Tuesday, April 27, 2010

We believe in one Lord...born of the Virgin Mary...

 "I believe in... Jesus Christ....born of the Virgin Mary..."

That's a small part of what we say every Sunday in church.  It's a small line from the Creed that unites all Christians in our time.

But was Jesus really born of Mary who was a virgin?  Was there really a virgin birth?  Was it foretold by the prophet Isaiah?

I'll begin with a little story.

Bart Ehrman wanted to serve God and he went to Moody Bible Institute. He then went to Wheaton College and on to Princeton.  At Princeton, he studied Greek, Latin, Syriac, Aramaic, Coptic, etc in order to be able to read every single writing of the early Christians in the first few centuries in their original tongue.  He's possibly the only human to have done that.  He lost his faith as a result.  Today, he argues very effectively why the Bible is totally unreliable.

Bart Ehrman was a student under Metzger while at Princeton.  Metzger was a great Bible scholar and was the chap who translated the Bible in the Revised Standard Version or the RSV which is commonly used today.  In Christianity Today, there was a tribute to Metzger who died in February 2007.

Someone told Metzger that Christian fundamentalists were burning copies of the RSV on church lawns because of his translation of Isaiah 7:14. Why would anyone burn the RSV, you may ask?  Isaiah 7:14 in the NIV reads: 14 Therefore the Lord himself will give you a sign: The virgin will be with child and will give birth to a son, and will call him Immanuel.

The word translated "virgin" in most of our translations is "almah" which simply means "maiden" or "young woman" in Hebrew.  The Hebrew word for "virgin" is "betulah" and not "almah".  So Metzger, when working on the RSV, decided to be faithful to the Bible and he translated almah as "young woman".  This caused an uproar among fundamentalists.

You may ask, "What's the big deal?  So what if the Isaiah prophecy mentions young woman?  God is sovereign and he can still have Jesus born of a virgin whether Isaiah prophesied it or not.  This should not affect the Christian tenet of faith at all.

The problem comes with Matthew's gospel.  In Matthew 1:22, 23, we read: 22All this took place to fulfil what the Lord had said through the prophet: 23"The virgin will be with child and will give birth to a son, and they will call him Immanuel"—which means, "God with us.

You see, Matthew's Gospel gave the story of the miraculous birth of Jesus.  He went into some length on this.  He then explains that all these things took place in order to fulfil a prophecy which comes from Isaiah 7:14.  But why would Matthew misunderstand Isaiah 7:14?  I have shown earlier that Matthew is not very good with Hebrew writings and in an earlier post, I have shown that he had Jesus riding on two donkeys just to fulfil a non-existent prophecy which only existed in his non-Hebrew mind.  Scholars tell us that the Gospels are all anonymous and the church attributed each of the four gospels to an evangelist at a much later date.  Presumably, Matthew is not the tax gatherer many people think he is.  He was probably a non-Palestine Christian convert who did not know Hebrew.  That makes a lot of sense because many early Christians had to depend on the Septuagint (which is a translation of the Hebrew Old Testament into Greek) when they wanted to read the Old Testament.  
In the Septuagint, the word for “almah” in Isaiah was wrongly translated "parthenos" which means virgin in Greek.  If the Jewish tax-gatherer Matthew actually wrote Matthew, he should have known enough of his Hebrew Bible not to make such a blunder.  He would have read the Old Testament in Hebrew and not in Greek.  To misunderstand a prophecy and to think that virginity is a prerequisite in the prophecy and to cook up facts about Jesus so that people will think there is fulfillment of a non-existent prophecy is quite a serious thing to do.

As an aside, most of the references to the Old Testament by the gospel writers are taken from the Septuagint.  Again this is one argument for a non-Jewish author for each of the gospels, particularly the Synoptic gospels.  I'll deal with John separately in another post.  In fact, I’ll probably deal with each of the gospels separately in different posts.

Before I go on, it should be noted that John's Gospel makes no mention of the virgin birth.  John had ample opportunity to talk about it - he was always into Jesus as divine and the idea of a virgin birth would have been up his alley.  Neither was the virgin birth mentioned in any of the epistles.

I have read many attempts by Christians to say that "almah" actually means "virgin".  They also say that "almah" is always used to mean virgin in the Old Testament.  I hope these people are genuinely mistaken and they are not dishonestly attempting to justify scriptures.  Let's look into this more carefully.

