Saturday, August 15, 2009

'Tis the Season to Repent

Thursday night of this week begins a 40-day period known on the Jewish calendar as the Season of Teshuvah. This Hebrew word literally means to turn, as in turn back to G-d from whom we have strayed. In English, we can best translate as the Season Repentance. It starts on the first day of the Hebrew month of Elul, which is the sixth month of the biblical calendar or the twelfth month on the civil calendar, and ends on Yom Kippur or Day of Atonement, which is the holiest day of the year.

This period of Teshuvah should serve as a time of reflection for all of us who follow Messiah Yeshua, whether Jew or Gentile. The words of Haggai the prophet always seem to come to mind at this time of year. His message begins by saying,

In the second year of King Darius, in the sixth month, on the first day of the month, the word of the L-RD came by the hand of Haggai the prophet to Zerubbabel son of Shealtiel, governor of Judea, and to Joshua son of Jehozadak, the High Priest, saying: … “Is this a time for you yourselves to dwell in your paneled houses, while this Temple lies in ruins? So now, thus says the L-RD of Hosts, consider your ways! You have sown much but bring in little; you eat, but do not have enough; you drink but your thirst is not quenched; you clothe yourselves, yet no one is warmed; and whoever earns wages earns it for a purse with holes. Thus says the L-RD of Hosts, consider your ways!” (Haggai 1:1-7)
Haggai is calling the people to repent. Notice that the day of the year when he spoke just happens to be the first day of the 40-day season of Teshuvah. The timing is no coincidence nor should we consider that the words he spoke were only for his generation. We should let them reach across the millennia to our time and allow them to ring true in our own hearts.

The rabbis have a saying that a man should repent the day before he dies. The man who coined this phrase was Rabbi Eliezer of the late first and early second centuries. His disciples asked how a man can repent the day before he dies since no one knows the day of his death. His reply was that one should repent every day. While his words ring true, the idea of repentance is especially profound at this time of year. Judaism teaches that the Gates of Repentance are wide open during these 40 days.

Another passage of scripture that comes to mind is found in Ezekiel chapter eight. There we find the word of the L-RD coming to the prophet in the sixth month, on the fifth day of the month (8:1). Again we see that the time of year just happens to be the 40-day season of Teshuvah. Again, the L-RD is chastising His people. Instead of repenting, we find the women sitting in the Temple of G-d “weeping for Tammuz,” a Babylonian deity, while the men were bowing in worship to the sun, with their backs to the sanctuary (8:14-16), symbolizing that they had turned their backs on G-d.

These words were written as examples, warning us not to set our hearts on evil as they did (1 Corinthians 10:6). How will G-d remember our generation? What words will He pen to record our deeds (Revelation 14:13)? Let us not repeat the mistakes of past generations. Instead, let us set our hearts on serving our Creator. Let us remember that He is the King and we are His servants. As servants, we are called to serve, not to be served. Part of our calling is to regularly examine our ways, admit our mistakes, change the direction in which we are headed, and return to the Holy One. Let us seek His forgiveness and forgive others. In seeking His forgiveness, let us remember that if we have sinned against others, we must first seek their forgiveness, possibly making restitution, before approaching our Heavenly Father for mercy. Finally, let us remember that the blood of Messiah Yeshua shed upon his altar atones for our sins if we trust in His redemptive sacrifice and live faithfully to Him.

Sunday, August 9, 2009

Organizing the First Churches

What was life like for 1st century cities in the Roman Empire, such as Rome, Athens, Corinth, Ephesus, and Antioch? To understand the population density of these places, we need to look at cities like Mumbai, India. The overcrowding is beyond anything we have ever seen in the U.S. Imagine the sanitation problems, the lack of running water, flush toilets, and disinfectant, the lack of refrigeration, and the rampant spread of disease, such as typhus, pneumonia, influenza, tuberculosis, smallpox, and measles. Most houses were nothing more than cramped cubicles stacked one on top of the next and subject to collapse. The average life expectancy for the wealthy was twenty-five years and even less for the poor. The only way to sustain a city’s population under such conditions was through a continual influx of new immigrants.

The constant arrival of strangers by the thousands created an environment where few people knew each other. The newcomers were often uprooted from their families in other parts of the Mediterranean. As a result, many people had no support group, no extended family, and no one to care for them when they became sick. In addition, few outside the Jewish community felt the need to take care of others. As pagans, they had no understanding of “loving one’s neighbor.” To them, the gods needed to be appeased, not obeyed.

The Jews, on the other hand, maintained a close-knit community while living in close proximity to their pagan neighbors. These Gentiles saw the love and compassion displayed among them and were drawn to it. Therefore, we should not be surprised that Paul found many non-Jews gathering in the synagogues he visited. Thousands more were drawn to his message that the G-d of the Jews would accept them as Gentiles if they would abandon idolatry and place their trust in the atoning work of Messiah Yeshua.

Once the Gentiles began to embrace the Jewish Messiah and follow him, they became a part of the Jewish community, not as Jews but as Gentiles. In this new covenantal relationship, they would be expected to immediately abandon idolatry, sexual immorality, certain foods, and the eating of blood (Acts 15:28-29). In addition, the context of Acts 15:21 seems to indicate that the new converts to the faith would be expected to attend synagogue in order to learn the Torah of Moses. As strangers, most of whom were poor, they certainly would have lacked the infrastructure and resources to conduct their own separate meetings. Besides, they first needed to be taught in the ways of G-d.

