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Why linking Valentine’s Day and a Biblical Book isn’t crazy!

The judgment of Solomon, by Raphael (1483-1520) painted at the Vatican while Michaelangelo was painting the Sistine Chapel nearby.

The headline of this blog might be a head-scratcher for you.  After all, Valentine’s Day has its origin in the ancient pagan cultures of Greece and Rome when orgies celebrating romance and fertility regularly occurred. But as the Roman Empire was Christianized, the festival of Juno Februata – the Roman goddess of love, marriage, and women—was replaced with religious festivals to the Virgin Mary and an obscure Saint Valentine.  By 1536 Henry VIII, known for his womanizing, declared February 14th as St. Valentine’s Day and the modern custom of exchanging love messages began.

How does that relate to our Bible?  Because of that perplexing book, “The Song of Solomon” (or “Song of Songs” as it’s also called)–long been thought to be one of the most difficult books of Scripture to interpret.  Is it to be read as an allegory?  A drama?  Literally?  However one interprets it, “Song” is poetry chock full of timeless tips for lovers.  For instance, compliments, not complaints, bind the ties of affection.   A sample might be:  “ah, you are beautiful; your eyes are doves” (Song 1:15).

For all the steamy poetry that appears to be between a country girl and her beloved, a simple shepherd, the book made the ultimate ‘cut’:  the Canon.  Why?  Because the more we understand the love between two individuals, it is reasoned, the more we understand our relationship to God, often depicted as a marriage in the Scriptures (see the book of Hosea, especially chapter 4).

“Song” has no religious beliefs, themes or guidelines for ancient Israel, no plot that seems evident, not even a single mention of God.  And then there’s that erotic and figurative language filled with the longing, love, joy and fear of a man and woman in love.

What a puzzle it has been for Christians through the centuries, which most probably explains why Song ’s most popular interpretation is allegorical.  Couldn’t the references to love, for example, apply to God’s love for His creation, or to the love within a devoted marriage?  For Jews, it might be about God’s love for the chosen people, Israel.  And for Christians, some see it as Christ’s relation to his bride, the Church.

Whatever way one interprets “Song of Solomon”, its name derives from its opening verse:  “The Song of Songs, which is Solomon’s” (Song 1:1).  The book concludes the Old Testament’s collection of Wisdom literature – one of the three parts of the Hebrew Scriptures, along with the Law and the Prophets.  Like other books in this category, such as Proverbs and Ecclesiastes, all three are attributed to the wisdom of King Solomon.   Scholars don’t believe Solomon actually wrote these books so much as an author wanted to associate its language with the renowned wisdom traditions of Solomon – not to mention, in the case of Song of Solomon, his love of women (see I Kings 11:3).

So this February 14th, perhaps try something a little different: read some love poetry from this rather baffling Biblical book.  Dig deeply to see why it has had a place in the Canon all these centuries and then please share what you discover with your fellow Bible Roads’ readers.  Happy Valentine’s Day!

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What Mark’s Gospel Can Teach Us – Announcing new in-depth Study Opportunity!

Saint Mark the Evangelist, Guido Reni (1575-1642)

While national characteristics can be exaggerated (i.e. ‘all Italians talk with their hands’), the description of Americans as a people of action is born out in hundreds of examples.  And that’s one reason why the Gospel of Mark might have special appeal to anyone with a proclivity toward action.

Mark is the Gospel that most depicts Jesus on the move–‘immediately’ on the other side of the lake, ‘immediately’ discerning his critics’ innermost thoughts, ‘immediately’ healing a fever.  It also depicts a relentless progression of narrative and events that climax in the Master Christian’s crucifixion and resurrection.

With its lack of an infancy story, and compression of Jesus’ ministry into a single year, Marks gospel  is the shortest of the Canon’s four (including Matthew, Luke and John).   Yet scholars think it is chock full of eyewitness accounts, conveyed from Peter to his traveling companion, John Mark, who most consider its author.  Mark’s focus on Jesus’ identity, explored through numerous characters, makes us ask if we understand his identity as well–who he is in relation to the cross, to the Messiahship, to his ultimate role as the mediator between God and humankind (I Tim. 2:5).   The Gospel has much to say about discipleship and one’s faith, causing the reader to ask tough and candid questions about one’s own followership.

These are a few of the many reasons we have chosen it for our annual in-depth study at Cedars’ Camps, October 11-15th, 2018.  Enrollment has recently opened and we hope you’ll consider giving yourself the luxury of four days to go deeply into one of the New Testament’s most descriptive books about Christ Jesus.   Please don’t wait too long as this program sells out.

Join us to explore more deeply Jesus’ ministry and how each chapter of Mark’s Gospel builds on the last.  A workbook with questions per chapter will be available to participants and afterwards through BibleRoads.   All of this study is approached not simply as an academic exploration, but a way to mine new depths of the Gospel’s message to your daily life today.  We hope you can join us in this beautiful Fall location in the Ozark’s.

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Revelation’s Other View of Christ: Incompatible or Inclusive?