Naturally, a "young woman" is usually a virgin or so she should be.  But I'm saying that "young woman" is a description of the age of the person and her gender and nothing else.  For a prophecy to include an element of virginity (which is an astounding prophecy because no pregnant woman is a virgin), surely it would be highly negligent to just say "young woman" and hope people will infer that virginity is meant.  This is particularly so when there is a perfectly good word for a virgin, ie "betulah".

Next, Isaiah in his entire writing used the word "almah" only once in Isaiah 7:14.  However, he used the word "betulah" 5 separate times so he couldn't have been ignorant of the word.  We can’t accuse Isaiah of having an inadequate Hebrew vocabulary.  He used "betulah" in 23:4; 23:12; 37:22; 47:1; 62:5.

Since Isaiah only used "almah" once, we can gain guidance into how "almah" may be used elsewhere in the Old Testament.  I have to clarify one essential point.  As I have said, a young woman may be a virgin and frequently she is so but the idea of virginity cannot be inferred into the prophecy if "almah" is used.  One huge error a Christian sometimes makes is to show examples where “almah” is used to refer to virgins.  Nobody is disputing the fact that most young women in those days in Palestine were virgins.  It does not mean anything if you can show a thousand examples of an almah who is in fact a virgin because the two are not inconsistent.  But on the other hand, if I am able to show just one example in which "almah" is used on a non-virgin, that would end all argument on this issue.

I’m sorry I have to belabour this point because in my experience, many people have difficulty grappling with this mentally.  Some people seem to think that if they can show a hundred examples where “almah” refers to someone who is in fact a virgin, it doesn’t matter if someone else can show merely one example where “almah” is used on a non-virgin.  But it does matter.

I’ll give an example so as to put a final nail in the coffin of this confusion.  For example you tell me that the word “girl” means someone who is a virgin.  And you are able to show me a million examples in literature that use the word “girl” to refer to someone who is in fact a virgin.  All I have to do is to show you one instance of the word “girl” being used in the context where she’s not a virgin and you are sunk.  Yes, a “girl” may very well be a virgin but the idea of virginity is not an essential component in the word “girl”.

And yes, there is one example from Proverbs 30:18-20 which reads:

18 "There are three things that are too amazing for me,
       four that I do not understand:
 19 the way of an eagle in the sky,
       the way of a snake on a rock,
       the way of a ship on the high seas,
       and the way of a man with a maiden (ie almah).
 20 "This is the way of an adulteress:
       She eats and wipes her mouth
       and says, 'I've done nothing wrong.'
This almah is FAR from being a virgin!

I will end with a nice story - the same story I alluded to at the start of this post.

Metzger, when he was told that fundamentalist Christians were burning his RSV on church lawns because he translated Isaiah 7:14 as "young woman" instead of "virgin", he said, "We've come a long way since Tyndale.  They now burn the translation and not the translator".

What a great man!!!  When I read that, I wasn't sure whether to laugh at his joke or to cry over the passing of such a great biblical scholar and Bible translator who just wanted to be faithful and correct in his translation even if to the rest of the world, truth isn’t really important.

Monday, April 19, 2010

Relationship with God and our religious experiences

 A Balinese funeral pyre

That the Bible contains serious errors and contradictions is something nobody can really dispute.  In my earlier two entries, I've shown just the tip of the iceberg.  How then can one be sure of one's faith?

One of the arguments that appeals most to the religious is the claim that we have a relationship with God. "You may tell me the Bible is contradictory and even erroneous.  It may be obvious that the Evangelist St Matthew cooked up the story of Jesus' entry into Jerusalem just to fit the Zechariah prophecy.  But I know God exists and I know Jesus is Lord because I have a relationship with him.  There are experiences of mine that confirm the truth of God.  These experiences are so real to me that no matter what the evidence may be against God and the Bible, I'm prepared to discount everything and submit to God with whom I have a relationship and of whom I have experienced deeply."

It's futile to examine each of these experiences because they are numerous, varied and personal.  Obviously, to the believer, these experiences are weighty proofs of the existence of God and his love.  But how reliable are such experiences as proof?  Never mind the fact that non-believers too have the same experiences or that there's such a thing as coincidence.  Just how reliable are these personal experiences?