My assumption is that most Christians have a very different understanding of how the first believers formed into communities. For years, I imagined Paul and other leaders having ready-made church buildings, large and spacious, in which they could gather together; or perhaps they met in someone’s large living room. The problem with this view is that church buildings did not exist in that day, and houses were typically not much larger than dorm rooms.

Besides these logistical issues, one major obstacle stood in their way. The Roman government prohibited all groups from gathering, except those officially recognized as collegia. A collegium was an officially recognized association of like-minded individuals from the same trade, social interest, or religion. Creating a new religious collegium for Christianity would have been next to impossible due to the fact that the population was expected to participate in the local cult worship, which included paying homage to the local deity and participating in the eating of meat sacrificed to it. Furthermore, taking off from work one day out of seven would have been another practice prohibited by the Roman government.

Jews, however, had an exemption from Rome in both these regards. They were not expected to participate in the idolatrous feasts of the city and were allowed to observe the Sabbath. In order to avoid prosecution from government officials, the newcomers had no choice but to join the Jewish community. However, joining them was not a matter of convenience. Doing so was simply understood and expected.

The conclusion I want to draw from this information is that the very first believers were closely tied to the Jewish community. They did not seek to form their own separate collegium. Such efforts did not occur until the beginning of the second century, right after the death of John, the last apostle. Perhaps I’ll discuss that topic at length in a later post.

Formation of Christianity in Antioch
Mystery of Romans
Letter Writer: Paul's Background and Torah Perspective
Eusebius’ Ecclesiastical History

Sunday, August 2, 2009

Is Christianity an Anachronism?

According to the Book of Acts (11:26), the followers of Yeshua were called Christians for the first time in the Syrian city of Antioch. Interestingly, the oldest manuscripts available to us identify this group, not as Christians, but as Chrestians. The fourth century manuscript known as the Sinaiticus is the oldest known collection of the gospels and epistles. Discovered in the mid-nineteenth century, the Biblical Archaeology Society, in 2007, published an article about the importance of this document:

The Codex Sinaiticus is relevant not only for the history of the text of the Septuagint and New Testament, but also for the history of many layers of later revisions to the text made by generations of correctors. These [revisions] range in date from…the 4th century to…the 12th century…[the revisions can be as simple as] the alteration of one letter [or as complex as] the insertion of whole sentences.

The Codex Sinaiticus is therefore the base text against which all other New Testament manuscripts are measured for accuracy. Another ancient text, the fifth century Bezae manuscript, also uses the word Chrestian. These two ancient documents seem to indicate that the inhabitants of Antioch mispronounced the term Christian. The second century historian Seutonius tells us that the edict of the Roman Emperor Claudius, in the year 49, resulted from the trouble-making acts of someone named Chrestus. The Book of Acts makes a reference to this edict, mentioning that Priscilla and Aquila had left Rome because Claudius had ordered all Jews to leave (18:2). Scholars are not clear on whether Seutonius mispronounced Christus, like the people in Antioch, or whether a rebellious Jew having the actual name of Chrestus was the real instigator, resulting in Claudius’ actions. Regardless, the fifth century historian Orosius quoted Seutonius and changed the spelling to Christus because he believed that is what Seutonius meant. If Christus is the correct spelling, as Orosius contends, then Claudius banned the Jews on account of the Christians. Personally, I think Orosius made a serious error in judgment and created an anachronism.

An anachronism is an error in historical chronology, assigning people, ideas, technology, etc., to the wrong period. For example, to say, “air travel in the time of ancient Rome,” would be an error in chronology because neither the airplane nor any other form of air travel existed two-thousand years ago. I am suggesting that the term Christian is also anachronistic.

Another second century historian, Tacitus, wrote about Chrestus as the founder of a group of men known as Chrestianos. Later manuscripts, written generations after Tacitus, changed the spelling of these words to Christus and Christianos. Based on this evidence, the International Standard Bible Encyclopedia (ISBE), a standard reference for over ninety years, concludes that Chrestian was probably the original designation used by outsiders as a label for the early disciples. What the ISBE seems to be saying is that Gentile outsiders of the first century did not understand the term Christos so they corrected it to Chrestos, a fairly common name in first century Greek. In other words, Chrestian was the label used by uninformed outsiders to refer to the followers of Christ.

At this point a question should be asked. Why should people care that the early believers were called Chrestians and that translators, living hundreds of years after the fact, changed the word to Christian? This question should not be taken lightly. First, the early believers did not call themselves Christians. The word seems to be a derogatory term used by outsiders. Instead, the believers called themselves disciples. Scripture itself confirms what they were called when we compare the frequency of these two words in the Gospels and Epistles. The word Chrestian appears three times while disciple appears over 100 times. Second, Chrestian has no meaning. It is not defined by scripture nor is it a term for the followers of Christ. Third, the term “Chrestian” only evolved into “Christian” hundreds of years after its original usage.

To me, none of these reasons really matter when answering the question. What does matter is that the word Christian is a much later theological term indicating a break from the Jewish past. To the believers of the first century, the word Chrestian made sense as a word to describe the ignorance of those on the outside. Hundreds of years later, after the Gentile believers had long broken away from the Jewish community, the translators read back into the first-century text a fourth, fifth, and sixth century reality that did not exist at the time when the text was originally written. For this reason, I don’t call myself a Christian, choosing instead to be labeled as a disciple. While the distinction might seem trivial to some, to me "disciple" communicates a return to the Jewish roots of the faith and a restoration of the body of Messiah to the nation of Israel.

International Standard Bible Encyclopedia
Biblical Archaeology Review, November/December 2007
The Separation of Church and Faith, Volume I