Wednesday, February 28, 2007


Having now scrutinized the book The Jesus Family Tomb book which accompanies the show there are further things that need to be stressed that are wrong with this whole theory and its varied speculations. I will list them seriatim as bullet points.

1) There is a major problem with the analysis of the names on these ossuaries. By this I mean one has to explain why one is in Hebrew, several are in Aramaic, but the supposed Mary Magdalene ossuary is in Greek. This suggests a multi-generation tomb, not a single generation tomb, and indeed a tomb that comes from after A.D. 70 after the Romans had destroyed the temple mount and Jewish Christians fled the city. This tomb is not in old Jerusalem. It is nowhere near the Temple mount, and we already know that the tomb of James was near the Temple Mount. The earliest Jewish Christians in Jerusalem, including the members of Jesus’ family and Mary Magdalene, did not speak Greek. They spoke Aramaic. We have absolutely no historical evidence to suggest Mary Magdalene would have been called by a Greek name before A.D. 70. She grew up in a Jewish fishing village called Migdal, not a Greek city at all. It makes no sense that her ossuary would have a Greek inscription and that of her alleged husband an Aramaic inscription.

2) The argument that the ‘Matthew’ ossuary still works with the theory this is a clan tomb because Mary had ancestors named Matthew does not work. We would need more distant descendants named Matthew, or immediate offspring named Matthew, neither of which we have. Ancestors are irrelevant, and in any case it is disputed whether the genealogy in Luke 3 is Mary's rather than Joseph's. None of the brothers of Jesus as listed in the NT are named Matthew.

3) Mary Magdalene is called ‘Maria’ constantly in first century Christian literature, and indeed well into the second century as well. She is never called Mariamene or the like. It is anachronistic and inappropriate to bring in later Gnostic document evidence from the Acts of Philip or the Gospel of Mary, neither of which date before the end of the second century A.D. to make your case when you have perfectly good first century data to help you. In fact, in regard to the former manuscript what we have is a 14th century manuscript which is theorized to go back to the fourth century A.D. It does not identify Mariamene as Mary Magdalene, rather it identifies her as the sister of Philip the apostle. It is the unproven theory of Francis Bovon, without real supporting evidence that Mariamene refers to Mary Magdalene. There are two problems with this: 1) we have both Mary Magdalene, and Philip in the NT, and the two are never connected at all. Indeed they are from different cities it seems clear. In terms of historical methodology you cannot use later Gnostic documents filled with wild fictional accounts, indeed fairy tales, about talking animals (yes we have that in the Acts of Philip) and like and be taken seriously when you want to make historical claims on the basis of such later and non-historically oriented evidence; 2) the accounts in the Acts of Philip have Maramene evangelizing foreign countries, yet on the argument of the film producers of this Discovery Channel special, she stayed in Jerusalem and was buried there with Jesus. In other words, we have no good historical connection between the sister of Philip, and Mary Magdalene. None.

4) Jesus is never called ‘son of Joseph’ by anyone who knew him intimately in the NT--- not by his family members, and not by his disciples. Indeed where this idea arises, for example, in John 6.42 the Jewish officials who are accosting Jesus call him ‘son of Joseph’ (cf. Jn. 8.41). These can only be called hostile witnesses, not those who were likely to have known the actual case. It is telling that in Nazareth itself, in our account in Mk. 6.1-6 in our earliest Gospel Jesus is called “the carpenter, the son of Mary”. Now in that patriarchal culture you don’t call a person a ‘son of their mother’ even if the father has died. That is a pejorative way of addressing a person, rather like calling them an S.O. you know what today. Did the people in Nazareth know there was something unusual about Jesus’ origins, and it disconnected him from Joseph? Yes they did, which is why they were angry and did not think Jesus had any right to teach them. He was probably viewed as a mamzer, as Dr. Bruce Chilton has argued—an illegitimate child. And this is precisely what James Tabor argues in his Jesus Dynasty book, claiming he was the son of a Roman soldier named Pantera. But of course now, he has reversed himself to support the Jesus Family Tomb theory. You can’t have it both ways, and in fact neither are correct. Jesus was not the physical descendent of Joseph, was known not to be by his hometown folks. The uncharitable suggested he was illegitimate but Mary claimed his conception was a miracle. Those are the two opposing explanations we have from the first century about Jesus’ origins. What we do not have is a tradition that Jesus would have been called ‘son of Joseph’ by members of his own family or his disciples—and that is what is required if the Talpiot tomb is a family tomb.

5) The second word on the Mariamene ossuary is Mara which is short for Martha another female name. It is not a reference to her being a master or teacher. You need to remember that the inscriptions on these ossuaries are very different in character to the one on the James ossuary. The latter has an honorific or monumental inscription on the side of the ossuary in a clear steady hand. The former all have what I call toe tag inscriptions scrawled hastily on the boxes as they are interred in order to distinguish the ossuaries. All that was required then was names, just names. No honorific additions like we find on monumental inscriptions would be used. So either we have two women in this ossuary, perhaps sisters, or we have one woman neither of which names match up with the first century naming of Mary Magdalene.

6) There is an interesting rosette or symbol over the Talpiot tomb, and from the pictures in the book inside the tomb as well. This is very interesting and it tells us one thing. This was a highly unusual and ornamental tomb meant to be recognized by the symbol. It is not, and indeed was not a secret tomb where a despised split off sect of Jesus following Jews could have hidden the bodies of Jesus or James or other family members. The ornamental decoration is meant to attract attention and draw people to the tomb. Indeed it is meant to distinguish the tomb from others. This is the opposite of what we would expect if this is a pre-70 A.D. Jesus family tomb. Remember we have clear historical evidence that Saul of Tarsus, from his own letters and from Acts was a persecutor of Christians. By the 40s this persecution got so bad that some Christians fled the city (see the sweep and trajectory of the story in Act 3-9). Under no circumstances would these beleaguered early Jewish Christians have been advertising where the bones of Jesus laid, if they knew.

7) No explanation is given as to why we have a monumental or honorific inscription on the James ossuary, but not on these other ones. My view would be that this makes clear that the James ossuary was not originally in the Talpiot tomb, indeed not likely there at any point.

8) Much is made of the fact that the chemical analysis of the patina on the James ossuary and some of the ossuaries in the Talpiot tomb match up. This is not actually surprising at all since you can find terra rosa in various locales in and around Jerusalem. This analysis cannot prove that these ossuaries all came from the same place or were interred in the same spot. Terra rosa is not a soil specific to the Talpiot region! And why is nothing at all mentioned about the very different sort of soil found within the James ossuary and not in these others--- namely soil from Silwan, which is where the James ossuary likely came out of the earth. Silwan is indeed within sight of the temple mount. Talpiot is not. It is miles away.

