. His references to the Scriptures on numerous occasions within the Gospels suggests this.

However, Jesus would also have been conversant with Greek. Galilee had one of the highest concentrations of Greek speakers in the Roman Empire outside of the Greek heartland of the Aegean. In fact, within short walking distance of Jesus’ hometown of Nazareth was the city of Sepphoris—a large Greek polis in the heart of Galilee. There is every chance that Jesus not only visited the city multiple times, but he may well have worked there in his profession as a carpenter. It was, after all, one of the largest economic centres in Galilee, and it was in the immediate vicinity of Nazareth.

The Apostle Peter?

Jesus’ disciples were also probably familiar with Greek. The hometown of apostles Simon Peter, Andrew, and Philip, was the town of Bethsaida at the northernmost point of the Sea of Galilee. In c. 2 BC it was granted status as a Greek polis and renamed Julias. Thus these three disciples, two of whom (Andrew and Philip) bore Greek names, grew up in a Greek-speaking environment. It also helps explain how Peter attained the name ‘Peter’. His original name was Simon, a good Hebrew/Aramaic name. Jesus, however, gave him the nickname ‘Kephas’, which is Aramaic for ‘Rocky’ <cue theme music to Rocky>. Paul refers to him as Kephas (or Cephas in modern English versions) in his correspondence with the Galatians and Corinthians. However, elsewhere, his name is easily translated into the Greek equivalent for ‘rock’, Peter (Greek: Petros).

There is a possibility that some of Jesus’ ministry was conducted in Greek. For example, there is good reason to suggest that Nicodemus’ misunderstanding of Jesus’ words in John 3.3 is dependent on an ambiguity in Greek, but not in Aramaic or Hebrew. Jesus tells Nicodemus, ‘Unless someone is born over, he cannot see the Kingdom of God.’ The relevant term used in the Gospel here is ἄνωθεν (anōthen) Nicodemus hears this as ‘born again’, while it seems from the rest of the discussion that Jesus meant ‘born from above’. The rendering ‘born over’ captures something of this ambiguity in English.

Jesus also seems to have conversations with Greek speakers throughout the Gospels. He chats with a Greek woman from Syro-Phoencia (Mark 7.24–30), a Roman centurion (Mark 8.5–13), and the Roman Prefect, Pontius Pilate. On each occasion he might have made use of an interpreter. However, it is more likely that Jesus was able to conduct the conversation personally without an interpreter.

There is even the possibility that the famous ‘camel through the eye of a needle’ saying (Mark 10.25) is a misunderstanding of a saying in Greek. The word for ‘camel’ in Greek is κάμηλος (kamēlos), but the word for thick ‘rope’ (the type used to moor a ship to port) is κάμiλος (kamilos). There is virtually no difference in pronunciation between the two. Did Jesus perhaps say, ‘It is easier for a rope to go through the eye of a needle than for a rich man to enter the Kingdom of God’? If he originally made the statement in Greek, he may well have. If, however, he made the statement in Aramaic, there would be no such ambiguity. I guess we’ll never know.

But all this is to say that Jesus was almost definitely a comfortable speaker of Greek, in addition to his native Aramaic, and the Hebrew of the Jewish Scriptures.