Monday, July 27th, 2020

Authorities, Audio Version

One of my blog-cast listeners recently sent me a text message asking if I would do a post on the authority of scripture. I said I would. When readers or listeners make requests of me, I try to comply — if I can do so without straying too far from my general eschatological/end-times focus.  

For me, the tricky part of this assignment will be brevity. I intend to say as much as possible in as few words as feasible. Sigh: Do wish me all the best in this endeavor. A lot of very hefty books have been written about Biblical authority. If anyone wants to do some serious research and desires a recommendation or two, let me know. I got books to throw your way, figuratively.

As I write this, a reference book sits ready and within my reach. It is entitled The Enduring Authority of the Christian Scriptures, and was edited by a conservative theologian/professor named D. A. Carson. It is almost 1,200 pages long. But for those who want a quick and brief synopsis, Carson includes a final ~20 page chapter addressing Frequently Asked Questions. That final chapter covers a lot of relevant historical material and is well worth paging through.   

The authority of the Bible has been ferociously challenged for over two hundred years now. In most of academia, the Bible is no longer taken seriously as a source of reliable, authoritative truth. Science now holds that exalted position, even though science itself is constantly in flux. Like so many of the specimens it explains, science, with a capitol S, is said to be by its nature changing or evolving; and we are taught to just roll with its inexorable evolution. Whichever turns it takes, Science itself remains unassailably authoritative. Science should always be regarded as indubitably correct, unless it corrects itself, of course. Then the latest science overturns the former. And that is because science is a self-correcting enterprise; and yet, in general, its progress is steady and sure. You can trust Science, because science establishes itself. And that is not a tautology. It is simply self-evident. Hip, hip hooray, Science!  

Am I off track? Wasn’t I supposed to talk about the alleged authority of the Bible and not the indisputable authority of Science? Silly me. Sorry about the digression. Back I go to the Bible. 

The questionable (or at least, constantly challenged) authority of the Bible whirls and whistles about as perhaps the most distressing issue for the contemporary Church. A lot of churches and even whole denominations are willing to overlook and even dispense with controversial and embarrassing sections of Scripture. They want to focus on portions of the Bible that are agreeable and ignore the sections that are disagreeable. In doing so, they either knowingly or (more likely) unknowingly imitate the third president of the United States, Thomas Jefferson. 

Aside from the moral matter of how he treated his African-origin slaves, which is perhaps irrelevant to this discussion anyway, Jefferson once literally cut up the four gospels in order to eliminate those passages that did not fit his preferred anti-supernatural re-reading of scripture. Jefferson even compiled his deliberate extractions into a Smithsonian-held work entitled The Life and Morals of Jesus of Nazareth. But to avoid ruffling too many feathers, Jefferson did not allow this book to be published until after he died. According to Jefferson, yes, Jesus existed, but he was just a pious moral teacher who did no miracles and did not rise again from the dead. The sections of Matthew, Mark, Luke, and John that say otherwise need to be seen as fanciful inclusions by the inventive, proselytizing Gospel writers. Jefferson took it upon himself to helpfully excise the supernatural fluff, and left us the likely historical material. 

Thomas Jefferson’s Hand-Written Opening Page

Relatedly, but nearly two hundred years later, the fine and learned folks associated with the Jesus Seminar of the 1980s and 1990s undertook Jefferson’s same basic project of cutting away the churchy Christian mythology of the Gospel accounts from the (scientifically ascertained) actual history of the life of the obscure Jesus of Nazareth. So you might say that Thomas Jefferson was academically way ahead of his time, at least in terms of Biblical criticism and extraction. So welcome home to a new century, Mr. Jefferson; you did not miss much. 

A willingness to extract what is worthwhile in the Bible from what is fanciful or false in the Bible is premised on the assumption that at least portions of the Bible are indeed fanciful or false. A lot of people, and even a lot of “woke” Christians, wholly accept that premise today. They do believe that some sections of the Bible should be deemed either fanciful or false, or both. This is a very attractive position for people who dislike what the Apostle Paul writes. Furthermore, I will tell you that we spent significant time in seminary learning about various said sections of scripture. To my seminary’s credit, most (but not all) of my professors were intent on establishing our confidence in Scripture, not undermining it. Not every professor and not every seminary does that, though. Even in Christian schools and seminaries, a real battle for the Bible is ongoing.

