Swaddling Cloths

Recently, I saw a video of a supposed Messianic Jewish rabbi talking about Luke 2:12. After declaring Jesus’s birth in Bethlehem, the angelic host tells the shepherds:

And this will be a sign for you: you will find a baby wrapped in swaddling cloths and lying in a manger.

This rabbi goes on to say that the Mishnah teaches about “Levitical shepherds” who would take their birthing ewes to special caves and when their lambs were born, they would wrap the lamb in “swaddling cloths” to prevent them from injury so they could be presented as “spotless” for the sacrifice.

It is a nice little story, and it sounds so good that I found it quoted all over the internet. I decided to look into it; and SURPRISE, SURPRISE the entire thing is based on conjecture.

The entire idea evolved from a passage in Alfred Edersheim’s Life and Times of Jesus the Messiah (vol 1, p 186) which discusses the presence of sheep in December around Bethlehem and concludes that only flocks destined for the passover sacrifices could be kept close to the cities. His argument is indeed based on the Mishnah (Baba K 7:7, 80a); but nowhere in Edersheim or the underlying Mishnah passages is there a reference to swaddling the lambs.

In my research, I could not find a single reference in the rabbinical tradition to swaddling lambs, even those destined for the passover. There are LOTS of blogs and Christian websites reciting the statement as fact; but no one seems to be able to provide the source of this.

What seems to have happened is a confusion between the practice of swaddling infants and binding sacrificial animals, which was itself connected to the binding of Isaac (Gen 22:9). According to some sources, the binding of sacrificial animals was indeed to prevent them from harming themselves on their way to slaughter. This practice has been somehow mixed up with swaddling an infant to produce an image that has no connection to history.

So, what was the “swaddling cloths” all about?

The most obvious answers is that all babies get swaddled, especially in this culture. There is no reason to leap to the conclusion that this swaddling was meant as a sign to the shepherds and that they immediately recognized it and connected it to the image of Christ as the Lamb of God (especially since that image appears in John, not Luke).

There may also be a strand of Luke’s focus on the Gentiles here. In some of the Homeric Hymns about the birth of the Greek god Apollo, there are references to him being swaddled before being suckled.

And as soon as Eilithyia the goddess of sore travail set foot on Delos, the pains of birth seized Leto, and she longed to bring forth; so she cast her arms about a palm tree and kneeled on the soft meadow while the earth laughed for joy beneath. Then the child leaped forth to the light, and all the goddesses raised a cry.

Straightway, great Phoebus, the goddesses washed you purely and cleanly with sweet water, and swathed you in a white garment of fine texture, new-woven, and fastened a golden band about you.

Now Leto did not give Apollo, bearer of the golden blade, her breast; but Themis duly poured nectar and ambrosia with her divine hands: and Leto was glad because she had borne a strong son and an archer. But as soon as you had tasted that divine heavenly food, O Phoebus, you could no longer then be held by golden cords nor confined with bands, but all their ends were undone.

When I taught through Luke’s gospel several years ago, I highlighted some of the good evidence that Luke casts Jesus’s Virgin Birth as the reality of divine birth which is also seen twisted and broken in the pagan traditions of Greece. Luke calls his readers to see the TRUE Son of God in Jesus, of whom all other stories are only fractured shadows. He is savior of the world, not just Judaism.

If this is the case, then once again we see the subversive nature of the gospels, undermining Greek tradition to show true divinity.

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Mormonism is Not Orthodox Christianity

Many Christian apologists who answer Mormon doctrine do so on the basis of looking deep into their lesser known beliefs and pointing out that there is some wild stuff going on there. For example, Joseph Smith taught that Methuselah and Abraham used the urim and the thummim as magical telescopes to discover the star Kolob, which is said to be the star nearest to the throne of Elohim. That’s pretty wild stuff right there. But such criticisms are not a solid argument against Mormonism, anymore than arguing that most Flat Earth nutters claim to be Christians.

There are, however, blatant statements in the public instruments of the Church of Jesus Christ of Latter Day Saints which defy biblical orthodoxy. Here I will consider just a small part of what is posted on their main proselytization site, mormon.org. None of this is hidden. It is all posted on their website in plain view. When a Mormon says that he/she is a Christian, you should have reason for pause. The beliefs represented here are at odds – great odds – with the Scriptures themselves. They are reliant not upon the Bible but upon additional “revelations” given exclusively to the Mormons.