From pastoral shepherd caring for his flock to mighty warrior bent on destruction — here are two New Testament views of Christ so opposite that, on first glance, they seem incompatible.  The Gospels and the book of Revelation give both.  Why?

Jesus as both Good Shepherd and the Lamb of God.

One of the favorite tourist treasures from a trip to Jerusalem is visiting a shop where wood carvers create all size figurines of Jesus with a lamb over his shoulder.  Carved from local cedar, it epitomizes the Jesus we come to know as children first exposed to the Gospel story.  Here is the ‘good shepherd’, one of the ‘seven ‘I AM’ statements of powerful self-identification in John’s Gospel.  “I am the good shepherd. The good shepherd lays down his life for the sheep” (John 10:11).  And here also is the symbol of Jesus as the Lamb of God, evident throughout the Scriptures.

The good Shepherd portrays the pastoring care-giver that loves little children; heals the leper, the deaf and the blind; patiently nurtures his disciples’ faith and understanding; calmly masters storms; teaches unadorned parables that convey profound lessons; defuses angry crowds by raising their self-awareness, staving off a stoning of an adulterous woman—all through his spiritual equanimity and poise.  Each of the four Gospels provide varying stories of these events, reinforcing an image of Christ Jesus that comforts and nurtures our own spiritual growth today.

And then there is Revelation.  This last book of the New Testament has confounded readers for centuries, providing the greatest variety of interpretations, frightening some and for others, providing justification for coming Armageddon’s.  But what is consistent throughout is a view of Christ as warrior that can provide significant insight.

To get to this view, Revelation first shows it is the critical second part of the Bible’s Alpha and Omega of books.  Just as Genesis is the ‘alpha’ and  introduces a spiritual view of man in Chapter 1 (“And God said, Let us make man in our image, after our likeness” (Gen. 1:26), so Revelation is the ‘omega’ story of the need to defend that understanding.  What a perfect way to end the New Testament record, based on Christ Jesus’ numerous proofs of man in God’s image.

Crypt of the Romanesque 10th century chapel, Gargilesse, France.

So where does the warrior image of Christ come in?  After the Lamb is initially introduced, in John’s first vision when taken to heaven.  Here we learn that this Lamb figure is the crucified and resurrected Christ, alone worthy to open the seven-sealed scroll that will reveal the machinations of evil.   “Do not weep. See, the Lion of the tribe of Judah, the Root of David, has conquered, so that he can open the scroll and its seven seals”  (Rev. 5:5).     

Here is our first hint of the conquering Christ who prevails throughout the rest of the book, destroying all the ways that evil tries to deceive, terrorize and undermine humanity.

One of the joys of researching and sharing Biblical books like Revelation is seeing the varied styles of art through centuries that capture the ideas Revelation conveys.  One example is this depiction from the 10th century Crypt of the Romanesque chapel, Gargilesse, in one of France’s most beautiful villages in the Loire Valley.  Christians cared enough about this image of Christ, destroying evil’s obnoxious efforts to undermine, to create this fresco and worship here through the centuries.

(In addition to the crypt, artists depicted other treasures of Revelation, such as Capitals of the twenty-four elders of the Apocalypse—so meaningful was this final Biblical book to their own spiritual journey.)

Christ as warrior with the sword in his mouth is an image throughout Revelation, from the first chapter to almost the last.  “In his right hand he held seven stars, and from his mouth came a sharp, two-edged sword, and his face was like the sun shining with full force (Rev. 1:16).

And “…The rest were killed by the sword of the rider on the horse, the sword that came from his mouth…” (Rev. 19:21), with the ‘rider’ again being the Christ figure.

What a lesson to Christians today, to express both the pastoring and warrior qualities of Christ.   Here is the demand to both love and patiently nurture ourselves and others, as well as be ever-vigilant to fight and destroy evil’s aggressive efforts to make one forget who he or she really is, as Genesis and Revelation remind us in their Alpha and Omega roles.

 

 

 

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Why Resurrection Cover-ups Failed

Christ Appearing to Mary Magdalene, ‘Noli me tangere’ , Rembrandt (1651) Herzog Anton Ulrich Museum, Germany

Cover-ups have a bad historical track record for one reason:  people talk!  While that might be disastrous to a conspiracy being hatched, it was ideal for Christianity.  Isn’t that one of many reasons 2.2 billion Christians continue to celebrate an event that rocked the world 21 centuries ago?  And there are more.

Check out Paul’s account in I Corinthians 15.  The letter was written sometime in the mid-50’s, about 15 years after Jesus’ resurrection but before a Gospel account recorded it.

…That he was buried, and that he was raised on the third day in accordance with the scriptures, and that he appeared to Cephas, then to the twelve.  Then he appeared to more than five hundred brothers and sisters at one time, most of whom are still alive, though some have died (I Cor. 15:4-6, NRSV).

Those 1st century Jews who believed in resurrection, having poured over Daniel 12, knew it wasn’t some amorphous event but “the literal reanimation of a dead corpse”, as the New Living Translation explains.  But huge effort was made to disguise its actuality when it happened to Jesus.  The arguments ranged from: ‘he never really died but was just unconscious’, to ‘the disciples only dreamed it’.