In my estimation, when it comes down to brass tacks, the real issue is not as much what someone believes about the Bible itself as what they believe about God himself. I believe the Bible is reliable and authoritative because I believe that the God described by the Bible was and still is capable of delivering on his promises and relaying and keeping his word. Admittedly, I first got this idea from the Bible. More accurately, I first got this idea from the Church, which first got this idea from the Bible, through which this idea was transmitted by a cohort of earnest early Christians back in the first century. So, basically I’m saying that I’m willing to believe what the first disciples of Jesus said about Jesus. It really all comes down to just that. Everything else that matters depends on just that. With regard to the authority of the Bible, ultimately everything hinges on the person of Jesus. 

Do you believe that the first disciples of Jesus reliably relayed what Jesus said and did? I do, therefore I believe the Bible. I know: That sounds massively simplistic, I realize as much and acknowledge as much. But when all the arguments and all the books are distilled down to their essence, the basic issue is the reliability of the first and nearest witnesses to Jesus. I deem them sufficiently honest, and historically reliable, and their multiple portrayals as worthy of acceptance. Do you? If so, the Bible is what we have received as our authoritative written resource. If not, Science in all its latest and greatest wisdom beckons.   

Temple Visitors

Saturday, May 30th, 2020

The Dome of the Rock and the Wailing Wall in Jerusalem
Temple Visitors – Audio Version

Temple. This blog post considers the theme of temple and how it relates to the Book of Revelation.

In a previous post, I explained how I was once an angel in Los Angeles. In the original Greek, from which English eventually inherited the word, angelos really just means messenger. A messenger can be a glorious heavenly being or an unimpressive, ordinary earthling. For a while, I worked for a successful county-line law firm as a courier, driving around the greater LA area. As a courier, I had navigate my way through traffic to various court houses and hand-deliver important legal documents and time-sensitive messages. Thus, in my mind, I officially qualify. I can claim that I was briefly an angelos in Los Angeles. 

A few years after I drove and delivered messages for the law firm, someone from my school asked if I would be willing to drive a van for them. A delegation of English-speaking scholars from across the Muslim world was about to come to Los Angeles. Was I available and would I be willing to drive them around? Yes, I was available. And yes, I would drive them around LA.

The year was 2002. September 11th was a very recent and raw memory. The United States State Department, in cooperation with some institutions of higher learning, had arranged for a delegation of English-speaking Muslim scholars to tour the United States. I believe that the US State Department and the American schools hoped that the scholars would return to their respective countries and speak positively about what they had seen and experienced in the USA. The tour was an attempt at academic and religious diplomacy. Good PR was surely the goal. I’m not sure if that’s what happened, though. Still, it was eye-opening to be their driver.  

One of the destinations to which I drove the scholars was Wilshire Boulevard Temple. As the name indicates, Wilshire Boulevard Temple is located on Wilshire Boulevard, a road that runs right through downtown Los Angeles. You may have heard of it before. The Temple, which I will abbreviate from hence as WBT, is an impressive historic building that belongs to a Jewish congregation. From an artistic standpoint, WBT visually wows a visitor. It has a big central rotunda, much like most state capitol buildings. If you stand underneath the rotunda and look upward, as I did, golden gilded Hebrew letters and words go around the inside of it. To my surprise and delight, I could read it. I knew exactly what it said. It was the Shema. 

“Hear, O Israel: The LORD our God, the LORD is one.” That would be Deuteronomy 6:4; and that is the Shema.

For me, it was an electrifying moment. Not long before that, I had taken Hebrew. I stood there, looking upward, and actually read what it said, with ease. And I was struck by the weight and the serendipity of that moment. Representatives of the three religions that lay claim to the monotheism proclaimed in that verse were all gathered there. However, we were hardly in harmony. For one thing, we disagreed about the identity of the Temple (of God).

Temple Mount in temporal Jerusalem

The Jewish temple that once stood in Jerusalem — will it be rebuilt someday? For centuries now, the temple’s former location has been a Muslim sacred site. The Dome of the Rock was constructed where the temple once stood. It is there to this day. The site is under the jurisdiction of Muslim authorities. They are determined to hold it. If the Israelis attempt to take control of the location, a regional war will probably immediately ensue. 