It is incumbant on any historian who wants to dispute a theory about the Jesus tomb to provide some other explanation for the Talpiot tomb. Clearly it is an important tomb, and it may be a Christian one. It would be interesting to know about the Greek inscriptions on the ossuaries or at least in the adjacent tomb which are pictured in the book The Jesus Family Tomb. Since they are in Greek it suggests to me they are not from early Aramaic speaking followers of Jesus, but they could be from later Christian ones, after the profile of who was Christian had broadened considerably with many Gentile Godfearers as converts even within Israel. It is therefore my tentative suggestion that the Talpiot tomb may well be an early Jewish tomb not connected with the followers of Jesus, but it could also be an early Christian tomb from a generation subsequent to the time of Jesus. And what we know about those Christians is that they related to each other as family, even when they were not physically related, and were in some cases buried together, not in clan tombs, because their religious families were more important to them than their physical ones. This tomb may reflect that later Christian practice and reality. It would be nice if the other ossuaries from the Talpiot tomb could be DNA tested so we could find out if any of the folks in this tomb were related. We do not know. But it would not surprise me if none of them were. The practice of osslegium, or burial in ossuaries, continued on after A.D. 70 until the Bar Kokhba revolt at least. There is no reason why this Talpiot tomb might not reflect the period between A.D. 70 and 125 or so.


Here is some additional data from Richard Bauckham on the names on the so-called 'Mary Magdalene' ossuary. He is more of an expert in early Jewish names than I am.

"The form of the name on the ossuary in question is Mariamenou. This is a Greek genitive case, used to indicate that the ossuary belongs to Mary (it means 'Mary's' or 'belonging to Mary'). The nominative would be Mariamenon. Mariamenon is a diminutive form, used as a form of endearment. The neuter gender is normal in diminutives used for women.

This diminutive, Mariamenon, would seem to have been formed from the name Mariamene, a name which is attested twice elsewhere (in the Babatha archive and in the Jewish catacombs at Beth She’arim). It is an unusual variant of Mariame. In the Babatha document it is spelt with a long e in the penultimate syllable, but in the Bet She’arim inscription the penultimate syllable has a short e. This latter form could readily be contracted to the form Mariamne, which is found, uniquely, in the Acts of Philip.

So we have, on the one hand, a woman known by the diminutive Mariamenon, in the ossuary, and, on the other hand, Mary Magdalen, who is always called in the Greek of the New Testament Maria but seems to be called in a much later source Mariamne. Going by the names alone they could be the same woman, but the argument for this is tenuous.

A final point about the Mariamenou inscription. The inscription also has a second name Mara. When Rahmani published this inscription in his catalogue of ossuaries he conjectured that the Greek particle ‘e’ (meaning ‘or’) should be supplied between the two names, making them alternative names for the same woman. The ‘e’ is not actually in the inscription, nor is there space for it between the two names. It is better to suppose that the bones of two women (or perhaps a woman and her child, the diminutive Mariamenon being used for the latter) were placed in the same ossuary (this would not be not unusual). The name Mara is known to have been used as an abbreviation of the name Martha. The programme makers take it to be the Aramaic word for ‘master,’ but this is implausible in the context. Beside the name Mariamenou on an ossuary, one would expect Mara to be a name, and since it is attested as a name this is the obviously correct reading."

I concur with this conclusion having now looked closely at the inscription on this particular ossuary. There is no word 'or' in the inscription, in fact there is a slash line separating the first name from the name Mara indicating we are most likely dealing with two different people. Prof. Bauckham has suggested to me that since these are all attested and some are very common Jewish names, that it is more probable this is a Jewish tomb but with no connection to Jesus of Nazareth. This may be so.

Alvin Plantinga's Refutation of "The God Delusion"

Alvin Plantinga is without question one of the great scholars in the world in any discipline. I remember well reading his careful work on Anselm when I took a graduate course in Philosophy at Carolina. It was the gold standard in the field. It still is to a great extent. Thus when Alvin Plantinga weighs in on a highly philosophical treatise like Richard Dawkin's "God Delusion" you know you are in for something substantive. Here below you will find Plantinga's review of the book for Christianity Today's Books and Culture Section, with permission from CT.

The Dawkins Confusion
Naturalism ad absurdum.
by Alvin Plantinga

The God Delusion

The Dawkins Confusion
Naturalism ad absurdum.
by Alvin Plantinga

The God Delusion

The God Delusion
by Richard Dawkins
Houghton Mifflin
416 pp., $27

Richard Dawkins is not pleased with God:

The God of the Old Testament is arguably the most unpleasant character in all of fiction. Jealous and proud of it; a petty, unjust unforgiving control-freak; a vindictive, bloodthirsty ethnic-cleanser; a misogynistic homophobic racist, infanticidal, genocidal, filicidal, pestilential, megalomaniacal….

Well, no need to finish the quotation; you get the idea. Dawkins seems to have chosen God as his sworn enemy. (Let's hope for Dawkins' sake God doesn't return the compliment.)

For the rest of this review article please follow this link:

Monday, February 26, 2007


(This picture of the Talpiot tomb courtesy of the Discovery Channel via the Toronto Star article).

Remember the tale of the Titanic? How it was supposed to be impregnable, and nothing could poke holes in it? How it would never be sunk? Well all I can say is that human hubris knows no bounds, and that hasn’t changed in the last century. On April 15th 1912 the supposedly leak proof Titanic rammed into an iceberg and sank—sank like a giant stone. Sank quickly, with great loss of life.
Why do I bring this up? Because in one of the interesting ironies in recent memory, James Cameron the movie director who made the enormously successful film “Titanic”, on the night after the Oscars, will give an Oscar winning performance at a news conference along with Simcha Jacobovici who have now produced a Discovery Channel special on the discovery of Jesus’ tomb, ossuary, bones, and that of his mother, brothers, wife, and his child Jude as well! Who knew! The show will air on March 4th. In addition we are now regaled with a book by Simcha and Charles Pellegrino entitled The Jesus Family Tomb: The Discovery, the Investigation, and the Evidence That Could Change History just released today by Harper-Collins timed to co-ordinate with their news conference and the Discovery Channel special. Why should we be skeptical about this entire enterprise?

First of all, I have worked with Simcha. He is a practicing Jew, indeed he is an orthodox Jew so far as I can tell. He was the producer of the Discovery Channel special on the James ossuary which I was involved with. He is a good film maker, and he knows a good sensational story when he sees one. This is such a story. Unfortunately it is a story full of holes, conjectures, and problems. It will make good TV and involves a bad critical reading of history. Basically this is old news with a new interpretation. We have known about this tomb since it was discovered in 1980. There are all sorts of reasons to see this as much ado about nothing much:

1) The statistical analysis is of course only as good as the numbers that were provided to the statistician. He couldn’t run numbers he did not have. And when you try to run numbers on a combination name such as ‘Jesus son of Joseph’ you decrease the statistical sample dramatically. In fact, in the case of ‘Jesus son of Joseph’ you decrease it to a statistically insignificant number! Furthermore, so far as we can tell, the earliest followers of Jesus never called Jesus ‘son of Joseph’. It was outsiders who mistakenly called him that! Would the family members such as James who remained in Jerusalem really put that name on Jesus’ tomb when they knew otherwise? This is highly improbable. My friend Richard Bauckham provides me with the following statistics:

Out of a total number of 2625 males, these are the figures for the ten most popular male names among Palestinioan Jews. the first figure is the total number of occurrences (from this number, with 2625 as the total for all names, you could calculate percentages), while the second is the number of occurrences specifically on ossuraies.

