Christmas in the Bible

(This blog will be on hiatus for a few weeks as my wife and I enjoy our honeymoon and some well-needed rest. The blog will resume it’s regular irregular course in January.)

The holiday season is full of rush-rush-rush. Hanukkah is long gone and now it’s Christmas Day already! I hope that you have a great one!

For most people that grew up in Christian households like mine, Christmas is THE holiday of the New Testament. In the popular mind, Christmas has long since eclipsed Easter as the most celebrated holiday. Although some commentators claim that there is a “War on Christmas” today, it is nothing compared to the war on Christmas that many Christians waged in the past to keep Easter’s place secure. The Puritan founders of New England, my home, even tried to ban the celebration of Christmas!

How did Christmas become dominant? It could be that it replaced various Roman and pagan rituals as the holiday of the Winter Solstice. I dare say most of our Christmas traditions from mistletoe to Christmas trees are non-Christian, even though there’s a Christian gloss on them now. But more likely it’s because Christmas is simply a more uplifting holiday. As important as Easter is to Christians, the birth of a man is more celebratory than his death, even if he does manage to come back later.

In the Bible (and this is a bible blog, remember?), Christmas has the distinction of appearing first in the New Testament, starting shortly after the genealogies in Matthew 1:18. This may seem like a natural placement, but it’s not: most scholars now believe that Mark was the first gospel to be written and Mark begins at Jesus’ baptism. In fact, unlike Easter and the other “important” events in Jesus’ life that is recounted in all four gospels, Christmas is only discussed in two of them: Matthew and Luke. And, except for the fact that Jesus is born in both of them, they are very different stories.

Remember the wise men? The adoring shepherds? The manger? Our modern Christmas story is a mixture of the TWO Christmas stories of the bible, with no two details (except Jesus being born) repeating in both of them.

The TWO stories of Christmas? Read more after the break.

Continue reading Christmas in the Bible

Va-Yera – “And He Appeared”

Va-Yera is the fourth weekly Torah portion, spanning Genesis chapters 18 to 22. This portion continues the narrative of Abraham and his family through two huge events: the destruction of Sodom and Gemorrah and the Binding of Isaac, where God commanded Abraham to sacrifice his second son as a test of his loyalty.

The name “Va-Yera” means “And He appeared”, after the first several words of the portion. One can argue that these names are meaningless because the first words are chosen rather than a description, but the textual breaks are flexible enough that the rabbis who codified the names had a great deal of control over what each was called. In this passage, the “He” of course refers to God in his meeting with Abraham while en route to Sodom and Gomorrah. But on a more spiritual level, this portion shows God appearing in a way that He had not in previous sections of Genesis: he is showing his authority and power in a very public way that is as much a warning to others as it is a direct punishment for misdeeds. When God punished mankind in the flood narrative, the punishment was so universal that almost no one could have taken it as an example to do better. When God assisted Abraham in his struggles against Egypt and Chedorloamer, he did so privately and without spectacle. In that way, this portion shows the first time that God has “appeared” before all mankind.

More after the break.

Continue reading Va-Yera – “And He Appeared”

Rashi on Lech-Lecha

For those new to my blog, I am closing each portion with some observations I make as I read Rashi’s commentary on the portion. While I cannot properly summarize, or probably even understand, some of the subtle theological and traditional points he makes, there are many observations and stories that I can relate. Many of them are serious. Some of them I find quite funny!

Unlike modern textual criticism, Rashi was coming at the text with the belief that it was perfect. Every word and punctuation mark was critical, and the text had to be considered in the light that adding or removing any word would have to change the meaning. As so Rashi sometimes concocts fanciful explanations why a specific word means a specific thing. These don’t appear to be the minimal explanations – he was no fan of Occam’s Razor – and he is pulling some of these stories and legends from other traditional sources.

