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“And you shall call His Name…”

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“…and you shall call his name Yeshua”
(Matt 1:21; Luke 1:31)

For the remainder of Advent and Christmas season, on through Epiphany (Jan 6), I will be presenting a series of daily notes which will explore the Birth of Jesus and the Infancy Narratives (of Matthew and Luke) from the standpoint of names. The declaration of a name was an important part of celebrating the birth of a child, even as it continues to be for us today. Naming events and scenes feature prominently in the birth (infancy) narratives in the Gospels, especially in Luke, where the births of two children—John and Jesus—run parallel throughout the narrative. Such scenes are inspired and influenced by the Old Testament and reflect ancient traditions regarding the meaning and significance of the name given to a child.

It is somewhat difficult for Christians today, especially in modern Western societies, to appreciate how names were used and understood in ancient times. When choosing a name for a child, we may seek out one that appeals to us, perhaps even researching its origins and etymology, but quite often the name itself has no real meaning in our own language. This is true with regard to my own name, Steven, which is an anglicized transliteration of the Greek ste/fano$ (stéphanos), a wreath or “crown”, something which encircles the head as a mark of honor or prestige. It is a fine name, with a rich history, and features prominently in at least one Scripture passage (cf. Acts 6-7), but has no meaning whatever in English. Even in the case of names which have their origins in older English (and its Germanic roots), e.g. Edward, Richard, and the like, most English speakers today would have no idea of their original meaning.

In the ancient world, on the other hand, names typically had clear and definite meaning—often profound meaning—in the ordinary language of the time and place. For names in the ancient Near Eastern languages, including the Semitic languages such as Hebrew and Aramaic, a single word could express an entire phrase or short sentence—something which is nearly impossible in modern English. Not infrequently, these “sentence names” involved and incorporated the name of God—or, in a polytheistic context, the name of a particular deity. I will be exploring a number of such names in this series, but, for now, one example will suffice. The name Why`u=v^y+ (Y§ša±y¹hû, i.e. Isaiah) means something like “Yah(weh) will save” or “(May) Yah(weh) save!” and really ought to be translated this way, since it would have been generally understood by Hebrew speakers and hearers at the time the various Scriptures were written. Yet, as this is strange to our sensibilities, it is simpler and less confusing to retain the customary transliteration. Very few people would give such names to their children in our culture today.

More than this, the ancient mind regarded names (and the idea of a name) very differently than we do in the modern age. There was a kind of magical, efficacious quality to names—they represented and encapsulated the essence and nature of a person or thing. To know a person’s name was virtually the same as knowing the person. To call out (that is, speak out loud) a person’s name established a connection with the person—his/her nature and character, abilities, and the like. This could be utilized in a positive or negative way; in the latter sense, names were thought to allow one to gain control over another person (through binding magical formulae, curses, etc). In the religious sphere, the names of deities were fundamental to nearly every aspect of ritual, in some fashion. To know and utter—properly and correctly—the name of a deity meant the person had established a relationship and connection with that particular deity, and could ‘tap in’ to the divine protection, power, blessing, etc which God (or the gods) provide. This helps to explain the Old Testament idiom of “calling upon” the name of the Lord (YHWH). Divine names were used in a wide range of ritual contexts, related to nearly every area of human society, including their inclusion to safeguard agreements (i.e. covenants), contracts, testimony, and so forth. There was a sacred quality to such names and they were not to be used or uttered (in oaths, vows, etc) for evil, unworthy or frivolous purposes (cf. Exod 20:7 par). For Israelites and Jews the name of God represented by the Tetragrammaton (hwhy, YHWH, Yahweh) was especially sacred and to be treated with the utmost care. This name will be discussed in one of the articles in this series. Early Christians regarded the name Yeshua (Jesus) as efficacious—uttered for the purpose of blessing, healing, protection, etc—in a similar fashion.

This series of (daily) articles will be divided into two parts. The first part will explore the Names of God—that is, the six or seven fundamental names and titles of God used in the Old Testament and ancient Israelite religion. The second part will examine the relevant verses and passages in the Infancy narratives in the Gospels (Matthew 1-2, Luke 1-2), focusing on the scenes of birth and naming, as well as the various names and titles used in the text (especially those applied to Jesus). The commentary on the Infancy narratives will begin with the Lukan account, before turning to that of Matthew. This may seem like a rather narrow lens through which to study the text, but I think you will find it to be a rich and rewarding approach to take, and one which should provide many helpful (and surprising) insights into the familiar Christmas story.

