Saturday, January 10, 2009

First Sunday after Epiphany (formerly January 13) - The Baptism of the Lord


(John 1:29-34)

At that time, John saw Jesus coming toward him and said, "Behold the Lamb of God who takes away the sin of the world! This is He of whom I said, 'After me comes a man who has a higher rank than I, for He was before me.' And I did not know Him, but so that He might be revealed to Israel, I came baptizing with water."

And John testified, saying, "I saw the Spirit descending like a dove from heaven, and He remained upon Him. And I did not know Him, but He who sent me to baptize with water said to me, 'He upon whom you see the Spirit descending and remaining upon Him, this is He who baptizes with the Holy Spirit.' And I have seen and have testified that this is the Son of God."

(Mark 1:7-11)
This is what John the Baptist proclaimed, "There comes after me One who is mightier than I, of whom I am not worthy to stoop down and untie the thong of His sandals. I baptize you with water, but He will baptize you with the Holy Spirit."

And it happened in those days that Jesus came from Nazareth of Galilee and was baptized by John in the Jordan. And immediately coming up out of the water, He saw the heavens being split apart, and the Spirit descending upon Him like a dove. And a voice came out of the heavens, "You are my Son, the Beloved; with you I am well pleased."

Friday, January 9, 2009

Popular (Mis)Depictions of Bible stories, part 2 (1)

1.) The Tablets of the Law are semi-flat rounded off rectangles.

While it had become common to depict the Tablets of the Law as rounded off rectangles, this is actually a recent innovation in Western art, becoming prevalent only from the late Medieval period. A majority of earlier depictions of the Tablets depict them as being rectangular slabs (see image at left, and here, here, here, here, and here for some more examples).

Rabbinic tradition, meanwhile, has it that the Tablets were either shaped like perfect cubes or sharp-cornered rectangles, six tefachim - a tefach ("handbreath") is approximately equal to 8 centimeters or 3.2 inches - in length and three tefachim thick (Baba Batra 14a).

2.) Adam and Eve ate an apple.

There is nothing in the Bible that expressly mentions or suggests that the Tree of Knowledge of Good and Evil (Etz ha-Daat tov V'ra) is an apple tree. Even early authorities disagreed on the species of the tree and its fruit. The apocryphal Book of Enoch (32:4) suggests that the tree looked like a species of tamarind that bore fruit which resembled extremely fine grapes.

In the Talmud (Berachot 40b), Rabbi Meir said that Man and Woman debased themselves by drinking wine made out of the grape(s) which grew from the tree, "since the thing that most causes wailing to a man is wine" (as it did to Noah, who drank to the point of intoxication). Meanwhile, Rabbi Nehemiah suggested that the fruit may have been figs (cf. Genesis 3:7, where Adam and Eve sew fig leaves to hide their nakedness) while Rabbi Yehuda said that it was a sort of wheat (Hebrew khitah, a pun on khet, "sin"), "since a child does not know how to call 'father' and 'mother' until it has had a taste of corn."

The citron (Hebrew etrog, which resembles the Aramaic m'ragag, "desirable"; cf. Genesis 3:6) and the carob (since its Hebrew name charuv puns on cherev "sword", and churban "destruction") have also been suggested. Islamic tradition, meanwhile, commonly represents the fruit as a fig or olive.

Around the 12th century, Christian art in France and Germany started to depict the apple as the forbidden fruit, while Byzantine and Italian artists stuck with the belief that the Fruit of Knowledge was a fig. It was not until the later Renaissance that the "forbidden fruit=apple" belief was universal.

There are varying hypotheses on why the apple was chosen to represent this fruit, but one possible theory is that because the Latin word for evil, "malus", is homonymous with the word for apple: Adam and Eve contracted malus (evil) by eating a malus (apple).

3.) Golgotha was a skull-shaped hill with three tall crosses in it.

While the word Golgotha does mean "the place of the skull," the place's appearance needn't necessarily have looked like a skull; indeed this belief that Golgotha is named so because of its appearance is only recent, dating only from the 19th century.