Here’s an example:  one of the kings that Abram tussles with is King Shember, the king of the Zeboiim. Rashi tells that Shember was a biblical Icarus; he built a set of artificial wings which he wore that allowed him to fly.

Lots more after the break…

Continue reading Rashi on Lech-Lecha

Hanukkah in the Bible

Tonight is the 5th night of Hanukkah, the Jewish Festival of Lights. This is a holiday, as I’m sure most of my readers are aware, that celebrate a miracle at the time of the rededication of the Second Temple in Jerusalem, after its defilement by Greek forces. The holiday lasts eight days and each day of the holiday lasts from sundown to sundown. (Thus, Adam Sandler’s “Eight Crazy Nights”.) Modern Jewish observance generally includes the giving of gifts and the lighting of a menorah: one additional candle each night until all of the candles are lit on the eighth day.

The story of Hanukkah is one of a miraculous event: After the temple was re-dedicated, all of the holy oil had been defiled. This oil was used to keep an eternal flame lit at the altar, to comply with the commandment in Leviticus 6:6: “A perpetual file shall be kept burning on the altar, no to go out.” (Weirdly, my Christian bibles have this as 6:13.) Unfortunately, there was only enough oil to keep the fire burning for one day, but it would take eight days to make more. The miracle of Hanukkah is that the oil DID last for all eight days until it could be replenished.

Of course, this is a “Bible Blog”, but Hanukkah as a holiday was started in the post-Biblical period. The Hebrew Bible ends shortly after the construction of the Second Temple. So, to find the story of Hanukkah in the Bible, you need to turn to an unlikely source: The Roman Catholics.

More below the cut…

Continue reading Hanukkah in the Bible

What I’m Reading

I try and read a lot of books, though I don’t read nearly as much as I used to. While not all of the books are related to my religion studies, a good number are and I’d like to share them with you.

Abraham, by Bruce Feiler

Dorie gave me this book as a present and I’m very glad she did. The “biography” of Abraham presented here is very well done and elaborates greatly on the way the patriarch is seen by the three faiths that revere him (Judaism, Christianity, and Islam) and even how those viewpoints have changed over time. What I most enjoyed was the ways that the different faiths see Abraham as a father rather than as a patriarch. In Islam, for example, he tells of stories (in the Koran?) where Abraham visits Ishmael after he is cast out, but because he can’t visit properly he has to remain on his horse the entire time. (Are there even any horses in the Torah? I can’t recall any; it seemed mostly as if everyone walked places.) Another example story, from Judaism, suggests that Isaac was actually killed by Abraham and God brought him back to life after a few days, sort of as a proto-Jesus. In all, an outstanding read, even though it makes me mourn that all of the great Abraham sites are difficult to get in to modern Israel/Palestine.

Bible: The Story of the King James Version, by Gordon Campbell

I admit that I love the first half of this book much more than the second. The origins of the KJV, starting from the politics and difficulties of the first English bibles, to the challenges in putting together the final text, and then the numerous revisions which led to the standard version we have today are really what I am interested in and this book delivers on that in spades. After that, there’s a lot of discussion on how later movements used to work, the printing history, etc. The brief notes on how the Latter-Day Saints movement patterned their own works off of the speech patterns and text in the KJV, or how some protestant movements are adopting the text of the KJV (which version? ah… don’t ask that) as itself inspired by God are nice, but I have to admit I reread the first chapters instead of finishing the book.

And finally, Why the Jews Rejected Jesus, by David Klinghoffer

I haven’t finished this yet; Dorie just have it to me for Hanukkah. The first chapters though are excellent, if you can overlook the fact that the author is a little more disparaging to both Judaism and Christianity than I might like. What I am enjoying most is the great research the author has done on Judaism circa 27 AD which puts Jesus into context with his contemporaries. While I’ve heard some of that before, he puts it all together in a way that I find appealing. There’s a lot more minefields the author needs to wade through to do this topic justice and I’m looking forward to finishing it just to see if he makes it to the end without injury.