Women in the Church: Introduction

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This series of articles coincides with the launch of Biblesoft’s new Hannah Series—a collection of reference works and resources written primarily by women and for women wanting to go further into their walk with God (see below). So it seemed to be an appropriate time to introduce a study on the topic of Women in the Church, from the standpoint of the evidence and witness of Scripture. This, of course, is a complex and controversial subject, which requires careful and unbiased treatment. I intend to discuss the most relevant passages of Scripture—particularly those in the New Testament—in as honest and objective a manner as possible. However, this should be considered only a starting point. It is hoped that the articles of this study will be enhanced and supplemented by other voices and viewpoints—by women, fellow sisters in Christ, including scholars, authors, and those serving in ministry—who can lend their perspective (and experience) to the subject.

Perhaps the most difficult aspect of this subject, like many in the Church today, is the wide gulf which exists between ancient and modern worldviews—that is, between the ancient Near Eastern (and Greco-Roman) world and modern Western society. The Scriptures were written and took shape within the former, not the latter; and, with each generation, each passing decade, the modern cultural and religious perspective becomes further removed from the ancient thought-world which served as the matrix for the Scriptural message. Well-meaning Christians today, who attempt to bridge this divide, often fall prone to two different kinds of distortions:

  1. Interpreting Scripture to accommodate the modern view, or
  2. Making the modern view and practice conform with what is believed to be the ‘correct’ view of Scripture

Great harm (and error) can result from each of these tendencies, when approached carelessly or without proper concern for the true Christian spirit. When dealing with a particular passage of Scripture, a careful and faithful approach, in my view, requires the following (in order):

  1. Seek to understand the passage, as best as possible, in terms of its original literary and historical context
  2. Compare the passage with the Christian message as a whole—i.e. as preserved in the Gospel, the New Testament writings (including the Old Testament background), and (early) tradition
  3. Interpret and apply the passage in light of our modern context, as expressed in various forms or practical situations

In these articles, I will be focusing primarily on the first of these steps, though without neglecting the last two. However, ultimately I leave it to the reader to address the third step, according to his or her conscience and the insight of the wider Community.

My approach will be to begin with the passages in the New Testament which relate most directly to the subject—namely, the several key passages from the Pauline letters, which I will be discussing in detail in the upcoming articles. Next, I will supplement this study with a brief examination of the remainder of relevant references in the Pauline corpus, followed by: (a) a discussion of several relevant passages in the Gospels and other New Testament writings, (b) a brief survey of the Old Testament evidence, and (c) a concluding look at the witness of the early Church outside of the New Testament.

The main Pauline passages to be examined in some detail are: (1) 1 Corinthians 11:2-16, (2) 1 Corinthians 14:33b-35, (3) Galatians 3:28, (4) Romans 16:1-2, and (5) 1 Timothy 2:11-15. For many traditional-conservative commentators and Church leaders, the Pauline instruction in 1 Cor 11:2-16; 14:33-35; 1 Tim 2:11-15, etc, provides the authoritative (and definitive) word on the subject. Whether or not one ultimately adopts or accepts this view, it is necessary to take the following interpretive factors and questions into account:

  • The force and extent of Paul’s authority with regard to the instruction in his letters—is it directed at the particular circumstances of his audience, or is it meant to be taken as an (absolute) instruction for all believers?
  • The weight and value of the particular passage in relation to the rest of the teaching and instruction in Paul’s letters.
  • Paul’s particular instruction in relation to the rest of the New Testament witness (especially the sayings and teaching of Jesus)
  • The critical question of the authorship of the Pastoral letters (and Ephesians), whether these are to be regarded as authentically Pauline or pseudonymous—does it make any difference with regard to the authority of the instruction in these letters?

The next article (Part 1) of this series will deal with the first Pauline passage indicated above—1 Corinthians 11:2-16.