I will content myself to address two main areas here. First, the nature of God and man that the Mormons adhere to makes a mockery of the Bible. Second, I will address the Book of Mormon, which is the basis for almost all of the misunderstandings concerning the nature of God and man. The headings provided are the headings on mormon.org.

Home > Beliefs > Godhead

Like him [God] we are divine in our nature and purpose…We are all God’s spirit children.

Like us, Jesus was created in the image of God, the Father, and They both have perfected bodies of flesh and bone.

One of the core tenets of the Mormon religion is that God is and always has been a physical being. To be specific, the creator is Elohim. One of his spiritual children was Yahweh, who eventually came to earth as Jesus to progress to true divinity (Gospel Doctrine, 70). Jesus had to progress to this fulness of deity through the resurrection (Doctrines of Salvation, 1:33).

Understand that the Mormons believe that Jesus enacted the progression as the firstborn of Elohim, but this progression is available to all true believers, since they are also the spiritual children of God. Jesus was simply a volunteer to put the plan into effect (The Mortal Messiah, 1:48-49).

When the Mormons speak about God, they are speaking about Jesus and only Jesus. Joseph Smith made this plain. “The Father has never dealt with man directly and personally since the fall, and he has never appeared except to introduce and bear record of the Son.” (Doctrines of Salvation, 1:27). They disavow any knowledge of Elohim – this distant god – because Yahweh/Jesus is the god of this world.

Home > Beliefs > The Creation and the Fall

Like Adam and Eve, we left paradise to seek progression, and we can return the same way they did.

Mormons believe that human beings are eternal beings who existed before their birth on earth (Doctrine and Covenants 93:29) in a spiritual body. The purpose of coming to earth and taking on physical form is to be transformed into gods. “All men and women are in the similitude of the universal Father and Mother, and are literally the sons and daughters of Deity.” (Doctine and Covenants 77:2)

Adam was the spiritual child of the creator god, specifically he was the archangel Michael. He came to earth, was perfected and then returned to god. This was all part of a plan which God had laid out before his chosen beings (Teachings of Presidents of the Church: Joseph Smith, 209, 511). In other words, in our pre-existing, spiritual state, God summoned all of us together, made a plan for how we could progress to becoming gods; and then set about enacting that plan through our lives on earth.

Home > Beliefs > Book of Mormon

Like the Bible, the Book of Mormon is an ancient record of God’s teachings to His people.

This statement is an obfuscation. The only witness to the Book of Mormon is the copies of the Book of Mormon made available after Joseph Smith “discovered” it and dictated a translation, beginning in 1829. NO ancient versions of the Book of Mormon, even the originals Joseph Smith supposedly translated exist. The only evidence to the existence of this “ancient” book is the testimony of three men – Oliver Cowdery, Martin Harris, and David Whitmer. All three men broke later broke with the Mormons. The only authorities that recite their testimonies are, of course, the Mormons.

This is a very different situation from the Bible. The Qumran caves contained 1st and 2nd century BCE copies of much of the Old Testament, and references to every book except Esther. Fragments of the New Testament dating to within a generation of the events described in it have been found and catalogued. There are literally thousands of manuscripts of the ancient books of the Bible, all of which have been studied in-depth by scholars of every conceivable creed. It is, without a doubt, the most studied book in the world.

The audacity to claim ancient origins for something like the Book of Mormon with absolutely no verifiable provenance and no extant ancient copies is a bold statement, which the mormon.org site makes without offering a shred of evidence.

The Book of Mormon is a fundamental part of Jesus Christ’s restored Church on the earth today. [emphasis mine]

The Mormons are a radical restoration movement, something that was quite prominent in the 19th century. These movements claimed that the true church had been lost, and Christianity as it existed was in error. Their leaders, such as Joseph Smith, were therefore given a special revelation to restore the true faith. In Smith’s case, this includes restoring the priesthood of Melchizedek, temple worship, and some rather idiosyncratic beliefs.

Their additional revelation is necessary to support their claims because there is no way to draw their faith or practices from the Bible alone. We are therefore forced to either accept that the Book of Mormon has the authority by which Smith has “restored” the church, or we can reject it. There is no empirical evidence for the acceptance of the Book of Mormon or the restoration, while the Bible’s historicity and continued use is undeniable.