The general belief from early Christian times onwards is that the reason why it is called such is either because of its function as a place of execution, i.e. there were bones and skulls of victims strewn about all over the place, or the belief held by many Church Fathers that Adam was buried on that spot (Origen in the 2nd century, who himself have lived in Jerusalem for 20 years, is our earliest witness to this tradition).

No early Christian writer explicitly suggested that Calvary was a skull-shaped hill, and the Gospels themselves are silent as to whether Jesus' crucifixion occurred on a raised place at all. It is true that the tradition embodied in the name "Mount Calvary" appears as early as the 4th century, but that the hill was skull-like in form is quite a modern idea. In fact, St. Epiphanius of Salamis in the 4th century expressly said that "There is nothing to be seen on the place resembling this name; for it is not situated upon a height that it should be called (the place) of a skull, answering to the place of the head in the human body."

Gordon's Calvary (named after Major-General Charles George Gordon, who had popularized the site in 1882-83, after Otto Thenius of Dresden proposed this hill as the true location of Golgotha in 1842) does resemble a skull and is popular among some Christians as the location of Jesus' crucifixion. Even so, the features of the hill that make it look like a skull were most likely not present in the 1st century. Archaeologists believe it to be a quarry or mine developed only in the past two or three centuries; its skull-like appearance is thus due to modern mining or quarrying operations in the area.

Also, many works of art and even a number of films show only three crosses on Golgotha; sometimes shown as very tall ones.

However, it is more historically plausible that Golgotha was literally dotted with upright beams (stipes) on which the crossbeam (patibulum) was placed to make a cross - it was, after all, an execution site, and crucifixions by the tens or hundreds were most likely held there daily. It might be even possible that there were other crucified victims, dead or dying, in Golgotha when Jesus and the two criminals arrived.

Also, crosses were not that high; in fact, they were most probably only a feet or so from the ground, so as to facilitate wild animals consuming the corpses of the victims hanging thereon (victims of crucifixion were often left to hang on their crosses to rot or, at worst, were dumped in the garbage heap; giving a crucifixion victim a proper burial was rare and was the exception to the rule).

Early artworks (once again, examples are here, here, here, here, here, here, and here) quite uniformly depict the crosses as only a few measures tall than the victim. It was not until later that a number of artists gradually started increasing the heights of the crosses in their art. The end results of this were the popular images of three crosses which at most are somewhere around seven to ten-feet tall, standing on a hill very much devoid of anything else.

Tuesday, January 6, 2009

January 6- The Epiphany of the Lord (aka The Theophany)


(Matthew 2:1-12)

After Jesus was born in Bethlehem in Judea in the days of King Herod, behold, magi from the East came to Jerusalem, saying, "Where is He who has been born King of the Jews? For we have seen His star in the East and have come to worship Him." When Herod the king heard he was disturbed, and all Jerusalem with him.

And when he had gathered all the chief priests and scribes of the people together, he asked them where the Christ was to be born. But they said to him, "In Bethlehem of Judea, for this is what has been written by the prophet:

'And you, Bethlehem, in the land of Judah, are by no means least among the rulers of Judah; for out of you will come a ruler who will shepherd my people Israel.'"

Then Herod privately summoned the magi and determined from them what time the star had appeared. And he sent them to Bethlehem and said, "Go and look carefully for the child, and when you have found Him, bring me word so that I too may go and worship Him." When they heard the king, they left; and behold, the star which they had seen in the East went before them until it stopped above where the Child was. When they saw the star they rejoiced with very great joy.

And when they had come into the house they saw the Child with Mary His mother; and they fell down and worshiped Him. And when they had opened their treasures, they gave to Him gifts of gold, frankincense, and myrrh. And having been warned in a dream not to return to Herod, they departed for their own country another way.

(Matthew 2:1-23)


(Matthew 3:13-17)

At that time, Jesus came from Galilee to John at the Jordan to be baptized by him. And John tried to prevent Him, saying, "I need to be baptized by you, and do you come to me?" But Jesus, answering, said, "Let it be so now, for it is proper for us to fulfill all righteousness." Then he permitted Him. After Jesus had been baptized, He came up immediately from the water; and behold, the heavens were opened to Him and He saw the Spirit of God descending like a dove and coming on Him. And behold a voice from the heavens, saying, "This is my Son, the beloved, with whom I am well pleased."