October 31 – The Protestant Reformation

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October 31 is the traditional date commemorating the beginning of the Protestant Reformation, marking the day in 1517 when Martin Luther is thought to have posted his list of Ninety-Five Theses (on the door of the Castle Church in Wittenberg). These were to have formed the basis of a proposed academic disputation—that is, a public debate among scholars. Though the disputation never took place, a number of the underlying ideas and issues involved served to inspire many who were dissatisfied with the state of the established (Catholic) Church in Germany at the time. His theses deal primarily with the issue of the Pope’s authority to grant indulgences. According to established Church tradition, even after a Christian had confessed and repented of sin, he/she was still required to perform penance (an act of contrition or prayer, attending mass, charitable work, etc), as prescribed by the priest, before the guilt and penalty of the sin was completely absolved. Over time, high Church authorities—most notably the Pope—began to grant absolution on a wider scale for special occasions or circumstances, such as participation in the Crusades or religious pilgrimage. This indulgence (indulgentia, “concession, remission, pardon”) related only to temporal punishment—that is, to the punishment imposed by Church authorities in this life—though some theologians held that it could extend to souls in purgatory (after death) as well. While there had been questions and objections regarding this practice (and the theology underlying it) prior to Luther, it became an especially hot topic in his time due to the dubious methods and claims of Papal representatives attempting to raise funds (for the rebuilding of St. Peter’s cathedral in Rome) by offering a certificate of indulgence. A man named Johann Tetzel was the notorious “seller” of indulgences in Luther’s area, using methods gave the (popular) impression that one could “buy and sell salvation”. Luther’s theses dealt with the theological and ecclesiastical doctrine underlying the Papal practice of granting indulgences, but they were pointed enough that one could easily read between the lines and see in them a (potential) attack against the entire penitential system, so essential to function of the established Catholic Church of the time. The following year (1518), a disputation took place at Heidelberg, in which Luther did participate, at the request of Johann Staupitz, the head of his (Augustinian) religious order in Germany. Luther drew up a somewhat simpler list of 28 theses which cover a wider (and more general) range of ideas, and which better reflect the earliest stages of Protestant thought.

In commemoration of the anniversary of the Protestant Reformation, I will be starting a series of notes and articles entitled “The Reformation in Scripture”, in which the Scriptural background and support (or lack thereof) for certain key Protestant doctrines and tendencies is examined. This series will begin next week and continue through the month of November, up until the beginning of Advent. It is to be hoped that these notes and articles will be both informative and inspiring for Protestants and non-Protestants alike, as well as for any Christian who seeks to gain a better sense of the immense influence of the Reformation on the Church in the West (and on Western Society) and how it ties back to the writings of the New Testament.

Painting depicting Luther at the Imperial Day (Diet) of Assembly, at Worms in 1521

For those who seek to learn more about the Reformation, and to read (in translation) many of the writings of its leading figures (Luther, Melanchthon, Calvin, Zwingli, Bullinger, John Knox, Menno Simons, Caspar Schwenckfeld, et al), Biblesoft has available a rich and extensive Reformation Classics Collection.

Advent and Christmas Season

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Throughout December, I will be continuing (and concluding) the extensive series of articles on “The Law and the New Testament”. Having just completed the portion on “Paul’s View of the Law”, the next articles will examine the Old Testament Law in the remaining New Testament writings (James, 1 Peter, 2 Peter & Jude, Hebrews, the letters of John, and the book of Revelation). Keeping with this theme, and as a way of transitioning into the Advent and Christmas season, I will be presenting a series of daily notes on Galatians 4:4, looking at each word and phrase in considerable detail.

Daily notes will likewise be offered, hopefully with little or no interruption, all the way through Epiphany (Jan 6) and the end of the Christmas Season. I trust and pray that these notes and articles will be both informative and inspiring, encouraging the reader to delve deeper into the text of Scripture.

“Note of the Day” returns

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After a hiatus, I am starting up the Note of the Day feature again. I will be going back to my original idea of relatively short notes (allowing for a note every day or so), dealing with some noteworthy critical or interpretative aspect of a Scripture passage, occasionally touching upon matters of theology, church history, and the history of doctrine. As often as seems useful, I will follow the significant days and dates of the traditional Church Year.

For the Advent season, through the days of Christmas, I will be looking primarily at Old Testament, New Testament, and extra-/non-canonical passages related to the Birth of Jesus. Due to the complexity of some of these passages, I will at times break up the discussion over several consecutive notes.

I trust that these ‘daily’ posts will prove interesting and enlightening, and may stimulate readers toward further study.

Introduction to the Note of the Day

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NoteOfDay_template

Each day I will be posting a critical-exegetical Note—usually text-critical—on a select passage. Posts will generally follow the Church Year, with supplemental Notes filling in between the special days on the Calendar. Beyond being merely academic in nature, these Notes will touch on interesting or related theological and spiritual matters for contemplation, and to encourage deeper study. They will also introduce some less familiar areas of Church History, Doctrine, and Christian Spirituality which relate to the passage.

To begin with, there will be posts several times a week, and more frequently thereafter. We trust and pray that you will find these Notes stimulating and provocative. You will almost certainly discover or encounter something new each day.