But my favorite ‘it never really happened’ explanation was the one Matthew’s Gospel records in chapter 28.  Matthew gives us the back story of the Jewish religious leaders asking Pilate to order soldiers to guard the tomb so Jesus’ followers wouldn’t steal the body.   When the guards found it empty on the third day, they told the priests who called an emergency meeting then bribed the guards with this response:

  You must say, ‘His disciples came by night and stole him away while we were asleep.’ 14 If this comes to the governor’s ears, we will satisfy him and keep you out of trouble.” 15 So they took the money and did as they were directed (Matt. 28:13,14). 

So with all the efforts of an attempted cover-up that makes Watergate pale by comparison, how did the truth emerge?  Here are six reasons and would love to hear others you think made a difference.

  1. The simplest:  the tomb was empty. Something happened to the body that had been placed there.
  2. Women were witnesses. Why would anyone conceive such a bizarre account and then use women to confirm it when it was culturally assumed they would be less reliable?!
  3. The consistency of the several accounts of those who saw him: the disciples in the upper room; then when Thomas joined them and Jesus appeared again in the same place; the witness of Cleopas and his friend from Emmaus; the morning meal prepared for the disciples by the risen Jesus Christ;
  4. The significant shift in the disciples – from fearful followers to bold apostles.
  5. Jesus’ followers’ ability to prevail over the disgrace and dishonor embedded in Deut.21:23 (anyone hung on a tree is under God’s curse). Similar to having women as eyewitnesses, why would you conceive of a Jewish leader with such a resume?!
  6. The healing ability of his followers, accounts which fill the book of Acts, indicating what he did was not confined to him personally but could be replicated by those who followed his teachings.

It leaves us with the question for today:  how do people know by my life that ‘He is risen’?  Only you can answer that one!  Happy post-Easter everyone.

If you’re interested in learning more about “The Week that Changed the World”, listen to a free video talk given by me on Good Friday (3/30/18) for Third Church of Christ, Scientist, New York  (thirdchurchnyc.org) and download the free handout.

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Happy Labor Day — Vineyard Workers!

parableVineyardWorkersCROPPED

Parable of the Vineyard Workers, Rembrandt

Since Americans are celebrating “Labor Day” the first Monday of September– a federal holiday established in 1894 to highlight the economic achievements of American workers– it’s a perfect time to look at Jesus’ parable about the Laborers in the Vineyard.  It’s told in both Matt. 20:1-16 and Mark 10:17-31.

This is a head-scratcher if approached in a typical way of what’s a fair wage, given that several groups of workers are hired at different times on the same day.  But at the end of the day, the parable explains they’re paid the same wage, including those who arrived quite late and did only a small amount of work compared to those hired first.

I can only imagine what the International Brotherhood of Electrical Workers’ Union would have to say about this!

How easily we identify with those first workers who weren’t paid ‘equitably’.  “What’s up with that”, we ask?  Perhaps the parable confronts the whole notion of ‘earning’ God’s love vs. simply receiving it.  Like the sun that pours its light without bias on every mountain, flower and garden, so the Gospel’s message of God’s enduring, inclusive and ever-present love pours out for everyone — newcomer and latecomer combined.

Perhaps the parable is a lesson about resentment and how to eradicate it from our thought about others. Matt. 20.vs. 9-12 speaks to this.   Those early workers didn’t initially begrudge the wages later workers received.  They just thought they’d receive more.

When those hired about five o’clock came, each of them received the usual daily wage. 10 Now when the first came, they thought they would receive more; but each of them also received the usual daily wage. 11 And when they received it, they grumbled against the landowner, 12 saying, ‘These last worked only one hour, and you have made them equal to us who have borne the burden of the day and the scorching heat.’ (NRSV)

It’s not like the first group of workers were cheated.  They were paid according to their negotiated contract.  Isn’t that ‘just’?

But the late workers were paid by grace – by the lovely, unexpected showering of God’s generous love (seen through the actions of the landowner).

The early church of Matthew might have thought of the parable in light of Jews and Gentiles, the former being those who arrived ‘early’ and the latter, those who came to the Good News later.

Today the parable might make us ask:  “Am I truly happy for those who seem to have quick responses to prayer over their problems when I’ve been praying for resolution to mine for a very long time?  Or am I grateful for those who seem to make speedy spiritual progress when I’m in more of a plodding mode, even though I’ve been working at this a lot longer then they have!   What’s ‘fair’ about that?”

At the end, the landowner is now called “Lord” (20:8) in the KJV translation, and he pays those hired last, first.

So when even was come, the lord of the vineyard saith unto his steward, Call the laborers, and give them their hire, beginning from the last unto the first.

Is it Jesus’ way of teaching us that there is no bargaining with the ‘Lord’, God?  That the ‘rules’ God plays by are love and grace for everyone, regardless.  That this Kingdom of heaven at hand has different protocols than human fairness, and that we need to start thinking out from those divine statues.

Once again Jesus teaches that following mere cultural values and practices aren’t enough when it comes to being Christ-like, following Christ Jesus’ example.

Happy Labor Day, all you vineyard workers!

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