1 Simon/Simeon 243 59
2 Joseph 218 45
3 Eleazar 166 29
4 Judah 164 44
5 John/Yohanan 122 25
6 Jesus 99 22
7 Hananiah 82 18
8 Jonathan 71 14
9 Matthew 62 17
10 Manaen/Menahem 42 4

For women, we have a total of 328 occurrences (women's names are much less often recorded than men's), and figures for the 4 most popular names are thus:

Mary/Mariamne 70 42
Salome 58 41
Shelamzion 24 19
Martha 20 17

You can see at once that all the names you're interested were extremely popular. 21% of Jewish women were called Mariamne (Mary). The chances of the people in the ossuaries being the Jesus and Mary Magdalene of the New Testament must be very small indeed.

By the way, 'Mara' in this context does not mean Master. It is an abbreviated form of Martha. probably the ossuary contained two women called Mary and Martha (Mariamne and Mara).

There are so many flaws in the analysis of the statistics themselves, that one must assume the statistician did not have the right or sufficient data to work with.

2) there is no independent DNA control sample to compare to what was garnered from the bones in this tomb. By this I mean that the most the DNA evidence can show is that several of these folks are inter-related. Big deal. We would need an independent control sample from some member of Jesus' family to confirm that these were members of Jesus' family. We do not have that at all. In addition mitacondrial DNA does not reveal genetic coding or XY chromosome make up anyway. They would need nuclear DNA for that in any case. So the DNA stuff is probably thrown in to make this look more like a real scientific fact. Not so much.

3) Several of these ossuaries have very popular and familiar early Jewish names. As the statistics above show, the names Joseph and Joshua (Jesus) were two of the most common names in all of early Judaism. So was Mary. Indeed both Jesus’ mother and her sister were named Mary. This is the ancient equivalent of finding adjacent tombs with the names Smith and Jones. No big deal.

4) The historical problems with all this are too numerous to list here: A) the ancestral home of Joseph was Bethlehem, and his adult home was Nazareth. The family was still in Nazareth after he was apparently dead and gone. Why in the world would be be buried (alone at this point) in Jerusalem? It’s unlikely. B) One of the ossuaries has the name Jude son of Jesus. We have no historical evidence of such a son of Jesus, indeed we have no historical evidence he was ever married; C) the Mary ossuaries (there are two) do not mention anyone from Migdal. It simply has the name Mary-- and that's about the most common of all ancient Jewish female names. D) we have names like Matthew on another ossuary, which don't match up with the list of brothers' names.
E) By all ancient accounts, the tomb of Jesus was empty-- even the Jewish and Roman authorities acknowledged this. Now it takes a year for the flesh to desiccate, and then you put the man's bones in an ossuary. But Jesus' body was long gone from Joseph of Arimathea's tomb well before then. Are we really to believe it was moved to another tomb, decayed, and then was put in an ossuary? Its not likely. F) Implicitly you must accuse James, Peter and John (mentioned in Gal. 1-2-- in our earliest NT document from 49 A.D.) of fraud and coverup. Are we really to believe that they knew Jesus didn't rise bodily from the dead but perpetrated a fraudulent religion, for which they and others were prepared to die? Did they really hide the body of Jesus in another tomb? We need to remember that the James in question is Jesus' brother, who certainly would have known about a family tomb. This frankly is impossible for me to believe.

5) One more thing of importance. The James ossuary, according to the report of the antiquities dealer that Oded Golan got the ossuary from, said that the ossuary came from Silwan, not Talpiot, and had dirt in it that matched up with the soil in that particular spot in Jerusalem. In fact Oded confirmed this to me personally when I spoke with him at an SBL meeting. Why is this important? Well because the ossuaries that came out of Talpiot came out of a rock cave from a different place, and without such soil in it. To theorize that there was a Jesus family tomb, and yet the one member of Jesus' family who we know was buried in Jerusalem for a long time did not come out of the ground from that locale contradicts this theory. Furthermore, Eusebius reports that the tomb marker for James' burial was close to where James was martyred near the temple mount, indeed near the famous tombs in the Kidron valley such as the so-called tomb of Absalom. Talpiot is nowhere near this locale.

6)What should we make of James Tabor’s being co-opted into this project? You will remember his book which came out last year The Jesus Dynasty. In that book he had quite a good deal to say about the Talpiot Tomb, and about Panthera being the father of Jesus, and about Jesus being buried in Galilee, and of course nothing about a ossuary which claims that Joseph is the father of Jesus. Why such a quick reversal of his earlier opinions? This makes him appear very quixotic, not a very reliable witness who sticks by his guns when he draws a conclusion, for he has now reversed himself not just on one or two minor points, but on several major ones. My advise to James, whom I respect and who has not only done some fine archaeological work but is a nice guy, is to disassociate himself from this speculative and flawed theory just as quick as possible if he cares for his reputation as a scholar.

In the Toronto Star article from Sunday’s paper, we find that the unraveling has begun before they even hold the news conference today--- here is a brief quote from the article written by Stuart Laidlaw---

“But there is one wrinkle that is not examined in the documentary, one that emerged in a Jerusalem courtroom just weeks ago at the fraud trial of James ossuary owner Oded Golan, charged with forging part of the inscription on the box.

Former FBI agent Gerald Richard testified that a photo of the James ossuary, showing it in Golan's home, was taken in the 1970s, based on tests done by the FBI photo lab. The trial resumes tomorrow.

Jacobovici conceded in an interview that if the ossuary was photographed in the 1970s, it could not then have been found in a tomb in 1980.

But while he does not address the conundrum in the documentary, he said in an interview that it's possible Golan's photo was printed on old paper in the 1980s.”

Here is the link to the Toronto Star article.

In fact the same article reports that Professor Amos Kloner from bar Ilan University has already told the German press “It's a beautiful story but without any proof whatsoever." He is important since he did extensive work and research on this very tomb and its ossuaries and came to negative conclusions published in a journal in 1996. In short, this is old news, to which has been added only the recent DNA testing and statistical analysis neither of which makes the case the film makers want to make.

I feel sorry for Simcha, but I know how these things happen. One’s enthusiasm for a subject propels one into over-reaching when it comes to drawing conclusions. The problem with keeping these ideas secret for the sake of making a big splash of publicity, and lots of money, is that peer review by a panel of scholars could have saved these folks a lot of embarrassment down the road. ‘C’est la vie.'

So my response to this is clear--- James Cameron, the producer of the movie Titantic, has now jumped on board another sinking ship full of holes, presumably in order to make a lot of money before the theory sinks into an early watery grave. Man the lifeboats and get out now.

For those wanting much more on the historical Jesus and James and Mary see now my WHAT HAVE THEY DONE WITH JESUS? (Harper-Collins, 2006).