Home > Beliefs > Bible

The Holy Bible is a book of scripture that tells of the Lord’s interactions with His people over the course of 4,000 years. [emphasis mine]

There is a subtly bait-and-switch that occurs in the language of the discussion of the Bible. The website is careful to refer to the Bible as a book of scripture, but then to also refer to all of God’s scripture and they also point out that the Bible serves only as “powerful precedent” for the Restoration of the Church.” What is being done here is simple. The site appears to be talking about the Bible, but it is actually talking about “the four standard works” which contain the full revelation to the church (Doctrine of the Gospel Student Manual, 4-5). These standard works are the King James Version of the Bible, the Book of Mormon, Doctrine and Covenants, and Pearl of Great Price. These three latter documents are the official interpretation of the first.

The Mormons believe that the Bible was altered by the Church. They refer to the period between the death of the apostles and the restoration under Joseph Smith as “the long night of apostasy.” (Doctrine of the Gospel Student Manual, 59) They even hold that Jesus’s work was only a restoration of the true Church (Mormon Doctrine, 133). The corruptions included the addition of philosophy, additions and alterations to the rites of the church and unauthorized changes in organization (Jesus the Christ, 748-749).

The Mormons believe that anyone claiming to follow the Bible but rejecting Mormonism is an apostate. Only their restored Church is valid. The true keys to salvation were given solely to Joseph Smith (Doctrine and Covenants, 110:16, 5:10, 28:2-7); and he has selectively sent the leaders of the Mormon Church to further Smith’s mission (Doctrine and Covenants 138:53-56).

Make no mistake about it. Mormonism rejects all forms of Christianity except their own on the basis of their additional revelation. They reject any church but their own. “Once or twice in a thousand years a new door is opened through which all men must enter if they are to gain peace in this life and be inheritors of eternal life in the realms ahead.” (Bruce R. McConkie in Conference Report, October 1975).

Conclusion

I have not taken the time to reiterate the orthodox Christian view on these matters; but any moderately well-versed Christian will tell you that the teachings on God and Jesus are contradictory to orthodoxy. Likewise, the statements which undermine the authority of the Scriptures should resonate as major errors if you know anything about the orthodox view of the Scriptures.

Reading these statements, all of which come from publicly available sources generated by the Church of Jesus Christ of Latter Day Saints themselves, how could anyone say that Mormonism is just another brand of Christianity? At its very core, Mormonism denies two fundamental tenets of orthodoxy: the eternal, triune nature of God and the inspiration of Scripture.

Even if there were no other issues with Mormonism (and there are plenty), these two disagreements set Mormonism outside of the flow of orthodox Christianity.

Don’t get me wrong. Mormons are free to believe whatever they wish. We must respect their right of individual determination and practice of faith; but when Mormons attempt to present their faith as if it is Christianity, they are either ignorant of their own religious leaders’ teachings or blatantly lying. Mormonism simply is not compatible with orthodox Christianity on a fundamental, doctrinal level. Pretending that it is would be folly.

Reading the Exodus and Wanderings

Reading the Exodus and Wanderings

While our congregation is reading through Exous, Leviticus and Numbers, I thought I would add some daily notes of things that caught my imagination.

Then Moses said to God, “If I come to the people of Israel and say to them, ‘The God of your fathers has sent me to you,’ and they ask me, ‘What is his name?’ what shall I say to them?” (Exodus 3:17)

What is so important about a name?

In the Egyptian worldview, your name was not just a label. It was a significant part of who you were. This is a difficult concept for us to embrace because names do not have nearly the same significance to us.

In 1323 BCE, the young pharaoh Tut-Ankh-Amon died, possibly bludgeoned to death by assassins. His successors, Ay and Horemheb, spent their years of rule eradicating both his name and his father’s name from every monument and inscription in Egypt. Tut-Ankh-Amon’s father had been the great heretic pharaoh Ankh-Aten, who had abandoned the millennia old religion of Egypt in favor of the worship of the sun disk, Aten.

In the Egyptian view, the best way to destroy this heresy was to remove any mention of the names of those who followed it. Their names were struck from the king lists. Their monuments were either torn down or edited. Everything about their names was destroyed.

Most importantly, their tombs were buried under tons of rubble. This was fortunate for Howard Carter, the archaeologist who ultimately discovered Tut-Ankh-Amon’s tomb in the early 20th century, but unfortunate for poor Tut-Ankh-Amon who, as far as the Egyptians were concerned, was left floating in the nether without completing his journey to the afterlife.