(John 1:18-34)

No one has ever seen God. The only-begotten Son, who is in the bosom of the Father, He has made Him known.

And this is the testimony of John when the Jews sent priests and Levites from Jerusalem to ask him, "Who are you?" He confessed (and did not deny but confessed), "I am not the Christ!" And they asked him, "What then? Are you Elijah?" And he says, "I am not." "Are you the prophet?" And he answered, "No." Then they said to him, "Who are you, that we can give an answer to those who sent us. What do you say about yourself?" He said, "I am 'The voice of one crying in the wilderness: "Make straight the way of the Lord,"' as Isaiah the prophet said." (Now they had been sent from the Pharisees.)

And they asked him, saying, "Why then do you baptize if you are not the Christ, nor Elijah, nor the prophet?" John answered them, saying, "I baptize with water, but among you there stands one you do not know, who is coming after me, of whom I am not worthy to untie the strap of His sandal!"

These things happened in Bethany beyond the Jordan where John was baptizing.

On the next day he sees Jesus coming toward him and says, "Behold the Lamb of God who takes away the sin of the world! This is He of whom I said, ‘After me comes a man who has a higher rank than I for He was before me.’ I did not know Him, but so that He might be revealed to Israel, I came baptizing with water."

And John testified, saying, "I saw the Spirit descending like a dove from heaven, and He remained upon Him. And I did not know Him, but He who sent me to baptize with water said to me, 'He upon whom you see the Spirit descending and remaining upon Him, this is He who baptizes with the Holy Spirit.' And I have seen and have testified that this is the Son of God.

Friday, January 2, 2009

Popular (Mis)Depictions of Bible stories, part 1

Sometimes, popular belief and iconography can influence our minds on how we read the Bible (admittedly one of the least descriptive ancient texts), sometimes to such an extent that we are so used to it that when someone tries depict a particular event in a different manner - usually closer to what the Bible says, we often get fidgety and uncomfortable.

Here let's do a simple listing of popular depictions vs. the Biblical account.

1.) The Red Sea started to part from Israelites' side.

Cecil B. DeMille's 1923 and 1956 films, both entitled The Ten Commandments, and just about a majority of Moses films after it depicts the parting of the Red Sea in a very dramatic manner: as Moses raises his staff/hands over the sea, the sea starts to open from the shore where the Israelites are. (footage from DeMille's 1923 version)

The Bible (Exodus 14:21-22), however, paints a quite different picture:

Then Moses stretched out his hand toward the sea, and the LORD drove the sea back by a strong east wind (v'ruach qadim 'azah) all that night and He made the sea into dry ground, and the waters were divided. The sons of Israel went into the midst of the sea on the dry ground, and the waters were for them a wall on their right and on their left.
While the exact route that the Israelites took is still a matter of debate (see map to the right for various possible routes), the results would have been pretty much the same. The Israelites were going eastward towards Canaan, as any good map could tell you. If the parting of the sea happened like films show it (opening dramatically), the sea would have started to part from the other shore, as the sea was driven back by "a strong east wind", rather opposite to what the movies are depicting - since an east wind comes from the east and blows west.

2.) Jonah was swallowed by a whale.

There's really no indication that Jonah was swallowed by a whale, at least from the book of Jonah (2:1):
The LORD appointed a great fish (hadag gadol) to swallow Jonah; and Jonah was in the stomach of the fish three days and three nights.
Now the phrase "great fish" is ambiguous. While there is a possibility that it is indeed a species of whale, it could also have been another aquatic animal, or even a special one-time creature that God made for the purpose of rescuing Jonah.