And one more thing to add---Eusebius the father of church history (4th century) tells us that there had been since NT times a tomb of James the Just, the brother of Jesus, which was near the Temple mount and had an honoric stele next to it, and that it was a pilgrimage spot for many Christians. It was apparently a single tomb, with no other Holy family members mentioned nor any other ossuaries in that place. The locality and singularity of this tradition rules out a family tomb in Talpiot. Christians would not have been making pilgrimage to the tomb if they believed Jesus' bones were in it-- that would have contradicted and violated their faith, but the bones of holy James were another matter. They were consider sacred relics.

Here is part of the passage from Eusebius on Jesus' brother--- James "was buried on the spot, by the Sanctuary, and his inscribed stone (stele) is still there by the sanctuary." (Hist. Eccles. 2.23.18). This is clearly not in Talpiot, and remember to claim there is a Talpiot family tomb means that Jesus would have been buried there long before James was martyred in A.D. 62. In other words, the James tradition contradicts the Talpiot tomb both in locale and in substance. James is buried alone, in another place.

Sunday, February 25, 2007

Ars Longa, Vita Brevis

"Art is long, life short" says the ancient Latin aphorism. And one of the things about art is that it makes one reconsider what something can do or be. Here below you will find some remarkable sculptures--- made out of pencils :) Art is indeed one of the signs that God has created us in his image, and on a lesser scale we have his gift of creativity. Enjoy.

Saturday, February 24, 2007

Rob Bell's Nooma Videos 11-15

One of the things one could wish about this Nooma series is that we knew more about the background music. But we may be thankful at least that we have subtitles to these films for those who are hearing impaired, so we must take what we can get. In Nooma 11 (‘Rhythm’) music comes out of the shadows and literally takes center stage, becoming the central metaphor for this particular film. It is filmed in a beautiful concert hall and centers around a rehearsal of a piece of music. This choice of metaphor is not surprising since Rob is a musician (indeed he is left handed and right brained, which this reviewer finds particular resonance with ).

The film begins, as several of them do, with certain misconceptions or limited conceptions about God. Rob relates how one person said that God helped them get a parking space one day, or another tells how they had been healed by God. As Rob rightly asks, this raises more questions than it answers about God--- like where was God when some real catastrophe killing many happened? Why did God heal this good person, but not that one? It would seem that God would have better things and bigger things to do with his time than to produce the occasional small miracle or serendipity. Rob sees this whole concept of a God who is distant and occasionally intervenes all wrong. He is struck by the fact that the Biblical writers believe God is everywhere, all the time—as the Psalmist says “where shall I flee from your spirit? If I go down into the land of the dead—lo you are even there”.

And so Rob draws analogy between the presence of God and their being a song which we all hear, sometimes hum, and if we are intentional occasionally sing on key with. Rob sees this life as an exercise of trying to get in tune with the song that is playing everywhere for everyone. He is not the first to have thought of this. John Donne in his famous poem “To God my God in my Sickness” says that when he faced death and “was about to be made God’s music” he thought beforehand how he ought to tune his instrument, so he could play well in his Majesty’s presence. We see here a strong stress on the imminence of God rather than God’s transcendence, and it is helpful. But most fundamentally we see a getting beyond the Enlightenment and Deistic image of a God who created a universe and then left it to its own devices, except for the occasional capricious and unpredictable intervention It was George Herbert, another English cleric who said that prayer itself is like a tune “we all hear and fear”. Rob would add—so is God.

I must confess to you that I was not prepared for Nooma 12—Matthew. This is the most personal of all the Nooma videos in which Rob recounts, and re-grieves the loss of someone he loved—a young man named Matthew. Here we see in living color Rob’s genuine love for his friends, and therefore the great sense of loss he still bears because of the untimely death in 2004 of a brilliant young man named Matthew, whom Rob had taken into his home in L.A. Matthew’s untimely death was caused by a car accident when he was only 27. The mood is not surprisingly subdued in this video, the setting is in a hotel room with a privacy please sign on the door, and the music is rather somber and ethereal. The undergirding and overarching theme of this video is that one must allow one’s self to grieve, to let out whatever one is feeling rather than being in denial or stuffing it, but that one must not allow one’s self to become bitter. In fact a person has a choice between becoming bitter and becoming better through such heart-wrenching situations. Rob counsels that one must not focus on the hole in one’s life, or grieve as one who has no hope, but one must focus on the positive things one still has to live for. Rob is able to convey these thoughts without being trite or condescending. He talks about the Jewish practice of sitting Shiva, which refers to sitting with the bereaved, just sitting, and not talking unless the bereaved want to discuss the matter. This would be a very different approach to the one taken by Job’s comforters. Rob draws an analogy with how Jesus in Jn. 11 wept at the grave of a friend and entered fully into his friends grieving process. Honestly, I did not expect either the emotional genuineness of this video or the wisdom beyond his years he serves up in this video. I suspect it may well help as a gift to the bereaved.

‘Rich’ is Nooma 13, and now we have gotten to videos shot in 2005 and 2006. This video first of all makes clear that by world standards almost all Americans, at least all that have a roof over their heads, jobs, and a car are rich. Rob tells us only 8 per cent of the world owns cars. I suspect that statistic is low, but even so, you get the drift. What he is certain right about is that America is only 6% of the world’s population but we consume about 30% or so of the world’s goods. God is going to asking for an accounting of our stewardship of our resources. Basically this video rehearses for us some of the teachings of Jesus and Paul that have to do with what godly people should do with wealth. Ron links this to the teaching in Ephesians that we are created in Christ for good works. We have been saved to serve to put it another way. We are not owners of anything we have, only stewards and we should consider them as gifts, not things we earn or deserve. Rob remarks on the bumper sticker “God bless America Well that request has already been answered a million times over. God has already richly blessed us. The question is--- Are we being good stewards of what he has bestowed. It is one of the characteristic features of the Emergent Church movement that there is a considerable concern for the poor, and for accountability in the way Christians live and spend their money. Rob urges us to generosity and at the same time to a simple life style, which frees up resources so we can be generous.

We go subterranean in Nooma 14, and ride the subways with Rob. Here the subject is breath, and its connection with God. And here again we have an issue with deficient understanding of things Jewish, in this case, understanding of the Hebrew language itself. Rob wants to make a connection between the Hebrew name of God Yahweh (or Yaveh) and the Hebrew word for breath. Actually it is the Hebrew word for life (Hayah) that is normally connected to God’s name, not the word for breath. In fact, when God reveals himself to Moses and says his name is “Eyeh asher eyeh” (sometimes translated ‘I am that I am’ but probably better translated ‘I will be what I will be’ the connection is clear between ‘eyeh’ and ‘hayah’. Yahweh likely means ‘the living one’—the one who was and is, and is to come. Nevertheless, there is good stuff in this video about how we are about as unconscious of God’s presence as we are unconscious of our own breathing every few seconds--- that is until we run out of breath. Rob rightly emphasizes that we are ‘earth creatures’ (the Hebrew word for earth is adamah, and so Adam means earth creatures) into whom God has breathed the breath of life. Out dependency on God is just as real as our dependency on breathing, and we seem just as oblivious to it. Rob is looking for what can be called powerful or master metaphors and analogies to explain the nature of God and reality, and he does it in clear fashion. Once again Rob sees mundane things as talismans of deeper spiritual realities—and he is right about this.