With all that in consideration, hear what one of the Muslim scholars asked the head rabbi at WBT. While we all stood around in the office of the rabbi, a visiting Muslim scholar asked him, “Do you want the temple to be rebuilt in Jerusalem?” It was a loaded question. The rabbi’s answer surprised me. It probably surprised the Muslim scholars, too.

The rabbi said, “No, I don’t, because if the temple were rebuilt we would need to resume the whole sacrificial system. I don’t want that to happen.”

Alternatively, there are other Jewish religious authorities who do want the temple in Jerusalem rebuilt. That was not discussed with the visiting Muslim scholars at WBT that day, though.

A lot of Christians have been taught and believe that the Jewish temple in Jerusalem must be rebuilt before Jesus returns. The Book of Revelation briefly mentions “the temple of God” in the first two verses of Chapter Eleven. Interpreters have to decide which temple is referenced. Is it a rebuilt Jewish temple in Jerusalem, or something else? That is a super-important question. If it is understood to be a rebuilt Jewish temple in Jerusalem, then we ought to intently watch what happens at that contested location in Jerusalem. However, if it is not a rebuilt temple in Jerusalem, then fixating on events in Jerusalem is unnecessary. Again, interpretively, a lot hangs the identity of the temple in Revelation 11:1-2.

The temple mentioned in Revelation 11:1-2 is actually the Church, not a rebuilt temple in Jerusalem. That is how I read it. We are mistaken to expect a rebuilt temple in Jerusalem, which might never happen, anyway. Here, the Rabbi at WBT, along with the Muslim scholars, may have their collective way. There may never be a rebuilt temple in Jerusalem, at least, not prior to the parousia of Jesus, that is, prior to the Second Coming.  

The New Testament repeatedly says that the Church is now the temple of God. We ought to believe it. The Church really is the temple of God now. God’s presence is no longer to be found in a brick-and-mortar building or a stone-and-mortar temple, but in a living temple, in and among the corporate people of God. Ephesians 2:19-22 says as much, and is worth a quick read.

All of this said, the land and the people of Israel are not irrelevant. On the contrary, the nation of Israel is still relevant to Revelation and will be important in The End. After all these centuries of time, God continues to be faithful to the Jewish people for the sake of their ancestors; and they still do have a role to play in the fulfillment of prophecy. Explaining that will have to wait for another day and another blog post, though.    

Dominus et Deus

Monday, May 25th, 2020

A Roman-Era Key

Dominus et Deus, Audio Version

“History doesn’t repeat itself, but it does rhyme.” 

Mark Twain may or may not have said or written that. Hitherto, no one has been able to verify that the quote originated with Mark Twain. It has just been attributed to him. Maybe someday someone will find a letter or a scrap of writing in a library or an attic somewhere that verifies the quote did originate with Samuel Clemens/Mark Twain. But whatever. Most of us do not need nor care to know the source of the quote. We just recognize that the quote itself is quite true. It is axiomatic. While history never does repeat itself exactly, it does often rhyme. 

Not only is that observation of history axiomatic, it is also quite biblical. Much of the prophetic material in the Bible should be read on that very premise. What has happened before will someday be recapitulated in a slightly different way. If you grasp that, you will be able to make much better sense of prophecy throughout all of scripture. A particular prophecy will describe an immediate historical event, with at least one future event also in view, and sometimes more than one. I could give several examples of this characteristic of prophecy; but for the moment, please just humor the notion that it might be so.      

Okay, since you insist, I’ll give you one example: Hosea 11:1 says “Out of Egypt have I called my son.” In context, that statement clearly refers to the people of Israel. In the Exodus, God had called them out of Egypt. God speaks of the people of Israel figuratively, as a son. But Matthew 2:15 takes the very same figurative statement and applies it literally to Jesus. So it kind of happened twice. What was true of Israel is also true of Jesus. Like Israel, Jesus himself was called out and brought out of Egypt. Sometimes prophetic history rhymes.