For the experiences to be reliable, there must be the possibility for some other experiences to bring about a different conclusion.  In other words, if I say that my experience of X must be interpreted to mean proof of the existence of Y, there must be a possibility for there to be some other experiences that should prove the non-existence of Y.  It does not help if ALL conceivable experiences are interpreted to prove the existence of Y and there can be no experiences that disprove Y's existence.

If the believer's experiences serve to confirm God's existence, can we think of a single experience that will confirm God's non-existence?  The truth is we can't.  Why?  That's because we have been conditioned to interpret EVERY experience as a confirmation of God's love and existence.

Let me give an example.  Tom (a believer) is driving his car.  He gets into an accident.  There's only a small dent on his car.  Tom immediately thanks God for his mercy and for having averted a more serious accident that could have resulted in a greater loss to him.  The dent was so tiny, no repair was necessary.

Let's imagine that the accident was more serious.  Tom's car was a total wreck.  But he was uninjured.  Again, this experience is totally confirmatory of God's miracle and power.  Tom could have been injured.  Just look at his car!  It's absolutely smashed up.  The whole church would probably talk about God's miraculous act of mercy to Tom.

Let's now imagine that Tom was injured in the accident and was sent to ICU but he recovered after a month.  Again, that is confirmation of God's mercy and miraculous healing.  The whole church had been praying for Tom throughout the ordeal when he was in ICU.  How can anyone be so faithless as to doubt God's mercy?  It's clear that God's hand saved Tom's life and put him on the road to recovery.

Let's now say that Tom died after spending a month in ICU.  The church has been praying for him throughout that month.  Will anybody lose faith?  Of course not!  God is sovereign and who are we, mere mortals, to assume the role that is reserved for Almighty God alone?  Tom has gone to be with the Lord.  The Lord gives life and he takes it away.  Blessed be the name of the Lord.  God always has a plan that we mortals can't comprehend.  All things work for the good of those who love the Lord.  For one thing, the church has become more cohesive after the incident.  People who have been on the verge of leaving the church have in fact returned to the faith and are now serving in every way they can.

How reliable are experiences that can only lead to one conclusion?  How reliable can they be when we can't even think  of a scenario where an experience points to God's non-existence? Is such "proof" of God's existence and mercy enough for us?  Should we bring in our experiences when we're talking to non-believers or will it be very obvious to them that we're talking rubbish?  Should we leave personal experiences out because they don't mean a thing at all except whatever it is we want them to mean?  

These are valid questions that every thinking believer should not sweep under the carpet.

Friday, March 26, 2010

Hosanna in the Highest

Since, this is Lent, I thought I should get my vestment colours right.  As we approach Holy Week, we might want to pause and consider what the Holy Gospels tell us about the event that we now celebrate as Palm Sunday.

We are told in all four Gospels that Jesus rode on a donkey into Jerusalem.  This is meant to be a fulfilment of prophecy.  The prophecy is in Zechariah 9:9 which reads:

Rejoice greatly, O Daughter of Zion!
       Shout, Daughter of Jerusalem!
       See, your king comes to you,
       righteous and having salvation,
       gentle and riding on a donkey,
       on a colt, the foal of a donkey.

This is obviously written in poetic form in which parallelism is employed - the "donkey" in one line and "donkey" is again reflected in the second line.

Anyone who is familiar with Hebrew poetic form will know that only one donkey is "prophesied".
So, we read in Mark 11:1-7:

 1As they approached Jerusalem and came to Bethphage and Bethany at the Mount of Olives, Jesus sent two of his disciples, 2saying to them, "Go to the village ahead of you, and just as you enter it, you will find a colt tied there, which no one has ever ridden. Untie it and bring it here. 3If anyone asks you, 'Why are you doing this?' tell him, 'The Lord needs it and will send it back here shortly.' "  4They went and found a colt outside in the street, tied at a doorway. As they untied it, 5some people standing there asked, "What are you doing, untying that colt?" 6They answered as Jesus had told them to, and the people let them go. 7When they brought the colt to Jesus and threw their cloaks over it, he sat on it.
Notice the words in emphasis - only one donkey was procured for Jesus and only one donkey was laid with cloaks and only one donkey was sat on by the Lord.

Luke 19:28-35 says the same thing.  Only one animal is taken to our Lord and he sat on only one animal.