The most recent Nooma video ‘You (number 16) has just been unveiled. It involves the creative technique of filming into, and with the illusion of filming from a mirror. Rob asks us to reflect on the fact that there are no two of us alike. Only you are you, and so God has made us like the snowflakes, each unique, beautiful, of sacred worth, each created in God’s image. One of the themes that resounds through these videos is the reassertion of a robust creation theology, and of the goodness of creation, in the face of various Gnostic dualistic and escapist tendencies in our culture. This is a healthy corrective, and helps provide us with a much more Jewish view of the world. And that creation theology is reinforced by a new creation theology that looks forward to the final form of ‘you’—the resurrected you.

The Nooma videos, whether taken in slowly, or in bunches, or even in one all day marathon are remarkable in so many ways. It is no surprise all the testimonies that have come into my blog about the ministry these resources are already doing in youth groups, prisoners, Bible studies, women’s circles, praise worship and other venues as well. Let us hope the creativity does not run dry, and thoughtfulness of the chosen topics does not run out. Since there are now fifteen of these videos available, there is no rush to do more. The folks at Flannel can take their time now and continue to hold the standard of excellence high. And it would be well if we all supported their non-profit ministry, for they are doing some of the heavy lifting when it comes to lifting up Christ and a Christian lifestyle and belief system to many in our culture—especially those Rob’s age and younger.

Rob Bell's Nooma Videos 6-10

Oh those aquamarine and white Nooma boxes. They contain interesting things.

You can see in the second five films in this series how they’ve hit their stride, anmd in some cases we can see an increasing degree of complexity to the films. The music is background music but it continues to give motion to the film. The lighting continues to suggest we are all living in the Shadowslands. Not quite winter in Narnia, but the Shadowlands for sure. Rob continues to have his blonde tinted hair. We continue to go to everyday places, but we discuss not so every day subjects--- like God, and sin, and suffering, and abuse, and revenge and forgiveness, and baggage.

Nooma 6--- the music in the background sounds like Alanis Morrisette, only less whiny, or maybe Jennifer Knapp with the acoustic stuff. Its entitled “Kickball”, and its set on the shore of Lake Michigan, it would appear. Again like some of these other Nooma films it has a bleak look, or basic primal look. The subject matter is in fact however anything but simple. What is the character of God? Is God good? And if God is good, why doesn’t he give me the stuff I want which will make me happy? Rob draws an analogy with his own parental situation. Sometimes the parent just knows that giving the child what he wants, is not giving him what he needs, indeed it maybe giving him a stone instead of bread, a snake instead of steak. There is less direct Bible content in this one, but the message gets through none the less. It is noticeable how Rob wants to concentrate on the most basic things, like the character of God and do we believe God is good. We should not expect delicate explanations of the Trinity in these videos. They are for entry level discussion, and yet they do not lack meat.

Nooma 7-- This video has a surprise ending, and a back story, so pay close attention to what goes on in the airport. But the subject of this video is revenge. And the most interesting point made in the video is that taking revenge implies something quite clear about one’s faith in God (or lack thereof). It implies one doesn’t trust God to take care of it. Rob focuses on Paul’s words in Romans about leaving room for God’s wrath. He also has some helpful things to say about forgiveness helping the one who does the forgiving as much as the one forgiven. The title of this film is ‘luggage’ but it really should have been baggage. One thing that becomes clearer, the more of these films that one watches-- Rob sees the world has highly dysfunctional and most if not all people are broken and have ‘issues’. So some of these videos necessarily come off more like pastoral counseling videos than straight Bible teaching videos, which is fine. Rob after all has a pastoral orientation and intent in doing this kind of ministry. He is not trying to be something he is not (i.e. a Bible scholar). But there is no mistaking he has interacted deeply with the first principles of the Gospel, like forgiveness.

Nooma 8--- This film entitled ‘Dust’ is one of the one’s I find more deficient in understanding Jesus’ milieu. Here Rob, now brown haired (it was filmed in 2004), basically restates what he has said in “Velvet Elvis” about Jesus being a rabbi, about synagogues where Jewish boys memorized the whole Torah and the like. Since I have already critiqued this point on the blog, I do not wish to belabor the point. Not only was Jesus not a rabbi, like later rabbis, but neither was anyone else really before 70 A.D. Of course there were Jewish scribes and teachers, but we have no historical basis for thinking of ordained rabbis running synagogues and little schools in Nazareth or elsewhere in Galilee during this era. For sure, there was no Bet’ Talmud in Jesus’ day. Nobody was busy memorizing Genesis to Malachi, because there was no closed canon in Jesus’ day, nor a single book to be memorized, nor even agreement on all the scrolls that should be memorized. I bring this up precisely because Jesus is so grounded in non-Mosaic parts of the OT-- the apocalyptic prophecies of Daniel and Ezekiel, and also the prophecies of Isaiah and Jeremiah, and the wisdom literature like Proverbs, which is what his parables, riddles, and aphorisms most resemble. That is, he is grounded in the latter parts of the OT, including in disputed books like Daniel from which he takes his onw self-chosen moniker—Son of Man, Jesus in short, is a Jewish wise man or apocalyptic sage. He is not someone who teaches Scripture like scribes, or spends much time debating other Jewish’ teachers interpretations of Torah. He speaks on his own authority, and without footnotes, or citing other teachers. Instead of exegesis, he is mainly engaging in creating new Jewish teachings.

It is of course true that early Jewish teachers encouraging imitation of their behavior as well as recitation of Scriptures and important teachings. But when Jesus is calling fishermen and tax collectors to follow him, it has nothing to do with the later practice of picking the best of the best to be one’s disciples because you think they’ve got the intellectuals goods to become like the rabbi. On the contrary Jesus seems to be picking up, not budding scholars, but in some cases the least, the last and the lost—folks like fishermen, or a woman who was demon possessed. And here is an important point--- women certainly did not have the privilege of doing the same sort or degree of Torah study as men. And yet Jesus had a group of very loyal women disciples. This simply punctuates how very different he operated than later more patriarchally oriented rabbis.

Rob however is right that the story of Jesus and Peter walking on water is a very telling story about Peter not having enough faith in himself to walk by faith over to Jesus. Rob emphasizes that God and Jesus have faith in us, entrust us with the task of making more disciples. Its an important, indeed crucial point. Jesus believes in us! When’s the last time you heard a sermon on that? And Rob makes the point well.

Nooma 9, entitled ‘Bullhorn’ finds Rob taking on one of his pet peeves—fundamentalist hell fire preachers who stand on corners with bullhorns and tracts trying to warn people that if they haven’t repented and trusted Jesus, well then they are on the straight path to hell. Rob’s disagreement with this whole approach to evangelism is not just that hardly ever works or accomplishes the intended outcome. His disagreement with it is that it is a violation of the heart of the Gospel which has to do with loving God and others with one’s whole heart. In fact, as Rob stress by loving others one is loving God. What this film emphasizes is the unconditional love of God, which we as well should offer unconditionally to all whether they receive it or not. What this film does not say, and really needed to say, if only in passing, is that in fact God does not love many of our sinful and self-destructive ways. He does indeed begin with us as we are, but he never leaves us there, for the very good reason that our sin continues to alienate us from God, like a cancer which destroys our most precious relationships. There are some subtle touches in this video, for example when bullhorn guy is in an elevator on the way to his rant site there is a sticker on the wall of the elevator that says ‘Love Wins’. Indeed, it does and it should. You can attract more flies with honey than with gall for sure.