Over the last 48 hours, I spent hours doing my own online historical sleuthing. No, I was not trying to track down and verify Mark Twain’s alleged quote. Instead, I was trying to find out whether Emperor Domitian ever irrefutably and explicitly referred to himself as “Lord and God.” Yes, it really does matter whether Domitian made such a claim or not. It matters because if Domitian did so, his self-aggrandizement probably precipitated an existential crisis for first century Christians. Here’s the question, stated precisely: Were Christians persecuted and even martyred because they refused to call Emperor Domitian “Lord and God”? 

Construction of the Colosseum was completed during Domitian’s reign.

The answer is very probably yes. At very least, Domitian allowed people to refer to him as “Lord and God” and even established an empire-wide cultic system where it was very much encouraged, if not formally mandated. Under Domitian’s magistrates, the populace of the empire felt political and economic pressure to demonstrate their loyalty to their dear leader, to the genius of the emperor. And toward the end of Domitian’s tyrannical tenure, that meant people felt the compulsion to address him not just as “Lord,” but as both “Lord and God.” Domitian was called Dominus et Deus, Lord and God. No emperor before Domitian had ever allowed that, let alone encouraged it. Emperors were deified after they died, not while alive.   

This is a crucially important point, precisely because it may well be the fulfillment of an intriguing Old Testament prophecy from the Book of Daniel. I believe and contend that Emperor Domitian fulfills that prophecy in Daniel 7:19-27. To establish this claim as historically sound, I need to throw out some names, dates, and data. 

Somewhere I read that Eusebius said so. Eusebius says that Domitian “was the first to order himself to be called Lord and God.” But I could not find the quote anywhere. As noted in previous blog posts, Eusebius wrote the indispensable history of the early Church. In English, that history is called The History of the Church or Ecclesiastical History. Yesterday, I spent quite a bit of time trying to find where in Ecclesiastical History Eusebius says that Domitian referred to himself as “Lord and God.” Nothing. Initially, I came up empty. I was looking in the wrong place. I was perplexed. I knew that I had read or heard it somewhere. 

However, even if I were to find the quote, Eusebius is not enough. I needed other historical sources. That was easy enough. Roman historians from that era did indeed say that Emperor Domitian was called “Lord and God.” Suetonius is a non-Christian historian who in his history called The Twelve Caesars says this of Domitian: 

With equal arrogance, when he dictated the form of a letter to be used by his procurators, he began it thus: “Our lord and god commands so and so;” whence it became a rule that no one should style him otherwise either in writing or speaking.

This quote from Suetonius corroborated Eusebius, or at least what I thought I had heard of Eusebius. Suetonius’s quote might even be considered a smoking gun, a sure verification. Domitian definitely wanted to be addressed as Dominus et Deus. But wait, there’s more.

Though he had to flee for his life, Dio Chrysostum managed to escape the reach of the emperor’s magisterial minions and thus survived Domitian’s reign of terror. After Domitian’s assassination, here is what Dio Chrysostum had to say in his 45th Discourse:     

Well, how I bore my exile, not succumbing to loss of friends or lack of means or physical infirmity; and, besides all this, bearing up under the hatred, not of this or that one among my equals or peers, as they are sometimes called, but rather of the most powerful, stern man, who was called by all Greeks and barbarians both master and god, but who was in reality an evil demon…    

Notice that Dio Chrysostom here states that Domitian was called both master (or Lord) and god, but was in reality an evil demon. Suetonius also goes to great lengths to demonstrate Domitian’s diabolical tendencies. His contemporaries all said Domitian was sinister and evil.

And finally, I did find the quote from Eusebius. In addition to Ecclesiastical History, Eusebius also wrote an extensive chronology called Chronicon. Eusebius is precise in dating events in Chronicon, precisely because it is a chronology of events. Here is the much-anticipated, hard-to-locate information: During the 216th Olympiad Domitian was the first [Roman Emperor] to order himself to be called “Lord and God.” By our reckoning, this edict happened sometime around 90AD/CE. 

Now go read Daniel 7:19-27 (included below). See if Emperor Domitian does not seem to be a prophetic fit.

Most scholars believe that the Book of Revelation was written near the time of Domitian’s assassination in September, 96AD/CE.  If so, Revelation’s prophecies pick up precisely where Daniel’s prophecies end. To me, that is interesting indeed.