The story in John 12:14 is slightly different.  The disciples were not sent to get a donkey for Jesus.  Jesus "found the donkey" but apologists will of course come up with a hundred excuses to gloss over this difference.  But it's still one animal we are talking about.  The essential part of John 12:14 reads:
14Jesus found a young donkey and sat upon it

So far so good.  Only one animal is specifically mentioned.  Nobody is fooled by the quaint parallelism in Hebrew poetry.

But alas, the writer of the Gospel of Matthew didn't fare so well.  Let's read what he says in Matthew 21:1-7:
 1As they approached Jerusalem and came to Bethphage on the Mount of Olives, Jesus sent two disciples, 2saying to them, "Go to the village ahead of you, and at once you will find a donkey tied there, with her colt by her. Untie them and bring them to me. 3If anyone says anything to you, tell him that the Lord needs them, and he will send them right away."
 4This took place to fulfill what was spoken through the prophet:
 5"Say to the Daughter of Zion,
      'See, your king comes to you,
   gentle and riding on a donkey,
      on a colt, the foal of a donkey.' "
 6The disciples went and did as Jesus had instructed them. 7They brought the donkey and the colt, placed their cloaks on them, and Jesus sat on them.
Which of course leads to a comical entry into Jerusalem for our Lord.  Jesus riding on both a donkey and a colt!  How he balanced himself was no doubt evidence that divine miracle came into play.

Thursday, March 18, 2010


What is the teaching in the Bible on the Second Coming of our Lord? Was it ever envisaged whether by the Apostles, the early Christians or even by our Lord himself that the Second Coming would not take place for at least 2000 years? I'll be examining these three verses:

Mt 16:28 "I tell you the truth, some who are standing here will not taste death before they see the Son of Man coming in his kingdom."

Mark 9:1 'And he said to them, "I tell you the truth, some who are standing here will not taste death before they see the kingdom of God come with power."

Luke 9:27 'I tell you the truth, some who are standing here will not taste death before they see the kingdom of God."

One way out for some Bible commentators is to say that "seeing the kingdom of God come with power" is not seeing the Second coming of Jesus. Apologists have tried to explain away these verses and one usual argument is that Jesus is talking about his Transfiguration and not his Second Coming.

Although that may be highly attractive in order that the words of the Bible may be justified, I am of the view that it's not an honest explanation. The words do not refer to the Transfiguration but to the Second Coming.

My reasons are as follows:


Remember that this is what Jesus tells the people:

"I tell you the truth, some who are standing here will not taste death before they see the Son of Man coming in his kingdom." Mt 16:28

Presumably, this event of "the Son of Man coming in his kingdom" must occur at least some length of time from the time it was spoken. Otherwise, why mention "will not taste death"?

But we know that the Transfiguration took place 6 days after Jesus spoke these words. Matthew 17:1 tells us that the Transfiguration took place only 6 days after Jesus spoke the words reported in Matthew 16:28.

Matthew 17:1-3 read: "After six days Jesus took with him Peter, James and John the brother of James, and led them up a high mountain by themselves. There he was transfigured before them. His face shone like the sun, and his clothes became as white as the light. Just then there appeared before them Moses and Elijah, talking with Jesus."

To say that some of them would not taste death before they see the Transfiguration when it was going to happen in 6 days' time would imply that Jesus was either ignorant of when the Transfiguration would take place or worse, that he was being deceptive. His language just does not permit an interpretation that he was talking about his Transfiguration.


One of the cardinal principles of Bible reading (or any reading for that matter) is that we are to read a passage in context. We must look at a passage in the immediate background in which something is said. We should never look at a verse in isolation and which is completely divorced from the context in which it was said. Let's do just that. Let's read from verse 24 to the end of that same chapter in Matthew:

"24. Then Jesus said to his disciples, "If anyone would come after me, he must deny himself and take up his cross and follow me. 25 For whoever wants to save his life will lose it, but whoever loses his life for me will find it. 26 What good will it be for a man if he gains the whole world, yet forfeits his soul? Or what can a man give in exchange for his soul? 27 For the Son of Man is going to come in his Father's glory with his angels, and then he will reward each person according to what he has done. 28 I tell you the truth, some who are standing here will not taste death before they see the Son of
Man coming in his kingdom."