Nooma 10, entitled ‘Lump’ is one of my favorites thus far. Rob is at his best when he is relating his own personal experiences to the Scriptures, and here he is dealing with his son lying to him about something he had taken from someone and then again about hitting his brother. And when the moment of realization comes and he knows he is busted, then he runs and hides not in his own bed, but in the safest place he knows—in his parent’s bed, under the covers. Rob tells the story about finding him there some two hours later, and reassuring his son he is still loved. But at the same time Rob talks about the need in due course to make amends to those he hurt, or hit, or stole from, or lied to. What this story reminds us of is that children, even small children are not pure. Up to a certain age they have a certain innocence, in the sense that is the opposite of experience. They have not yet willfully violated a known law, and so committed a willful transgression. But they are not pure. Innocent and morally pure are two different things, and often small children are the most self-centered, its all about me creatures that one could imagine.

St. Augustine tells the funny story about am infant who was caterwauling at the baptismal font, and he says it was evident he was unregenerate and resisting the waters of grace. Shows how little he knew about the conscious behavior of infants. But in a sense he had a point—we are all born fallen creatures. The story also reminds us that even reasonably small children are capable of knowing they have done something wrong and of feeling shame for it. But like the father in the Prodigal Son parable, Rob tells his son, “there is nothing you can ever do that will stop me from loving you.”

I am reminded of Paul’s words in Romans where in one chapter we are told that Christ died for sinners, for the ungodly, for his enemies. How much clearer could it be that God loves us in spite of what we do and have become, not because of it. Victor Furnish once said that God’s love is not like a heat-seeking missile targeting something inherently attractive in us. God does not love us because we are lovely or loveable. Rather his love for us makes us that way. God doesn’t love us because he has already chosen us before all time. Rather it is his love for us and our response to it which makes us his bride, his chosen ones. We must say ‘I do’ in response to his ongoing ‘I do’. Rob is right to emphasis that God is love. The question is, how will we respond?

Rob Bell's Nooma Videos 1-5

Nooma is the Anglicized version of the Greek word pneuma, which means spirit, breath, or wind. This word is presumably chosen for the series of short videos Rob Bell is producing signaling the fresh winds that are blowing through the church and the world in part through the Emergent Church movement. Each of these short films have one word titles like 'Rain' or 'Flame' or 'Trees' or 'Sunday', and each center on some elemental concept or idea about which Rob can give some Biblical and spiritual reflection. In the liner notes of the first video we learn that the first of these films was in fact being shot on 9-11-2001 and was about the storms we have in life. That is truly an interesting harmonic convergence. As Sting once said "when the world is falling down, let's make the best of what's left around."

There is an edge to each of these videos which is partly conveyed by the often eerie stripped down background music (the lyrics of which are often not decipherable---think some of the darker stuff by Smashing Pumpkins, Nirvana, Pearl Jam, or even the circus organ in some of Eminem's music, or even some of the elemental Punk stuff by the Pixies or Violent Femmes). Rob's background in a punk band comes through in his stripped down or back to basics approach to Christianity, as is evident in these films.

Filmed, (it would appear), in high def and focusing like a laser beam on Rob himself in various settings and scenarios each of these well produced videos is somewhere between nine and perhaps 14-15 minutes in length-- perfect for those with short attention spans, or used to channel or website hopping. The colors tend to be stark or primal (black, blue, green, white) with bursts of normalcy here and there, some of the shots are aerial, some are deliberately fuzzy, some are grainy, some are quite artistic, the cinematography itself is carefully thought out and by no means amateurish. The medium and the message co-inhere in their elemental character.

Each DVD comes with a little booklet that reinforces some of the thoughts conveyed in the video and provides the citations and quotations from Scripture that are crucial to a particular film. Clearly the target audience is primarily those who do not know the Bible well or at all, those who are not likely to find appealing the normal approach to Christianity and church, and also primarily those who are 35 and under. From all accounts I have heard these videos are enormously popular with high school youth groups and college Christian fellowships or Sunday school classes as conversation starters. I can see why. They are clear, direct, and Biblical. One thing that is very characteristic of Rob Bell's ever developing work is that he is the most clearly and profoundly and uncompromisingly Biblical in content of the Emergent Church folks I have encountered.

And interestingly it is very different in form and substance from other popular Evangelical trends such as Dispensationalism, or resurgent Calvinism in the Passion movement. Rob Bell is a very different sort of guru than John Piper or say folks like Jerry Falwell, John Hagee, or Pat Robertson. Not only is his approach more counter cultural in form and substance that these aforementioned folks, in comparison to Piper, Rob is definitely not Calvinistic.

Rob says things in these videos like " God doesn't force himself on anyone". There's no theology of irresistible grace here. Or as he stresses in "Velvet Elvis" Jesus died for everyone, atoned for the sins of everyone. And then there is that profound stress throughout out on the importance of this life, this world, and how we respond to the poor, the homeless, the hungry, the diseased, here and now. This is not 'beam me up' escapist theology. Indeed it is ecologically and environmentally friendly theology (we even see Rob planting trees in an urban area in the 'Trees' video). There is a reason for this-- Rob believes that God intends to come back down here, having transformed this world into the new heaven and new earth, to dwell with us forever. It thus behooves us to clean up our room down here to show we are preparing for his return and dwelling amongst us.

A few comments on the first five videos are in order here, and there will be two more posts on the second, and then the third five. Hands down, the most creative and interesting in every way of the first five short films is "Noise" (number 5 filmed in 2003). The video begins with us seeing Rob sitting on a sofa in a living room channel hopping but there are all these lines across the screen. Suddenly you realize you are looking at Rob from inside the TV (!) and then you see the little channel numbers inverted in the upper right corner of the picture. Rob is talking about the value of silence and listening to God and why we have such difficulty with silence in a noise laden culture. All of a sudden Rob turns off the TV and we no longer see or hear anything-- for about a minute! Its just a blank black screen. Then we have words appearing on the screen-- some Scriptures about silence and the need for quiet and rest. Some comments by Rob on the importance of this. Some reminders that we keep using our technology to put more noise and cognitive dissonance into our lives (cell phones, pagers, voice mail etc. etc.). Rob is listing the things that get in the way to listening God. He very aptly alludes to the story of Elijah on Horeb in 1 Kngs. 19-- and how the message of God was not in the conflagration, or earthquake or wind, but in the silence and the still small voice. And the chaos around him needed to subside before he could hear it. This is a compelling little film, and thought provoking, and it taps into a lot of the current emphases in spiritual formation literature. One of the things you notice about Rob is that he draws equally on the OT and NT and is equally adept at getting at the heart of the message from either Testament.