The Greek Septuagint, meanwhile, renders the phrase hadag gadol as kētei megalō meaning "a large great fish" or "a large whale" or even "a large sea monster/sea serpent." Since in Greek mythology the word kētos, while meaning "great fish", is closely associated with sea monsters (e.g., Cetus (Kētos) of Greek mythology), early Christians seem to have understood and depicted the 'fish' as being a hideous serpentine creature like in the image at left; see here, here, and here for other examples.

Jerome later translated this phrase as piscis granda (great fish) in his Latin Vulgate. He translated kētos, however, as cetus in Matthew 12:40. At some point cetus became synonymous with "whale" (for instance, the study of whales is now called cetology).

In his late 14th century translation, John Wycliff rendered piscis granda as "greet fisch" (great fish) in Jonah 2:1, while translating cetus as "whal" (whale) in Matthew 12:40. William Tyndale followed suit, translating the phrase as "greate fyshe" in his 1534 translation of the Bible, while translating the word kētos or cetus as "whale". Tyndale's translation was later incorporated into the Authorized Version of 1611 (aka the King James Version). Since then, the "great fish" in Jonah 2 has been most often interpreted as a whale.

3.) Moses turned his rod into a serpent and called forth all ten plagues of Egypt.

In the 1998 film The Prince of Egypt, it was Moses who call forth all the plagues to the Egyptians. However, the Bible has Moses commanding Aaron to throw down his staff and to summon the first three plagues:

Exodus 7:10: When Moses and Aaron went to Pharaoh, they did so, just as the Lord had commanded them – and Aaron threw down his staff before Pharaoh and his servants and it became a snake.

Exodus 7:19: And the LORD spoke to Moses, "Say to Aaron, ‘Take your staff and stretch out your hand over the waters of Egypt, over their streams, over their rivers, over their ponds, and over all their pools of water, that they may become blood. And there will be blood throughout all the land of Egypt, both in wood and stone containers.’"

Exodus 8:5: And the LORD spoke to Moses, "Say to Aaron, ‘Stretch out your hand with your rod over the streams, over the rivers, and over the ponds, and cause frogs to come up on the land of Egypt.’"

Exodus 8:16: And the LORD spoke to Moses, "Say to Aaron, ‘Extend your staff and strike the dust of the ground, and it will become gnats throughout all the land of Egypt.’"
However, that piece of artistic license within the context of the film is understandable (the film has Moses' wife Tzipporah accompanying him to Egypt in place of Aaron, who seems rather bitter at Moses by this point).

As to the reason why Aaron is commanded to do the things that would call the three plagues, Jewish belief explains it as Moses being obliged to appreciate the help he received earlier from the Nile (Exodus 2:1-10), and the dust (Exodus 2:11-12) and was therefore unable to smite either of these, necessitating Aaron to do it in his stead.

4.) The Tablets of the Law are only written on one side.

Exodus 32:15-16 tells us that:

And Moses turned and went down from the mountain with the two tablets of the testimony in his hands. The tablets were written on both sides – they were written on one side and the other. And the the tablets were the work of God, and the writing was the writing of God, engraved on the tablets.
There was in fact a Jewish tradition which states that the letters were not merely engraved on the surface of the tablets; they were fully bored through it. In fact, while one would expect the reverse side to bear a mirror image since the letters were bored fully, both sides appeared normally; i.e. the back appeared identical to the front. Another is that the inner part of some Hebrew letters (either ayin, which in paleo-Hebrew looked like an 'O', or samekh or the final mem in modern-day Hebrew script) 'hovered' in place, despite the letters being graven fully.

As for how any commandments are written on one tablet, while arrangements such as "five commandments on each tablet" or the "three commandments on one with seven on the other" (first suggested by St. Thomas Aquinas, for theological reasons) are common, some are of the idea that that each tablet contained all ten commandments in imitation of ancient treaties, in which each party receives a copy of the treaty - usually written in stone - while the subordinate party places his copy of the pact inside the main temple of his deity, which would be parallel to the keeping of the tablets within the Ark of the Covenant, which in turn was kept in the Mishkan (Tabernacle) and later in the Temple of Jerusalem.

Apparently, this was also a debated point among early Jewish rabbis: some held that there were five on each tablet, but it was also admitted that "the Sages say ten on one tablet and ten on the other".