You see, in the Egyptian worldview, the final stage of passing through the afterlife requires your name. People in the world of the living must know your name. If they do not, you will not move on. You will be lost forever. The world of the living and the afterlife are inextricably connected.

When Moses asked God for his name, he was not making an excuse. An unnamed God had no power to the Egyptians.

And what a name God gives to Moses – I AM. This is a name of absolutes. It implies that he exists whether you know his name or not. God gives the ultimate name.

This was not lost on the Egyptians or the Sons of Israel. It had a weight and power that we cannot imagine. That is why Pharaoh laughs. It is a laughter of fear. God puts his existence up against all the Egyptians know and believe.

God wins.

Abusing History in Bible Teaching

Abusing History in Bible Teaching

As a student of history and the Bible, I often find myself telling people to learn the background and context of things before making definitive statements.

As of late, however, I am discovering that the only thing more dangerous than ignorance of historical context is the abuse of incomplete knowledge of history. People who develop a thesis based on partial or unverifiable evidence can develop some very erroneous and even dangerous thoughts about the Bible and its message.

Be cautious about making definitive statements because you read some interesting historical anecdote or perused a website. Verifying your evidence and your conclusions is part of the responsibility of any competent Bible teacher.

By all means, learn all you can. Don’t be afraid of the backdrop of the Scriptures, but make sure you don’t go off half cocked because some idea caught your fancy. More poor doctrine has been born from incomplete context than probably any other single factor.

Vestigial Theology

coffeeHave you ever gotten to the bottom of a cup of coffee and taken that last swig only to encounter a mouthful of coffee grounds? Is there anything more surprising than expecting a beverage in your mouth and discovering what essentially amounts to bitter-tasting dirt?

Those of us who came out of established (and sometimes dogmatic) movements within Christianity have a problem others do not have. We often have these little bits and pieces of beliefs floating around in our cup of faith (and that metaphor is now exhausted).

These fragments of belief are often disconnected from most of our faith – little bits of eschatology (beliefs about the end times, heaven and hell) or soteriology (how someone is saved).

When you are asked about a matter you have not considered in some time, your first instinct should be to ask, “How does this fit with everything else we see in Scripture?”

When I first wrote the question above it said, “How does this fit with everything else I believe?” It was ironic that I had to filter that question, and I realized I made two mistakes.

First, our interpretation of these fragmentary, vestigial bits and pieces of our faith should not be based on an individual decision. This is not about what I believe but about what the community, the Church sees. The Scriptures are not for our private interpretation (2 Peter 1:21). They are held in stewardship by the Church. Therefore, we should be discussing our faith – both doctrine and practice. Led by the Spirit, we should be engaging in dialogue. That’s how doctrine is sorted out.

Second, this should not be about what I believe but what Scripture says. While my beliefs might be important in our modern world, they should be suborned to the Scriptures’ truth. What matters is not what I believe, but what the Bible says.

I find that when I am asking this question, it is useful to journal the dialogue. I write down my questions, what I think it is that I am supposed to believe, the interactions I have with others, and anything else that might be pertinent. I often read a lot – Scripture, the church fathers, and even commentaries (sometimes).

We should strive to bring our beliefs into submission to God’s Word. As we find these vestigial bits and pieces floating around, we should deal with them – or rather, we should conform our thinking to that of the Bible.

Tom Wright on Framing the Debate on Homosexuality

Once again, Tom Wright brings wisdom and reason to a hot topic. Toward the end, he addresses the Enlightenment arrogance of those who say, “We know more about homosexuality” or “We have evolved from the ignorance of the ancient world”. While Wright does not come down on one side or the other in this video, he brings up a lot of points that people refuse to consider in this debate (or rather argument). Chief among the issues worth considering is Wright’s point about differentiation in creation.

Tom Wright on the Resurrection

That the disciple of Jesus taught his resurrection was a revolutionary concept. Here is Tom Wright, former Bishop of Durham and one of the foremost New Testament scholars of our day, explaining why the resurrection must be true.

“The only way you can explain why christianity began and why it took the very precise shape it was is – let’s say cautiously first – they really did believe he was bodily raised from the dead…the only way you can explain the rise of the early Christian belief that Jesus was raised is if there really was an empty tomb, and  they really did meet jesus alive again in a transformed body.”