Part of the 'lets get back to basics' approach can be seen in a video like 'Sunday'. Rob asks why we do the things we do. Why do we go to church, why do we give money to the church etc.? What do the habits of our hearts and lives tell us about ourselves? This is the film (no. 4) where we get the message, so characteristic of the Emergent Church approach, about the dangers of empty rituals, rules, and behavior where there is a disconnect between the outer and the inner, between where the heart is and where the body and behavior is. Heart piety, and really caring about the things God cares about are where the emphasis lies, but not at the expense of action-- its just that Rob wants heart felt, God motivated, enthusiastic service to God, not going through the religious motions. Here we are meant to think of some of the sterner stuff in the minor prophets about God despising our solemn assemblies if our hearts have gone far astray from Him.

'Rain' and 'Flame' (videos 1 and 2) provide us with the yin and yang of the storms of life vs. the passions of life. There is some interesting teaching in Flame about the three different words for love used in Song of Songs, and the very effective point is made that in a marriage, friendship love, erotic love, and companionship/ family love all coalesce into one and that makes the flame all the more potent and powerful (and indeed potentially life changing either in a purifying or a destructive way). I must say that I like all these shorts films. Some are more compelling than others, but all of them are useful and edifying in various ways, and Rob does a good job of integrating his own experiences with his teaching of the Biblical text.

Here is a fresh voice for the Lord, who has a vision and an understanding of what he is trying to accomplish, while remaining himself and true to his Lord. When one watches Rob with his painful honesty and genuineness and contrasts this with some of the tele-evangelists who seem so phony and unbelievable as if they are just putting on a show, it is refreshing. Maybe these Nooma winds will blow away the competition and the flotsam and jetsam that clutters up some of our lives and our churches, and particularly our young folks lives. If that's the impact of these films, it will be a breath of fresh air. Indeed, one might say it will be truly pneumatic-- Spirit inspired and empowered.

Tuesday, February 20, 2007

Anglican Conclave tells American Episcoalian Church to ban the Blessing of Same Sex Unions

In what can only be called a stunning rebuke of the American Episcopal Church, it was given eight months to ban the blessing of same sex unions or face a reduced and censured role in the world's third largest Christian denomination-- the Anglican Communion. Here is the link to this morning's story, in the NY Times.

In an additional surprising move an separate council with a vicar was established to deal with the concerns of more conservative Episcopal dioceses in America who have felt alienated and betrayed by the recent ordaining of a gay bishop and pressure to accept same sex unions by the American Church hierarchy. Surprisingly, the newly anointed head of the American Episcopal Church Katharine Schori agreed to this arrangement, accepting an attenuation of her powers, at least for now.

Conservative Anglicans see this as a reassertion of the primacy of Scripture and the centuries old Anglican tradition on such issues over the claims of 'current' experience. This decision clearly enough was taken to prevent the world wide Anglican communion, which involves some 77 million people from splintering into several denominations, because only the American Church with just over 2 million members was out of line with the majority of Anglicans leaders everywhere else in its recent decisions. What this decision most reflects is the fact that now, and increasingly, worldwide churches, such as the Anglican communion, find that the majority of their members are no longer in the northern hemisphere, or in the more socially liberal 'West'. This puts other such worldwide communions on notice that the rest of the world church is more socially conservative than its American branches.

Monday, February 19, 2007

Can’t Handle the Proof

We demand the evidence,

A clear and certain sign,

We show no bit of reticence

Ask God to please divine.

Here a little miracle,

Or there a stellar light

To shine upon our darkness

And give us all insight.

But what if God’s not hidden,

Not remote or too aloof,

What if we’re just blind

And cannot handle proof?

What if all the world’s a stage

And the play’s long been going on,

But we’re not paying attention

Or listening to the song?

What if the heavens shout ‘glory’

And the rocks and all the trees

But we’re too damn distracted

To fall down on our knees?

What if believing leads to seeing

Not the other way around,

What if believing’s our 3-D glasses

To see the more profound.

In a world of truth decay

We perish for lack of hope

We settle for compensation

For that which helps us cope.

A visionary person

Is one who believes the most,

She sees the path before her,

But she trusts the Holy Ghost.

If you ignore all the evidence,

Then you cannot handle proof,

Only open hands receive it,

Only open minds find truth.

BW3 2/17/07

Sunday, February 18, 2007

Alistair McGrath's Critique of Dawkins "The God Delusion"

Alistair McGrath is a remarkable person. He has PhDs in Theology and also in Molecular Bio-Physics. He is currently a Professor of public science at Oxford. In this lecture he is critiquing his fellow Oxfordian Richard Dawkins Here is the link. See what you think.

Saturday, February 17, 2007

"Velvet Elvis and the King"-- Has he Left the Building?

Rob Bell’s best-selling first book “Velvet Elvis” has tapped a remarkably large market of young people ranging from early teens to late thirties who seem wide open to the Gospel, if presented in user-friendly forms. And Rob has a gift at reaching them. One of the things I like most about Rob Bell is his genuineness, his honesty. He may have a funny bone, but he certainly doesn’t seem to have a phony bone in his body. Its very refreshing. And full props should be given to him for presenting a Christocentric worldview. This is of course characteristic of the Emergent Church movement. In fact it has been criticized for being too Christ focused in some respects. I disagree.

Furthermore, Rob writes clearly and well. It was interesting to hear him describe the agony of the writing process for him when he was here in Lexington this week. Clearly, writing is a labor of love for him, which may explain the one word, and one line sentences from time to time, not to mention the shortness of his two books. But I suspect this is partially intentional. If one takes time to peruse his notes, you discover he has read widely, and fortunately a goodly number of his sources are good ones. Some however leave a good deal to be desired. But more on that in a moment.

It is evident, particularly from the way that Rob uses and quotes the Bible that he has a high view of the Bible’s authority, probably a higher one than some other Emerging Church folks I have encountered. I like the Biblical depth of his arguments at points. His books may be short but they are substantive. They reflect a real wrestling with deep issues, and a real honesty about growth areas Rob sees that he still has. Sometimes as well, there are some really profound insights reflecting deep meditation on the Word.

And let us discuss for a moment how Rob sees the Gospel. He believes that the whole Gospel in all its spiritual and social dimensions needs to be preached and lived out. He has a strong commitment to the poor, the diseased, the hungry, the homeless, not only locally but globally. And he makes this commitment without ever compromising on the spiritual dimensions of salvation as well. He believes that Jesus died for everyone, atoned for everyone’s sin, that God desires that none should perish, and that salvation should be offered to everyone from the least, last and lost, to the first the most and found. He has a profound grasp of sin, guilt, atonement, salvation, God, the afterlife. It is a joy to watch this thirty six year old think and ask questions.

And he has good questions. In some ways questions are his forte. But he does not just use questions to fend off other questions or avoid giving answers when he knows them. He sees himself as following the M.O. of Jesus himself and other early Jews in this. He also has a very good and broad vision of God, not to mention a broad vision of God’s plan for humanity and the earth. As Rob says—escapist theology is not Biblical. Our final destination is not ‘somewhere out there’ its right down here.