Read particularly the preceding verse, ie verse 27 again together with Mt 16:28: "For the Son of Man is going to come in his Father's glory with his angels, and then he will reward each person according to what he has done. I tell you the truth, some who are standing here will not taste death before they see the Son of Man coming in his kingdom. "

Jesus is talking about the end. What good is it if in the end, you lose your soul? That's what he's saying. He is talking about his coming into his father's glory and then he will reward each person according to his deeds. Look at the context. It's all about the end of the age, not the Transfiguration at all.

The context clearly shows that Jesus is not referring to his Transfiguration.


In Matthew 10, Jesus was telling his disciples about the persecution they would face. He tells them to flee from town to town as they are persecuted. But let's look at this in context. Jesus was telling his disciples that they were to preach to the lost sheep of Israel. He then tells them that they would be persecuted. The context is clear. It applies to his immediate disciples. Read from verse 5:

5These twelve Jesus sent out with the following instructions: "Do not go among the Gentiles or enter any town of the Samaritans. 6Go rather to the lost sheep of Israel.

It's to the 12 Apostles that Jesus is talking. He tells them next that they will be persecuted. But they are permitted to flee if they are persecuted as they will be. He says in verse 23, "When you are persecuted in one place, flee to another. I tell you the truth, you will not finish going through the cities of Israel before the Son of Man comes."

This clearly is not a reference to the Transfiguration. Jesus is telling them that he will come again before they can even exhaust the cities of Israel in which they are to preach (at all times avoiding Samaria). Jesus is not talking about 2000 years later. He is talking to the Apostles in their own time.


In Mark 14:62, Jesus says to the high priest just before his crucifixion this: "And you will see the Son of Man sitting at the right hand of the Mighty One and coming on the clouds of heaven."

Scribes in the second century AD modified the verse by eliminating the words that show Jesus's Second Coming and they merely left the words that speak of Jesus sitting on the right hand of God on a cloud of heaven. They removed any mention of the imminent coming of Jesus. I have to repeat the words of Ehrman here because he puts it so brilliantly: "There was no mention by them [the Second Century scribes] of an imminent appearance of One who, in fact, never came."


The early Christians in the first century thought they would not die before Jesus came again. In fact, some of them were so troubled when good Christians began to die and Jesus had not returned and this anxiety led to questions and trouble in the church and St Paul was compelled to explain to them that it was all right to die before Jesus' Second Coming. But what is significant is this: did Paul expect his coming to be after the death of Jesus' first hearers and disciples?

To find out what St Paul believed, we have to read St Paul's epistles. The Christians in Thessalonica were getting troubled when Christians began to die and the Lord had not yet returned. They began to wonder what was going to become of those that had died. Paul had to address their concerns. Did Paul disabuse them of the silly notion that Jesus would be coming in that century? Bear in mind that Paul claims to have gone to the Seventh heaven (whatever that means) and he claims to have received direct revelation - what he refers to as unspeakable truths - from God so surely he couldn't have been mistaken himself.

But this is what Paul said to them in 1 Thess 4:13 onwards:

13Brothers, we do not want you to be ignorant about those who fall asleep, or to grieve like the rest of men, who have no hope. 14We believe that Jesus died and rose again and so we believe that God will bring with Jesus those who have fallen asleep in him.

More significantly, he continues to say:

15According to the Lord's own word, we tell you that we who are still alive, who are left till the coming of the Lord, will certainly not precede those who have fallen asleep. 16For the Lord himself will come down from heaven, with a loud command, with the voice of the archangel and with the trumpet call of God, and the dead in Christ will rise first. 17After that, we who are still alive and are left will be caught up together with them in the clouds to meet the Lord in the air. And so we will be with the Lord forever. 18Therefore encourage each other with these words.

Notice the words that I have emphasized. Most Christians don't see the significance of these words. They make the mistake of reading the Epistles as if they were meant for them in the 21st century. No, Paul wrote to comfort the Christians in Thessalonica who were worried that some of them had died and Christ had not yet come. They needed some encouragement, which is why he ended in verse 18 asking them to encourage one another with these words. Paul is saying that it's all right for some of you to die before his Coming. But when he comes, those of us who are still alive (Paul included) will be caught up with those who have died in the Lord.


It's now Lent and as we reflect on the Life and Passion of our Lord, it's good to think of the significance of Jesus' Second Coming as we say in the Liturgy "Christ will come again!"