Thursday, January 1, 2009

January 1 - Solemnity of the Blessed Virgin Mary, the Mother of God (aka Octave of the Nativity, Feast of the Circumcision of Christ)


(Luke 2:21)

At that time, when eight days were completed for His circumcision, His name was called Jesus, which was called by the angel before He was conceived in the womb.


(Luke 2:16-21)

The shepherds went in haste and found Mary and Joseph, and the Child lying in the manger. And when they saw, they made known the word which had been spoken to them about this Child, and all who heard it marveled at what the shepherds said. But Mary treasured up all these things and pondered them in her heart. And the shepherds returned, glorifying and praising God for all they had heard and seen, just as had been told them.

And when eight days were completed for His circumcision, His name was called Jesus, which was called by the angel before He was conceived in the womb.

(Luke 2:21-40)

At that time, when eight days were completed for His circumcision, His name was called Jesus, which was called by the angel before He was conceived in the womb.
And when the days of their purification according to the law of Moses were fulfilled, they brought Him to Jerusalem to present Him to the Lord (as it is written in the Law of the Lord: 'Every male who opens the womb shall be called holy to the Lord'), and to offer a sacrifice according to that which is said in the Law of the Lord: a pair of turtledoves, or two young pigeons.

And behold there was a man in Jerusalem whose name was Simeon, and this man was righteous and devout, waiting for the consolation of Israel; and the Holy Spirit was upon him. And he had received an answer from the Holy Spirit that that he would not see death before he had seen the Lord's Christ. And he came by the Spirit into the temple, and when His parents brought in the child Jesus to do for Him according to the custom of the Law, and he took Him into his arms and blessed God and said, "Now you are dismissing your servant, O Lord, in peace, according to your word; for my eyes have seen your salvation, which you have prepared before the face of all peoples; a light for revelation to the Nations, and the glory of your people Israel." And His father and mother were marveling at the things which were spoken concerning Him.

And Simeon blessed them, and said to Mary His mother, "Behold, this child is set for the falling and the rising of many in Israel and for a sign of contradiction (and a sword will pierce your own soul also), that the thoughts of many hearts may be revealed."

And here was also a prophetess, Anna the daughter of Phanuel, of the tribe of Asher. She was very old in her many days and had lived with her husband for seven years from her virginity; and she was a widow for eighty four years, who did not depart from the temple, worshipping night and day with fastings and prayers. And coming up to them at that very hour she began to give thanks to God and to speak about Him to all who were waiting for the redemption of Israel.

And when they had performed all things according to the law of the Lord, they returned to Galilee, to their own town, Nazareth. And the child grew and became strong in spirit, filled with wisdom; and the grace of God was upon Him.

(Luke 2:20-21, 40-52)

The shepherds returned, glorifying and praising God for all they had heard and seen, just as had been told them. And when eight days were completed for the circumcision of the child, He was named Jesus, which was called by the angel before He was conceived in the womb. And the child grew and became strong in spirit, filled with wisdom; and the grace of God was upon Him.

And His parents went every year to Jerusalem at the feast of the Passover. And when He was twelve years old, they went up to Jerusalem according to the custom of the feast. And when they had fulfilled the days, as they were returning, the boy Jesus stayed behind in Jerusalem, and Joseph and His mother did not know, but supposing Him to be in the company, they went a day's journey, and were searching for Him among their relatives and among their acquaintances; and when they did not find Him they turned back again to Jerusalem, seeking Him.

And it happened that after three days they found Him in the temple sitting in the midst of the teachers, both listening to them and questioning them, and all who heard Him were amazed at His understanding and His answers.

And when they saw Him, they were astonished, and his mother said to Him, "Son, why have you done this to us? Behold, your father and I were looking for you in sorrow." And He said to them, "Why were you looking for me? Did you not know that I must be in my Father's house?" And they did not understand the saying which He spoke to them.

And He went down with them, and came to Nazareth, and was subject to them, and His mother kept all these sayings in her heart. And Jesus increased in wisdom and stature, and in favor with God and men.