The reason ecology and environmental concern is so important is that surely we ought to clean up our room before God comes in the person of Jesus to dwell with us down here forever in the new heaven and new earth. Robb thinks on a cosmic scale, pointing out that God intends to redeem and restore not just you and me, but the earth and all that is in it. Praise God for good holistic visions of salvation that motivate us to be our best selves. It will be clear from all this that I think there is a good reason God has given Rob Bell such a platform—he is a sincere, orthodox communicator of the Gospel with a passion for people and their shalom, their wellbeing. And he is indeed a gifted communicator.

What I am about to say thus must be taken in the larger positive context in which I have framed it. While the following list of concerns should not be seen as minor, they do not by any means outweigh the good that Rob does and which characterizes his ministry. So I would want the following to be seen as a list of desirable upgrades:

1) Rob, since he wants to stress the Jewishness of Jesus and his followers, needs to have a better understanding of early Judaism in a number of ways. In the first place, Jesus was no rabbi. So far as we can tell, there is no archaeological evidence at all for bet Talmud or bet Midrash in Jesus’ day in Galilee. There were some schools in Jerusalem but they were far from Galilee. After 70 A.D. of course some schools were established in Galilee because Jerusalem was no longer capable of supporting such things. This became totally impossible in Jerusalem after the Bar Kokhba revolt in the early second century when the Romans turned Jerusalem into a pagan city with a temple to Jupiter/Zeus and renamed the city Aelia Capitolina. In fact, you will notice that Jesus has no encounters with ‘rabbis’. Scribes yes, Pharisees yes, Sadducees yes, priests yes, synagogue Presidents like Jairus yes--- but no rabbis. This is because there were no ordained rabbis hanging around synagogues in Jesus’ day. It is a huge mistake to read the Talmuds and the Mishnah as if they were describing the world that Jesus lived in, when in fact they mostly described Judaism after the two Jewish wars when Judaism had been whittled down mostly to Pharisaism and had become a much more Torah-centric religion. Jesus was not a rabbi, nor did he have close encounters of the first kind with ordained rabbis. There were none in his day.

Along this same line it needs to be stressed that Jesus was in various ways a radical Jew. He did not simply keep the Mosaic Law, he believed that he came to fulfill it in some respects, and to intensify it in some respects, and yes, to replace it in some respects because the new covenant was being inaugurated through his ministry. Over and over again Jesus healed on the Sabbath—a violation of the work rules in the OT, never mind the more strict ones the Pharisees upheld. Jesus not only dined with sinners and other unclean folks, he famously declared that nothing that enter a person actually defiled them (see Mk. 7). Say what you will, but this makes clear he does not think Leviticus any longer applies in various ways since the Kingdom is breaking in. When Jesus says “you’ve heard it said… but I say” Jesus often contrasts his own teaching with that of Moses, not just contrasting his interpretation of Moses with other interpreters of Moses. Jesus spoke on his own authority, and in this he spoke very differently than rabbis—who were always using footnotes and quoting previous teachers. Jesus never once quotes the great teachers from before or during his era--- Hillel or Shammai or Gamaliel. For the most part Jesus does not spend his days debating Bible passages with people. His occasional debates in Jerusalem do not characterize the majority of his teaching which is wisdom material—riddles, proverbs, aphorisms, one liners, parables, even a bit of allegory. Jesus is a Jewish sage, not a rabbi in fact by trade he was an artisan ( a carpenter or stone mason) and he came to change the world, including Judaism. In other words, Since he is going to focus so much on the Jewish Jesus, Rob needs to use best evidence on what that looks like. See the bibliographies in my books The Christology of Jesus, Jesus the Sage, and Jesus the Seer. The mistake of using the later rabbinic grid to interpret Jesus leads to mistakes in interpreting Jesus’ words. For example when Jesus speaks about binding and loosing, he is not referring to forbidding and allowing certain ways of interpreting OT verses. To bind refers to making a ruling that is binding, not forbidding it. To loose means to free someone from obligation to keep a particular rule.

2) Rob needs a better knowledge of Hebrew. One example from ‘Velvet Elvis’ will have to suffice. On p.26 we hear about what “being born of a virgin” means. In the course of this discussion Rob claims that the word ‘virgin’ in Hebrew could mean several things. Well in the first place, we do not have the word ‘virgin’ in Isaiah 7.14 in the Hebrew text we have almah which means a nubile young woman of marriage age. In an honor and shame culture like that, this would certainly imply the virginity of the girl in question, but would not focus exclusively on that trait. There is a word for virgin in Hebrew, but this is not it. It is the Greek OT, not the Hebrew that has the term virgin (parthenos) which Matthew follows in Mt. 1 when he quotes the Isaiah text. In the midst of this discussion Rob throws in a mention of Mithras cults. Now unfortunately he likes to do the comparative religions thing from time to time, but he needs to get his facts straight: 1) the cult of Mithras does not seem to have existed properly speaking before the late first century A.D. It is of no relevance to discussion NT books, and in particular the Jesus tradition; 2) the cults of Mithras and Attis and Dionysius were not religious cults which centered on real historical persons, unlike Christianity. As such they did not talk about actual virgin births any more than they talked about bodily resurrections of a person like Jesus. It is simply not true as well that Julius Caesar or other Emperors were said to be born of virgins. Remarkable births or births signaled by comets are one thing, virgin births another. Rob is however quite right that some of the Greek terminology like euanggelion (Good News) was used by the Emperor cult, and was borrowed by Christians to make their own claims about Jesus. As my friend Tom Wright says—Jesus is the reality of which Caesar was only the parody.

3) The good news is that Rob is committed to contextual exegesis of the NT. The bad news is a fair bit of the time he has not read the commentaries so he will get the context right. When I say he hasn’t read the commentaries, I mean he hasn’t read the standard commentaries on the various books of the NT written by Evangelical or other Orthodox scholars, or at least he never footnotes them or shows any knowledge of them. Instead he has read the Paleo-Jewish commentaries of folks like David Flusser or Brad Young, or the like, whose views represent a tiny minority opinion within the world of NT scholarship. I find this odd since he had a chance to study with folks like Don Hagner and Marianne Meye Thompson at Fuller. How did this happen? In any case, he needs a commentary tune up, as one is only as good a teacher as one’s sources.

Enough with the wish list. There is more, but it can wait. I like Rob’s integration of personal stories with Biblical interpretation. I like his big vision of the truth—that all truth is God’s truth wherever we find it. His insights into forgiveness for example and its connection to the death of Christ are profound (see pp. 107-08) and he is so right that God doesn’t just want to forgive us, God wants to restore us. I like his paradoxes which he explores—for instance “For Jesus the question was not how do we get into heaven? But how do I bring heaven here?” (p. 147).

There is so much more positive I could say, but I will leave it at that. I admire Rob’s courage and commitment and creativity (he's left handed like a few other ministers I know), and it would be a good thing if we all prayed for him and the ministry God is doing through him. Who knows but that God has called him especially to reach our youth in days such as these as we drift in an increasingly non-Christian cultural direction.

Elvis may have left the building a long time ago, but the real King, Jesus is alive and well and Rob is lifting him up.